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Prajakta Potnis: The Slow Burn

Curatorial Statement

Katherine Behar

“In an attempt to negotiate the social, the political, or the private, the domestic space takes on the role of a protagonist.”

—Prajakta Potnis1

The New Media Artspace proudly presents the online exhibition Prajakta Potnis: The Slow Burn, a sequence of 21 images and videos harkening from various distinct bodies of work from this versatile interdisciplinary Mumbai-based artist. In this interactive exhibition, as users advance through the works, they stitch together an enigmatic narrative in which the shifting, unseen protagonist is someone or something taking shape in a domestic surround. Intentionally staged through the now routine mediation of digital distance, the exhibition interface leverages everyday digital touches—taps on a phone or clicks on a screen—to progress the narrative; as well as to inquire into how, as people come to think twice before touching, the current pandemic is transforming the intimacy of touch and tactility.

Touch singes, and so The Slow Burn sears into memory to reinvent the reluctant present. Numerous works incorporate elements of interiors and feature domestic appliances. For example, photographs from Potnis’s Capsule Series (2016) show surreal landscapes that the artist painstakingly staged and photographed inside of frostbitten freezers and refrigerators. Like stills from a futuristic science-fiction film, the tranquil scenes also forebode of an unknown impending danger.2 Recontextualized in The Slow Burn, these whimsical images of reconfigured frozen spaces and miniature landscapes now appear like a kind of misrecognition of the (over)familiar sites and sights of lockdown. Enclosed in the same four walls, with the same unchanging prosaic objects as constant companions, something overtakes the boredom of sheltering in—but it is it an artistic intervention or a mental lapse?

Like a lapse, this breach suggests a general porosity, including the mental porosity of minds prone to confusion, as well as the corporeal porosity of bodies prone to contagion. As with the heightened vigilance surrounding touching surfaces, The Slow Burn alludes to our bodies’ slow but certain vulnerability to contamination, leading us to question the integrity of our bodily membranes, our capacity to protect our innards and organs from invisible external threats. A number of works in the exhibition come from A Body Without Organs (2019) an uncannily prescient series that Potnis created from 2018–2019 and debuted in early 2020 right before the pandemic seized hold and her Mumbai gallery went into lockdown. Notably, these works include X-ray films that appear to show lungs infected by alien presence. The series was inspired by Potnis’s uncle who had taken ill with a respiratory disease. His lungs were contaminated by trace chemicals inhaled in the detergent factory where he labored throughout his working life. “These substances,” Potnis explains, “laid dormant in his lung cavity for almost ten years after his retirement, until that one morning when they spewed, making it difficult for him to breathe.”3 Like so many of Potnis’s works, the X-ray works are concerned with interiors, and show us something alien inside something familiar. Or perhaps, like the apparitional moments of misrecognition in her freezer images, they show how the familiar is alien, since on closer inspection these images are composed of ordinary household objects, like steel wool and beads, which she carefully arrayed on the X-ray plates to appear as lungs.

While originally intended to be about the plight of the laboring body under capitalism, these radiological images cannot help but evoke the medical imagery showing evidence of lung scarring among COVID-19 patients. With her X-rays and accompanying gouache paintings, Potnis links the frailty of the human body to its susceptibility to disease on the one hand, and to its suffering under the greed of capitalist states on the other. In point of fact, this is also the crux of the pandemic’s brutality. The disease COVID-19 is surely ravishing, but its incommensurate deadly impacts across race, class, nation, etc. are the direct and unmistakable consequence of the violence of racial capitalism. Indeed this “scorched earth” ruthlessness of capitalism burns slowly too.

While the assembled works predate the global pandemic, their sequencing in The Slow Burn gradually opens onto themes simultaneously familiar to and in excess of the pandemic: illness and intimacy, xenophobia and claustrophilia, confinement and contamination, fragility and anxiety. As these thematic pairings indicate, The Slow Burn is oriented around the pandemic’s contradictions, and even around contradiction itself. Like a controlled flame, contradiction is always circulating but held at bay, until an event like the pandemic exposes it.

In other words, the pandemic is a global phenomenon, but not a universal one. There can be no universal pandemic condition because every experience of the pandemic is a personal one. Even so, one might be led to think otherwise by the data visualizations that have come to dominate the visual representation of the pandemic. The sanitary factuality of data visualization—like hotspot maps or notoriously “the curve”—figures the pandemic through massive scale, scientific objectivity, and geographic expanse. In contrast, The Slow Burn’s idiosyncratic imagery offsets the generic sameness of data visualization by envisioning the pandemic in terms that are emotional and uncontainable, as something invisible outside of the miniscule intimacies, distorted subjectivities, and domestic enclosures where it unfurls.

Potnis understands “‘place’ [as] a geographical entity, that can be reflected upon through imagination, envisioned either within this world or located somewhere in outer space, or as a site within a psychological map of one’s mind.” That is, place is foremost personal for Potnis. This in turn bears on how we understand related concepts like displacement, diaspora, alienation, or simply home. Reflecting on local experience of the pandemic in India, Potnis sees the “current global standstill” not as a moment of stasis and stability (like the stable reference of data vis quantification), but instead as a matter of “dislocation [and] displacement.” For example, she points to India’s “exodus of [members of the] workforce returning to their homelands because of an unannounced government lockdown” which she calls a “retrograde movement which saw people walking on the streets for thousands of miles, [revealing] the utter helplessness they feel with their situations.”4

The burning urgency of this situation is reflected throughout this exhibition in a persistent ticking of slow-burning rhythms:

Burners flicker like eyes with searing vision.

A thought burns into consciousness.

Burning eyes are vigilant eyes.

Or the inverse—

A freezer freezes time.

Its sterile vault wards off uncertain futures and certain decay.

“Memory functions as a freezer.”5

Memory is in my fingertips.

Residual traces of door handles cling

with heightened awareness of contact.

Of contact tracing.

Touch leaves its mark.

Everything unfamiliar burns in.

Anxiety rings like doorbells, alerting to a presence at the perimeter.

Ritual handwashing.

Soap becomes a seascape.

Slowly, soap dissolves.

Lungs burn out.

Freezers and burners contradict each other, melt each other.

The slow burn thaws.

Artist Bio

Prajakta Potnis’s practice sails through painting, site-specific sculptural installations to public art interventions. She has extensively shown her works since 2001 nationally in India and internationally throughout Europe, Asia, and North America.

Her solo projects include A Body Without Organs, Project 88, Mumbai (2020), When the wind blows, Project 88, Mumbai (2016), Kitchen Debate at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin (2014),Time Lapse at The Guild art gallery Mumbai and Local Time at Experiment,er, Kolkata (2012), Porous walls, The Guild art gallery, Mumbai (2008), Membranes and Margins, at Em gallery, South Korea (2008), and Walls in between (2006) at The Guild art gallery. She did an extensive project commissioned by The Sharjah Art Foundation as part of A Tripoli Agreement curated by Renan Laru-an in collaboration with Air Arabia and The Sharjah Art foundation, Sharjah in 2018. Potnis’s work appears in numerous books and she has has been awarded multiple international residencies. She won the Umrao Singh Shergil Grant for Photography 2016-17 and her work is held in the collection of Kunstmusuem Wolfsburg.

In addition, she has participated in numerous significant international exhibitions including: Now is the time-25 years collection Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg(2019) and Facing India: India from a female point of view (2018), both at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg; Kochi-Muziris Biennale curated by Jitish Kalat, Kochi, India (2014); the traveling exhibitions Indian Highway IV, at Mac Lyon Museum of contemporary art Lyon, France (2011), Indian highway III at the Herning Museum of Contemporary Art, Denmark (2010), and Indian highway II at the Astrup Fearnley Museum, Norway (2010); among many others.

Prajakta Potnis: The Slow Burn is curated by Katherine Behar, Associate Professor in the Fine and Performing Arts Department in the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences, Baruch College, CUNY. The exhibition is generously sponsored by the Sandra Kahn Wasserman Jewish Studies Center under the co-directorship of Professors Jessica Lang and Andrew Sloin. The exhibition is produced by the New Media Artspace Student Docent Team and is made possible further by support from the Baruch Computing and Technology Center (BCTC), the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences, and the Newman Library. All images appear courtesy of the artist and Project 88.

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1 Prajakta Potnis, personal correspondence with the author. December 2020.

2 Potnis has pointed out that today, passing through deserted streets wearing masks, we might feel as though we are ourselves playing parts in a sci-fi movie. Prajakta Potnis, personal correspondence with the author. January 2021.

3 Prajakta Potnis, “Press notes for A Body Without Organs,” (2020).

4 Prajakta Potnis, personal correspondence with the author. December 2020.

5 Potnis cites this quote from Boris Groys as an influence in her practice. See Boris Groys, “Un/Frozen” in Anton Ginzburg: At the Back of the North Wind (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2012). Personal correspondence, December 2020.