London

Matti Braun

Matti Braun had flooded the front section of Showroom, turning it into a little lake. Slices of tree trunk scattered within this pool provided stepping stones by means of which the visitor could get from the door to the small flight of steps leading to the back of the space. There were several possible routes across and a number of places where the beginnings of a pathway led out into the water before petering out. The firm ground and higher level of the gallery’s back space having been reached, a number of patolas—brightly colored, geometrically patterned Bengali fabrics—could be seen on the walls, together with reproductions of several pages from the notebooks of Rabindranath Tagore. On one of these pages Tagore discusses a passage in the Vedas concerning man’s erect posture. Through being “raised upwards,” says the Veda, man “found also the oblique sides and all other directions in him.” Looking at the world from our elevated vantage point, we can both see our place in it and understand its relation to our essential inner self. Inevitably, therefore, one’s thoughtfully mapped-out and executed passage across the pool and up into the gallery’s oddly shaped, oblique-sided rear space could be seen as a journey to a place where one encountered not merely “individual facts and things” but “a great unity of view.”

There were many “individual facts and things” that required connecting in this compact installation. Braun’s title for the exhibition, “R.T.,” provided a double reference. While the letters stand as the initials of the Bengali poet, writer, composer, educator, and Nobel laureate Tagore, they echo those of Steven Spielberg’s extraterrestrial E.T. The pairing seems bizarre, but it is not entirely arbitrary. One of the students at Santiniketan, the educational establishment founded by Tagore in 1901, was Satyajit Ray. Among his many projects, which included filming several of Tagore’s stories, Ray wrote the treatment for a film entitled The Alien. It concerned a benign extraterrestrial landing near a Bengali village and befriending a young boy. Hollywood showed initial interest in the idea, but it was never filmed. In the following decade, Spielberg made his own version of a remarkably similar story line.

In addition to the show’s multipronged title, there were other aspects of a dialogue between cultures and across time operating within its constituent parts. The pool echoed the water features designed by Le Corbusier to lie in front of his government buildings in Chandigarh, and Braun’s versions of the patola, a type of cloth often designed specifically for export, eschewed the traditional Bengali technique involving resist-dyed threads in favor of a simpler and more available silk-screen process. Above and beyond this, the installation as a whole attempted to act as a potential set of props for Ray’s imagined science-fiction film. The result of all these unearthed and newly forged connections, in part at least, was to offer up Tagore’s own reputation for reappraisal. In the early years of the last century, the emphasis on communal collaboration and cooperation between peoples found in his poetry and prose was overwhelmingly taken as a message in the abstract when he was lionized in the West. The strong anti-imperialist strand of argument to be found in his work—he composed the Bengali national anthem, for example—was thereby suppressed or ignored. The question is not only that of the inner self but also that of the self’s place in a world of thwarted desire, partial communication, and misrecognition. Like Tagore himself, this show seemed gentle but was difficult and provoking.

Michael Archer