Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya, Behaviour of Walls at 22.56˚N, 88.36˚E, 2013, digital video, color, silent, 25 minutes.

Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya, Behaviour of Walls at 22.56˚N, 88.36˚E, 2013, digital video, color, silent, 25 minutes.

Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya

Mumbai Art Room

Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya, Behaviour of Walls at 22.56˚N, 88.36˚E, 2013, digital video, color, silent, 25 minutes.

When Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya first visited the National Instruments Ltd. camera factory in Kolkata in 2009, they found the building, despite having only recently been shuttered, in a romantic state of abandonment. Reconfigured in 1957 as a Nehruvian public-sector enterprise, NIL is famous for having manufactured India’s only 35-mm camera, the National 35. “Through a Lens, Darkly”—a 2010–11 exhibition at Photoink in New Delhi comprising photographs of NIL’s dusty interior and camera parts scattered on factory worktables, and a stop-motion film made by taking a National 35 on a tour of its own birthplace—won Mitra and Bhattacharya the inaugural Skoda Breakthrough Artist Award for 2011. More recently they revisited the institution’s patina of decrepitude in “Palimpsest,” a two-work show at the Mumbai Art Room, the city’s premier nonprofit exhibition space.

The feature work was Behaviour of Walls at 22.56°N, 88.36°E, 2013, a projected video titled after Kolkata’s geographic coordinates. A twenty-five-minute succession of still images on a seamless loop, it shows a sequence of seventy-two digital collages that each combine a frontal image of the NIL’s peeling walls with details of 35-mm negatives found in the factory’s garbage. “Ostensibly belonging to the company employees,” write the artists, “the negatives are a record of their everyday lives as well as tests to assess the capabilities of the National 35 camera they were building at the factory.” Photos of family outings and get-togethers predominate. Smiling faces, lounging kids, landscapes, and a few zoo animals peek out from behind mottled patterns of curling paint, as if the NIL were a large camera obscura imprinted with the memories of its former human inhabitants. The inverted tones of the negatives give Behaviour of Walls a conventionally ghostly look. But with the indigos and oranges of the negatives exaggerated to psychedelic iridescence, digital reanimation has just about sapped these analog specters’ ability to haunt.

Eschewing explicit reference to the history of NIL or its employees, Behaviour of Walls, like “Through a Lens, Darkly,” deals with the past only in the abstract. The slow, mesmerizing fade of one composition into the next effectively conveys the passage of lost time. But nothing is done to engage the specific historical transformations that distinguish the source archive. That Mitra and Bhattacharya’s primary interest is affective could also be gleaned from the other work in “Palimpsest,” Bildungsroman, Chapter I, 2013. Inspired by photographs of children found at NIL, it uses four black-and-white childhood photographs of the artists, displaying them on magic mirror advertising displays in a darkened gallery: two individual shots in school uniforms, one class portrait, and one with Bhattacharya crying because, as the press release hints, he doesn’t want his picture taken. Three of the images are lit and visible as one enters the space, but as one approaches, a motion sensor blanks out the images and turns the screens a reflective silver. Conversely, the screen that is blank when you walk in illuminates only after you step in front of it.

“The viewer becomes part of the work and activates the palimpsest,” offers the gallery blog. But I think Mitra and Bhattacharya have stumbled upon an entirely different issue: the ambivalent experience of looking at other people’s personal photos. That mixed feeling of curiosity, estrangement, and boredom is captured in the disinvitation to intimate viewing built into Bildungsroman’s on/off screens. It’s like the way one might both look and not look at the fade-in slide show on a digital photo frame at someone else’s home, or a desktop screen saver on someone else’s computer. In an age when we are constantly privy to strangers’ private lives via Tumblr, social-networking sites, and public cell-phone abuse, this is topical terrain. There’s promise here, if only the artists would leave the old-media memory palace behind.

Ryan Holmberg