Shambhavi Kaul, Scene 32, 2009, 16-mm film and HD video, color and black-and-white, sound, 5 minutes.

Shambhavi Kaul, Scene 32, 2009, 16-mm film and HD video, color and black-and-white, sound, 5 minutes.

Shambhavi Kaul

Shambhavi Kaul, Scene 32, 2009, 16-mm film and HD video, color and black-and-white, sound, 5 minutes.

Shambhavi Kaul seems endlessly enchanted with the idea that extraterrestrials are just an Orbitz booking away. Though her work has been shown internationally at events and platforms including the BFI London Film Festival, this exhibition, “Lunar State,” was Kaul’s first solo gallery show. It comprised three short videos (including transfers from film) and one set of five digital prints. Titled Planet, 2014, the prints each feature an identical image seemingly taken from an in-flight magazine and tinted a radioactive brass—whether one is looking at clouds, rocks, a gasoline explosion, or just cauliflower is eerily hard to tell. Across the bottom of the prints are lines plucked from the same source. THERE IS NO LONGER A DOT ON THE MAP, reads one, while another states: THE MEN AND WOMEN ARE LONG GONE.

Crackpot UFO conspiracy theory permeated the show. The earliest work here, the five-minute Scene 32, 2009, was shot in the Rann of Kutch, a salt desert in northwest India. It opens with a view of a flat landscape of cracked clay before moving on to portraits of salt-encrusted formations and photograms of crystals. Shot partly in HD and partly in scratchy 16 mm, the work is described by Kaul in an artist’s statement as “a question about the boundaries of description,” “suspended between cartographic record and material marker.” But the work is not so academic as that. The title alone suggests another surreal desert zone, the US Air Force’s Area 51, with its supposed stash of UFOs. One shot shows Kutch’s harsh, dirty white landscape torn up by vehicle tracks, which, in science-fiction movies, mean that secret military facilities are ahead. Besides, the Indo-Pakistani border, and the dangerous aliens yonder, is not so far away. Scene 32 also argues that the CCD images and soil samples from NASA’s Mars rover mission would make for a great thriller.

Projected on video, Night Noon, 2014, was filmed on Super 16 primarily in the Sonoran Desert. “These landscapes are thus familiar in their unfamiliarity,” Kaul explained in an interview with the Indian Express, “as they have been used to represent many places—from Egypt to outer space.” Here, the desert’s dunes and eroded sandstone coasts seem the space castaway’s natural habitat. After minutes of beautiful scenery, a happy mutt and a parrot appear. They give the work a diaristic quality, and wryly hint that our intrepid camerawoman came to this planet by family car. Toward the end of the film, Kaul switches to black-and-white and foreboding negatives. First the waves go dark, then the sky. The sun and moon become menacing UFOs, threatening to turn this meditative, Robinson Crusoe–esque outing into a 1950s-style Martian invasion. Suspicious government activity in the real world clearly makes some Hollywood clichés more alive than others. It’s as if the artist were weaving celluloid crop circles around the kinds of state secrets found in Trevor Paglen’s work.

Mount Song, 2013, is openly funny. Here, Kaul has taken clips from Hong Kong martial-arts films from the 1970s and ’80s, edited out the humans, and presented the special effects as self-animated phenomena. Trees shudder in the wind, clouds expand in slo-mo, buildings explode, a glowing bird falls from the sky. It’s a magic show in which the wow of human prestidigitation is replaced with the giddy sensation that the strings and trapdoors are acting on their own. However informed Kaul’s practice might be by media theory or surveillance discourses, she hews close to a tradition that sees the magic of Georges Méliès as the fountainhead of experimental moviemaking. The artist plays with revealed devices, as do so many in the genre, but only to construct a better fantasy—not a more immersive or believable fantasy, but one more endearing in its exploitation of childlike wonder and naïveté. While the entertainment industry obsesses over building virtual castles in the air, Kaul tinkers with improving the humble sofa-cushion fort.

Ryan Holmberg