Rohini Devasher, Genetic Drift: Symbiont II—Cavum Oris Plantae (Mouth Plant), 2018, vinyl print, colored pencil, acrylic, charcoal, PanPastel, and dry pastel on wall. Photo: Anil Rane.

Rohini Devasher, Genetic Drift: Symbiont II—Cavum Oris Plantae (Mouth Plant), 2018, vinyl print, colored pencil, acrylic, charcoal, PanPastel, and dry pastel on wall. Photo: Anil Rane.

Rohini Devasher

Rohini Devasher, whose practice is rooted in evolutionary biology, embraces the speculative by making familiar things strange and exploring the possibilities that emerge from that. The speculative, she says, “allows many visions of the future, not bound by any form of linear progression.” The hybrid beings in her works blur the distinctions between natural and unnatural. At Devasher’s recent exhibition “Hopeful Monsters,” a strange landscape seemed to be forcing its way into the gallery through a breach in one of its walls. At once hypnotic and menacing, the site-specific wall work Genetic Drift: Symbiont II—Cavum Oris Plantae (Mouth Plant) (all works cited, 2018) comprised a composite image of carnivorous pitcher plants and other vegetal life entangled with snakes, sea pens, brittle stars, a shark, a chicken embryo, a frog, a grasshopper, a dung fly and even human heartstrings printed on vinyl. The print and the surrounding wall were further worked with acrylic, PanPastels, dry pastels, color pencil, charcoal, and glass markers; globs of white acrylic paint were dabbed onto the wall with tiny rolled-up bits of dry cloth to create a wrinkly texture, giving the appearance of lichens growing. These, along with drawings of other enigmatic life-forms that extended to pillars and other corners of the gallery, which were part of the same work, suggested contamination from an advancing mutant realm.

Using mirroring, layering, and agglomeration, Devasher conducts her explorations into taxonomy, morphology, and evolution with a focus on mutation. These techniques come together perfectly in her use of video feedback. By adjusting such variables as brightness, contrast, hue, focus, and camera angle, she has found it possible to generate “an amazing array of spatiotemporal patterns, mimicking those exhibited by physical, chemical and biological systems,” such as plant structures, cells, tree forms, and bacteria.

The work that lent its title to the exhibition, Hopeful Monsters, consisted of six videos displayed on screens set within wooden cabinets and a large print hanging on an adjacent wall. Each cabinet corresponds to a distinct taxonomic order of organisms, namely, Odonata (dragonflies), Lepidoptera (butterflies), Hymenoptera (wasps and bees), Diptera (flies), and Coleoptera (beetles). For each of the videos, Devasher superimposed layers of video feedback on public-domain images of insects, which appear to move, thanks to an animated flicker added by the artist. With subtle alterations in their color, structure, and wing pattern expressed through the video feedback, the creatures seem to undergo processes of growth and evolution much as in the natural world—like uncanny organisms within a strange speculative phylogenetic tree. 

During a visit to the R. L. McGregor Herbarium at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Devasher was shown one of the institution’s oldest collections of dried plant specimens: the Herbarium and Plant Description (1893). The entries in this compendium consisted of a page with written descriptions and drawings followed by the plant specimen pressed between pages, such that it left its impression on the facing page. This mirroring brought the book into direct conversation with the artist’s own work. “I was also struck by how this mirroring made the pages more than the specimen and its impression; they took on a strange ‘otherness’ which is hard to describe,” she says. The recent exhibition included eleven of the twelve components from the artist’s The Atlas Phaenogamia or The Atlas of Mimetic Flowering Plants. For this piece, the artist photographed the herbarium’s pages, modified these images digitally, and then, once the pages were printed, altered the images further with pencil and acrylic before presenting them as framed diptychs. The botanical specimens seem to be mimicking animal species such as a snake, a butterfly, a cicada, a bee, a spider, and a frog. Devasher urges us to rethink our frames of reference when trying to understand the world, to acknowledge ecology’s weirdness if we wish to gain any “real awareness of what is happening.”

Roshan Kumar Mogali