Rana Begum, No. 881 Floats, 2019, marble, metal, 45 1⁄4 × 23 5⁄8 × 23 5⁄8".

Rana Begum, No. 881 Floats, 2019, marble, metal, 45 1⁄4 × 23 5⁄8 × 23 5⁄8".

Rana Begum

Memories of extraordinary disasters—earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions—can be passed on for centuries. In our collective present, one of our most persistent images of crisis is one linked to climate change: the ocean rushing in to sweep us away with all our cherished creations. This has happened many times over. Yet we still do not know the shape of the worst that awaits us, how grotesque and brilliant our apocalypse might be.

Will our fishing nets draw in iridescent effluents? Our buoys petrify? Our new artifacts have to be pieced together from metal scraps and plastic trash? In Rana Begum’s solo exhibition in Mumbai, consisting of work developed in residencies in places such as the seaside town of St. Ives in Cornwall, UK, and the medieval Città della Pieve in the Umbrian hills of Italy, objects of this sort appeared like fantastic yet appropriate props for the rehearsal of an end. In one corner of the gallery, a nylon net tinted with pink blending into orange, green, blue, and black hung limp and folded into itself, withdrawn. Its title, No. 950 Net, 2019, recalling a museum collection catalogue number, evokes obsolescent tools and the loss of associated skills.

The future will perhaps bring its own understanding of beauty, one characterized by the synthetic transformation of natural landscapes. Begum’s No. 897 Folded Grid, 2019, with its thirty Jesmonite rectangles mounted on the wall, appeared to be a neat record of shifting tides and changing waters. Their vividly colored, undulating surfaces presented a sequence of surprising shifts of hue—from green to black to peach to blue and so on. The rectangles led us to find aesthetic pleasure in the corruption of the pure, its infusion with a beguiling toxicity.

Elsewhere, the expendable became permanent. No. 939 Folded Grid, 2019, and similar specimens resembled foil wrappers, restlessly folded and unfolded. We understand that garbage finds its way to the ocean, floats and travels far, landing in another place. But a return marked by awe and care for the waste, as proposed through the act of framing the foil pieces, suggested a transformed future. The artist carried forward this impulse in her marble replicas of polyethylene buoys—companions, perhaps, to the bronze snorkel vests made by Jeff Koons in the 1980s—in sculptures such as No. 881 Floats, 2019. They seem to commemorate an epic struggle to stay afloat, one that might well be the universal myth of our future.

Begum’s past engagement with the form and color of urban environments never quite yielded the feeling of an unsettling relation with the present that this show evoked. She has been known for distilling chaos into harmony; this tendency is a facility still visible in works on paper such as No. 837 Painting, 2018, in which myriad spray-painted orbs fade into each other, creating an experience like that of looking at a cityscape through a filter of rain and fog on glass. But Begum’s more recent interest in natural forms and materials has not led to works evoking lovely and familiar places. She leads us instead into territories already mutated by external forces, where events we still cannot fathom have already taken place.