Nalini Malani, George Orwell Once Said, 2018, iPad animation, color, sound, 30 seconds.

Nalini Malani, George Orwell Once Said, 2018, iPad animation, color, sound, 30 seconds.

Nalini Malani

Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan

Nalini Malani’s animated Instagram posts are peopled with frenetic figures conjured up on her iPad. More than fifty of these, part of the series “Notebooks,” 2018–, were catapulted from the intimacy of a handheld device onto eleven large projections in the gallery space at the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan. Malani has had a long and productive association with the institut where in 1993 she staged her collaborative project with the actress Alaknanda Samarth, Medeamaterial. Malani’s recent exhibition “Can You Hear Me?” was conceived to mark the institution’s fiftieth anniversary.

To make these graffiti-like digital renderings, the artist uses the tip of her finger, reveling in the immediacy and erotic sensations that mark-making by hand offers. A sense of nervous energy pulsates through the frames, shooting through her scribbles and jerky handwritten notations. Malani refers to her animated works as “Thought Bubbles.” “When I see or read something that captures my imagination, I have the need to react with a drawing or drawings in motion” she writes in the show’s accompanying catalogue, “not exactly in its mimetic form but more as a ‘Memory Emotion.’ ” These drawings are an attempt at making sense of a world that is, for her, rapidly taking on the contours of a theater of the absurd.

The show’s title, “Can You Hear Me?” refers, according to the artist, to the scream of a young girl being violently raped. Malani’s works have always been replete with women protagonists from the history of art and literature, many of whom she perceives as exploited and abused in a patriarchal system. Some, such as Cassandra and Medea, are drawn from Greek mythology, while others, such as Sita, are taken from the Indian epic the Ramayana. Indeed, literary and art-historical references abound in Malani’s oeuvre. The title Nothing Twice, 2019, is taken from that of a poem by the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, while The Tale of Two Cities, 2018, nods to Charles Dickens and Fail Better, 2019, to Samuel Beckett. In the insistent Hysterical Bird, 2019, there is a reference to Francisco Goya’s “Los caprichos” (The Whims), 1797–99, while in Double Speak II, 2019, the enormous head of a prosecutor, which is filled with acts of violence, alludes to the Spaniard’s “Los desastres de la guerra” (The Disasters of War), 1810–20. Greed and the thirst for power are lampooned in the satirical Megalomaniac I and Megalomaniac II, both 2018, as well as in Man full of himself, 2018.

Fittingly juxtaposed against these animated iPad works was an older piece: Malani’s very first animation, made on 8-mm film. Titled Dream Houses (Variation I), 1969, and produced at the artist Akbar Padamsee’s pioneering Vision Exchange Workshop in Bombay, the piece draws on utopian aspirations such as those of Charles Correa and Buckminster Fuller. After India threw off the yoke of centuries of colonial rule in the 1940s, there was a sense of hope for a progressive socialist state—perhaps the “dream” of the work’s title. Yet, as Malani’s exhibition highlights, an erosion of liberal values and an overt and covert subversion of democratic systems have occurred over the past fifty years. The artist seems to ask: What became of this utopian vision? Did utopia slide into dystopia? To lend urgency to her concerns, Malani inserted into her animation George Orwell Once Said, 2018, a warning the author once gave specifically with regard to “the Indian problem”: “Either we all live in a decent world, or nobody does.”