New Delhi

Abir Karmakar, Here everything is fine I, 2019, double-sided painting, oil and gesso on canvas, 107 7⁄8 × 102 3⁄8 × 15 3⁄8".

Abir Karmakar, Here everything is fine I, 2019, double-sided painting, oil and gesso on canvas, 107 7⁄8 × 102 3⁄8 × 15 3⁄8".

Abir Karmakar

“Here everything is fine,” proclaimed the cheerful title of Abir Karmakar’s recent show. Yet clearly this assurance was not meant to be taken at face value. Lying in wait in the gallery were five works, including three large-scale installations, that conjured the feeling of a topsy-turvy world. Fashioned out of canvas and wooden stretchers, mimicking in some ways the sets in a theater, each of the three big L-shaped structures served to depict the interior of a home of a migrant family in Vadodara, India, where the artist lives. In the floor-to-ceiling oil-on-canvas Here everything is fine II (all works 2019), the artist had turned a rendition of a wall with a display cabinet on its head. Upside-down crockery was neatly placed on the shelves alongside figurines, mugs with Chinese motifs on them, and kitschy plastic flowers. In their gravity-defying state these objects appeared equally surreal and hyperreal. Next to them was an electric switchboard, adroitly painted in all its grottiness. Karmakar’s painstaking eye for detail could also be spied on the other side of this sculptural painting, where he presented an inverted view of a tiled bathroom wall with its washbasin and immersion water-heating rod, typical of lower-middle-class Indian homes.

Similar treatment was meted out in the other two large-scale works on view, though in Here everything is fine III, the imagery was placed on its side instead of upside down. Karmakar is known for his explorations of the human body and its relation to its surroundings, so it was surprising to find that these works were unpeopled. However, the aura of their inhabitants lingered in these painted rooms. In Here everything is fine I, a makeshift pile of papers and paraphernalia on a sagging shelf and clothes hanging from pegs on the other side of the work offered clues about the identity of their owners, which visitors could decode if they craned their necks enough. Having moved around India from the northeastern city of Siliguri, where he grew up, to Vadodara, in the west, Karmakar is all too familiar with issues of migration, belonging, and transience. His inverted views of domestic spaces might reflect the unsettled inner lives of his migrant protagonists. The current body of work extends the line of inquiry of “Home”—a project realized for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2016—the expert re-creation of an abode from the Kutch district, in the state of Gujarat, in an old Portuguese home in the southern Indian city of Kochi. Karmakar took up related ideas in the exhibition “Displacement” at Mumbai’s Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke a year later.

In the Galleryske exhibition, the artist’s interest in manipulating the viewer’s sense of perception was also evident in the installation Colony, made up of rows of what looked like terrazzo tiles stacked at an angle in groups on either side of a central path. It was only when one went around them that one discovered the work’s elaborate ruse: Rather than blocks of stone, the tiles revealed themselves to be small canvases, carefully painted to mimic terrazzo. In all, Karmakar had laboriously fashioned 105 of them, using as his models actual discarded tiles that he had found in the city. Each painting was as different from the others as the tiles he picked up—some were smooth and shiny, others worn and weathered. The work, which served as a metaphor for the erosion of old value systems, also pointed to changing building-material preferences in homes, with the older terrazzo increasingly being displaced by perky new vitrified tiles. “Here everything is fine” served as a timely reminder about the need for new ways of approaching the discourse around migration and displacement the world over. As Cecilia Vicuña pertinently points out in her 2016 text “Language Is Migrant,” “Our bodies are migrants, cells and bacteria are migrants too. Even galaxies migrate. What is then this talk against migrants? It can only be talk against ourselves, against life itself.”