New Delhi

Karan Shrestha, in these folds, 2019, ink on paper, 60 × 94".

Karan Shrestha, in these folds, 2019, ink on paper, 60 × 94".

Karan Shrestha

Not long after Anton Chekhov framed the narrative principle now known as “Chekhov’s gun”—if there’s a rifle on the wall, it must fire eventually—Andrei Bely unleashed Petersburg, a 1916 novel about turn-of-the-century terrorism, whose parricidal plot unfolds to the ticking of a bomb ignominiously concealed in a sardine tin. The question never is, will the device explode, but who will it destroy when it does?

Karan Shrestha’s solo exhibition “apparatus at play” was steeped in a similar tension, a jitteriness that resists commitment to any one particular form. Much as Bely draws the comparison between the terrorist’s bomb and a city on the verge of social eruption, Shrestha’s works speak about Kathmandu as a metropolis under threat of collapse from within. The city itself is encircled by mountains, so that the horizon appears not as a straight line, but as an irregular progression of peaks. The artist exploits this ready-made metaphor with a central installation comprising four video works, each encapsulating its own kind of chaos. Projected onto an entire wall, an uncertain horizon, 2017, sets the Nepali capital spinning in whirling handheld-camera footage of the city projected across a full wall. Anchoring this dizzying imagery was a small monitor embedded within the same wall. It featured ason, 2014, a portrait of Kathmandu’s central marketplace in Asan square. Here, Shrestha’s lens remains steady, its focus unwavering; all circulation is internal to the scene, as streams of pedestrians contend with rickshaws, motorcycles, and open-backed trucks.

On the floor were two monitors. One featured Chobar, 2016, which contrasts idyllic footage of tourists, pilgrims, and schoolchildren on a riverside with grim shots of the man-made waste now blanketing those same shores. The other monitor featured a one-minute excerpt from a popular Nepali movie, Ta Ta Sarai Sapris Badri (2013). In the clip, a man cowers on the ground as another points a pistol at him. Suddenly, a third man pops up to press a gun to the second man’s head, and then a fourth, and a fifth, and so on, until there is a long chain of would-be killers brandishing handguns, rifles, swords, and even a very large stick. The effect is clearly comic, the acting appalling, but at the same time, all it would take to ignite the whole queue is one slip of the hand, one shaky finger.

But drawings, rather than moving images, made up the bulk of the show. The more ambitious of them—above all, the colossal in these folds, 2019—suspend myriad narratives in a kind of incomplete calcification of national myths, depicted with an uneasiness that never quite settles on the page. This visual nausea haunts the artist’s work as a whole. With all of his experiments across media (from a sculpture made from oat and wheat grains, to digital photographs, to a pair of sandwiched bricks sprouting an outstretched little arm), one gets the sense of the artist’s practice as a collage without glue.

This effect worked to the benefit of the final video in the exhibition, the nearly seven-minute hundreds of flowers more, 2020. In 2007, as part of Nepal’s bid to rebuild itself ideologically, the country instituted a new national anthem to replace its former monarchist tribute. Bridging the transition from one anthem to the other with the pop-accented 1978 revolutionary song “Gaun Gaun Bata Utha” (Rise Up from Every Village), Shrestha created a soundtrack for a sequence of fragments of propaganda films. The images include documentation of religious rituals, police brutality, and the 2015 earthquake; music-video excerpts; stills of historical paintings; and scattered other footage ranging from a young runner finishing a race, to protesters buffeted by water cannons, to a body unceremoniously fished from a muddy river. Ricocheting from humor to grief, the film ends with schoolchildren chanting the new anthem, their assembled selves a vision of the “hundreds of flowers” that constitutes the nation’s future. Even with this note of optimism, Shrestha portrays Nepal as a country whose breath is still held for the next upheaval.