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April – Juni 24

Text | engl. | Abbildungen

Artist: Ajit Chauhan

American artist Ajit Chauhan creates work that is semiotically subversive in a highly subtle way. There’s a latent, enigmatic quality to the places and settings depicted in his “erased postcards”; they evoke distant locales seemingly fallen out of time but are also intimate and draw the viewer in. At first glance, the vintage postcards, whose surface layer the artist has carefully removed and scratched away, appear to depict images of flowers or waterfalls but their specific subject matter always defies easy categorization. Chauhan, however, is not concerned with shifts in meanings, breaks in context, or semiotic deconstruction; rather, a dimension of the invisible plays a crucial role in his understanding of the image. Chauhan’s work is characterized first and foremost by an attention, even mindfulness, towards minor, often inconspicuous things. Found or incidental elements, but also abstract and energetic properties of places, things, and materials make up the inherent vocabulary of his visual poetry.

Ajit Chauhan was a guest at AIR – ARTIST IN RESIDENCE Niederösterreich in November and December 2023. During an earlier, initial residency in spring 2022, an intensive exchange developed with the artist, not only about art, images, and visual poetry, but also about questions concerning the construction of reality, nature, and being. A second invitation at the end of 2023 was dedicated entirely to realizing his solo exhibition. As long as is not about presenting a specific selection of works than it is a reflection—in the sense of a spatial-poetic production—of how Chauhan thinks in terms of and with images. The exhibition space functions as a kind of multi-dimensional “image support” that not only features Chauhan’s small-scale visual poetry, but also creates room for the interplay between images as an independent conceptual and presentational agent. Gaps and interstitial spaces, i.e. aesthetic voids as well as semantic blank spaces, form the essential vocabulary of Chauhan’s spatially expanded poetry. The viewer enters a specific, albeit highly immaterial, inter-pictorial space underscored by absence, where Chauhan’s deeply relational and holistic point of view permeates the ostensible appearance of things and establishes a relationship between the visible and what remains out of view and invisible.

Chauhan’s images seemingly draw on an almost magical way of thinking, similar to an early phase of childhood in which the actual, the imaginary, reality and the fictional are seemingly inseparable (or cannot be distinguished) from one another and are thus intertwined. The artist works—also heavily influenced by film—with the associative, the enigmatic, with shifting interdependencies of meaning, with layers of memory, but also with notions of emptiness and rhythm, which is ultimately also reflected in how the images are installed, in the spacing in and between images.

In Chauhan’s work, what is visible and shown proves to be transitory. He is less interested in what is given and observable per se than in one’s relationship to such things, which is mutable, reciprocal, and limited by one’s particular vantage point. Chauhan’s inquiry, therefore, is inherently oriented toward one’s vantage point or observational point of view. What do I see, from what perspective, what is visible, what is concealed from view? He seeks to locate the point where the perception of and awareness of oneself, of one’s own conditions and limitations begin. The questioning of how things are viewed and perceived flows seamlessly into a questioning of how things are identified and understood, which are thus subject to the basic conditions of one’s vantage point and limitations.

The source material and support for the images presented in As long as are almost entirely vintage postcards. Two series of works form the basic repertoire of the exhibition As long as. In the first series of images, Chauhan confronts the viewer with almost “portrait-like” depictions of various flower heads. However, Chauhan does not simply think of the flowers in these vintage, color postcards as special objects of observation and aesthetic contemplation. Rather, they represent—as a kind of temporal metaphor—unique and beautiful moments that are in themselves also fleeting. In the artist’s view, they function as a kind of focal point that symbolizes a special moment (of being), one capable of arresting and stopping typical, conventional, everyday functional ways of seeing for a brief moment.

Chauhan counteracts the at times seemingly exaggerated depiction of floral beauty with a “negatively” produced image layer: the artist scratches and scrapes the top surface, carefully exposing a kind of web that allows the viewer to discern an almost deceptively real spider’s web covered in water drop and droplets that seemingly extend over the particular image space, i.e. the specific flower. Only upon closer inspection does it become apparent that the network is actually something that has been constructed. The time it took to produce it, the contemplative and simultaneously highly concentrated process of its unveiling, becomes a kind of temporal signature, an indexical trace of its creation.

Through this subtractive “drawing” process, the barely noticeable removal and peeling away of the upper layer of the image, the artist creates an additional level of depiction that semantically alters and expands on the particular image narrative. Chauhan covers each of the color depictions of flowers, as well as the images in the second series showing old black-and-white depictions of waterfalls, with a wet spider web. The web, or more precisely: the idea or topos of the web, not only forms one of Chauhan’s recurring pictorial ciphers, it also has a symbolic and metaphorical dimension. Chauhan alludes to, clearly in terms of an existential metaphor, the Hindu creation myth of Indra, which regards the world by its very nature as a highly relational construct/entity in which the visible and invisible are interrelated. The web thus reflects a holistic model that thinks of the world as a structural relationship created from its own being/essence and not only as a mere sum of details. Every drop of water is capable—in this sense far more than just visually—of representing all other droplets, which can symbolize things, circumstances, but also instances and events, and to respond to them in an inherently interdependent way.

Upon closer inspection, each of Chauhan’s nets reveals itself to be an individual composition that has been created for an individual ephemera. At times the artist seems to focus on the respective composition, to frame it, to envelope it, at other times the web forms a complementary level that creates room for an independent pictorial dynamic. Each postcard reveals itself to be a discrete scene of an inner compositional as well as semantic dialogue between flower and web or waterfall and web. It is no coincidence that the artist’s titles for each postcard imbue the images with semantic meaning, such as Suggestion, Afterthought, Nostalgia, and Water, Harmonices; in this way each postcard forms its own little world, a coherent field of semantic transference and connotation.

The images in the second series of postcards depicting various waterfalls are also covered with a “wet web.” Here the water motif is evident on two levels, although the metaphors point in different directions. The main “subject of the image”—the waterfall—enters into a symbolic dialogue, perhaps even an exchange with the imagery of the “wet web.” In both cases, water is not only something fundamental, essential to life, but is—as an element, a continuum—always the same, and yet always different. As a waterfall, via the idea of flow, of current, it functions as an analogy for being and becoming, even for life itself. With the web, however, in the form of myriad droplets, it serves as a kind of mirroring medium. Each drop is able to “see” all the others, of being reflected in them and thus responding to them. Each node of focus thus inevitably turns out to be linked to and dependent on all the others.

Chauhan presents the viewer with vintage postcards, offering a glimpse into different times, into the past. The images confront viewers with something out of the past that “radiates” into the present. Conversely, and in terms of the aesthetics of reception, i.e. regarding the individual viewer, the present can also be reflected in and be linked to the past. Through his subtle initiating of these reciprocal influences and their effects, Chauhan transcends the normal schema of perception as well as the present moment in which it takes place.

With Chauhan’s work, viewers might wonder what these images “want” from them. Are they actually depicting/representing something, do they address a specific reader or viewer, or do they suffice in and of themselves? With Chauhan, however, it is not about simply showing or presenting the reworked postcards, but about creating a specific kind of interplay articulated by the interrelationships between images. The artist works in both a subtle as well as directed way in terms of the positioning of the images and the gaps between them in order to foster such correspondences and connotations within and between the images without any degree of pretense. It is almost as if the images comprising Chauhan's matrix of spatial production enter into a mysterious relationship with and “speak” to one another. Not only are the gaps, what has been erased and omitted discernable as the inherent aesthetic vocabulary of Chauhan’s pictorial-spatial poetics, but the blank spaces between images and the interruptions in the “meter” or rhythmic structure of the hanging form a constitutive part of a grammar that Chauhan employs to get his images to speak and even to “think” in their own way.

Chauhan is able to subvert ostensible forms of interpreting and perceiving imagery with only a handful of subtle pictorial and spatial choreographic interventions. Viewers are called upon to synthesize the defamiliarized, desemantized “material” in their own way. Sixteen out of a total of thirty partially erased postcards can be viewed in two-sided picture frames, which are mounted on eight narrow-diameter, free-standing vertical iron rods whose spatial interplay spans an imaginary wall. Blank spaces, either in the form of rhythmic gaps between images or in the form of such absences synthesized into the wall, are thus ascribed their own evocative power that not only plays a significant role in determining the exhibition dispostif—more specifically how the viewer accesses and experiences it—but also in penetrating and transcending it.

Ajit Chauhan’s focus extends beyond what is merely visually apparent, empirically given, ultimately to what is invisible and immaterial. He is primarily interested in “noumena” (Kant), which, in contrast to “phenomena” experienced via the senses, can only be apprehended in thought. Chauhan works with the boundaries between such categories and parameters with a subtle hand, i.e. between what’s observable, visible and imaginary, conceptual and ultimately spiritual.

Ajit Chauhan’s visual language cannot be reduced to the enigmatic and pictorial, nor to working with blank spaces and absences. Rather, its distinctiveness lies in the interdependent and semantic interplay between these aspects. Chauhan’s artistic work, his subtle and intimate visual-spatial language of images and absences, reflects a way of thinking that seeks to transcend the visible, indeed understands it as transcended per se, and in so doing explores a concept of reality that cannot be distinguished from questions concerning the relationship between oneself and the world, that which is incessantly in flux.

Text: David Komary
Translation: Erik Smith