26 Nov – 24 Dec 2016
Events in a Cloud Chamber
In 1969, the pioneering modernist painter Akbar Padamsee made a film called Events In A Cloud Chamber. Shot on a 16mm Bolex, it ran for six minutes and featured a single colour image of a trembling dreamlike terrain. Padamsee tried to 'reproduce' one of his own oil paintings using projected light instead of applied pigment, working with tinted filters and stencils to recreate the differently coloured sections of the painting.
After just a handful of screenings, the sole print of Events In A Cloud Chamber, which may have catalyzed the subsequent production of experimental artist films in India – a purely formal and abstract practice that rejected the pictorial and narrative impulses of both popular and alternative Indian cinema – was lost. Ashim Ahluwalia’s Events in a Cloud Chamber, a collaboration with the aging painter who is now eighty eight, is a quest to retrieve Padamsee’s film, which exists now only as an indistinct and quickly fading memory.
In this debut solo exhibition, Ahulwalia attempts to recapture some of the cosmopolitan avant-garde spirit of the late 1960s moment by screening his film in a constructed environment that approximates Padamsee’s apartment and the possibility-fueled atmosphere of the Vision Exchange Workshop, in whose context the original film was made. The gallery is reconfigured into a simple live/work space where, with archival material to aid in time travel, we are invited back to sit, read, watch, hang out, talk, debate, create, experiment, and imagine. Taken together, Ahluwalia’s installation and film seek to reverse the almost inevitable flattening of the past inflicted by the passage of time and the distortive lenses of history and memory; they attempt a recovery, if only for a short while, the seemingly limitless possibilities for exchange, experimentation and collaboration as they once existed, in a specific time and place.
What begins as an attempt to recreate Padamsee’s lost film, to literally re-member it back into existence, expands into a rumination on the vicissitudes of time and (art) history. It reveals and, just maybe, revels in how arbitrary and accidental the processes of both memory and history can be, how being forgotten is the rule, being remembered the exception. It also serves as a heartfelt but melancholic portrait of the artist as an old man. It is, as Ahluwalia says in the film synopsis, “ultimately a ghost story,” asking us whether art can actually ever preclude the inevitability of death, stall our disappearance into the past, into the oblivion of time. However, as a work of art itself, Ahluwalia’s film seems to suggest that the compulsion to imagine and create is transcendent. Collecting, recording and representing the fast disappearing traces of a past event, a phenomenon as evanescent and invisible as the trail left by a charged subatomic particle, it functions like a cloud chamber itself. And in its last moments, Padamsee’s film is resurrected, now transcendent, glowing, in the way an abstract landscape painted out of light gradually, and sometimes magically, comes together.