Yamini Nayar

28 Mar – 05 May 2012

At one point in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities Marco Polo says to Kublai Khan, “At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passersby meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them.” While the images that Yamini Nayar creates are not necessarily visions of a perfect city, Marco Polo's words about piecing together an urban diorama eloquently describe Nayar’s art. It is little wonder that Invisible Cities is her favourite novel.

Nayar is an unusual photographer. She creates tabletop models out of scraps and objects that catch her eye as she walks around her neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York. These are fragile, intricate models that have become increasingly abstract over the years. Her creations often have as their root snapshots she has seen in magazines, books, and digital archives. This isn't to say her models are copies of scenes glimpsed in images from the public domain, but rather that found photographs are among the tools she uses to create the final work. Nayar's models are imaginative reconstructions that bear little obvious resemblance to their inspirations. They embody a fragile moment that belongs in the past and has accrued a resonance over time. The photographs record how castoffs became unrecognisable and gained artistic gravitas as she painstakingly sculpted imaginary scenes out of them. Mysterious and abstract, the images are filled with suggestions and ambiguities that are "instants separated by intervals", as Calvino's Marco Polo phrased it, and they become all the more charismatic when you know Nayar demolishes her sculptures once she has photographed them. Her reasons are pragmatic: they take up too much space and are often too precarious to survive a shift in location. Consequently, the photograph that is ultimately displayed is a document of a destroyed object created out of fragments of something that was once taken apart or discarded. This is one way in which the sculpture survives erasure. In a curious way, the photograph embodies the cycle of destruction and rebirth; a renaissance of sorts, even though Nayar's image shows the sculpture from a very specific, rather than holistic, perspective.   

By her own admission, while making the tabletop models, Nayar works more as a sculptor than a photographer. However, the camera is at the heart of her work at every stage. Nayar says, "The camera is brought into the sculptural installation at an early point, and the perspective is relatively fixed. The sculpture is then built around the gaze of the camera. I am continuously going back and forth between the three-dimensional object and the flattened space of the lens, in viewing the sculpture from behind the camera." The camera's eye, then, is the anchor around which the sculptures are built. Its ability to flatten the depth of a scene and confuse the viewer by playing around with scale and perspective lies at the heart of Nayar's practice. 

‘Harpoon’ is Nayar's first solo show in India and the photographs are recent works that resonate powerfully with Mumbai's urban, contemporary reality. Neither conventional cityscapes nor pretty snapshots of cosmopolitanism, they show abstract structures that have changed over time. Some have elements of collage that are sometimes subtle, and on other occasions, pointedly obvious. In Memorious, for example, the two long strips pasted upon the image are unmissable, and intended to be so because they show how the sculpture looked at an earlier point. The past, then, is literally spliced with the present. Scales shift, perspective tilts, and the three-dimensional becomes two dimensional in Nayar's work. Shot on a large-format architectural camera using film, the photographs are big enough to seem like portals. But it isn't a fantasy world that is glimpsed in the artist’s creations. They show abstractions that are tantalisingly close to being tangible and material. A back alley, a window looking into a room, a construction site, an open door, a model apartment — it is our world that is encapsulated in Nayar's photographs. 

Architecture is a subject Nayar has explored repeatedly in her images, with a particular focus upon modernist architecture's visions of utopia. The designs of architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Corbusier articulate their notions of modernity and progress. Much of this seems dated or unfeasible today as builders and developers construct new visions of the future around us. The references are drawn from images of cities like New York and Shanghai and in a way, what Nayar creates on her tabletop is a curious miniature version of the construction boom in Mumbai (and India) today.

The title of Nayar's show in Mumbai refers to the act of harpooning, an activity that involves using a small device to catch hold of something that is much, much larger. Nayar's camera and her eye, which picks up the castoffs used to create her sculptures, are the small devices and their whale is contemporary society. For Nayar, architectural spaces are expressive of a society's aspirations. They are a coded record of how we construct identity and a sense of self, individually and collectively. Space is a repository of experience and Nayar's intention is to create photographs that convey this sensibility. Her dioramas show the additions as well as ruptures in an effort to communicate the tension between what is intended and what is realised. This is the shadowy realm of memory, where everything shifts and anything can shuffle out of its skin. What Calvino wrote of the changeable city of Olinda in Invisible Citiesperhaps sums up the ephemeral quality of architectural spaces that Nayar frames in her sculptures and photographs: "...it becomes a full-size city, enclosed within the earlier city: a new city that forces its way ahead in the earlier city and presses its way toward the outside."