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In Review Art

The tree of memory

Updated 27 Apr, 2015 07:33pm

Under the Molsri Tree | Noorjehan Bilgrami | Koel Gallery | Karachi | January 29 – February 9

Safar Series | Courtesy  Koel Gallery
Safar Series | Courtesy Koel Gallery

In Swann’s Way (1913), one of the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu or Remembrance of Things Past, (also sometimes translated as In Search of Lost Time), the famous ‘episode of the madeleine’ takes place, which lays the basis for Proust’s discussion of memory and time. One afternoon, upon taking a sip of tea and a bite of a petite madeleine – a small, spongy cake – Proust is as if magically transported to another time, another place; a memory which is triggered in his unconscious mind, a memoire involontaire or involuntary memory which arises from a long forgotten past, but carries with it the ability to cause a shift in the present and in the reality of the here and now:

“No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; […] Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it? […] And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray, when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea.”

There are uncanny parallels between Proust’s story of the madeleine and Noorjehan Bilgrami’s conceptual trajectory in the solo show of her new works titled Under the Molsri Tree, at the Koel Gallery in February 2015. Arising out of a series of conversations between the artist and curator Maha Malik, ideas of autobiography, time, practice and praxis are explored with a delicate sensitivity that is as rich and densely layered as the ideas of remembrance and memory themselves. On the significance of the Molsri tree, Bilgrami narrates a story – quoted in Malik's curatorial essay, A Sense of the Fragile – that immediately evokes the realm of the memoire involontaire and resonates with Proustian ideas.

Under the Molstri Tree 2 | Courtesy Koel Gallery
Under the Molstri Tree 2 | Courtesy Koel Gallery

“It was a hot summer’s day in Karachi ... I was visiting the National Museum, in the early 1990s (while working on the Ajrak book), when suddenly I felt the sense of being transported straight to Hyderabad. There was a fragrance that was so heady that it brought up waves of memory. I wondered where the fragrance was coming from. And then I realized I was standing under a molsri tree — an ordinary looking tree, with flowers all around me. The flowers were inconspicuous, they were so small — but the fragrance was so potent! It brought to mind the entire environment of my childhood, associated with just such a tree. And I recalled that form once again: jitni taiz dhoop utni thandak [us ke] saaey mein aur khushboo (the shade of the molsri tree grows cooler and more fragrant, the stronger the sun’s rays bear down).”

For Proust, after this initial and overwhelming experience of being transported back in time, images from his past are conjured in his mind: the row of houses, the countryside, his childhood. For Bilgrami, it is the same: the old photographs derived from family archives, images from Hyderabad, emerge after the sense is already evoked and experienced. Layered, delicate, rich in texture and depth, transfers, prints, fluid and visceral layers of paint, the underlying grid, the mark of the artist – these are works that speak of the here and now. There is no desire, no longing to return to the past; there is only the present into which the past is brought, layered, juxtaposed and experienced anew.

As smell is able to pervade, to move through the porous boundaries of the mind, body and time, so too does the concept of memory, of recollection, across the space of the gallery, such as in the small potlis or bundles, ‘swathe(s) of fabric in which objects such as household textiles or precious belongings may be gathered and wrapped over, contained’ (Maha Malik, A Sense of the Fragile, curatorial essay accompanying the show ‘Under the Molsri Tree’, February 2015, Koel Gallery, Karachi). The potlis become small bundles of the self, encompassed, enclosed, invisibly contained, within the ‘store’ that memory has often been referred to as by philosophers across centuries – a vast and intangible repository for the immaterial which can never be made material again, unless revisited, recollected, recalled.

Under the Molstri Tree 4 | Courtesy Koel Gallery
Under the Molstri Tree 4 | Courtesy Koel Gallery
Just as the marks on the layered surface of paper (translucent and ethereal juxtaposed against the solid and opaque) act as stitches, anchoring the bundles in the here and now, the blue of the fabric evokes the infinite; the vast and endless expanse of sky and sea, but saturated with experience. Yves Klein felt much the same about the color and its ability to reach beyond, to reach into abstract space and time, and yet to connect with the self. In a 1950s essay, he wrote, “I had left the visible, physical blue at the door, outside, in the street. The real blue was inside, the blue of the profundity of space, the blue of my kingdom, of our kingdom! […] The immaterialization of blue, the colored space that cannot be seen but which we impregnate ourselves with.”

The colour blue (and the bundles themselves) also speaks of voyages across waters, across space and time. The purity of the blue somehow able to transcend the boundaries of the finite, a link evident in the video installation work ‘Tasavvur-e-Nir’ (Visions of Indigo). As the frames shift between the blue of the sea and the deep viscous blue of the indigo, the body of the artist is brought into play.

The layers of translucent color, the marks, the stitches that form the grid and the grid that forms the anchor — these are all signatures, the fingerprints, the auto impulse of the artist. Video and performance have long been linked with this autobiographical impulse. However, here there is also memory and time, versus the link with the need for a kind of clinical documentation. The body is already invoked – in the photo collages, the small bundles, the mixing of the paint – all steeped in the spaces between past, present and future, in the self-same moment, im selben Augenblick.

Writes Proust in Swann's Way:

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”