A rare exhibition from ‘somewhere in Northeast India’ forces you to see both the woods and the trees ♦
This story was originally published in India Today.
Composing a landscape is inherently an act of taming nature. There isn’t necessarily a direct relation between the rules of artistic composition (perspective, thirds, movement within the frame) and the order of nature (the internal symmetry of flowers, heliotropic growth, topography formed by centuries of erosion). Chandan Bez Baruah’s woodblock landscape prints acknowledge this dichotomy in several ways. On view till March 1 at Delhi’s Gallery Latitude 28, the series is titled If A Tree Falls (Somewhere in Northeast India), an allusion to the famous thought experiment about reality and perception. An opening note by curator Waswo X. Waswo (an artist and collector of Indian prints) refers to a controversial 1884 investigation in Scientific American, which concluded, “If there be no ears to hear [a tree fall], there will be no sound.”
In a majority of these monochrome prints, Bez Baruah works to erase his own presence in the landscape by privileging detail and natural patterns over the conventions of compositional balance. Most of his frames are marked by lush chaos and overgrowth, with tiny, detailed leaves and twigs overwhelming the larger picture. In terms of composition, some of the frames appear as careless glances over a landscape rather than studied meditations, which is strangely at odds with the painfully meticulous hand-carved nature of each woodblock. At once, the images are photorealistic (Bez Baruah uses digital photos for reference); graphic, with technical patterns such as thin parallel lines to denote striated fields of sky or water; and crafted, with the labour involved so evident that it almost seems mechanical. One has to step back from the frame to make sense of this confusing thicket.
A few works offer greater visual relief. Some are set in oval frames, others include a man-made element, like a bamboo-thatched house, cutting through the frame. One of two larger tetraptychs is pleasantly illustrative, capturing a dappled, tree-flanked road, possibly somewhere in Bez Baruah’s home state of Assam. Though still devoid of people, it recalls the fine detailed, bucolic works of Haren Das, a throwback and a departure from the more photoreal works surrounding it.
All these prints are a stark departure from Bez Baruah’s previous lithographs, particularly a series centred on military motifs. The works in If A Tree Falls are less literal and metaphoric, still they produce subtle layers of meaning. To indulge in the idea that perception creates reality is a dangerous human presumption, the trees seem to murmur. The digital or human eye (or ear) is omnipresent; the question is not whether a falling tree makes a sound, but whether we’re listening.