A blue rectangle of steel hangs on a white wall at the entrance of Twilight Language, the first major UK solo show of Raqs Media Collective, a multi-disciplinary collective based in Dehli.
Words appear on the rectangle in white-lit letters, then disappear, ghost-like, back into the twilight blue:
The sequence ends and then the completed phrase appears; similar but in a different order: LOST IN SEARCH OF TIME.
What do Raqs Media Collective want to bring to our attention here? ‘In Search of Lost Time’ (2015) is the English translation of Proust’s masterpiece of narrative time, ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ (1913 – 1927), formerly translated as ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ (1922 – 1931). Type the second into Google and not a single page appears: ‘Your search “lost in search of time” did not match any documents.’
Which is it, then? Are we ‘IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME’ or ‘LOST IN SEARCH OF TIME’? Is time something lost, something we’re on a mission to retrieve? Or is time something that evades us, something we’re lost within?
Raqs Media Collective like to haunt these gaps and glitches, these mistranslations and misrouted meanings. Since forming in 1991, the collective (Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta) has worked as artists, editors and curators, and describe their projects as ones which ’stage situations’, often in response to the politics and philosophical implications of globalisation, which are questioned in acts of ‘kinetic contemplation’. Last year Raqs was the chief curator of the 11th Shanghai Biennale that, to general acclaim, explored ‘the possibilities of South-South dialogue within the current scenario of a highly interconnected world.’
The speculative mood of the Shanghai Biennale is found in the big, broad pieces that fill three rooms of the Whitworth Art Gallery. The proximity of installations, sculptures and video works ranging from 2005 to 2017 has given Raqs space to pull out a few of its common threads – particularly its attention to language, discourse and wordplay.
The title of the exhibition Twilight Language is the English translation of a Sanskrit term, described on Wikipedia as ‘a supposed polysemic language and communication system associated with tantric traditions.’ The term was a buzzword among Western writers in the mid 20th Century, and was called out by Romanian historian Mircea Eliade as a ‘mistranslation’. Another glitch, another misrouted meaning. Like the flickering blue sign, wordplay features throughout the exhibition and often warps our notion of time. ’Words turn incandescent, enigma shadows everything, twilight finds its language,’ states the exhibition text.
If language and discourse can disturb historical time then, elsewhere, replicas and artefacts become acts of rewriting. Outside the front and rear of the Whitworth a series of ghoulish, deformed statues stand among the autumnal trees. The fibreglass sculptures, titled ‘The Coronation’ (2015), reference the 1911 coronation of King George and Queen Mary as emperor and empress of India at a site in Delhi and were previously shown at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015 as part of Okwui Enwezor’s central exhibition ‘All the World’s Futures’. Here, in Manchester, the series’ appearance is timely: ‘Twilight Language’ opened on 30 September, following a summer which witnessed the destruction and attempted removal of confederate statues in the US and reignited much-needed debate concerning statues in the UK – a topic that has faced a relative media silence since the Rhodes Must Fall protest campaign in 2015 – with the Raqs pieces easily resembling colonial figures which have been toppled or vandalised.
It is easy to see how Manchester’s history of radical and emancipatory politics has provided fruitful source material for Raqs’ new commissions. In the exhibition catalogue, next to a photo of the collective sitting in Chetham’s Library where Marx and Engels once worked, Raqs describes its work as embodying ‘a deep ambivalence towards modernity and a quiet but consistent critique of the operations of power and property’. The most striking of the new commissions is ‘Communard Biscuits’ (2017), a pile of ash-black silicone moulds made from a 3D scan of an uneaten biscuit from the Paris Commune of 1871 – the two-month takeover of Paris described by Karl Marx as the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.
Yet, amidst so many clean and clever concepts that prioritise the haunting of time, language and history, there is, intentionally, a distinct lack of human presence in the show. So much so that the diptych video of a naked man and woman titled ‘Divers at Work’ (2017) feels vaguely shocking, or at least disruptive, located in the far right corner of the exhibition among Raqs’ older video works. The diptych is formed of two separate rooms, each decorated with the same wallpaper, where a man and woman move in a series of choreographed postures, their faces masked in their deep sea diving helmets – lost in search of time, or simply lost.
Raqs Media Collective: Twilight Language, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.
30 September 2017 – 25 February 2018.
Natasha Stallard is a writer based in Manchester.