“Tangled Hierarchy 2”

Ben Eastham

January 26, 2023
TKM Warehouse, Kochi
December 14, 2022–April 10, 2023

At the heart of this group exhibition curated by Jitish Kallat are reproductions of the five envelopes on which Mahatma Gandhi, under a vow of silence, wrote messages to Lord Mountbatten on the eve of the Partition of India.1 The first of his scribbled responses to the last Viceroy of British India reads: “I am sorry / I cannot speak.” The phrase introduces some of the paradoxes that animate this brilliantly executed show about an historical trauma that continues decades later to be felt: silence as protest, mourning as action, absence as presence.

The show opens in violence. Visitors to an exhibition ranged over two floors of a warehouse space in the backstreets of Fort Kochi are greeted by Zarina’s Abyss (2013), a woodcut print which renders the Partition line as a white chasm running like a wound through a black page, Mona Hatoum’s standing globe Hot Spot (Stand) (2018), its land masses marked out in burning electric filaments that cast the room in threatening red light, and the sound of bombs dropping, the source of which is Mykola Ridnyi’s Seacoast (2008). Shot in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, the short film syncs the noise with pictures of jellyfish falling from the sky to splatter on a fisherman’s beach. These works conflate political disorder with terrestrial disturbance: a continent torn apart at the seams; a planet literally and figuratively on fire; nature at war with mankind.

Yet these first impressions are soon complicated. In one of the initially bewildering shifts in tone that make the show so compelling, the corner of the ground floor is devoted to a series of sketches by Roger Penrose. Dating from a decade after the Partition, they describe a series of the “impossible staircases” that the Nobel Prize-winning physicist used to demonstrate that humans could visualise non-Euclidean space. These abstract speculations are initially hard to reconcile with the more direct politics of the surrounding works, but might be read as constituting an ambitious extension of their collective proposal. Not only is human suffering linked to natural landscape in ways not accounted for by classical science, but art might allow us to model more complex entanglements of space, time, and consciousness. Penrose’s sketches, after all, were inspired by the work of M.C. Escher.

If we understand time as linear and matter as governed only by cause and effect, how can a past event or an absent body cause us physical pain? On the first floor, Alexa Wright’s series “After Image” (1997) considers the phenomenon of phantom limbs by digitally adjusting photographic portraits of amputees who suffer from the condition to visualize their experience, adding snippets of their personal testimony. Kader Attia’s Reflecting Memory (2016) uses the same affliction as a metaphor through which to consider such issues as psychological disintegrity, intergenerational trauma, and the postcolonial condition. Why, the documentary asks through its interviews with psychoanalysts, surgeons, and amputees, is it considered necessary to see the cause of others’ suffering in order to be convinced that it is real?

The idea that only that which is visible is real builds pressure on victims to make a spectacle of their suffering. It also confuses visibility with representation. Both of these issues are addressed in Paul Pfeiffer’s series of “Caryatids” (2003–ongoing). The 2008 iteration on display here consists of three box monitors arranged in a continuous line on the floor like a mid-century minimalist sculpture. Each screen shows an isolated clip from a soccer match in which a male player throws himself to the ground, or writhes around on it, in an exaggerated demonstration of pain.

These individuals are transformed by the erasure from their primary-colored kits of names, numbers, and insignia into archetypes who perform suffering to entertain audiences and solicit justice. Key to the effect of these “Caryatids,” named for the marble women that served as architectural columns in classical Greek temples and have since been removed to archaeological museums, is that the aggressors have also been erased from the scene. The viewer must decide whether this pain—mediated, abstracted, aestheticized—is authentic. Which raises questions about whether the pain expressed in art is ever real or, perhaps more accurately, what kind of reality we ascribe to art and suffering.

The title “Tangled Hierarchy” took on new implications against the background of the larger show to which it is a satellite, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The opening of the latter was delayed—according to its curator, Shubigi Rao, speaking at the BMW Art Talk during a surreal first week during which none of the work was available to see—in solidarity with the wishes of artists who decided against displaying their work in conditions that did not (as a consequence of various technical problems, bad weather, and administrative hold-ups) present all of their contributions in the best light.2 Conceived for a very different context, Kallat’s exhibition here supported the principle that withdrawal is a positive action, that silence can be a powerful expression of resistance, that invisibility is preferable to losing control over your own representation, and that what is hidden continues to have effects. On its own terms it is a moving account of how art might help us to reimagine our relationship to the landscapes and histories to which we are bound.


This is the same Lord Mountbatten who was assassinated by the IRA off the west coast of another partitioned country, Ireland, in 1979.


The Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022, “In our veins flow ink and fire,” is now open and on view through April 10, 2023. “Tangled Hierarchy 2,” presented by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, follows on from the 2022 exhibition “Tangled Hierarchy” at the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton.

War & Conflict
Indian Subcontinent, Representation, Decolonization

Ben Eastham is editor-in-chief of e-flux Criticism.

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January 26, 2023

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