On entering a quarry, one enters the earth. One descends into that which as long as it existed could not be accessed. A rock is a record of everything that formed it—the magma of millions of years since a volcano erupted. Inside a quarry, the surface of the rock is the ultimate intermediary; its exposure to forces of extraction leads to the layer beneath. An image of a quarry is always a negative; it is that which has been excavated that enables the image to come into being.
In 1969, Robert Morris wrote that “prethought images are neither possible nor necessary.” The approach he was identifying in art practices in and around the New York scene brought together ends and means in unprecedented ways and the use of all kinds of “stuff, substances in many states – from chunks to particles, to slime, to whatever” was accompanied by contingency. Somewhat paradoxically, chance and indeterminacy became imperative. In challenging the preconceived imagistic priorities in the “rationalist notion that art is a form of work that results in a finished product,” Morris was proposing a shift towards engaging with the very physicality of matter to enable other perceptual possibilities.
A few years earlier, Robert Rauschenberg had also articulated his desire to be involved directly with the nature of things. To him it seemed to be about a friendly relationship with all he was employing—whether animate or inanimate—and not necessarily about a chance operation. What he was saying could be thought in terms of the conditions of a close collaboration, “where you want [your materials] for what they are rather than for what you could make out of them.” The implications of this simple distinction remain infinitely significant today; to not be driven by the impulse to achieve some sort of image seems almost inconceivable in the context in which art operates.
If till then it was hardly disputed that the artist exerted authorship by imposing form onto substances—something Morris himself had once stated—the development being signalled was for materials themselves to show artists how to shape what was to be made. Already in 1965, Eva Hesse, experimenting with latex, had begun to dispense with the notion that work ought to preserve itself—“Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last,” she would eventually declare. By 1968, Carl Andre was producing exhibitions that were in a constant state of change. Neither was interested in their art experiments reaching or remaining in an ideal state. “The notion that work is an irreversible process ending in a static icon-object no longer ha[d] much relevance,” Morris claimed. At the same time, he noted, the cultural climate was undertaking “deadly acts of acceptance”, indulging these evolvements by granting them instant institutionalised recognition.
Many of the works in Measure of a foot, Hemali Bhuta’s current exhibition at Project 88, were made by means of unmaking what were once finished works in Point-Shift and Quoted Objects, her previous solo at the gallery. Materials carry their own geologies, and in this body of work the artist goes back in time to bring something forth from that which remains. These processes of transmutation are invisible to us as viewers, but nonetheless suggest that the works of art, and the matter they contain, belong to a continuum. Lying on the ground, they are future memorials to their former selves.
In a chapter titled, “Doing and Having” in his book, Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre recounts a story from Grimm’s fairy tales. There is a tailor who pretends that a piece of cheese he is holding in his hand is a stone. He squeezes it very hard such that the whey oozes out. His assistants are stunned for they believe he actually extracted fluid from a rock. “Such a comparison,” Sartre writes, “reminds us of a secret liquid quality in solids.”
In Hemali’s show as well, things are not what they seem. Soap and wax appear as rock. She calls it Tile, adding yet another layer of perceptual displacement. Elsewhere, paper has turned into blocks of wood again. This return to a prior state of being seems to happen even when she doesn’t intend it. She makes A graphite drawing on a graphite block and it’s not quite clear what is the marker and what is being marked. The means by which some of these objects come into being involve a transition of form into formlessness. Like when In an attempt to measure the amount of wax, she takes a solid sculpture and liquidates it to find that ‘the sense of matter’ has reduced itself. She wonders how one could calculate this dissolution and what doing so means. She makes up her math as she goes along with it, like the ‘foot’ in the title of the show, a unit at once both universal and personal. For us as viewers, the sense of mystery remains despite what we may see or know specifically. For even when we are told the constituent elements, we find ourselves struck by the ability a material possesses to pose itself in another’s stead. It prompts us to acknowledge what that material may once have been, what it could become, the permanent possibility there is within each and every single thing for real transformation, and the “fixed instability” of images.
When I first encountered Hemali’s work back in 2013, the discourse around materiality was lost on me. I mention this to make the case that there are entire other levels on which the practice operates. As I moved around the gallery during Point-Shift and Quoted Objects, I didn’t know what it was that was drawing me in so viscerally, or whether it was because the work’s invisibility was pronouncing the space. For a long time after I left and in some senses even till date, I didn’t discern what the work was ‘about’, or what strategies were at play. All I knew was what I felt and it is this structure of feeling, this knowing and not knowing, the in between-ness of one’s affinity to something, that is the most mysterious—it eludes meaning, and is more than meaning as well.
In Measure of a foot, another texture of invisibility is in our midst. A refusal has taken place, and as viewers we are asked to look away from the walls, against the usual code of a gallery space, and turn our attention to the ground on which we tread to also see if we can see what isn’t there. This movement of going under is not to exhume things but to suggest that this could be where we reconstitute ourselves. There is an unrealised and unsuspected politics aching beneath the surface.