Watching the video art of the Otolith Group feels like a productive day spent in a university library, or a jump down a Wikipedia wormhole. Images, archive film and original footage filmed on a vast array of locations are collaged together into essayistic treatises on history, the environment, colonialism and lost utopian thinking. Tangents are unravelled and opaque connections are made. The nature of time is a recurring obsession.
Speaking to them ahead of their forthcoming exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art is no less an education. Their answers, like the work in the show, incorporate a rich tapestry of academic and literary quotations, poetry and lyrics. “We are nothing but that infinity of traces. It’s a Gramscian thing,” co-founder Kodwo Eshun says, referring to the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. “And those traces show up as citations and quotations in our work. That’s how we think. It goes with the desire to socialise and to think more collectively. It puts us into a larger frame than the present.”
‘It’s a Gramscian thing’ … still from O Horizon, 2018, by the Otolith Group. Photograph: Courtesy of The Otolith Group and Lux, London
Eshun and Anjalika Sagar formed their partnership in 2002, their first film simply titled Otolith I. The 2three-minute work is set in the future, narrated by a fictional descendant of Sagar. It jumps through history, taking in the non-aligned and Tricontinental movements, the then-imminent Iraq war and Sagar’s late grandmother, who had been president of the National Federation of Indian Women. This confusion of chronology is deliberate, the pair say, describing it with a reference to writer JG Ballard as a “science fiction of the present”.
“We are interested in thinking about time vertically,” Sagar adds. “From the centre of the Earth to the cosmos, anything that allows us to think about histories that have never ended, or potential histories that haven’t unfolded because they were stopped.”
Their decision to work as a pair was a reaction to the individualism of the art world in the YBA era. “Forming a group was a strike against the idea of a single artist,” she says. “There was a sense that the YBA movement mirrored the breakdown of collectivism: this celebrity artist who revelled in posh dinners seemed so anti-punk to us. We also wanted to have an opaque name so people wouldn’t always ask us about racial identity – so we could talk about the work and not ourselves.”