The artist appears to have a simple and urgent proposition: to render the past absurd is to neutralise the rhetoric of the political right.
Without a golden age to hark about, no one can promise to make America, the UK, or India ‘great again’. And we can instead progress to a state of internationalism, equal rights, economic parity and perpetual peace.
Rahal lives in Mumbai, but he points out that the whole planet is “kind of a scary place to be working, globally”. He is, however, welcome in the North West, where for the duration of the 2016 Liverpool Biennial, his sculpture and film is being shown across three sites.
We met at Cains Brewery, a cavernous space for art enjoying a good year. It is however scruffy, and Rahal’s work looks in keeping with the general state of repair. It is the first thing a visitor sees: nuggets of clay arranged on trestle-like tables; bits of scaffold, locally sourced, covered in clay; and black-box monitors which appear to emerge from the mess on which figurines breathe or practice with lightsabers.
“I’m a huge nerd and I obviously have all these Star Wars references”, the artist cheerfully informs me. But like many contemporary sculptors, he aims both high and low, looking to Jorge Luis Borges for ”vast metaphysical narratives”, and for that writer’s concern with “creating this itinerary of our culture”.
In short, this itinerary is dystopian. The artefacts presented appear fresh from some archaeological dig. But what kind of half-formed world do they conjure up? A: it is a world run by idiots in which technology has failed us and we have forgotten basic craft skills. And that seems to me the worst of all possible worlds.
“I like the fact that these characters, or these objects of clay could somehow become like harbingers of something, you know?” Rahul tells me as we contemplate his pottery-based triage stations which all appear to somehow breathe in the light of the moving image work.
He also says: “I’m more interested in putting them together to form meaning… from these absurd things, which are beyond reason in a certain way. In that meaning-making ritual that people perform, how do we create allegiances? How do we create bonds across space-time?”
An interest in travel and time travel chimes in well with the 2016 Biennial, which is a nebulous animal in which Monuments from the Future is one of six official themes. You may find, as I did, that as you come across Rahal’s work more than once, you build a picture of what might be becoming.
It is a picture of a primitive time around the corner. Rahal expresses concern about right wing governments that have followed the Arab Spring, the rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump, and the hate-filled effect of Brexit here in the UK.
If politics is performative, the artist has another highly political aspect to his practice. Rahul stages improvised, ritualistic performances which offer only “fleeting, fragmented glimpses” of a narrative, and which change gear according to pop cultural requests from his viewers.
“Even I don’t have a bead on [these],” he tells me. “Essentially, what’s interesting for me is that I’m also a viewer as well.” One supposes that in these powerless times, we are all to a degree little more than viewers, even as we march, occupy, tweet or blog.
But perhaps in the light of our political horizons, we’ll do well to maintain any civilisation at all.
Despite everything, Rahal is making the most of circumstances: “Earthenware has so much meaning to our origins so I’m drawn to that, but saying that it’s also so much fun to just dive into clay and get mud all over me.”
As well he might, since in Summer 2016 we are all up to the neck in it.
It surprises me that the artist filmed this himself. It looks like a degraded home movie, out of focus, a bit over exposed. But no, it’s an afternoon of fieldwork into a four second loop.
Indeed, it is a loop within a circular loop. The carousel offers what Nietzsche might have recognised as an eternal return, a moment worth affirming from now until the end of time.
Funfair rides do slow down, eventually. But this glitchy slice of the merry-going-round, which plays back over and over, suggests infinite repetition and a Dionysiac commitment to pleasure.
The soundtrack is an insistent techno throb, far removed from the cries of fear and joy one associated with a fair. It is an echo of the generator rather than the barker and the disco truck.
So there appears to be nothing humanist about the delivery of this experience. The film deals in machinery and a cosmic pulse, rather than happy memories and domestic home movies.
But for all that, the forms lack definition. The expressions of fear and joy are masks rather than faces to whom we might relate. The masks takes us all the way back to Greek drama.
Maybe this blog post is spinning out of control, but might we not see the riders as a masked chorus who can only comment on the conflicting forces of gravity and centrifugal pull.
There is really something frightening here, something that scares me about funfairs in general. And it has nothing to do with rusting bolts and prejudiced feelings about travellers.
The funfair is a factory for inducing hedonistic thrills by the relentless burning of diesel; it is a crude apparatus for moving bodies in all directions through space. Weird, or what?
James Coleman was at Marion Goodman, London, between the 4th March to 16 April 2016.
The baddest gang on the planet don’t ride Harleys out into the California desert. They ride mopeds around a South Korean island and dive for octopus in the choppy North Pacific.
Bad-meaning-good is maybe not the word, but the sea-women are certainly tough cookies. Aged between 60 and 90, they explode all your preconceptions about gender and growing old.
From the age of eight they have been trained for a female only profession: collecting seafood and wild pearls from around the coast of the island of Jeju. Men, it should be said, need not apply.
That’s because the sea-women benefit from a) womanly fat distribution (useful in cold water) and b) a tax break under Confucian law. The law fails to recognise the labour of Korean women.
For a moment, let us set aside the problem of a Western artist conducting a study on yet another remote tribe. (Can someone explain if this film does the sea-women a disservice?)
It is surely in fact a great service to women from around the world. And dare it be said, not just women, but anyone with reservations about growing old. In this film, old women rule.
And when they peel off the wetsuits and masks, the hats and floral slippers come out and you realise they come from the same planet as the grandmothers you encounter riding the bus.
Karikis is as interested in sound as he is in film. His starting point for this 27 minute, two-channel tribute to the sea-women is the whale-like whistle they make while at work on the waves.
This siren song is part of the fabric of the installation, along with rolling thunder and a beautiful folk tune which the women would sing while rowing. All blend into the natural context of the island.
Jeju is now a tourist destination, and quick to see which way the wind blew, the sea-women sent their daughters (and, one can only hope, sons) to the university to study tourism.
That could be why they co-operated. Karikis may have been a tourist when he first visited and his film is great PR for an island which the children of the sea-women will one day inherit.
SeaWomen can be seen in the Founders’ Room, Brighton Dome until December 1. It is part of the 2015 Earsthetic Festival.