The process of transformation, or metamorphosis, is a major theme in Tara Mahapatra’s work. The bodies in her drawings exist in a liminal space on the cusp of a metamorphosis. For Mahapatra, transformation is an action that never ceases, it is in perpetual motion, and suggests that nothing can remain unchanged or in stasis. It is neither these fields of intensity that alter a body, nor a body that in turn alters the field: both parties appear to simultaneously affect one another. The bodies in her drawings hang in space before a multiplicity of possibilities before one of them crystallizes into something material, thereby rendering the others a virtual potential that was not actualized in the material realm.

Despite this, there is always an element of danger in the enterprise. One can change beyond recognition, never to return to a former state. In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a good while passes before Samsa the prodigal son at last grasps that he will not make the train as expected, that he will not be able to go to the office, and that he will not be able to explain the fact the he has turned into a beetle to his colleagues. Fear dominates his thoughts in the first phase of his transformation. It is only later that Samsa begins to take some pleasure in moving under furniture, climbing walls and hanging upside down from the ceiling. Yet the greatest transformation that occurs takes place outside of Gregor Samsa: his family, on account of the ordeal, are oddly restored to a state of vitality in the wake of his death.

If metamorphosis stands between the poles of vitality and dissipation, then it is clear that Tara Mahapatra possesses an affinity for the former. The images are always active, bursting with movement regardless of whether the subject concerns human figures or concrete lines forming patterns of abstract intensities. The same could be said of her video work, in which she uses a time-based medium to immerse the viewer in hypnotic images that appear to defy clock time. These images, however, are not merely aesthetic; they are uncanny spaces that explore intensities, or sensations, which could be described as immaterial, as present and active as the concrete world of observable phenomena. Energy equals matter. As a result, the bodies in her drawings, while present in the pictorial field, do not necessarily constitute the core of her subject. Far from representing a personal, individual experience, they tend to depict a body in relation to the various intensities passing through that body. In this sense, there is neither a foreground nor background to speak of, but a unified zone of lines and curves producing fields that appear to exist on multiple planes. The latter could be thought of as potentials that may or may not materialize on the physical plane.

It is crucial to articulate the distinction between the material and the immaterial when speaking of Mahapatra’s work, given the current practice of ceaselessly documenting and disseminating spectacles in the digital era. One has only to stand before an iconic painting in the Louvre for a few minutes to observe dozens of spectators elbowing one another before pressing the button of a device that will conclusively demonstrate that he or she had visited said museum. Yet the only thing such an image demonstrates is the individual’s absence from the space and subsequent distance to the artwork. The viewer is not present, nor is that viewer looking at the work. In the aforementioned case, we can observe the inversion between the material and immaterial. The unique painting is transformed into a digital image suggesting that a person was present at a particular place when in fact the opposite is closer to the truth. The works on exhibit in Tara Mahapatra’s In the Dark of Light operate in stark contrast to this: she immerses the viewer in a world of intensities, transforming the immaterial into a concrete and immediate experience, situating the viewer in the here and now. To appreciate her work one must approach it with patience as well as silence. Her art rejects, if not undermines, the widespread phenomenon of instant gratification ubiquitous in the current era, defiantly out of step with the ‘engaged art’ that reduces the creative function to a one-dimensional ‘practice’, a practice that would appear to be as straightforward as opening a door.

Yet it would be erroneous to view her work as a didactic response to current trends. It is more than a reaction; it is a creative ethic that places the observer within a field of infinite potential. Her work depicts the moments before a physical or mental transformation crystallizes. In that sense, it is an art of possibility. Rather than dwell on the subject as a distinct and representative figure, she has removed any identifying feature in them. There are no faces, no genders, no sense of age in these bodies: they are bodies pure and simple, human bodies, but bodies first and foremost. They could be any one of us. They could be the subterranean double who whispers uncanny facts into our ears that will nonetheless be ignored, unable as we are to remain attuned to the needs and demands of that voice.

Because these bodies could be any of us, it implies that the currents passing through them could also pass through us, that the universe depicted in Mahapatra’s drawings is not so far away from our own. In the Transfiguration series, for example, while bodies hang suspended, often lines continue, as if too large to be ensnared within the confines of any space. One could easily imagine the same lines leaping off of the sheet and passing through the spectator as well. It all depends on the singular experience of the viewer in question who will perceive and alter these intensities in his or her own unique fashion, ultimately causing the intensities to undergo another metamorphosis.

Mahapatra’s work proceeds from the middle. It is an immersive, non-representational approach. The equivalent of writing without a scaffold. As such, she shares an affinity to the immersive works of Beckett, Joyce, Kafka and Woolf, rather than the fixed universe of Thackeray and Dickens, wherein the reader always remains the subject, or one who knows, the one who will sooner or later know what occurred, leaving little room for perplexity or doubt. Situating the spectator as subject reflects a power structure that operates both, on the public and private realms. It is not merely a question of either/or, of politics or aesthetics. For the subject remains fixed in the position of certainty, despite the facts, whereas the object is constantly interrogated and unraveled until the secret is at last revealed and closure thus attained. Mahapatra has dispensed with these contrivances in favor of a process that does not avoid perplexity while including the observer in a world that is both intimate and universal. Like the works of Ad Reinhardt, if observed long enough, the images will begin to operate on a level of perception several degrees removed from the rational side, until the viewer becomes a body able to perceive the multitude of passing intensities.

It is often claimed that metaphysical art is an apolitical escape from the public sphere. At best the former is a childish distraction; at worst, it conspires to maintain the status quo of a violent regime through ignorance and superstition. This view wrongly assumes that the one can be divided from the other. It postulates that the individual with a rich inner life is incapable of critically examining the world of politics, as if each were mutually exclusive of the other. Such a view is not only puerile, it is simple-minded. One of the preconditions for National Socialism, or any totalitarian regime, is the cultivation of a deeply impoverished inner life ripe and ready to cling to the irrational rhetoric of totalitarian ideology. In the current era, dismissing the value of any art that tends to the needs of the inner life merely supports the micro-political foundations of fascism. By excluding the plurality of perspectives while placing its own at the top, totalitarian ideologies silence the clamor of voices, not unlike a banal but efficient death camp, or ‘social’ media technologies. Walter Benjamin once observed that there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism. It was both a historical and prophetic statement that sadly went unheeded. In a similar vein, Tara Mahapatra reminds us that the world is larger and more complex than the version depicted by historians and political scientists. With the alarming spread of surveillance technologies throughout the West, combined with the process of normalizing handheld devices among the civilian population, aided by the cooperation of multinational corporations, it seems that in the early years of the twenty-first century we may profit from an art that immerses us in a field of rich intensities, one of countless many that we may claim as a departure point for our own metamorphoses.

Published in the Art Catalog:

Tara Mahapatra: In the Dark of Light
Texts by John Fray, Harald Kunde and Tara Mahapatra
Graphic Design by Christoph Stolberg
2014. 88 pp.,hardcover
24.60 x 32.70 cm / ISBN 978-3-934935-70-9