Sangeeta Sandrasegar: She wrapped a bandage around her eyes and vowed to share the darkness

1 Mar - 6 Apr 2019

She wrapped a bandage around her eyes and vowed to share the darkness is an installation of 101 delicate paper cut-outs that draws upon characters in the Indian Sanskrit epic Mahabharata and continues Sangeeta Sandrasegar’s interpretation of various passages within this text. Using light and shadow as a formal motif, Sandrasegar gives voice to identities caught on the margins of society. The 101 characters that don the walls of Michael Reid Berlin reference Wayang Kulit, an Indonesian form of puppet theatre. Taking inspiration from the assimilation of Indian’s and Chinese in Indonesia, and the Wayang Kulit’s common reference of the Mahabharata, Sandrasegar intentionally provides an intercultural symbol for this installation.

She wrapped a bandage around her eyes and vowed to share the darkness takes its title from the vow of blindness that the character Ghandari takes upon her arranged marriage to Dhritarashtra, the blind king of Hastinapura in the Mahabharata. Ghandari’s devotion to her husband is rewarded with a boon to have 100 children. After a long gestation of two or more years, Ghandari gives birth to an unliving mass. The sage who granted her this boon takes up the mass saying he will turn it into 100 sons, but upon seeing the distress expressed in Ghandari’s blindfolded face he offers her one daughter. The mass is then divided into 101 pieces to incubate in earthen pots filled with ghee.

The Mahabharata revolves around the lives of men and gods, culminating in a war between two families of cousins, the Pandava’s and Kaurava’s, that finally leads to the death of the entire house of 100 male Kaurava brothers (Ghandari’s sons). Whilst the text is proliferated with wives, mothers, sisters and lovers; women often take peripheral roles within the vast content and literature of the thousand-year-old texts. Whilst male lives are detailed and explicated, female lives are often left indistinct and ambiguous despite their actions circumscribing major events. Whilst men have their teachers, sages and gods to debate their choices with, females are depicted as autonomous and remote actors.

The episode of Ghandari giving birth to a leaden mass and her vow of blindness provoke a fascinating vision. Sandrasegar questions who created this story, why a female is portrayed in this way, and what quality of resolve or desire does it involve. From an unknowable, unspeakable mass one hundred sons and one daughter are created into subjects that can see and describe. A great act of transference and transformation – perhaps to explore Gandhari’s vision is to begin to describe an unknowable scene.

The paper medium in Sandrasegar’s installation of Ghandari’s 100 sons and one daughter, replicates another visual language. Creating silhouettes which are pierced with braille-like intricate detail, Sandrasegar illustrates that there are multiple ways of viewing the world and this finally is the crux of the Mahabharata. Having spent the last two years in Germany, Sandrasegar draws upon the many cultures influencing her work. Collectively these influences and the themes explored in She wrapped a bandage around her eyes and vowed to share the darkness, reveal that understanding, acceptance and interpretation of vision are never complete – it is continuously answerable to something else we may not be able to see.

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1. The research and narratives within your work always connect to previous projects. How does this body of work connect to the one before it, and to your upcoming exhibition at TarraWarra?

My work engages with our understanding and acceptance of vision, and furthers the nature of shadow and light as formal and symbolic motifs relating to ways of seeing. For almost two decades now my practice has examined structures of culture, sexuality and identity.

My last exhibition Quite Contrary is based on depictions of the story of Mary Magdalene after the resurrection, where she wanders in the desert for around 20 years, shunning the world, and undertaking a form of penance and review of what life means. In this time of suffering and separation, her clothes and worldly trappings disintegrate and her hair grows long, a representation that her martyrdom is modestly protected. In this period of isolation, she is said to have been fed by angels.

The form has been depicted throughout art history and her portrayals have shifted with the male gaze and theology. Simultaneously, saint and sinner, Mary Magdalene stands for the impossible figure of women more broadly in patriarchal society. There is Donatello’s late sculptural work that illustrates an old haggard woman in rags, to the various wooden sculptures and altarpieces of Tilman Riemenschneider who carves wonderful delicate curls across her entire body. Variously during the Renaissance and into the romantic era, she is shown with flowing long black tresses that drape evocatively across her nude body and is accompanied with symbols representing her self-education: books and candles for knowledge, wisdom and marking time, and the skull as memento mori – contemplation of life and death.

So these two shows deal with my being in the world and my understanding of it from a female lens, both of these works question not only the way I may see and argue my world, but also how other women have done so, as well as the ‘others’ gaze, whether that is one that is differently gendered, sexed, cultural, political and social. Across both these bodies of work is a desire to try and understand what meaning the other makes and how this can help shape our ways of looking.

Another recent body of work “It’s like that” consists of 53 sheets of pierced paper depicting my weekly planner, and is a consideration on the flexibility and relationships between the Copy, Allegory Translation, Time, Space and Thought. Similarly exploring the themes of Quite Contrary and she wrapped a bandage around her eyes and vowed to share the darkness, on how we relate to the other’s viewpoint, it also more directly referenced my own artistic doubts and hopes.

At first viewing “It’s like that” presents as a series of minimal, monochromatic abstracts, obsessively repeated and reproduced versions of one another. It is on closer inspection that these planes open up, and a range of text and scrawls become discernible. Not always legible, this is a visual rendition of our spoken, written and recorded utterances. Employing spatial ranges of light and shadows this project continues my use of shadows and installation, to discuss the ways we think and see across time, cultures and space.

The new project “Things Fall From View” coming up at Tarrawarra Museum of Art for the exhibition “The Tangible Trace”, curated by Victoria Lynn draws expands upon of these ideas about what is seen and unseen – the traces of vision. Akin to the abstraction in “It’s Like That”, this work will disrupt the window spaces of the VistaWalk gallery at TarraWarra and consist of 5 hand-dyed fabric panels in Indian Indigo and Australian native cherry.

The choice of these dyes continues my research into the post-colonial relationships between Australia and India. Installed from floor to ceiling in front of the windows, each panel will measure over 5 meters in height and 2 meters in width, intended to essentially create a shifting ocular void.

The installation is designed to perform with light and shadow, as the light changes and shifts through the VistaWalk gallery across the day. Things fall from view immerses the viewer in a transient space: where boundaries are shifted and the internal and external are intertwined. This intentional disruption of space and the viewer’s position, has been informed through exploring ‘A shift that implicates the viewer’. That is:

The Western, interlocutor and Indigenous gaze regard the same field, but what is seen or held in each eye? There is a shared history that holds indigenous, settler and migrant habitation of this field. But how do we each hold our reading and knowledge of place? How do these differ? Become representable? Who can see the bunyip down there in the lake? Is there one to be seen? Was there ever one here, in this place?

2. You have researched and worked with the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata for some time. What initially drew you to this piece?

I read an old Tamil reader translation of the Mahabharata as an adolescent having grown up with various re-countings of the tales within it as a child – it is a bit like reading the 1001 nights, so many characters and their different life histories are all recounted by one narrator. The epic shifts between present and past action continually.

Since early adolescence, I have been preoccupied with the story of Princess Ghandhari and her 101 children. and have found my thoughts coming back to this section as my emotional and physical capacities have changed over the years. As a teenager I was fascinated with this image of a woman giving birth to what I envisioned as a big leaden ball, it rolling away from her body with its momentum and weight. I wondered how it might have felt like to have this lifeless flesh growing inside you. How did she feel to give birth like that, what pain; emotional, psychological and physical did she go through. It was beyond what I could understand, and it struck me why would a female be written about like that. And then later as I grew up realising that she was blindfolded and yet she never once broke her vow to lift that blindfold and look upon her 101 children. That she never saw them. What does this mean about feeling and vision?

I still cannot answer so many of my questions about this particular part of the narrative and this is why finally I had to try and make something out of it, to try and work through the ideas that are within this text.

For the past 10 years before this work, I have been reading another section of the Mahabharata – the Bhagavad Gita – which is a kind of stand-alone piece of writing in the text. Some historians believe it to be expanded upon later when the cult of Krishna became prominent. In the Bhagavad Gita, the reincarnation of the god Vishnu – Krishna (also a god) holds forth a lecture to one of the Prince’s before the eve of battle. It is read as a treatise to the tenets of Hinduism – a philosophy on duty and action in one’s life. To read this text now, can be both calming and obtuse and so I have an on-going series of works that relate to my changing views of this concept – for me the question is: what it is to be an artist and what it is to make the work I do, and why?

3. What do you hope audiences take away from this exhibition?

I hope as always that from this show audiences will come away with a question or two! What do all these white figurative pieces mean? What does the title have to do with these pieces? I hope once they begin looking they will see new things in the work as they move around them, how the light and shadows reveal different details. I hope this action provokes questions of looking and seeing and vision.

I hope that they find the works visually pleasing, and that they go away wanting to know more. I always hope that people don’t get bored with my work, that every time they come to look at it they see or think something new.