Mermaid, Pilgrim, Spectator

Rasha Salti Curates a Deep Sea Cinema
By Aaditya Aggarwal
Monitor14 Poster Image 2021

Drifting with the Summer Tides
Curator: Rasha Salti
Location: SAVAC, Toronto.
July 23, 2021- August 6, 2021
Featuring: Meera Devidayal, Gian Spina, Valerio Rocco Orlando, Jayce Salloum, Sponge Gourd Collective, Mairead McClean, Karan Shrestha, Ghita Skali, Dalia Al-Kury, Pathompon Mont Tesprateep, Inas Halabi, Taiki Sakpisit

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Nothing Ever Happens Here Artist: Sponge Gourd Collective - Daphne Xu, Beatrix Chu, Diane Zhou
Nothing Ever Happens Here. Artist: Sponge Gourd Collective - Daphne Xu, Beatrix Chu, Diane Zhou

A stormy tide was arguably first captured on camera by the Lumiere Brothers in Baignade En Mer (1895), where two children and a woman jump into torrential waters. In recent works such as Meera Devidayal's Water Has Memory, such rise and tumble of misty foam intimates a quotidien godly performance, trudging a shore of the Indian Ocean. Witnessing the city of Mumbai absorbed by a spectrum of tides, this video opens Toronto-based South Asian Visual Art Centre's (SAVAC) MONITOR 14: Adrift with the Summer Tides, an online screening of experimental works curated by Rasha Salti.

Salti's "curatorial conceit" impersonates the conceptual resonances of waves, heralding images, allegorizing in cinematic current, a geopolitics of shorelines, thresholds and stranded conditions. A presentation themed on wave patterns, this showcase is divided into four programmes, each embodying a tidal trait. Spanning stages of billowing tide, wave crest, breaker tide and ebbing wave, the programme visits a swelling Indian Ocean, a dense Dead Sea, a migratory Mediterranean, and ultimately submerges one into a subconscious geography.

Nothing Ever Happens Here Artist: Sponge Gourd Collective - Daphne Xu, Beatrix Chu, Diane Zhou

Nothing Ever Happens Here. Artist: Sponge Gourd Collective - Daphne Xu, Beatrix Chu, Diane Zhou

Monitor14 Poster Image 2021

Monitor14 Poster Image 2021

We Have Always Known the Wind's Direction Artist: Inas Halabi

We Have Always Known the Wind's Direction Artist: Inas Halabi

Part II Fatimah and Kulit Artist - Pathompon Mont Tesprateep

Part II Fatimah and Kulit. Artist: Pathompon Mont Tesprateep

Dialogue with the Unseen. Artist: Valerio Rocco Orlando

Dialogue with the Unseen. Artist: Valerio Rocco Orlando

Untitled Part 9 this time. Artist: Jayce Salloum

Untitled Part 9 this time. Artist: Jayce Salloum

A Line Was Drawn Artist: Mairead McClean

A Line Was Drawn. Artist: Mairead McClean

Water Has Memory. Artist: Meera Devidayal

Water Has Memory. Artist: Meera Devidayal

Shadow and Act Artist: Taiki Sakpisit

Shadow and Act. Artist: Taiki Sakpisit

The Hole's Journey. Artist: Ghita Skali

The Hole's Journey. Artist: Ghita Skali

Stealing Earth. Artist: Karan Shrestha

Stealing Earth. Artist: Karan Shrestha

Syrialism. Artist: Dalia Al-Kury

Syrialism. Artist: Dalia Al-Kury

Jordao. Artist: Gian Spina

Jordao. Artist: Gian Spina

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Nothing Ever Happens Here Artist: Sponge Gourd Collective - Daphne Xu, Beatrix Chu, Diane Zhou
Monitor14 Poster Image 2021
We Have Always Known the Wind's Direction Artist: Inas Halabi
Part II Fatimah and Kulit  Artist - Pathompon Mont Tesprateep
Part II Fatimah and Kulit  Artist - Pathompon Mont Tesprateep
Untitled Part 9 this time. Artist: Jayce Salloum
Untitled Part 9 this time. Artist: Jayce Salloum
Water Has Memory. Artist: Meera Devidayal
Shadow and Act  Artist: Taiki Sakpisit
The Hole's Journey. Artist: Ghita Skali
Stealing Earth. Artist: Karan Shrestha
Syrialism. Artist: Dalia Al-Kury
Jordao. Artist: Gian Spina
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Not all films, however, behold the water as a protagonist; many—such as Valerio Rocco's conversantly existential Dialogue with the Unseen or Inas Halabi's penultimately arresting We Have Always Known the Wind's Direction—are scorched in desert winds. Bereft of much fluid in sight, works like Taiki Sakpisit's Shadow & Act close the screening with visions of crumbling, derelict decay of an underwritten dynastic past. Bodies of water, often, make impromptu appearances; Dalia Al Kury's darkly humorous, surrealist docudrama Syrialism, for instance, crescendos in its protagonist's dream when a gushing stream merges disparate landscapes— from an apartment window into an urbanscape of debris and smoke. Between vaporous blue and verdant rush, a stage is set, for players both exiled and mythic.

In Water Has Memory, conversely, rumbling tides overlay skyscrapers and low-rise residential blocks. Pockmarked in grids with protruding window air-conditioners, still frames glimpse office-going men in starched white shirts. Bustling crowds frequent Marine Drive, a famous Mumbai shoreline popularly featured throughout Hindi cinema—often a set for a drenched romance (Manzil, 1979) or a maddenned gangster's lonesome wail (Satya, 1998). In split frame shots, the ocean commands largesse, foretelling an impressionistic concrete jungle. Its wafting horizon establishes the very thesis that trickles from one film to the next.

Water Has Memory. Artist: Meera Devidayal
Water Has Memory. Artist: Meera Devidayal

As a displaced mermaid pines for lost form, waves refract folkloric exile in MONITOR 14. The astrophysics of winding water guides the viewer's gaze, limb, and breath, encouraging a meandering, swimming spectator. "Waves are the outcome of the attraction of the Moon and Sun and they generate energy," Salti writes in accompanying programme notes, staging a tidal kinship between terrestrial and celestial realms; a practice of looking, backward and toward.

Her first program, the billowing tide, peaks in a cacophonic, droning soundtrack in Gian Spina's Jordao. Closing the film is a group of devotees trudging across the Jordan River, possibly the Qasr al-Yahud or the "Crossing of the Jews," in the Israeli-occupied side of the West Bank. One man waves the Israeli flag in furor.

Jordao. Artist: Gian Spina
Jordao. Artist: Gian Spina

These sacred waters, where John the Baptist is said to have lustrated Jesus, fill Spina's footage. Jordao indulges a touristic exultation that contributes to the Israeli occupation, barring access to clean drinking water for the over three million Palestinians residing in the West Bank. Meanwhile, its pilgrims capture a mythos of exile, one where return is not only possible but coupled with a rousing celebration. A paradox of water pilgrimage flushes through Salti's lineup. "When is a pilgrim like a sieve? When he riddles," Anne Carson observes in The Anthropology of Water, a lyrical essay documenting her walk of the Camino de Santiago. "It is an open secret among pilgrims and other theoreticians of this traveling life," Carson writes, "that you become addicted to the horizon."

Bathed in languid waves, the divine shore is a fallacy. Wave crest, Salti's second programme, emulates the climax of one such mocking, baptismal dip. "The most visible and emblematic part of the wave, where it tips as it rises and where the water appears to froth," she writes, reminding me of the magnificent, lethal tide of The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831) by Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai.

Untitled Part 9 this time. Artist: Jayce Salloum
Untitled Part 9 this time. Artist: Jayce Salloum

This programme pulsates like a cliffhanger, particularly in the fables of Jayce Salloum's untitled part 9: this time. As young school-going Afghan boys narrate popular tales of beloved trickster, wise-fool Sufi character Mulla Nasruddin, a pair of eyes superimpose a fading vision of seesawing Bamiyan mountains in the central highlands of Afghanistan. The viewer becomes attuned to an oral pattern of waves—of narrative repetition, coded with variation.

Sukhdev Sandhu adroitly explores this fragmentary spectatorship, akin to an underwater trance, in his review of Phillip Scheffner's Havarie. This controversial film depicting "dark-skinned men aboard a small rubber dinghy," Sandhu writes, "is a slow cinema, a film about time," haunted by "those who sail or drift across (sea), those who disappear into it, or are forever damaged by it." Pixelated imagery obscures and stretches moments of maritime crossings.

Stealing Earth. Artist: Karan Shrestha
Stealing Earth. Artist: Karan Shrestha

Colliding water migrant with water mythology, Adrift with the Summer Tides reminds me of a scene from Geetu Mohandas' Malayalam-language drama Moothon, where 14-year-old Moosa takes to the sea from Lakshadweep to Mumbai in search of her estranged brother. When a swallowing wave crest capsizes her boat, the teen hallucinates a mermaid spirit, who saves her from drowning. Similarly, this hydrofilmic quartet arranges a communion between the surviving and the spectral.

Here, however, adrift bodies aren't necessarily unmoored in a hydrous sense. Works bearing distinct elements of collage, movement, and lyric—such as Karan Shreshta's stealing earth and Daphne Xu, Beatrix Chu and Diane Zhou's Nothing Ever Happens Here—choreograph bodies on land. From the former's portrayals of protest song-and-dance by Indigenous rural dwellers of Nepal's Chitwan National Park to the latter's blue-collar quotidian of Hebei's working-class residents, corporeal forms inhabit tenuous modernities, entangling dispossession with capitalist extraction. Rivers are absently present in such works, scanning earthly concerns with an aquatic undercurrent, troubling labour with love.

A Line Was Drawn Artist: Mairead McClean
A Line Was Drawn. Artist: Mairead McClean

Despite tidal trials, wave patterns flit us between tragedy and thrill, sieving both sound and skin. "Rivers connect us," Hannah Claus repeats in her undulating essay we all begin in water. Her first water song installation uses imagery from multiple rivers in Mi'kma'ki, printed on transparent discs tied with threads, to unfurl "a visual pattern of the digital sound waves." In Monitor 14, a similarly formalist inquiry ensues. Imperceptibly, during the screening, Mairead McClean's A Line Was Drawn seems to end with a sonic cadence of oars wading through still waters, whereas a tide trembles in an Arabic song on live television in Ghita Skali's The Hole's Journey. "The sea is angry. It doesn't laugh. The story doesn't make you laugh. The sea is wounded. It can't wither." Documenting a literal shipment from Amsterdam to Morocco, Skali's work ripples with riddle: "Why is the sea laughing? Why, why, why?"

The final rung of Salti's selection, the ebbing wave, resolves fluvial inquiry. Inspired by the residue of tides receding, this titular wave pattern conjures the famous beach scene in From Here to Eternity (1953), where Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr entwine and kiss amid crashing and retreating Pacific currents. Retreating across a figurative shore, ebbing wave glimpses aqueous remnants, trailing lost touch that rekindles connection. Pathompon Mont Tesprateep's Part II: Fatimah & Kulit—based on Assanee Pallajan's short stories set in the political turmoil of the Deep South in Thailand (1946-60)—depicts two companions, torn apart by circumstances, reuniting momentarily. "Separation is not a bad thing. We all have our duties to fulfill," explains Fatimah to Kulit. Kulit, seemingly fleeing state persecution, responds assuringly, "better to bend than break."

Part II Fatimah and Kulit. Artist: Pathompon Mont Tesprateep
Part II Fatimah and Kulit. Artist: Pathompon Mont Tesprateep
In emotive 16mm black-and-white outtakes, Tesprateep's work cascades with tidal tendency, ebbing as it drains. The film concludes Adrift with the Summer Tides, a screening that traces within its viewer, a shoreline of memory. Admittedly, I wished for a shorter showcase, transient and swift like a swimmer's lap. Still, this lineup of moving images crafts a winding intrigue. Like a pilgrim who riddles, one shapeshifts within this deep sea cinema, "to escape underneath," in Carson's words, "to a dim water kingdom."
Aaditya Aggarwal
Aaditya Aggarwal is a writer, editor and film programmer based in Toronto and New Delhi.
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