Revisiting the Uncanny

Indu Antony's While I Slept reviewed
By Ricky Varghese

While I Slept
Artist Indu Antony, Inaugural IArts Resident
OCAD University, Ada Slaight Student Gallery
Toronto, Ontario
October 7 – 17, 2019

Grange Park Antony
Grange Park Antony. Artist: Indu Antony.

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The question of emplacement, as in the question regarding how to place or locate oneself within any given social and/or historical context, appears to be quite significant to Indu Antony's show While I Slept. The brief exhibition, that ran from October 7th through to the 19th and was housed at the Ada Slaight Student Gallery, served as the culmination of Antony's six-week stint in Toronto as the inaugural artist-in-residence of the biannual IArts residency program organized in collaboration with OCAD University. The hope with the residency was that it would offer "unique opportunities for cultural exchange that [would] bring the richness of Indian visual and material arts" to Toronto. The residency itself is "inspired by the legacy of the late Arti Chandaria and through the stewardship of the Chandaria Family [and] runs parallel with the IArts Textiles of India Grant at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum." Both programs were "designed to deepen connections between arts communities in India and Canada" and in this sense, Antony's showing in Toronto lived up to these expectations in a profoundly subtle yet capacious manner that quite effectually played with the idea of place and with the notion of the liminal or in-between space that exists between the here and there.

This is an exercise that is, at its core, one of discovery, play, and one that requires a commitment to observing the visual field with a care and attention to detail.

Those familiar with the Bengaluru-based artist's practice, which includes photography, drawing, video, and performance, will discern in her work a keen attention to the very phenomenological task of observation itself. Antony watches the world around her with the meticulousness of an exegetical reader of sacred texts. By doing so, there is an effort made to underscore and eke out "the tonalities of inward discussions which later on burst out into communal spaces" – as such, her practice glides in a gracefully tender manner between the intimate private world of one's interiority (in this case, her own) and the public sphere of one's lived experience, the way by which a subject might come to a heightened awareness of herself. The task set forth before her by the administrators of the residency sounded simple enough – Antony was to interpret her experience of Toronto's urban landscape, and the multicultural plenitude that it promised to offer, from her perspective as an artist visiting from India. This is an exercise that is, at its core, one of discovery, play, and one that requires a commitment to observing the visual field with a care and attention to detail. This commitment is showcased as a literal one here and this is seen precisely in the very first thing a viewer's eyes may find themselves resting upon as they enter the gallery space – a series of three rectangular cutouts of khadi fabric, hung from the ceiling at the center of the gallery, each with a black and white photograph of the artist's open-faced palm imprinted on it. This delicate sequence of images appears to signify an oath the artist herself appears to be making not merely to the viewers of her show, but toward the very aspirations of the residency itself, to bear witness to her surroundings and to experience them with a kind of open-hearted aplomb.

It is, then, observation itself that becomes the artwork here. Scattered across the white walls of the gallery space are miniature photographs taken by Antony. The 2.65 x 2.65" square photographs are mounted on (and framed by the background formed by) white square matts. The photographs were products of Antony's daily traversals across Toronto's cityscape and capture a wide array of scenes. They range from an image of an empty, solitary bench in Grange Park taken at nighttime, to an image of the artist using the printmaking method of intaglio for the first time after being introduced to it in a class at OCAD, where Antony was invited to conduct studio visits with students during her time in Toronto. There are still further images, such as that of blue skies on a sunny day, or of the green lawn of Grange Park nestled behind the Art Gallery of Ontario, or even one of the interwoven tangle of streetcar cables one might see above them at, say, an intersection such as Queen Street West and Spadina Avenue. There are still occasional larger photographs on other walls of the gallery, some of which are enlarged versions of certain of the smaller photographs. Accompanying each of the smaller photographs are handwritten scribbles on the gallery's walls that resemble a cross between reflections on what is being photographed and intimate entries in a personal diary or a travel journal.

The exhibition feels dreamlike and tentative. Antony isn't prescriptive of her experience of Toronto's cityscape, in the way that, perhaps, a tourist might be – where the latter might want to capture all of the important sites and highlights a city might offer. Rather her photographic journey through Toronto feels reflective of the minutiae the city can showcase – minutiae that might be tinged with a sense of the familiar and the feared or even the frightening, what Sigmund Freud referred to as the uncanny. For Freud, the uncanny was that "species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar" (1919). Take for instance, the empty, solitary park bench photographed at nighttime. It is an innocuous enough object, one that anyone might come across in any urban space or city around the world; a thing to sit on, to garner pleasure from when one attempts to enjoy one's surroundings. For Antony, it would seem that it is not the object itself that holds sway here, but what such a plaintive thing might come to mean within a specific social context. The gesture of a female photographer taking an image of an empty park bench might be imaginable late on a quiet night in Toronto, but that very same gesture might not be easily enacted or taken by such a photographer during nighttime in her hometown of Bengaluru. This is not to suggest that Toronto is any more or less safe a city than Bengaluru. Rather, for a feminist artist from India who has committed herself to consider the ways by which the notion of a public space can be reclaimed by gendered bodies, what an image taken during a nighttime stroll through Grange Park signifies is loaded with the weight of complicated conversations we might have regarding safety, movement through space, and the ever-present reality of gendered violence. Here, the significance of the show's title - While I slept - must itself be acknowledged. It refers to one-hour naps that the artist herself took almost everyday in the park while she was in Toronto because she could in fact do such a thing. She would not perhaps be able to do this back home in Bengaluru, be able to celebrate the freedom to do this and do so as much as she could before she had to return back to a place where this might not be possible.

Yet another instance of the uncanny in this exhibition is a photograph taken by Antony of the collaborative work made by AA Bronson and Adam Stimson, A Public Apology to Siksika Nation (2019), for the first edition of the Toronto Biennial of Art. As Vince Rozario, a Toronto-based art writer, has written in a recent review of the biennial for the art publication Momus:

Bronson and Stimson are descendants of Reverend John Tims and Chief Old Sun of the Siksika Nation, respectively. Tims established a residential school on the Siksika reserve in Treaty 7 territory, whose brutal conditions provoked an uprising led by Chief Old Sun. Introduced by Hopkins, Bronson and Stimson engaged in a semi-televised process of research and community dialogue. The text resulting from this process begins with an apology by Bronson and a detailed brief of the history and atrocities committed by research assistant Ben Miller. This apology was subsequently performed twice on the opening days of the Biennial. Stimson and the Siksika elders present accepted the apology.

One of Antony's miniature photographs is of a wall carrying photographs of Stimson's father and fellow classmates. Beneath this photo Antony inscribes the following words: "I witnessed the public apology of AA Bronson. It was a beautiful and important moment." What does it mean to witness this gesture of an apology made by the descendent of a settler colonizer to the descendent of a chief of the Siksika Nation? More precisely, what does it mean for an artist from India, itself an erstwhile part of the British colonial enterprise, to view this apology from the perspective of a traveler, a visitor, and as someone invited by an institute of higher learning for an artist-in-residency program on unceded territory? The writing is already on the wall, both literally and metaphorically speaking, that the implicit provocation in Antony's work is its perceptive capacity to serve as both witness and testament to the uncanny and circuitous ways by which history shapes subjectivity and movement across geographies and is shaped by these.

here, we have an artist that is intensely alert to the tensions that emerge from the interplay between history, memory, and place.

While I Slept, as a show, may seem otherworldly, peppered and populated by non-linear photographic reflections that appear to be delicate products of the artist's imaginative yet passing gaze, but here, we have an artist that is intensely alert to the tensions that emerge from the interplay between history, memory, and place.

Ricky Varghese
Ricky Varghese is an art writer and psychotherapist based in Toronto. His writings have appeared in Canadian Art, C Magazine, Peripheral Review, and esse arts + opinions. His scholarly and critical/curatorial interests lie at the interstices of aesthetic theory, ruin studies, queer theory, the history of the AIDS crisis, and critical sexology.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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Britannia Art Gallery
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