Sahej Rahal: The Dekkan Trap at the Midlands Art Centre, Birmingham

By Fi Churchman

The Dekkan Trap, 2018 (installation view). Photo: David Rowan. Courtesy Midlands Art Centre, Birmingham

The Deccan Traps are one of the world’s largest volcanic features, covering some 500,000sq km of west-central India. With visible layers of igneous rock (basalt, to be precise), the ‘traps’ are so-called for the way their steplike structure shapes the landscape. Situated off the west coast of India lies the Shiva Crater, formed 65 million years ago by an asteroid, the progenitor of the Deccan Traps. Shiva, the ‘destroyer of evil’, along with Brahma (‘the creator’) and Vishnu (‘the preserver’, whose avatar Krishna is known as the ‘Trickster’), make up the Hindu trinity, or trimurti, together keeping the world in balance (and to whom several cave temples are carved into the Traps).

Roughly 7,250km west (as the crow flies), six largescale sculptures (all works 2016–18 and untitled) punctuate the rectangular exhibition space of the Midlands Art Centre, five of which look as if, at some point, they were petrified by lava and then dug up to be presented here as fossils or relics. Instead of stone-grey, however, they are postbox-red, black or off-white. Some of them have earth or clay compacted into crevices, while others have more visible components under what is in fact a lumpy covering of resin – a mannequin’s leg protrudes from the bottom of one totemlike sculpture, black wig-hair tufts out of another. Together they form a kind of desolate landscape. 

Adding to this, the Mumbai-based artist has hung seven large pencil and ink drawings on the walls depicting different scenes and figures, from the gods Kali and Shiva (the latter looming over a set of decks) to industrial cityscapes of unknown places; a collection of smaller unfired clay sculptures; and a video projection. This last opens with a treetop scene and slides into footage of activists singing at the Faslane Peace Camp in Argyll and Bute, near the military site of the Trident nuclear deterrent, reaching its apex at an EDM gig, where the climactic throbbing soundtrack and strobe-lighting seem to signal the end of the world: one has to wonder, is it Shiva the DJ playing the tune of destruction? In a more obvious reference to nuclear warfare, the video ends with a recording of a bomb flying through the air, slowly sinking into its final descent. 

Laid down the middle of the floorspace on a white shaggy carpet are what appear to be artefacts recovered from an ancient civilisation. Looking more closely, one can pick out alienlike skulls among bits of debris, and looking at the debris more closely still, one can make out the broken fragments of machine technology: it’s impossible to tell whether we are looking at the ancient past or the far future. There are well-defined bones and broken bits of hardware, a small Earth Mother sculpture and a spaceman’s helmet; dotted throughout are tattily gold-sprayed clumps of clay that suggest a farcical grandiosity – through these, the entire exhibition’s self-knowing fakery is revealed.

While the works are formally intriguing in their own right, there’s also a prevailing critique of warmongering and nationalistic supremacism here, looking towards the mythological narratives that facilitate both. One doesn’t necessarily need to know all about Shiva or the trimurti, but it’s not too much of a leap on seeing Rahel’s approximation of an ancient landscape, a tangled conflation of myths and facts, to be reminded of India’s far-right nationalists’ current penchant for rewriting the country’s history and presenting archaeological finds alongside ancient scripture to prove that today’s Hindus are directly related to India’s first inhabitants. After all, there are gods, and then there are monsters.

Sahej Rahal: The Dekkan Trap at Midlands Art Centre, Birmingham, 17 February – 22 April

From the Spring 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia