An object in isolation rarely reveals the reality that lies behind it. A cuttlefish beak doesn’t tell us much about the life or essence of the organic creature that once enveloped it; nor do pebbles, driftwood or sea glass narrate by themselves the slow smoothing the ocean imposes on matter that fall into it. A process is often understandable only by the connections between its products, and it was with this in mind that Alwar Balasubramaniam’s recent show at New Delhi’s Talwar Gallery was a feat of curatorial ingenuity. While in most exhibitions objects are justifiably organized with an eye to aesthetics, chronology or simple convenience, the curation of the many works in “Liquid Lake Mountain” supported an underlying theme without succumbing to kitsch or sacrificing the purity of the white cube aesthetic.
Mounted across the gallery’s roof terrace, two floors and basement, the exhibition implied the cycle followed by water, but also hinted at times to a corporeality, suggesting some other repetitive process in which humans might inexorably be caught. Given that the show represented a cycle, the top was as good a place to begin as any. Alone on the gallery’s roof terrace was the rust-colored Study for a Liquid Mountain (2017–18), an iron and fiberglass mound exposed to the New Delhi sky that resembles both the summit its name implies and, more sinisterly, a pile of abstracted bodies clambering over each other.
On the walls of the stairway leading down into the gallery were two untitled works from 2017, comprising framed sheets of translucent acrylic behind which cotton floats like partially obscured clouds. In an alcove below was another untitled work from the same year—a small spiralling cave, smooth as though worn into the wall itself. This was one of several examples of Balasubramaniam subverting the function of the white cube by absorbing it into the work rather than using it as a neutral backdrop. Elsewhere, a section of the wall’s surface is crumpled for Cloud on the Ground (2015–16), and a pair of white hands emerge surreptitiously from a corner in an untitled piece from 2014, fingers curled gently toward a faint sensation, like the feel of rain or flowing water.
Hanging in the gallery’s central stairwell is Nothing to Fall (2016–17), a structure in concrete and fibreglass shaped like a long, stony stalactite, the insistent verticality of which lends a compositional focal point to the exhibition as a whole, leading the body as well as the eye.
Much like how a stalactite is formed by the precipitation of minerals carried in water, several creations placed throughout the show evoke similar phenomena in two dimensions. In three untitled works from 2017, one from 2014 and another named Liquid Lake Mountain (2017), pigments and traces of evaporation leave shapes that resemble or are the vivid mineral deposits that water often leaves on surfaces following its absence. In the latter, eponymous work, concentric rings of fading turquoise on a sand-colored canvas suggest the shores of dead or dying seas.
In the basement, two further works give form to the process and sense of flow that permeated the gallery. In Under Current (2016), two slabs of pigment, soil and fiberglass hang from the wall, faithfully resembling the bed of a river or ocean as well as the traces of liquid they bear. Nearby, in Withhold (2017), two perfectly smooth, curved wooden forms still bearing the grain of their source material lie on the ground, recalling the pebbles and worn glass found on seabeds and beaches.
With such a variety of media, it’s remarkable that the exhibition attained the level of coherence and overall harmony that it did, but there were nonetheless moments of superfluity that might have been avoided. Seeing the Sea in a Shell (2016–18), a sculpture made of terracotta and cement—recalling in form if not material the abstract works of modernists like Barbara Hepworth—once more suggests the idea of objects shaped by water, but supports the exhibition’s overall theme more in title than aesthetic. Inversely, an untitled oil painting from 2017–18, hung in the basement and depicting rainclouds over a dark landscape, was an incongruous and unsubtle addition. While the painting’s title makes no mention of water, its subject matter advances the show’s theme too literally. These minor exceptions aside, this was a story well told, one in which objects that might appear shallow in isolation were, with thoughtful curation, given an ocean’s obscure but intuitively navigable depth.
-Ned Carter Miles