Visions of India

What does the Saatchi Gallery's new exhibition tell us about the subcontinent?

Work by artists from the Indian subcontinent is on display at the Saatchi Gallery in "The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today" until early summer. The show reflects the collector Charles Saatchi's recent interest in the global art scene.

If not everything is worth the visit (for example, a confusing wire-filled robot installation and an ugly stuffed camel in an oversized suitcase recall more a children's play area than the claimed issues of displacement), the show boasts some remarkable presences.

Among the highlights, both humorous and disquieting, is U.F.O., an impressive golden spacecraft made of loads of brass pots stuck together, by Subodh Gupta, one of the most collected Indian artists today. It openly addresses the Indian migrant worker's dream of escape.

Jitish Kallat, in his Public Notice 2, visually re-creates the Mahatma Gandhi's celebrated 1930 speech against the British salt tax with four and a half thousand pieces of fibreglass, bone-shaped alphabets. Kallat will bolster the growing interest in Indian art by showing in a one-man exhibition in London later this month at Haunch of Venison (opens 15 February).

While neon sculptures by London-based Shezad Dawood refer to parallels between self-righteous America and fundamentalist Islam, the Pakistani artist Rashid Rana documents contradictions and paradoxes by juxtaposing different-sized images. His Veils are softly rendered images of veiled women which, on closer inspection, turn out to be made up of thousands of small, unfocused, pornographic stills of women.

 

Flip a coin

"My Veils are about representations," Rana tells me. "The veils are synonymous of Muslim women for western men, a simplified and often distorted representation. At the same time, men in the east, thanks to pornography mainly from the west, have a distorted image of western women. It is just showing the two sides of the same coin."

The relationship between the subcontinent and America informs the work of New York-based Schandra Singh, who exhibits two large canvases of people floating lazily in a swimming pool.

"The notion of anxiety is at the centre of my research," she says. "I address questions like 'how can we lay on a river all day, relaxing with silly toys, when there are things happening around us, when someone else is sitting on the side of the street?'. It is about an existential crisis."

Singh is a survivor of the 11 September 2001 attacks. In her uncomfortably funny paintings, conflict and uncertainty appear to be intrinsic elements of everyday existence.

"India today is benefiting from capitalism," she says, "and has the ability to be sitting in that pool as I do. But I'm not safe, because the water is not safe."

"The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today" is at the Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York's HQ, King's Road, London SW3, until 7 May.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear