4.12 / Review

From Mumbai: Illuminen

By Brooke Kellaway March 26, 2013

Three rooms reverberate with drones of Surabhi Saraf’s chanting, entwined with a percussion of mechanical objects and terraqueous insertions. The volume very gradually rises in tandem with multiplying sonic textures. The tempo speeds up. Briefly, the track seems to verge on catchy techno and then almost immediately dissolves into a meditative vibration. Such is Illuminen (2012), Saraf’s debut EP recording. The artist edited and remixed the five tracks in San Francisco (where she’s lived and worked since 2010) using audio excerpts from previous projects.

Saraf composes multilayered video, performance, and sound works that alter one’s perception of the passing of time. The thirty-year-old artist uses techniques of repetition, multiplication, and fragmentation to negotiate the everyday tension of keeping up and slowing down. It’s an interposition that intensified when Saraf moved from India to the United States in her mid-twenties. She began thinking about the different pulses of each place. At Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, the exhibition of Saraf’s recent works articulates her investigation into sensory overload and its impact on the construction of meaning in a contemporary society that operates at varying paces.

Aurally, the exhibition is striking. The standouts are Saraf’s haunting sound compositions. Although sound is recognized as an undercurrent in her video and performance works, it has actually played a crucial role in the progression of her artistic practice. She grew up singing Indian classical music, listening to a lot of electronica, and was influenced by popular and versatile composers who were breaking new ground assembling disparate rhythms. At the school of fine arts at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (2001–05), Saraf began to experiment with sound design. This really took off at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC, 2007–09) where her in-depth study of Ulf Langheinrich and Kurt Hentschläger’s Granular Synthesis project clearly impacted the direction of her work. All along, Saraf knew that at some point she’d make an album. Her newest project in the exhibition, a culmination of her work to date, Illuminen seems as effortless as it does conscientious. As the album plays throughout the galleries, piped in amidst three of Saraf’s major single-channel, high-definition videos, the recording seems to synthesize all of the works into a singular cadence.

If Saraf has a signature instrument, it is the electrical fan. Spinning 10 (2012), a video installation, faces the entrance to the gallery. Projected on the wall, a large circular fan slowly oscillates from side to side, provoking physical anticipation of blowing air. The volume rises with each rotation of the fan, as clicks of its rapidly spinning blades and intonations of Saraf’s singing gradually fade in and out.

Surabhi Saraf. FOLD, 2010; single-channel high-definition video with sound; 7:33 minutes, looped; edition of 5. Courtesy of Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai. 
Surabhi Saraf. Spinning Ten, 2012; single-channel high-definition video with sound; 3 minutes, looped; edition of 3. Courtesy of Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai.

Hypnotizing in the redundant vibration and modulations of the artist’s fractured vocal tones, the installation appropriately introduces the exhibition with Saraf’s analysis of automation, as she hones in on and highlights something within her surroundings that would otherwise be overlooked or fade into the background.

This something also references simple actions, like getting food out of the refrigerator. Never having cooked much before leaving India, Saraf arrived in Chicago and found her kitchen an appealing sound palette. Peel (2009), a wall-size video installation with 5.1-surround sound, was developed for Saraf’s MFA exhibition at SAIC. It originated out of her interest in applying the deft techniques and textures (involving layering, repetition, and delay) used in her sound works, to video, and combining the two.. She peels and chops vegetables and grabs ingredients out of the fridge while singing. As the audio—consisting of layers from each video—melodiously resounds, the video grid exponentially reframes this simple activity into a polyrhythmic choreography, depicting the patterns, geometry, and aesthetic of such a habitual routine. 

Saraf’s next work, Fold (2011), was an extension of these audiovisual and conceptual tactics. A driving factor in developing this video installation was her interest in working with color. About halfway through Peel, the grid changes hues when Saraf’s outfit changes from a yellow hoodie to a magenta dress. Following this painterly aesthetic, Saraf asked herself, “What is that one really simple activity that’s everyday, that everyone can relate to, and deals with color?” At that time, Saraf had moved from Chicago to San Francisco and found herself spending a lot of time in her apartment, folding laundry. Fold is a vivid portrayal of this chore. Closely mirroring Peel in design, scale, and duration, Fold is a comparatively minimalist composition. The screens seem to transform into a large canvas that reveals the artist's past work in color field paingint and gestural abstraction. In the work, Saraf is situated on a white couch set against a white wall, dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, folding brightly colored clothes and sheets and again humming a song. For a viewer listening to the piece with headphones, Fold is quieter—the swishing of fabric against the air interspersed with serene vocals. The grid of screens captures Saraf’s arms bent and stretched, and the cloths leap across the frame, sometimes in unison, at other points like a wave. It was like watching a ballet somehow superimposed onto a wind instrument. Tedium is transfigured. Illuminen, as Saraf has described, “is about bringing light from within.” Hers is felt in the concerts that compose this engrossing exhibition. 


Illuminen was on view at Galerie Mirchandani + Stienruecke, in Mumbai, from January 22, 2013 through March 10, 2013.

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