The site-specific installation, the Wake, centres around an archetype of a lesser known river boat from the Upper Ganges Basin. First constructed by traditional boat builders from the region in the artist's studio space in New Delhi, it was transported to and sailed along the river Yamuna, before it was ultimately brought into the Heritage Transport Museum, where it became an indoor installation.
It was completed onsite, where the artist's intervention, a series of 'waves', comprising Bhalla's photography on Plexiglas held within highly polished, laser-cut stainless steel, was suspended around the boat. Further interventions included placing rudders at the bow as well as the stern, and a wooden canopy that made the boat resemble a semi-open pod. A video projection, of moving waters with the sound of the waves hitting the shore, added the final dimension to it.
This remarkable installation, which stretches within a space of approximately 15 metres by 7 metres, is supported by extensive video and photo documentation of building the boat using traditional knowledge, and the rituals associated with it. Conceived in three stages - at the artist's space, at the river, and finally at the museum - this large-scale public installation is the artist's representation of his ongoing reflection on our declining interdependency with nature, and so, aptly titled as the Wake.
Atul Bhalla's art is known primarily for examining water in its essence - the real as well as the metaphysical, and mapping its fundamental place in our lives. Implicit in Bhalla's works is his constant attempt to politicise man's relationship with water as well as to develop an ecological sensibility. In doing so, he provides the framework for his own pursuit of self-revelation, as well as for notions concerning absolute freedom and the individual's place in the modern world. He attempts to manifest the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena and the fact that, as individuals and societies, we are all embedded in (and ultimately dependent on) the cyclical processes of nature.
Wake follows the same distinctive approach the artist often adopts for making his works. Bhalla's practice may be broken down into three aspects: staging a singular, personal experience - the shared key characteristic of which is that it has an immediate and instinctive interaction with a landscape to which water is central; the documentation of the experience; and finally, its structure and presentation as an autonomous work of art. As such, many of the ideas that he addresses through his works, fit within the genre of Land art and the way it represents a unique convergence of installation, conceptual art, and environmental awareness.
Moreover, in the vein of land art, if one were to apply the dialectic that American Artist, Robert Smithson, formulated as Site and Nonsite - the former being the actual location outside the gallery and the latter being a body of objects and documentation inside the gallery - then in the context of the Wake, the Sites are the river of course, but also perhaps the artisans who constructed the boat, and the Nonsite being the museum. Added to this Site / Nonsite, there is the extensive documentation, which adds another layer of allusion and reference to the already potent mix in place. And the Wake becomes a starting point for an investigation of layered ideas about time and history. It posits an expansion of experiences, both for the artist as well as the viewer. For the artist, it tends to produce conceptual strategies and sculptural practices indebted to a traditional craft where the process of making and the engagement with the materials become key, while conceptually, the notion of spirituality is implicit in the treatment of the boat. For the viewer, it would become a culmination of a physical three-dimensional object with a physical, and a metaphysical, three-dimensional experience.
Bhalla's thinking about the Wake is poetic, allusive and complex. His work is also often determined by his experience and response to a particular place or object. He began his travels in early 2012, in search of a traditional riverboat he could acquire. He came across a community of boat builders in a village by the river, who had been making the Pattaiya (a transport boat made by nailing together long wooden planks), for generations. He spent two months with this community, during which time he worked with them collaboratively to craft a new boat.
Bhalla wanted the boat to be authentic, not conceptual or illusory. It had to be a real boat, in real time, with real actions. So the construction of the boat involved traditional skills and knowledge that continue to be handed down for centuries. Materials used were procured from traditional sources and established methods of fabrication, using only hand tools, were applied. It may be said that Bhalla has now acquired a treasure trove of first-hand knowledge! Bhalla did not choose to work in this manner out of some ecological purism or even seeking historic preservation. But rather his work enacts as an investigative process through which he seeks to understand long-established contexts, so as to not only bring to the work a sense of immediacy, but also as an attempt to reconnect us with our forgotten but living traditions.
Once constructed, the boat was then transported to the river, creating a direct interaction with the landscape to which it belongs. By doing so, Bhalla brought to the forefront ways in which the boat builders' life embodied a spiritual and symbiotic relationship with nature. Everything related with the spirits of the water and there was a sense of deep reverence to this life source. Actions and rituals carried out in the landscape were extensively documented and made part of the final installation so as to further stress on sharing a first-hand experience.
Once installed in the museum, the architectural idiom of the site worked towards further intensifying the visitor's experience of the Wake. A grid of interspersed courts and voids generate a network of visual connections, offering a variety of adjacencies and therefore allowing many different interpretations or perspectives. The museum levels are vertically connected to create full height voids from the highest level down to the lowest, enabling views of an exhibit otherwise unavailable. Bhalla used visual strategies so that he may make complete use of the exhibition site.
If the view from below aroused curiosity, revealing only the underbelly and fragmented reflections of the boat through the mirror-clad beams, the elevated view offered us a sense of grandeur, experiencing the beautifully lit installation as a whole. However, when one walks around the installation, and views it at eye-level, the spectacle is lost. There is a deliberate play by the artist to leave the viewer underwhelmed. Up close, he wishes for a different engagement. There are no embellishments on the boat. He wishes to share the authenticity he has attempted to achieve and to present as real an experience as possible, rather than a mediated one where there would be a need for dramatization.
A host of possible interpretations may be gathered about the Wake. It may be read as an articulation of time, its two rudders as a visualization of the eventual exhaustion or the collapsing of systems around nature, or just simply as something which is going nowhere. Bhalla's conceptual underpinnings included constructing the boat in Delhi, on the banks of a city through which the river Yamuna now lies stagnant. It may be read as a symbolic response to the instability in communities who have a symbiotic relationship with nature, in a technologically driven era, and no clear alternatives for a sustainable future.
Bhalla continues to speak of a philosophy of life and an attitude towards nature that is deeply spiritual, emphasizing the extent to which the mythological and spiritual associations with water are encoded in our everyday life. He implores us for a fundamental reordering of priorities, while exploring complex ideas about time, space, and experience, implicit in which is the notion that our existence is not just physical, but rather, philosophical, cultural, and spiritual.