NEETA MADAHAR

The following text is taken from an Essay by David Chandler entitled “The Sky is Falling”, taken from Neeta Madahur: Nature Studies, published by Photoworks.

 

“Things fall from the sky: rain falls, snow falls, night falls, bombs fall; and in our dreams, like Icarus, we fall, falling into nothing, into oblivion. And what if the sky itself falls? In popular myths and fairytales the falling sky is a common figure for irrational or unnecessary fears, and yet its transformational images – of air become solid, of gravity become heavy matter, of space itself collapsing upon us – are potent and enduring symbols of the ultimate apocalypse. This potency remains perhaps because the idea of staring up at the sky weaves myth and reality together. Arching across civilisations the sky has been mapped and studied for guidance (both emotional and physical), for signs of salvation and for portents of the future, but this has coexisted with another kind of watching, one tied to everyday dependencies and very real threats of natural and man-made disaster. As an image of infinite space, of freedom and hope the sky also represents uncertain destinies and holds the spectre of uncontrollable destructive power; it is both the beginning and the end.

 

Neeta Madahar’s new video and photographic work Falling touches on these broad mythic associations, and yet they are framed in a way that, at first sight, presents something very simple, innocent and child-like. The video animation for Falling unfolds as a languorous dream, a visual balm of gently spinning sycamore seeds falling from a blue, cloud-scattered sky. Madahar’s idea for the work was to reconstruct personal childhood memories of playing with the ‘helicopter’ seeds as part of a new imaginary space, and in the process expand those memories into a new temporal experience in which the fleeting moment, that element of playful excitement – so difficult to grasp and remember – becomes an extended and extravagantly detailed reverie. In Falling the child’s thrill at nature’s trick, one that works more or less every time, becomes a slow meditation on the state of wonder itself and on a delicate balance struck between gravity and nature’s own plan to resist it; the small-scale marvel becomes something more symphonic.

 

As the seeds of Falling turn their way through time, and as they appear to come closer and closer to the viewer, they suggest different journeys and transitions, from one place and from one state to another. Falling, for example, might be seen as a metaphor for migration and the idea of journeys open to chance, and to random patterns of settlement and growth. Although there would be an obvious connection to Madahar’s cultural background in this (she was born in England from Indian parents who arrived here in the 1960s), in Falling she is more interested in the personal journeys that might be suggested by wind blown seeds. The film suggests her excitement at the idea of drifting, of a chance taken; at the sense of possibility in moving from place to place and approaching unknown horizons. And, while the still photograph ‘Landed’ appears to bring a sense of resolution to those journeys, the stream in this image is another hint of restlessness and movement, as the water carries away its share of seeds it suggests different journeys and different narratives intertwined.

But the implied journeys in Falling are not just cultural and geographic. As the falling seeds are rendered in ever-greater detail, we are reminded that the child’s playful sense of wonder is changed with education into a different kind of curiosity. As the flight patterns of sycamore seeds become the basis of science-class experiments, and nature’s magic takes on a more rational character, seeing also shifts into observation. We might notice, for example, if we watch closely enough, that one of the falling seeds is split in two allowing quiet notes of imperfection and difference creep into the picture. We are encouraged to look and learn in the great tradition of nature study, where examining and recording has its own kind of wonder, an obsessive almost guilty pleasure.

 

Madahar has spoken of her work dealing with ‘our need to meet nature on our own terms’ and both Falling and the other work in this book, Sustenance, connect with the comforting thought, again so familiar from the classroom, that nature’s wonders can be found close to home, and that our imaginative responses to them might begin here too. But, although born in this domestic context, both works revel in its strangeness; suburban nature studies are heightened into a kind of surreal drama, in which our spatial coordinates are confused and things – still and moving – seem artificial, transmuted into a glowing hyperreality. If the Sustenance photographs remind us of dioramas (those birds are too perfect for life), then the status of the digitally recast seeds in Falling is similarly uncertain. Their spiralling motion is too mechanical, it is mesmerically wrong, and their represented form – indeterminate images somewhere between coloured drawing and photograph – becomes almost grotesque in its unwavering precision and distorted scale as the seeds reach the foreground and drift beyond the frame.

 

So, if the seed fall begins in wonderment it ends, like confetti showers and ticker-tape parades, in a kind of delirium. For Madahar, an important element of her film’s restaging of memory was that it should be a physical as well as a visual experience, that we should imagine these sycamore seeds falling around us and brushing against our face. She enjoys the ambiguity of this implied sensation; pleasure and a sense of abandon tinged with discomfort and loss of control. Excitement and anxiety, as Freud noted about ‘typical’ dreams such as those of flying and falling, are closely related, and Madahar’s film draws on that tension.

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