This fascinating exhibition, a collaboration between Joost van den Bergh and Bartha Contemporary, is on view until 23 March. It juxtaposes Indian spiritual and ceremonial pieces with works by Western contemporary artists, drawing surprising connections between these distinct artistic traditions.
Tantraism is a far-reaching philosophy, and one that has had great impact upon the spiritual landscape of India, influencing the rituals and beliefs of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism among other religions. Proponents of tantra utilise mantras (spoken words and phrases) and yantras (instruments or symbolic diagrams) in their attempts to perceive the true reality. Many of the pieces on display here are yantras, which vary from complex pen-and-ink diagrams to small bronze plaques, all carefully ordered into symmetrical, geometric forms.
These are objects intended to be intensely considered, objects which even offer to improve the viewer through close contemplation – aims shared by many contemporary works of art. Here, the inclusion of Winston Roeth’s Black / Green Square, 2004, emphasises the rewards of such sustained observation, as the iridescent green surface constantly shifts under our scrutiny, offering a new image with each fresh point-of-view. This mesmerising effect is achieved through countless layers of paint, applied free-hand with extraordinary accuracy, again evoking the prolonged concentration necessary for tantric practices.
Such practices are intensely ritualistic, often requiring the same actions or words to be repeated with an almost obsessive devotion. These ideas of ritual and repetition are explored in the works of Stefana McClure, here represented with the 2008 piece, South Pacific: Closed captions to a film by J. Logan. One of a series of similar works, McClure has here created an image by tracing the subtitles and closed captions of a foreign language film onto a sheet of blue transfer paper. The resultant marks are entirely obscure, as the process of overlaying the different traced text has rendered the familiar letters unrecognisable, subverting their original function of clarification.
Severed from their original context, many of the Indian tantric pieces themselves feel fairly obscure, as the Western contemporary viewer struggles to read their mystical signs and geometric symbols, or truly understand their ritual and spiritual functions. Such mystery and magic, however, is part of their charm, and certainly one reason why tantraism has so long fascinated the West – the other of course being its association with sexuality. Here, re-imagined as contemporary art objects in a gallery, these pieces have regained their place in a world of meditation and ritual, albeit of a very different kind.