Walking through Ephemeral Archives and Creating Settings for New Memories
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Editor’s note: Madhuja Mukherjee has been working with publicity images from the Indian film industry since 2004. Her “working notes” on the project have been published in the journal South Asian Popular Culture (October 2011), and her art installations have been presented in Santiniketan, India; at Studio 21, in Kolkata, India; and in Rotterdam, the Netherlands (at the 41st International Film Festival), 2011-2012. The selection of images below gives a sense of her long-term, multifaceted project and her first installation piece.
Any storyteller embarking on archival research will tell you that the tactile quality of the material is as alluring and elusive as is the method itself. This becomes particularly meaningful when one is handling hundreds of small (roughly 4 inches x 2.5 inches) glass-plate negatives found somewhere (and somehow) in Kolkata, India.
My research on this material began in 2004 with a “what lies beneath” kind of quest. The procedure involved meticulous scanning of the negatives and unclear images and, afterward, turning the digital images into positives.
What, at the onset, appeared to be black-and-white blotches reemerged as lobby cards and posters referencing both popular and unreleased Indian films of the 1940s to the 1960s. These materials were not big posters for exhibition on the streets; rather, they were pictures and teasers to be publicized within the theaters. They needed to be examined as objects that call to mind memories of certain spaces and places. Thus, the reclamation of this material was like excavating an archaeological site and traversing through the tracks of cinematic histories, collective memory, and chronicles of urban cultures.
In addition, during the second phase of the research (2008–10), a large number of advertisements (intended for projection in theaters) for consumer items and public events were recovered.
The film publicity images together with these advertisements—for beer, honey, local cigars, soaps, shoes, health drinks, medicines, sarees, lightbulbs, cables, ambassador cars, airlines, wrestling matches, circus shows, and so on— demonstrated that films were part of a wider consumer culture and inspired me to take up an interdisciplinary framework. I wanted to explore the ways in which technological and industrial conditions, popular melodramas, advertisements, and art practices merged their respective courses in the cinemas’ lobbies.
Importantly, almost one-fourth of the material could not be identified; thus, it remained outside film archives and, consequently, our histories. Producing the following media installation with a range of unidentified images, I attempted to create an interface that was playful, provocative, and an abstraction of the ways in which films are remembered beyond the texts.
“Theatres of Spectacle,” along with the video “Flaneuse,” was held at Nandan Art Gallery, Kala Bhavan, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India, during February 2011. This audiovisual installation was about women inside cinemas and the ways in which women encounter spectacular images of the female stars.
Cinematic spaces, on the one hand, are dominated by big close-ups of attractive stars; on the other, women in India from different walks of life have somewhat limited access to such spaces. In this installation, the milieu of the theaters — the winding stairways, the big mirrors, the echo of voices, the half-public/half-private dark hall, the washroom — was re-crafted by projecting moving images as well as sounds, and by strategically putting up artworks, found objects, and mirrors.
As viewers entered the mediated space, they came across luminous images of “the shining stars” (in LED-lit boxes) hanging against dark walls, placed at disparate horizontal and vertical planes.
On the left, the video work entitled “Flaneuse” (approx. 28 mins.) made observations about issues of genre, gender, desire, movement, and modes of film viewing by using clips from a long list of movies, and by overlaying poems and theoretical comments on them.
For an excerpt of the video, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2meAgtsB1Q&feature=player_embedded
On the right (figure 22), huge reflective acrylic sheets hanging opposite the boxes and the video screen presented distorted reflections of the onlookers along with the entire studio space (its walls, floor, and ceiling), thereby disturbing the veil of perspective. The floor was covered with a huge collage (vinyl print) created from images of sets and photographs of cinema halls taken during the research. Notes and red arrows drawn on the floor commented on the collective memory of viewing and the function of cinema as a cultural form. In addition, filmstrips hung mysteriously in the center space and the solitary door of a ladies bathroom (shut from inside; located at the far left) highlighted “the women’s question.”
By exhibiting the lost and found material of uncertain historical value, my aim was to initiate a discourse on archives and film histories. The experiential nature of the installations and the reframing of unaccounted for and fragmentary material produced a site that could bring back the “UFO” (unidentified filmic object) into our fragile museums of new memories.
Madhuja Mukherjee teaches Film Studies at Jadavpur University, Kolkata,India. She has published two books on early Indian cinema and film sound. Mukherjee is a filmmaker and installation artist; her first graphic-novel (in Bengali) was published in August 2013.
I remain grateful to Sanjeet Chowdhury and Avik Mukhopadhyay. The primary research was conducted with the assistance of a Sarai Independent Fellowship (2004) and a Jadavpur University Research Grant (2008–10).