Subtle Record Keeping inspirational

Record Keeping explores 15 years in the life of the artist, Sarindar Dhaliwal.
Record Keeping explores 15 years in the life of the artist, Sarindar Dhaliwal.

Record Keeping by Sarindar Dhaliwal is a combination of sensual prints and compelling installations that create a forum for self-discovery, language and narration. Record Keeping spans a 15-year period of the artist’s life, from 1988-2003. Dhaliwal, who was born in India, immigrated to Britain and now lives and works in Canada. To experience Record Keeping is to experience a history that informs the viewer by virtue of the work. As a text-based artist, Dhaliwal combines language and stories to inspire a recollection of experience and history.

The prints are a series of evolutions, and the process is as much about the creation of the artwork as it is about the message. Dhaliwal repeats several motifs, such as flowers, lines, maps and decorative borders. This sense of decoration calls attention to beauty, but also creates a sense of isolation, loneliness and alienation.

In “The Shipping Forecast,” map imagery and text are placed beside a photograph of a young Indian girl. The combined text is sorrowful, identifying a desire for travel but the inability to do so. It also identifies a need to immigrate and the desperation that is involved with the transition into a new, unfamiliar home. Any peacefulness in the prints is overridden by the text. Dhaliwal maintains a sense of subtlety coupled with a sense of inquisitiveness. The viewer is denied resolution, left alone with their thoughts and personal introspections.

The installations of the show are successful in their subtlety. A floor piece, “Punjabi Sheets #2: Family Tree” is a colourful lesson in language. Written on tiles are messages such as “I call my sisters Behanji. I call my mother Bibi. I call my mother’s sister Massi” and so on. Beside the tiles sit pots of powdered pigments in a succession of ochre, red and black. Again, this is a personal narrative that encompasses the viewer by arousing memories and creating a universal bond between the artist and the viewer. This lesson in language can be applied to anyone. “Punjabi Sheets #3: Birbansian” is a large wall installation. The wall is black with red text that tells a narrative (which also appears in the “Triple Self-Portrait with Persimmons and Pomegranates”) about a sick child. A family despairs over a dying baby and receives a suggestion to place an egg in the road. The tale reveals that when the egg is crushed, the child will recover.

The story has a sense of anxiety that contrasts with the rest of the installation. A long shelf sits beneath the text on which dozens of eggs are arranged—large to small—in a range of colours. The eggs, which all point in the same direction, create an orderliness that is characteristic of Dhaliwal’s work. This sense of perfection contradicts the messages of the text. It is unclear whether or not the egg was crushed and if the child was saved. One only wishes it were so. The Davies Foundation Gallery—housed within the Agnes—is host to two installations of Dhaliwal’s. The large “Curtains for Babel x, y & z” is an impressive work that features a wall covered with small colourful curtains. Each curtain represents a country or city whose name is written beneath its respective curtain in white lettering. The bottom three rows of curtains include vertical text of a “dying” language within it, while the top row of curtains is closed. This piece is a memorial for that which is lost throughout history.

Through the 15 years of artistic practice, Dhaliwal seeks to challenge and understand her own history and experience. Though there are no resolutions to the questions that she asks, she is confident in her work and concise in her narrative. The evolution of the art—and by extension, of the artist—is demonstrated by the creation and process of the prints.

Dhaliwal’s narrative is the history through which she speaks, and her voice is clear in this exhibition. There is a sense of rhythm in the work and a pulsation in the orderliness. Dhaliwal exemplifies the conflicts that arise between a culture that, though constantly in flux, strives to preserve its history.

Record Keeping runs until Dec. 18 in the Davies Foundation and Contemporary Feature Galleries at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

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