in the absence of

How does a space look in the absence of habitation?
How does space react to erasure? 
Does it reflect our fear of absence?
Does space lose reference?


A loudspeaker sits atop a wall on the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan premises. The speaker plays an audio track in a continuous loop, where complete silence is punctuated by audio segments of varying lengths. The sounds have been collected from Navi (New) Mumbai, a city that has gained in reputation from its anticipatory value. Once touted as a potentially powerful industrial hub, the area is now teeming with incomplete infrastructure following various issues, both legal and logistical. Navi Mumbai is still a formative cluster of urban nodes (co-existing with villages in the same breadth) with an airport site conspicuous in its absence.


The construction of the international airport in Navi Mumbai has been predicted to result in the displacement of large numbers of local families and usurpation of valuable wetlands. First announced 2 decades ago, the plan has been suspended since, and resumed force only in sporadic bursts of endeavour until its ambitious declaration to have the first flight take off in 2020, following which construction noise has been regular and pervasive. The discourse around the airport is one of anticipation and hope outside the immediate site, and one of dislocation and despair for the people within. The discourses are juxtaposed through sound by Actant Kush Badhwar in collaboration with the Council of Arts and Social Practice (CASP). The audio track consists of field recordings from the site, which includes sounds of demolition, routine blasting, as well as protest and poetry by the residents of the area. At 2 am in the morning, the premises in Delhi are confronted with a resounding audio- that of ten thousand flamingos flapping wings during their seasonal migration to a lake in Navi Mumbai. The sound loses reference in the absence of an audience, and the space becomes a placeholder for its sensorial residue.


The image of the tree placed below the loudspeaker is a visual reference to the site. The tree is seen sitting on a mountain of debris, which resulted from the blasting part of the Ulwe hill being quarried for resources on the site. With constant transformations in the architecture of Navi Mumbai, objects disappear with rapidity. The image refers to an entity that is now absent on the site. The contradistinction between different types of data cumulatively produces a narrative of anticipation that persists in its discomposure with change. The project evokes the sense of a dystopia in progress, fed by the artist’s inquiry around a depleting landscape.

The precarity associated with loss of reference also reflects in Road Number Zero, where Actant Devashish Sharma has taken the ontological liberty allowed by the digit ‘zero’ as a springboard for conversations around curation. Anchored in an actual site in Ghittorni, Delhi, the eponymous road has purportedly been named so collectively by all the surrounding neighbourhoods to avoid altercation over its nomenclature. A site where references are in pause, the road becomes a point of departure for the artist to think about any associations. A blue metal board saying “Road Number Zero” directs the visitor on the premises, thereby becoming an extension of its origin. Devashish has collected different objects from the road, including stones, pieces of loose tar, twigs, etc. which he subsequently asked visitors to interact with in a room. Placed across a table, the visitor was blindfolded and asked to guess the object from its texture. This tactile interaction across spaces and contexts was accompanied by debates around the lived nature and functions of the site.

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The physical site of the road became a reference that begot other references through free association. The Actant has conducted discussions with friends and colleagues around the road, where he let the original reference result in a game of freewheeling conversations. He had placed carbon papers under the pages of their notepads, with the intention that their marks and notes would act as a ‘blueprint’ for a possible curatorial initiative. These durational attempts are accompanied by field recordings and photographs displayed on the premises; accumulated over time and in layers, the referential data generates multiple narratives, in tandem with the additive value of the ‘zero’ degree.

By its nature, the project puts the Actant in an ambiguous space between flexibility of form and absolute formlessness. Zero denotes negation and simultaneously (and in contradiction), enables genesis. Devashish uses the reference of the Road to create acts through direct or tangential associations with the original site/citation. Aided by temporary collaborations and transitional alliances, the project remains structured yet amorphous in its anticipatory impulses. Zero becomes a generative point in the project- an anchor for any potential meaning the artist’s direction or non-direction may arrive at.

Fixed laws of perspective are altered as space becomes a subjective projection of an imagination caught against a flux of references. The sites, sounds and propositions cumulatively constitute the invisible, the receptive and the instinctual. Identity is in crisis as new and uncertain psychologies of perception emerge out of these linkages. There is no inference yet.

Video: Annette Jacob
Cover Image: Road Number Zero, Ghittorni, New Delhi | Credit: Devashish Sharma
Inset: Image of a tree as part of From Up There They Were Just Numbers by Actant Kush Badhwar and Council of Arts and Social Practice (CASP) | Credit: Annette Jacob

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