Archives of an Otherworld

The outer space eludes absolute comprehension. I remember holding an X-ray plate up and looking at a solar eclipse as a child. The earth seemed to close up as the light slowly receded. Can we ever paint that darkness?

The space around us expands outward, and the farthest objects seem surreal because they can’t be touched, grasped or gazed at without an acute awareness of the forbidding distance. The “heavens” have been catalogued through the centuries in numerous drawings, sketches and paintings that reveal space as a speculative map for assumed reproductions and flights of imagination; the “heavens” are a realm immune to decay. Sacralising emotions associated with the awe-inspiring wonder evoked by observation of the night sky, paintings have used muted shades, the moon and stars to conjure nocturnal scenes that cumulatively incite a spiritual tableau.

How do we judge a phenomenon we can’t see?
How much space does a microbe occupy?

Early astronomers doubled as artists, as they had to make minute observations in drawing to record the indexical objects in space. In literary and artistic representations of the night sky, the moon has been central as an object of wistful yearning; a mystical accessory, it was often used for the effect of lunar illumination on its subjects. In traditional Indian paintings, such as those from the Rajput, Bundi and Kangra schools, there is little difference between representations of night and day, the former only discernible through the presence of candles, fireworks, the moon or other sources of light in the frame. The sky often holds the moon in the centre of a horizontal band (that fuses with the land in the horizon) and stars in neat distributions across its scope. The patterns in the paintings do not correspond to the actual irregular constellations in view, but respond to a culture-specific sensibility and practice that actively disregarded perspective (a later Western import) in two-dimensional reproductions of the sky. The night sky then becomes a palette for human projections, where the geometry of the constellations is moulded in accordance with the artist’s vision and the cultural and aesthetic forces shaping it.

The moon has also provoked inventive forms of representation. In the 1800s, still no equipment could adequately answer questions about the moon. How did its craters look like? Did the moon have an atmosphere? Our imagination of the elusive moon, in tandem with scientific developments, was venturing closer to the textures of its actual surface; decades of mystification had resulted in a yearning for a ‘truth’ of its reality. The absorption of later telescopic imagery of space in popular culture (such as graphic narratives and cinema) also speaks to its appeal as an extra-terrestrial domain and the possibility of its occupation by the human. Starting with Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon to the Star Wars trilogy and later, Gravity, space has appealed to a popular imagination of the outer world, and capitalised on a fascination around its colonisation by the human body.

Overnight Observation planned as part of Saros 132 at the Sagar School Observatory, Tijara, 5th Oct. 2019 | Credit: Annette Jacob

Experimental fusions between drawing and photography thus led to new forms of visual cultures, especially with the advent of digital cameras and advanced telescopes that revealed a world across gulfs of space and time otherwise unavailable to the unaided eye. These observations are recorded minutely, the resulting data then passed onto posterity for reference. This effectively creates a bridge across generations where histories of observation come together to create an archive of the night sky.

Amateur astronomers, as Actant Rohini Devasher points out, have become an obsessive cult of enthusiasts who travel across vast geographical locations chasing eclipses, other occultations, or simply to observe deep sky objects. Rohini looks at this “geometry of event and site” as she takes a group to the Observatory at the Sagar School in Alwar on an overnight star-gazing trip, which was overseen by night-sky photographer, Ajay Talwar. We looked at deep space, with its province of stars, nebulae and galaxies, which constitutes expansive complexities rooted in mathematics. There are set patterns, some interruptions, and invested interest that together produce each spectacle through the lens of the telescope. The spectacle is also simultaneously a non-event; having looked at the obscure rings that surround Saturn in immense anticipation and excitement, I find myself wondering: Is that it?

Narratives around the universe and its constituent lives essentially issued from a single, primordial atom. The chemical elements that shaped the breadth of the universe also formed the cells of our bodies. Our occupation in time and space then seems both meagre and especial. Our bodies host the same matter that birthed the celestial objects. The human body is essentially a microbial ecosystem, as it involves a multitude of activities where microorganisms feed on, draw from and beget each other for sustenance and multiplication. The stars are not too different, as particles from one body cross-pollinate across space to give rise to new celestial entities.

How long do thoughts ferment in our heads before we articulate them?
Are thoughts subject to rot too?

A collaborative exercise, Actant Jyothidaas KV’s project intended to replicate in the fermentation chamber the workings of microbes in how it brought people together through affiliations of minds, taste and aromas (or stench). The process involved not only the physical element of cutting the vegetables, stuffing them in the jars as well as attending to the containers and observing the changes, but also an element of excited anticipation at how the flavor would change as time took its course. Oftentimes, the food in a jar would rot, but instead of disposing of, the team would let the rotting food sit as the maggots took over. This deliberate act of prolonging spoilage had the ulterior motive of exploring the “magical layer of white velvety fungus” that appeared in the jar as a reminder of its natural genesis and agency. When seen through this lens, the mould no longer evokes disgust, but comes across as a colonising agent that is alive and acting.

The process of fermentation involves a gentle bubbling condition; it’s a pulsating transformation of edible matter by organisms that elude the naked eye, much like the matter suspended across the night sky. The process involves in-situ ecological reactions that are discernible to the human senses only through its effects. The invisible microbes take over the food in the jars, occupying space and time as they feed on the ingredients. The microbes will outlive the flesh, as will the stars.

Can You Feel the Bubble? A fermentation project by Jyothidaas KV | Credit: Annette Jacob

Cover Image: Drawing of the human microbial system by Jyothidaas and team | Credit: Annette Jacob

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