“The weather report in 3 parts by the phantom orchestra” | Gallery SKE

Sculptural and installation-based in nature, Navin Thomas’ latest exhibits mounted at New Delhi’s Gallery SKE stand out for their precise geometric forms and an artistic practice that is heavily informed by metaphors, objects/instruments and experimentations related to music and aural forms. 

In the multi-layered exhibition, titled “Out Here in the Exosphere”, the Bengaluru-based practitioner explores themes of changing weather patterns, and a dialogue with the self, often translating into a spiritual quest. This synergy between multiple themes is achieved through the support of background musical scores, found materials such as discarded musical instruments, which acquire the form of sculptures made out of wood and other objects.

“Eight years ago, I did a show on electro-acoustic ecology and most of the material came from the salvage yards. To me, the found object is far more real than any material from the art supplies store,” said the artist, who has worked towards a book on salvaged photo negatives, as part of a grant in 2013. 

Navin Thomas exhibition “Out Here in the Exosphere” | Gallery SKE

The artist, recipient of the 2011 SKODA Prize for Contemporary Art, said that he was curious about the private life of discarded electronic appliances, discarded transistors and smaller objects that have an audio capacity.Much before winning the prestigious visual arts prize, in 2003 he received a grant from Sarai to make an “audio map of busking performances at popular city railway stations.” 

His engagement with music, an important site of experimentation in his work, has an interesting backstory. Once he came across a ‘chamber’ that belonged to a tanpura maker. More than the instruments that the tanpura maker tuned for the musicians, the artist was taken in by the ambience of the chamber, more specifically the architecture and acoustics of the place. 

“The ping pong players” | Gallery SKE

His latest exhibition, therefore, has an atmospheric quality that manifests itself in the form of a relatively large expanding space, seemingly abandoned by its administrators or attendees. And yet, the exhibits are characterized by a newness in their making as well as their stark, pointed forms, even though so many materials used in this show have been reconstructed or repurposed.  

“The weather report in 3 parts by the phantom orchestra” | Gallery SKE

The most striking feature of the exhibition is a large sound sculpture, made up of six salvaged wind instruments, discarded by a local military brass band ‘Madras Snappers’. The installation, which is called “The Weather Report in 3 Parts by The Phantom Orchestra”, has three abstract background scores, each rendering an orchestra that is at once representing the search for a rhythm with oneself, moving onto sounds that reflect a chaotic, restless energy, and finally culminating in an ominous feeling. A black and white archival photograph of the Madras Snappers, which is part of the show, serves as a historical link to The Phantom Orchestra installation.    

The sound sculpture, going by its title, appears to have been contextualized in present-day concerns of extreme global warming and climate change events. The conspicuous absence of (living) human figures in the show’s exhibits brings to the foreground the environment-related threat to human life. 

“Sentinels in time and out of reason a.k.a we are the guardians of each other Part A & B” Gallery SKE
“Sentinels in time and out of reason a.k.a we are the guardians of each other Part A & B”
Gallery SKE

But in another large sculptural work, units of human ribcages are placed inside what appear to be chambers or cupboards, or simply put they could be the artist’s re-creation of a graveyard embodying a sense of the theatre. The exhibit, titled “Sentinels in Time…”, represents an individual’s search for balance and “calibration” in life, which may be achieved by paying attention to one’s interiority.   

In the rest of the show, registers of memories and nostalgia are simultaneously evoked through quaint-looking exhibits such as ‘Sheet Music for Table Tennis’, an untitled work that shows a wooden violin, and a lonesome rocking chair called ‘Hours and Minutes’.

“Sheet music for table tennis” | Gallery SKE

He demonstrates a wide range of experimentations in the form of sculpture, which is a challenging medium to work in, while he combines it with mixed media materials. The rendering of different sounds and the politics of responding to it form the spine of his latest work. The use of wood is pivotal, a material that is known for its acoustic properties or its ability to reflect sound.

Seen in the context of the show’s title, “Out Here in The Exosphere”, Thomas’ journey into sound expands into a state of soundlessness or string-less sound, since exosphere refers to the uppermost regions of Earth’s atmosphere, “the airless void of outer space.”  

“Hours and minutes” | Gallery SKE
Untitled | Gallery SKE
Untitled | Gallery SKE

Navin Thomas, Out Here in the Exosphere, was open for viewing from 20 Oct – 24 Nov, 2018. 

Writing by Ankush Arora

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