Neha Vedpathak: Certainty of Uncertainty Firecat Projects
Upon entering Certainty of Uncertainty by Neha Vedpathak, I can feel my pulse increase. I struggle to walk through the piles of soft sand, my breathing suspends as I take in strong whiffs of soil and dust, and my eyes dim to dark, red-tinged lighting. I can feel and hear the thumping of my heart in my ears, and I am reminded of a line by the ever-poetic Wendell Berry: “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Vedpathak’s installation The Desert Room is unquestionably an example of the former, presented by a sensitive observer who feels deeply connected to both her lands and her materials.
The significance of space on a person is cumulative of the past and the present, often overlapping though rarely on view simultaneously. It is obvious that the desert landscape of Arizona felt like a homecoming for Indian-born artist Vedpathak, who monumentally captures the wonder and significance of the American Southwest in her latest work. In her own words, she states, “space is the most important aspect of my work. This space and minimal forms exist in blended harmony, which are receptive and breathing.” Her passion for and inspiration from this landscape are thoughtfully and ritualistically honored in what can only be described as a beast of an installation.
Through total immersion in materials, process, and presentation, Vedpathak has created a wonderfully sensory experience; sneakily tucked behind the skeleton structure I view as I enter the gallery. My perspective is altered immediately as I cross the raised threshold up into the installation, I am forced to tread lightly up a small ramp onto soft, piled sand about five inches deep. Theatrical lights recreate Arizona's desert-like atmosphere at dusk, and I swear I can smell the arid air I inhaled many years ago when I was there. I am completely and willingly entangled. Sixteen terra cotta panels construct this massive space, each covered with iron-rich soil and sand collected, sifted, and applied by Vedpathak. Layers of application, erosion, and subsequent accumulation fuse together to create the final surface – each smudge, crevice, and bulge are evidence of the artist’s process as well as her observations of the geological processes that surround her. They are fierce and brutal and dense, but yet they tenderly beckon me to gather close and run my hand along their surface. And I half expect them to be warm from the sun. It is a sensual experience I wasn’t quite expecting.
Just off-center in the installation, I find a ten-foot plucked paper garland suspended from the ceiling – its size and substantial placement dictates that it significantly inhabits the space. Known for her works in this particular material and technique, Vedpathak again delicately separates the fibers of hand-made Japanese paper with a tiny pushpin resulting in what resembles layers and layers of fibrous lace. Familiar and natural, the sculpture is an immediate comfort for such a stark landscape and serves as a beautiful ground, or center, for the barrenness that surrounds it. Small pops of bright colors remind me of the beauty that is to be found in the desert landscape (both literally and figuratively), and serve as my reward for being a patient and inquisitive observer. An observer who has, perhaps, marked the passage of time with each carefully and beautifully plucked layer.
Just as you would find in the expansive desert, Vedpathak places wonderful pauses throughout her re-imagined landscape. Subtle little masses strategically placed along the walls force me to stop as I traverse the perimeter of the space. They are wonderful little markers, thick and obtuse; however, at each I find myself looking back left to the previous and looking forward to the right for the next. I begin to count my steps between, multiplying and imagining that one step may instead represent one hundred years, or one thousand, or one million. How small am I in comparison? What is a year to me in contrast to eons? At the far end of the installation, I find a solitary stone made of sand, pigment and plant gum placed unassumingly on the floor. It feels unintentional, misplaced even; and I stumble over it both physically and conceptually. The most interesting surprise were the man-made sounds that occurred at every hour: the ticking of a clock, soft hammering in the distance, telephone ringing, chalk scribbling on a blackboard, or thumping of a runner’s feet. These reminders of human time rip me away from the oasis I have slipped into, a poignant telling of our complicated connection between landscape and existence.
"The desert seems to be a place where time has stood still, yet change is apparent everywhere," Vedpathak notes. "When one ponders the certainty of millennia of geological changes that lead to these unique formations, uncertainty is everywhere. This was a pivotal realization." Certainty of Uncertainty is a magical installation – a unique threshold where memory, ritual, and space intersect. Vedpathak is profoundly connecting with the romantic landscape where she currently resides, but whispering just loud enough to be overheard. Identical to the wildernesses and plateaus that surround her, she too patiently waits for my sentimental return.
All images courtesy of the artist: Certainty of Uncertainty, 2015, soil and sand collected from different locations in Arizona, acrylic polymer, plant gum, plucked Japanese paper, and plywood, 8 x 20 x 12 feet