Contemporary Art Museum, St Louis
Sreshta Rit Premnath investigates systems of representation to understand and challenge the process by which images become icons or events become history. He rigorously explores the backgrounds of subjects as varied as the MGM lion, urban development in the city of Bangalore, India, and the Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, through different mediums including photography, video, and sculpture. By granting these subjects renewed consideration, often in altogether new forms, he also establishes the possibility for alternative interpretations.
For his Front Room exhibition, Premnath has created several new works that reflect his ongoing interest in the visual representations of power. The exhibition’s title, Folding Rulers, is also the name given to a series of eight printed vinyl banners featuring silhouettes of a human figure. He created the images by placing folding rulers—a construction tool used for measuring angles and distance—in a sandbox and photographing the resulting composition. The individual prints depict both the implements and the imprints they left behind in the sand. Despite their resemblance to commemorative portraits or busts found in private homes and public spaces, the content of the works remains abstract and unresolved. Premnath’s invocation of the “sandbox” is motivated by an interest both in the American military’s use of the word to refer to the Middle East and in the use of the actual object as constructive psychotherapeutic tool to reveal an individual’s memory or past trauma. This association is established in the Folding Rulers portraits and in Sandbox (2012), which features several pairs of used combat boots filled with sand spilling onto the gallery floor. Ostensibly once used for active military service, these boots have since been discarded and put up for auction on eBay, where they were purchased by the artist. Installed in the gallery, they become stand-ins for soldiers themselves, confronting anonymous portraits of power drawn in the sand. Installed alongside these works is a large piece of fabric, Untitled. Its surface is covered in horizontal stripes, which Premnath created by applying bleach to black cotton. In its pattern and drapery, the piece resembles the American flag, though notably without any stars.
The works in Folding Rulers thus play with the notions of power and authority, presenting them as ephemeral and contingent phenomena. This is most evident in the exhibition’s title, a verbal pun on the word ‘ruler.’ As an object, a folding ruler is a tool of measurement; as an idea, it suggests the collapse or at least shifting terms of a political regime. The theme is further underscored by Premnath’s use of sand—a substance that cannot be fixed—and bleach—a chemical used to remove color or to disinfect something. We may not know who wore the boots, whose portraits these are, or what nation might be symbolized by the banner or flag. Yet the non-specificity of these objects, while perhaps initially bewildering, can in fact be viewed, as in sandplay therapy, as a constructive gesture. Premnath’s removal of markers of individual and place are precisely what allow him to pose broader questions of how power is depicted and symbolized. Together, the works in Folding Rulers not only point to the seismic shifts currently underway in our contemporary geopolitical landscape but also actively imagine a future yet to be written.