Like particles in a wave, we are inexorably entangled with and influenced by patterns and reactions larger than us. That tension between individual and collective courses through "Raqs Media Collective: Luminous Will," at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Raqs, a New Delhi-based trio of conceptual artists (Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta) has been making art for more than 20 years. The group's "Coronation Park," a sculptural meditation on power, monumentality, and decay, is in this year's Venice Biennale.
"Luminous Will," which features video installations, works on paper, and text pieces, is the opposite of monumental: Everything feels fleet and light, changing yet always circling back.
The video "Sleepwalkers' Caravan (Prologue)" screens beside the text piece "The Riverbank Episode." In the text, the Yakshas, guardian spirits of natural resources and wealth in Indic mythology, quiz Raqs about contemporary society.
"Why do cities forget rivers?" the Yakshas ask.
"Because when money begins to flow like water, cities — oblivious of how thirsty it makes them, or how parched it makes the ground on which they stand — forsake currents for currency and riverbanks for banks," Raqs answers.
In the video, the artists have taken versions of statues of Yakshas that guard the reserve bank in India and placed them afloat along the industrial banks of a river in New Delhi. They represent many kinds of value, but, they seem to say, we have become fixated on just one, and we suffer for it.
The equivalence Raqs draws between current and currency underlies a mesmerizing video, "Re-Run." The artists restaged Henri Cartier-Bresson's photo of a 1948 bank run in Shanghai. As the value of paper money plummeted, people rushed to the bank to wait hours for gold. The image conveys how the fluid value of money relates to the emotional amplitude between security and fear.
Raqs projects "Re-Run" on a screen that flutters in the drafts of the gallery's air vents. It appears, at first, to be a still; they have slowed the video so much, it's hard to trace movement. But incrementally, the people push into one another. Then a man in the center turns his head and looks directly at us, shaking us out of complacent watching and implicating us as witnesses, even compatriots. This could be us.
For "Seven Billion and One," Raqs printed more than 100 infinity signs pulsing in gold on black in a grid on two gallery walls. They look like hanks of golden hair, some contained on one sheet (the particles), others just arcing fractions (hinting at the larger wave). The title refers to the world's population, and all the individuals within this singular human species.
Some of the text pieces don't hold the same water. In "Lost in Search of Time," the title words blink on and off, registering different phrases. It reads like a word-game app for the elementary-school set. No matter. The image-based works carry the big questions, the ones that no one can answer.
Raqs's "Re-Run" has a disconcerting parallel in Iri and Toshi Maruki's "Hiroshima Panels" — many are murals of panic — now on view at Boston University Art Galleries at the Stone Gallery.
The Marukis had family in Hiroshima when the United States dropped the atom bomb there on Aug. 6, 1945. Within days, Iri made it to the ravaged city, and his wife, Toshi, followed. Iri's uncle and two nieces had been killed; within months, his father died.
Between 1950 and 1982, the two artists painted 15 murals, striving to capture the complexity of the bomb's aftermath, and later, the war's other devastations. Six are on view here. Toshi (1912-2000) painted the figures, and Iri (1901-1995), a landscape painter, handled the composition and atmosphere.
Exhibited alongside compelling artifacts from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, such as a child's coat singed and in tatters, the murals are nightmarish and intimate. The first one, "Ghosts I," depicts the naked victims, their skin falling from their bodies, wandering through thickets of smoke, seeming to tumble into hell. In "Fire II," red flames lick at tangles of bodies.
There's a harrowing sameness to some of these pieces, but the Marukis also depicted moments of hope. The brilliantly composed "Floating Lanterns" captures an annual ritual of remembrance in which lanterns float down the rivers of Hiroshima into the sea — the same waters where bodies piled up after the bomb hit. It's a warm piece, flirting with abstraction as lanterns jumble into a grid, yet it also conveys space and figure, living and dead, and the quiet peace of ritual.
Many of these murals are hard to look at. But they don't simply lament war's ravages. They turn a loving eye on the suffering. What could be a lurid scene is instead filled with aching lament.
On Oct. 8 at 6 p.m., performance artist Sara June and sound artist Max Lord will perform "Peacock" in the gallery, a movement piece based on Butoh dance, a modern form developed in the 1960s that focuses on distorting the body. It seems an apt response to these murals, which reflect humanity at its most vulnerable.
RAQS MEDIA COLLECTIVE: Luminous Will
At School of the Museum of Fine Arts, 230 The Fenway, through Oct. 17.617-369-3718, www.smfa.edu/raqs
A CALL FOR PEACE: Iri and Toshi Maruki's Hiroshima Panels & Artifacts From the Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
At Boston University Art Galleries at the Stone Gallery, 855 Commonwealth Ave., through Oct. 18.617-353-3329, www.bu.edu/art