The great Indian artist Nalini Malani dives deep into archetypes ripe with hurt and mystery in her captivating installation “In Search of Vanished Blood” at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The work is so ambitious — such a cascade of imagery, text, and sound — that it reimagines more than a juicy myth or two.
Springing with shadows and light, spinning with icons and monsters, it could be a model for what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious — the dark stew of symbols and stories shared by all humans that shapes the way we see things and ignites our most intimate, irrational drives, desires, and fears.
She does it, rather ingeniously, by layering ancient and contemporary techniques. “In Search of Vanished Blood,” which premiered at dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012, is at its heart a shadow play. Paintings on five rotating mylar cylinders slide hypnotically over the walls, depicting bits of mythology, nature, and human connection and disconnection: The Hindu goddess Kali, a flying dragon battling people, a pelvis, a praying man.
These round and repeat like a song’s chorus, while six video projections play against them in animations, still images, and washes of texture. The piece moves at a quickstep, evading being pinned down, encompassing viewers. That speed and breadth overpower us. There’s no room for contemplation. We must simply surrender.
It’s magical, thunderous, and wrenching. Again and again, large photographs of women appear and vanish. They are monumental yet tender, intensely present, and gone. “In Search of Vanished Blood” revisits a recurring theme for Malani: the suppression, indeed castigation, of women.
The references, too, interlace. Greek myth and Indian myth mix with sound bites from the playwrights Samuel Beckett and Heiner Müller. Snippets from Goya rush by. Toward the end, a sprinting greyhound reminiscent of Eadweard Muybridge’s movement studies dashes across the walls, as if herding all the disparate pieces together.
Malani was born in Karachi in 1946, just before the partition of India and Pakistan, and as an infant came to India as a refugee. The trauma her parents and grandparents suffered has haunted her work. Sectarian violence and the countless people killed, displaced, and lost in its wake are at the center of “In Search of Vanished Blood.” The installation’s title comes from a poem by Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
This blood which has disappeared without leaving a trace
isn’t a part of written history: who will guide me to it?
Malani’s work often plays the part of witness to destruction. She studied traditional Indian painting as a young woman, and then went on to Paris, where she learned filmmaking. As a painter, she uses a loose brush and burning tones, depicting ethereal figures, women’s lives, myths, and social concerns. In the 1990s, her work became more politicized, and it also began to move and grow as it spilled out of the frame and onto the walls in a range of mediums.
In her attention to ancient mythology, the feminine, societal oppression, and violence against women, Malani is kin to Nancy Spero, a fierce American artist who died in 2009 (the two, along with Ana Mendieta, were featured in an exhibition at Galerie Lelong, in Paris, last fall). Malani is more playful; her technical experimentation and theatrical bent share much with South African printmaker (and dramatist) William Kentridge.
“In Search of Vanished Blood” takes East German writer Christa Wolf’s 1984 novel “Cassandra” as inspiration, which itself follows the Greek myth of Cassandra, the prophet cursed never to be believed. She speaks the truth, but she’s seen as crazy. Draw a line from Cassandra to any patriarchal society in which women’s ways are misunderstood and belittled and women’s powers feared.
The story places us squarely in the land of archetype — and not just that of Greek myths, which by this point may be a little rusty and leaky as vessels of human consciousness. Malani confronts us with violence, erasure, and how we feel about women. Not how we’re supposed to feel; not what’s politically correct. Something more primitive, having to do with the sway mothers, lovers, sisters, and daughters have over us, something having to do with intuition, sensuality, and birth.
In her floating shadow play — Kali, a figure both ferocious and maternal; the pelvis; women leaning together; a butterfly — we sense femininity’s loveliness, power, and creativity. There’s breathing room, acceptance. But the hammer comes down fast. An early image depicts text scrolling over a face wrapped in cloth, which Malani has said refers to a form of torture.
The text is from Faiz’s poem, and we just catch scraps of it: “each assassin,” “knife,” “has disappeared.” We’re left with intimations of violence, and something emptier: the silence surrounding the lost. It appears again and again, in the monumental photographs of women staring at us from the walls, who then snuff into shadows.
Yet “In Search of Vanished Blood” is a dance of death and life. I left enchanted, not discouraged, by Malani’s sparkling magic lantern of an installation. Her rhythm hypnotizes viewers, then snaps us awake. The accumulation of sounds, images, and sources, too many to count or comprehend, too fleet to dwell on, set off chain reactions.
Such is the nature of the collective unconscious: It burbles up with offerings that poke and sear, then subside. It’s ungraspable, but it wakes us up, if we let it.
NALINI MALANI: IN SEARCH OF VANISHED BLOOD
At Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, through Oct. 16. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.