Alternative projections of terrain and its technonatural reality are a powerful tool in fictionalizing the existent. In her work Spheres (2017), artist Rohini Devasher combines a concave curvature of sceneries with her drawings pulled from the history of geology, astronomy, and volcanology. With these, she envisions the space between landscape, recording technology, and their relationship to our planet.
An unidentified object enters Earth’s solar system. We soon learn that the object is a perfect cylinder—54 kilometers long, 20 kilometers in diameter—and that it is heading straight for the Sun. This is how Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 novel Rendezvous with Rama recalls the event. What follows is a gradual unfolding of what lies within the alien cylinder—the Rama of the title; a world turned outside in, with a cylindrical sea that arches above the explorers’ heads, possible cities dotted around the inner circumference and artificial light provided by three linear suns, embedded in giant trenches in the walls. Yet Rama the unfamiliar has strangely familiar undertones.
I first read the novel more than twenty-five years ago, but Rama’s “climate,” if you will, has stayed with me, with its peculiar quality of light, ideas of interiority, inversion, and a strangeness; not of a haunting but of a wonder. The theme of encounters between the “natural” and “technological,” “human” and “non-human,” where surprising intersecting patterns between the two are made visible, is something I continue to explore through my work to this day.
Over the past few years I have become increasingly conscious of the methods of “field work” and “expedition” in my practice. I am also interested in the different ways the field functions. The field is a place or group of physical sites in which evidence of past activity is preserved. As a mode or methodology, it is a space for investigation that allows one to explore something unfamiliar, rather than representing a moment necessarily of acquiring knowledge. My current practice engages with the field as a series of physical sites—skies, sea forts, observatories, telescopes, and so on.
A site will never live up to one’s assumptions, and one’s reaction to it will not be as anticipated either. The landscape, weather, and the tools one carries—the camera, audio recorder, and sketchbook—all function differently. Circumstances come together to force you to do what you can under a very specific set of circumstances. Once you have collected and recorded all that you “could” under the actual circumstances of the site, then you make something out of this collection, rather than out of the data you anticipated you would collect. You begin to speculate, to create fictions.
My visit to the Mount Aso volcanic crater or caldera, in Japan (2014) was one such experience. Located 47 kilometers south of Kumamoto, the tiny town of Aso is nestled in the center of Japan’s second largest volcanic caldera. It isn’t rare to see calderas of this scale, but one with an interior that is stable enough to cultivate land, build highways, and lay railroads is quite rare. Geologically unique with a circumference of approximately 120 kilometers and five peaks within its basin, there is also a high occurrence of mist/fog and descending cloud at the site. As Simon Schama pointed out:
Once a certain idea of landscape, a myth, a vision, establishes itself in an actual place, it has a peculiar way of muddling categories, of making metaphors more real than their referents; of becoming in fact, part of the scenery
Aso seems just the sort of place that ought to be shrouded in legend and mystery. The next two days are spent trekking across the caldera and collecting/recording the landscape and environment.
The work that emerged out of this particular expedition, Spheres, a video- and drawing-based work in three parts, is the closest I have come to capturing or expressing the “climate” I associate with Arthur C. Clarke’s book.
Lying somewhere between reality and fiction, the video footage shot on site at the Aso caldera, is reimagined, so that viewers get the sensation of looking inside some form of hollow: a sphere? We see a volcanic cinder cone crater, which stands out as a sentinel of past upheaval; we see, through mist, cloud, and fog, a distant horizon, an atmosphere. A sun, possibly artificial, simulates a daylight cycle, illuminating and obscuring the landscape by turns; a recognizable pattern in an otherwise strange but not entirely alien landscape.
The film is projected onto a large site-specific wall-drawing, where video and drawn marks interact in unexpected ways and complete the work.
The drawing that forms the surface onto which the video is projected draws from the history of geology, astronomy, and volcanology, when the Earth was still being explored as an entity within space. The drawing brings together specific moments of the depiction of our planet as a sphere or whole. Specifically:
Juxtaposing these ideas of the Earth with Clarke’s Rama, and similar space-habitat designs such as the Dyson sphere, O’Neill cylinder, and Bernal sphere, the work Spheres, then, is a jigsaw of “alternative maps or plans,” the creation of new terrains and fictions, realized by projecting video onto a surface on which marks are drawn.
In rendering the strange conceivable, projection has its limitations—think about Galileo’s description of the dark spots on the lower “horn” of the Moon. But as studies on creative problem-solving, specifically William J .J. Gordon’s theories and those of Bipin Indurkhya have shown, one way of gaining new perspectives on a problem is to juxtapose it with something completely unrelated, thereby making the familiar . . . strange I like the analogy of a mirror in this context, not just because it references both the telescope and the microscope, but also because when something is mirrored it is reversed, and often the very reversal is enough to make something familiar seem very strange.
Strange-ing, then, for me, is a strategy for encountering, observing, and finally recording both environment and experience. In practice, strange-ing explores the interconnectedness of human beings’ relationship to the planet, and it offers a perspective that may be of use to the imagination when envisaging the future of both shaping and living within it. Walking a fine line between wonder and the uncanny can change how we view the world.