Experiments with Truth
Experiments with Truth Nos 1, 2 & 3. Charcoal & Gum Pastel drawing on Fabriano Elle Erre. 102 cm w x 72cm h
Experiments with Truth
‘Experiments with Truth’ is the title of Gandhi’s autobiography. This body of work deals with both the subject of Gandhi (the myth of how close to the truth he was, the shroud of darkness over his life), and Nilsen-Misra’s drawing process, which is an experiment in changing light, changing form, changing meaning and truth. Working in the inky darkness with just a single lamp to illuminate the scene in front of him, Nilsen-Misra produces eerie filmic and domestic scenes shrouded in shadows. Working with black chalk on blacker chalk, the scenes that emerge reflect fragments of a life. One becomes aware of a deep, closeted space, underneath the shadows that draw the viewer inward, as if you are looking deeper into and unknown and unconscious space. From a reading of Gandhi as a potential gay icon, based on various personal correspondence with Kallenbach and others, Nilsen-Misra also questions whether the icon was experimenting with his sexuality, and whether he was able to live out his truth or had to leave it in the shadows. Nilsen-Misra points out that, as a gay man himself, he is similarly uncertain of being completely transparent in spaces of public South Africa and at times finds himself moving in the proverbial shadows.
Letter from Gandhi to Kallenbach
A week before Gandhi’s 40th birthday he wrote to Kallenbach from London. He describes placing Kallenbach’s portrait on the mantelpiece opposite his bed in room 46 at the Westminster Palace Hotel. Their nicknames for each other were Upper & Lower House (Gandhi & Kallenbach respectively):
September 24, 1909
DEAR LOWER HOUSE,
Your letter to hand. I will not now use any adjective for the reasons explained last week.
Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed. The eternal toothpick is there. The corns, cottonwool and vaseline are a constant reminder. The pen I use (you see the pencil has disappeared) in each letter it traces makes me think of you. If, therefore, I wanted to dismiss you from my thoughts, I could not do it. My nose - well it won't stop its action. Each time I blow it I take out my 'kerchief (is the 'kerchief mine except by appropriation!) and say 'no, I must not use a torn envelope if I am in the office and I must not settle the dust on the road as Polak would say it because you would not like it.' Yes, I have never departed from the contract. The result is I use a 'kerchief per day. That however is in passing. The point to illustrate is to show to you and me how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance. But then the reward, what is it to be?
The unwritten contract is you take the body and give the mind by way of study. You cannot take
'no' for an answer from yourself.
Yours sincerely, UPPER HOUSE*
*From the original (emphasis added): Gandhi/Kallenbach Correspondence. 1994 New Delhi Publication Division, Government of India, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi Vol. 96, p28-9.
Gandhi & Kallenbach
Mohandas Gandhi was 34 when he met 32yr old Herman Kallenbach, an architect born in Lithuania to German Jewish parents. They became intimate friends, “soulmates”, over the first four years. Seven years living together followed after which they moved from South Africa to India when they were 43 & 45. While they were travelling, WW1 broke out and they were separated. Kallenbach was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man internment camp. Gandhi waited for 41⁄2 months before completing the journey to India without his dearest friend. Towards the end of the war, Kallenbach was allowed to return to South Africa. In 1935 after 23 years of being apart the two reunited in India aged 64 & 66 and again in 1939 when they were 68 & 70.
In the dark space of this installation we find ourselves in Kallenbach & Gandhi’s inner world. In Complete Possession of My Body, a found sculpted portrait of the upper half of Gandhi’s body is given pride of place on a found mantelpiece, a manifestation of the act of taking possession of his body. The architectural elements of the mantelpiece extends a metaphor for Kallenbach’s role as an architect to house them. Kallenbach designed the Kraal house in Johannesburg for them. Kallenbach’s handkerchief, vaseline, cotton wool, envelope, and pen are constant mementos nearby. Gandhi describes the extent to which these objects represent Kallenbach’s having taken complete possession of his body. It was my ambition to infuse the space with a sensual lighting, to provide a moment for sensitive engagement with personal memory and to memorialise the significance they occupied in each other’s lives.
Gandhi has been credited with a return to the hand in an age of machinery. This intrinsic humanistic value is of significance for the hand drawn image, paying homage to its mystery of form and storytelling. It probes the action of drawing as an experimental and playful medium and the act of seeing as a deeply individual experience. In Experiments with Truth #2, a painting by Atul Dodiya, Bapu At Rene Block Gallery, New York, 1974 is superimposed behind the portrait of Gandhi, a bright spotlight obscures rather than illuminates the scene. Dodiya himself rewrites history: Gandhi encountering Joseph Beuys’ installation piece with a coyote (I Like America & America Likes Me). Beuys’ display of human sympathy to a wild animal is expanded by Dodiya – the juxtaposition of the sympathetic Gandhi provides sympathy for the sympathiser. The experimental inclusion of the Dodiya transposes the scene with an amplifying echo. The Neoshamanism of Beuys’ performances with fat and felt and Gandhi’s non-violent resistance in salt are both subversive experiments with truth, together they expand upon the urgency for a utopian vision for us. Suggesting that there is synchronicity and harmony across continents and histories.
Experiments with Truth includes 2 sets of 3 portraits each of Gandhi in differing lighting states. This evokes questions of truth gradually coming to light as we uncover more and more. An acutely limited tonal range creates subtlety in definition, whilst the intensity of the darkness gives it unusual depth. As these works blend into one another in the animation, our perceptions of the man slowly change, altering as different definitions are made of his form.
What compelling and intriguing images; what thoughtful meditation. The writing of the notes is suggestive, poignant and tender. James Nilsen-Misra raises so many questions that are at the heart of current historiography: what kind of information ‘counts’ as historical truth, what do truths tell us about human mores, desires, subjectivities - Jane Taylor
I was deeply moved by the dark and sensitive engagement with Gandhi. James Nilsen- Misra has engaged with his subject with such deep research and empathy, and then captured and revealed Gandhi in sensitive, beautiful art works. It is a special privilege to learn about history and historical figures through works of art (Penny Siopis made me more aware of the plight of Sara Baartman) and I can pay James no greater compliment; I had no idea that Gandhi was a gay icon and of his relationship with Kallenbach, an architect known to me – thank you! - Marilyn Martin