Sculptural Poems by Pritika Chowdhry
Written by Eloise Rattle
The work of interdisciplinary artist Pritika Chowdhry interrogates the traumatic sub-text of culture, memory, and history. Through an assortment of mediums – from glass to latex – Chowdhry formalizes abstract notions into tangible artworks. Chowdhry is inspired by the subjugated subjects of history’s master narratives. She rectifies this disregard by creating large-scale installations which act as an immersive encounter for the viewer, their enigmatic forms inviting the spectator to engage.
Deciphering Time, History and Memory
Chowdhry’s series of sculptural poems consist of a few carefully chosen words which successfully investigate the power of language as a vessel to distill emotions and memories. Although variant in material, aesthetic, and composition, a theme that inspires and permeates all three is ‘counter-memory.’ Activist and philosopher Michel Foucault approached counter-memory as an individual’s resistance against the official versions of history. The artist references this by highlighting the power of language and unique interpretation to express, distill and conceptualize memories and emotions.
The concept of paring subjects back to their essence is prevalent throughout all three sculptural poems. Through condensing contexts into single words and formalizing them with familiar materials, Chowdhry makes her difficult subject matters more approachable to the everyday viewer – without compromising the importance of what they represent. By not directly confronting the viewer with disturbing imagery, the artist increases our emotional availability and susceptibility to engage with the concepts of her work. Instead, Chowdhry presents the more abstract thoughts and emotions involved.
Naturalized – A Story of Immigration and Cultural Identity.
Chowdhry introduces the series with Sculptural Poem #1, Naturalized. Nailed to the wall are dark, wooden letters comprising a single word ‘Naturalized’. The choice of term is a direct gesture to immigration – foreigners to a country are ‘naturalized’ upon receipt of citizenship. Chowdhry explores the meaning of this through material and form. She scorches heavy, solid pieces of wood, depicting the resilience of nature and its ability to be corrupted. When considering this through the lens of immigration, Chowdhry suggests that to ‘naturalize’ with another country, we must undergo perhaps drastic changes to our identity. She raises the question: must we alter our fundamental nature to be accepted into another culture?
The artist also highlights the concept of renewal through loss and gain in this work. She states that the scorching of the wood references cremation and ceremonial rites, which could be addressing the concept of death leading to renewed life. Perhaps she suggests that, when becoming naturalized, one must leave an old identity or ‘essence’ behind to enter a new reality. In addition, she conveys the theme of nature and natural disasters such as forest fires – a devastating event that leads to rejuvenation in many cases.
Chowdhry interrupts the word into three parts, drawing attention to its multiple meanings. Simultaneously, she is tangibly illustrating language’s fractured and ambiguous nature, particularly when retelling historical events or transcending cultures and countries.
Empty Time – Fragile Histories and Individual Experience
The artist’s second sculptural poem is Empty Time, a site-specific installation at the American Swedish Institute. Individually hand-blown glass vessels are artfully placed together on a platform, illustrating the phrase ‘Empty Time.’ This highly conceptual artwork reinforces the idea that bridges all three sculptural poems: finding more in less. This artwork successfully iterates the fragility of time through the materials and artistic process. The intangible premise of ’empty time’ is realized using the medium of glass. Despite the delicate material, viewers are encouraged to interact with the work by gently brushing bamboo or reed sticks against them, creating unique melodies.
Whilst spectators are interacting with the piece, the sculpture silently communicates with the environment. A different amount of liquid fills each glass, with varying intensities of blue dye, placed in a gradient. Over time, the water evaporates into the air – a physical process invisible to the human eye, just like the passage of time.
When time is considered a subject, concepts of memory and history are brought to light, too. As previously mentioned, Chowdhry is influenced by Foucault’s socio-political theories surrounding memory and history. Considering this, Empty Time can be seen as a physical manifestation of the idea of collective experience or collective memory. Although equal in material, each glass is an individual entity, with a unique existence – the amount of water, colour and the melody it makes. Unaccompanied, the meaning of each glass has limitations; however, when combined, they are unified to complete a phrase. In this way, she approaches Foucault’s abstract notions of collective memory and experiences, highlighting the importance of subjugated versions of memory – or counter-memories – typically omitted from official narratives.
Endlessly – The Ambiguity of Fragmented Language
Chowdhry continues her exploration of the role of language in memory culture in Endlessly. In her third sculptural poem, four words emerge from the wall: ‘belonging’, ‘forevermore’, ‘endlessly’ and ‘unstill’. This poem addresses time, identity, and history like her previous installations through carefully chosen, fragmented words. By capitalizing and misaligning sections of the terms, she invites multiple interpretations. Some combinations read as: ‘belonging forever’, ‘belonging endlessly’ and ‘endlessly unstill’. Ambiguous in meaning, the viewer has the autonomy to decide which words resonate more with their own experiences and imaginations. In this way, each spectator has an individual experience of the artwork.
The poem is painted white like the wall, making it appear as though the words are embossed, emerging onto the wall’s surface. Given the context of counter-memory, Chowdhry could suggest that these partially formed sentences and emotive words represent complex thoughts and emotions embedded within and emerging from memories. Memories, particularly those of trauma and pain, are often buried or hidden within our subconscious – Chowdhry could be presenting this idea that such memories are concealed, but they endure in our consciousness.
Artworks as Anti-monuments
An additional and essential aspect of Chowdhry’s body of work is the concept of anti-monuments. Her mural-like words can be visually likened to those carved into monuments commemorating historical events. However, the artist disrupts this idea of a conclusive historical narrative. The enigmatic, fractured and changeable quality of this series serves to celebrate the transitory nature of history. Throughout these works, Chowdhry encourages multiple readings. This characteristic opposes the intention of monuments which, quite literally, set meaning in stone.
While each of Chowdhry’s sculptural poems is unique, they collectively address the power of language. She skillfully composes artworks that, through few words, speak volumes about fractured language, memory and history.
All photos are © Pritika Chowdhry – All Rights Reserved
Prithika is an artist, curator, scholar, and educator. Born and brought up in India, Pritika is currently based in Chicago, IL, USA. Prithika has an MFA in Studio Art and an MA in Visual Culture and Gender Studies from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Prithika has shown her works nationally and internationally in group and solo exhibitions, in museums and galleries. Learn more about her on her website, www.countermemoryproject.org.
Guest Author Bio
Eloise Rattle is an art historian, writer and art advisor based in Sydney. With a Bachelor of Art History, Eloise is proficient in a wide range of styles: from extended articles to artist biographies. She takes pride in providing highly researched articles that bring subjects to life for her desired audience. Originally from the UK, Eloise has a broad knowledge of contemporary art and culture on an international level. Her work is published on various platforms and online magazines, including Woroni Magazine, The Cynthia Corbett Gallery, The Gallyry and her art and design blog Eloise Rose Design.