Presented at the Rubin Museum, New York, can art offer a way of viewing nature as an actor in its own right?
We begin in a blazing world: In the opening sequence of O Horizon (2018), the Otolith Group’s latest film, as part of their exhibition ‘A Lost Future’ at the Rubin Museum in New York, flames lick the mechanical engines of excavator diggers on a forest road. ‘Today in a hundred years’, recites a voice, ‘Who are you reading this poem?’ Smoke rises toward the sky as man and machine intervene in nature. ‘What fragment of today’s joyous spring / Today’s wild flower or bird song / Today’s blood-red mood’, the voice continues, ‘Can I possibly transmit unto you?’ These lines, excerpted from the cosmopolitan polymath Rabindranath Tagore’s 1895 poem, ‘The Year 1400’, act as a coda to the film, which was researched, filmed and produced over five years in the Indian state of West Bengal. Flitting between music, dance, poetry and literature, O Horizon offers a fragmented yet engrossing view of a Tagorean ethos, one that situates modernism, cosmopolitanism and ecopolitical awareness as products of experimental modes of learning.
If this aesthetic project sounds ambitious, it mirrors the aspirational plane of Tagore’s pedagogical vision, first developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Approximately 180 kilometers from Kolkata, where the film takes place, Tagore created Santiniketan – roughly ‘peaceful abode’ in Bangla – in 1901 on an ashram established by his father, the zamindar Maharshi Devendranath Tagore. Intended as a reprieve far from the maddening modernity of India’s rapidly urbanizing towns, the small co-educational facility expanded in 1921 into a college, Visva-Bharati (literally ‘where India meets the world’), which was accompanied by Sriniketan (‘abode of prosperity’) in 1922 as an institute for rural reconstruction. Tagore argued that nature and culture were not only intertwined but were linked through ecology. In contradistinction to the ‘mechanical’ mode of education that pervaded Indian schools at the turn of the century, and in bold opposition to what Tagore viewed as the militaristic and capitalist aims of the colonial West, Santiniketan operated on the ultimate ambition that education could occur in harmony with nature in order to cultivate the full potential of human experience.
‘I merely started with this one simple idea that education should never be dissociated from life,’ wrote Tagore in a letter to the pedagogue Sir Patrick Geddes in 1922. A scene in the film shows a group of scholars quoting and debating this Tagorean premise whilst sitting under a tree, in the idealized open-air tradition of dialogue and questioning that Tagore espoused. Other scenes show students welding sculptures in their studios, practising Chinese, playing the harmonium, singing, dancing and otherwise engaging in a wide range of artistic and educational activities for which Visva-Bharati was established. As the camera pans across modernist murals by K.G. Subramaniyan and sculptures by Ramkinkar Baij at Kala Bhavana – Visva Bharati’s visual art school – the notion that Santiniketan functions as an artistic ecosystem, wherein students and teachers function interdependently across disciplines, comes into clear focus. Scenes of local Santal tribal women in masks performing songs and dances at dawn are interspersed with academic debates on politics and aesthetics, integrating the local with the global, indexing Santiniketan’s discursive function as a space where the particular and the universal meet.
The ecopolitical dynamics of Santiniketan and its surrounding areas, Birbhum, Bolpur and other locations in West Bengal offer an aesthetically compelling entry-point into considering Tagorean metaphysics. Throughout the film, viewers witness cranes and other construction equipment digging into the soil for large-scale development projects; railroad workers sing as they lay tracks. Interactions between humans and the natural environment are depicted as practical, circumstantial or necessary, avoiding what Timothy Morton terms, in Ecology without Nature (2007), as the ‘constant elegy for a lost unalienated state, the resort to the aesthetic dimension (experimental/perceptual) rather than ethical-political praxis.’ Indeed, though the film isn’t driven by plot or narrative, it does test Tagore’s romanticized notions of education-in-nature in real-time. If Santiniketan was established as a ‘peaceful abode’, it is one in which its residents function with vigorous energy in the modern world: a singer, for instance, practices a traditional sangeet with the aid of an iPhone and Bluetooth speakers. And at night, Santiniketan becomes a drastically different place, full of shadows and the ochre of halogen lamps and the blue glow of handheld screens. The film begins with the glow of the elemental but is buoyed by the glimmer of technological might.
The film’s title – O Horizon – refers to the soil layer comprised mostly of organic material: decomposing leaves, grass and other matter, which is undergirded by subsoil and, eventually, bedrock. A scene of students at Sriniketan taking samples of dirt is accompanied by a voiceover from their professor where he invokes Aristotle’s comment that soil is the ‘stomach’ of plants – and by extension, humans. The once barren soil of Sriniketan became, through radical human intervention, a site for rural uplift through tree planting. As the camera pans above a canopy of the progeny of these initial seeds, it’s possible to believe in a utopian promise of anthropocentric intervention. As Rajnan Ghosh has noted, while Tagore believed in the ‘deep interdependence between nature and culture’, he also believed in the ‘human need to affirm ecological independence … an awareness of their embeddedness in the vast web of life.’
In past films, such as their Otolith Trilogy (2003–09) or 2012’s The Radiant, the Otolith Group has postulated on the expanded possibilities afforded by alternate futures and science fiction. Abandoning the tenuous promise of cosmopolitan modernity and the romantic idealization of nature that Tagore and his Bengali elite espoused, O Horizon attends instead to a conception of the natural environment as ontologically coterminous with human existence. Put differently, the film offers, through its fragmented glimpses of the endurance of Tagore’s educational experiments, a way of viewing nature as an actor in its own right rather than the stage on which humans play their parts. If study, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney have identified, is ‘something we do together’, the Otolith Group have expanded the ‘we’ far beyond the anthropocentric and into a realm of an ever-deeper ecology.
‘A Lost Future: The Otolith Group’ runs at the Rubin Museum, New York, until 17 September.
Main image: The Otolith Group, O Horizon, 2018; 4K video still. Commissioned by bauhaus imaginista and co-produced with the Rubin Museum, New York, with support from Project 88, Mumbai