Intangible Spaces
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Intangible Spaces

Earlier this year, the 13th edition of the India Art Fair was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic as the Indian government imposed restrictions to manage the Omicron surge. After a brief hiatus, the festival returned in April of 2022, bringing South Asian and international artists together into a collaborative sphere.

Karachi-based artist Muzzumil Ruheel participated in the fair with his project Meeting Point. His modern sculptural works take the form of NFTs (non-fungible tokens). In other words, an NFT is a “digital work of art that is completely unique and whose authenticity can be verified through blockchain technology”1. Presented by Mumbai’s Tarq Gallery, Ruheel’s five NFT artworks were meant to be seen through a cell phone or tablet camera.

No, Augmented Reality Sculpture, 2022, Photo Courtesy: India Art Fair

For his NFTs, Ruheel utilizes the genre of augmented reality (AR). A computer-generated interactive experience, AR is typically implemented by designers in application technology. However, AR is increasingly becoming a part of the average individual’s daily interactions; some examples being Google Lens, Nintendo’s Pokémon Go, and Snapchat. Similarly, in recent years, NFTs have also paved the way for more expansive ways of approaching creative artistic practices. NFT art has been contestable, particularly when it comes to conventional modes of exhibition and art-making that currently exist. Unlike the ‘white cube’ aesthetic, in typical gallery and exhibition spaces, Ruheel’s AR sculptures immerse the viewer in an altered version of their own reality.

The India Art Fair’s archives describe the project as inviting viewers to “step into an eerie landscape, where they can interact with all that silently inhabits this space, witness ghost words and watch them inaudibly present around us”.2

A secret world inhabited beyond the veil of reality, Ruheel’s sculptures exist within an intangible space. The sculptures are a mix of abstract and recognizable forms, both. Incorporating bright hues and glossy textures, the forms appear to be metallic, plastic, and fluid all at the same time. Like a tangle of wires or bouncy springs, the forms do not necessarily represent easily identifiable objects, nor is that the artist’s intention. Titled “Point”, “Ha Ha Ha”, “No”, “Ummm”, and “Wow”, the five NFTs are most likely named after common words used in texting vernacular, or “ghost words”. Such words are perhaps not meant to carry great weightage, or substantial information regarding the conversation at hand, which is why it makes sense for the artist to use almost randomly selected words to best manifest the ‘inaudible inhabitants’ in the space.

Viewers would need to follow an internet link to view the project, which required access to the device’s camera. The viewer is then directed to point the camera on a flat surface, on the ground, to trigger the AR. Ruheel’s sculpture would then find its placement through the viewfinder of the mobile device.

Ha Ha Ha, Augmented Reality Sculpture, 2022, Photo Courtesy: India Art Fair

“Ha Ha Ha” was of particular interest, as it was designed using the Urdu script. The word “Ha” was written in Urdu font and used in repetition, manipulated to form a spring-like structure, and utilizing the use of words in more literal ways as compared to the other four NFTs. The sculpture would typically orient itself into a smaller scale, positioning itself on top of a bed or stool if activated in a bedroom setting. Others like “Point” would often encapsulate the entire screen, letting the viewer move their device around and experience the feeling of walking under and through the large, yellow loops of the sculpture. “No” and “Ummm” almost inherit the shape of play-dough; twisted and morphed into nameless forms that hover over their own simulated shadows, while “Wow” swirls above in a solid spiral.

These “ghost words”, hence, signify the spaces in the middle of sentences that act as intermediaries between an expression and the response that follows. This “meeting point” of words, that were said and left unsaid, also resonates with the in-between stage of physical space and augmented reality that these sculptures are meant to depict.

Point, Augmented Reality Sculpture, 2022, Photo Courtesy: Noor Butt

Interestingly, the AR software is not compatible with every mobile device; depending on the processor and other specifications. There was also the possibility of viewers not being able to view the immersive experience at all due to technological limitations. The ownership of intangible objects like NFTs also brings to light the question of what digital art-making can mean for the future of visual practices. The uncertainty surrounding cryptocurrency also has a long way to go regarding the existence of NFT art.

However, several museums and exhibition spaces relied on virtual means during the pandemic, particularly when lockdown was enforced and public spaces could not be accessed. Prominent galleries invested in providing virtual tours of their collections to engage audiences through an alternative means. Ruheel’s Meeting Point does something similar, by allowing audiences to engage with his artwork, while sitting in the comfort of their own homes and immersing themselves in the work regardless of their physical location.

Contemporary works of this nature directly challenge the status quo of exhibition spaces, seeking to expand beyond the realms of what is conventional. Ruheel invites viewers to not only join in on this immersive experience, but to also engage with art in a way that was technologically impossible not too long ago. The possibilities of art-making inhabiting new forms, particularly in the digital realm, are immense. Is this the future of exhibition-making? One can only speculate. However, after experiencing collective lockdowns of tangible spaces, on a global scale during the pandemic, it is possible that virtual and augmented reality could easily dovetail into the realm of visual art heading into the future.

‘Meeting Point’ was exhibited at India Art Fair in New Delhi, from 28 April – 1 May 2022.

Title image: Ummm, Augmented Reality Sculpture, 2022, Photo Courtesy: India Art Fair

Endnotes

  1. Smita Tripathi, “How NFTs are Disrupting the Art World”, Business Today, (published February 20, 2022) https://www.businesstoday.in/magazine/luxury-lifestyle/story/how-nfts-are-disrupting-the-art-world-321706-2022-02-15
  2. “Meeting Point – Muzzumil Ruheel”, India Art Fair, https://indiaartfair.in/programme/meeting-point-muzzumil-ruheel

Noor Butt is an artist and writer. Her ongoing research interests and creative practice include South Asian and 20th century art, with a focus on gender, nationalism, and image-making in the photographic age. Recipient of the Abu Shamim Areff Award for Best Research, the Sher Asfandyar Khan Award for Academic Excellence, and the Daniel Peltz Scholarship for postgraduate study, she has a BFA with distinction from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS) and an MA in History of Art with Merit from the University of London, Birkbeck College. Noor currently teaches art history at IVS in the Liberal Arts programme.

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