We begin with a pair of before-and-after pictures. Incursions, Incisions and Transgressions Lii (2020) is an immediately recognizable image. A greyscale print of an X-ray is, in fact, a mammogram, a globular, protuberant profile of a female breast crowned by a nippular tip. The visual language of radiography is decoded by colour: large swathes of grey in the breast indicate less dense tissue, such as fat, the primary component of the human mammary. Smaller specks and webs of white suggest denser tissue, including glands, connective tissue and tumours, and, here, a concentrated cluster is clearly visible, a pale, blank patch that denotes an area of somatic aberration. Facing it is another alien form, a shape resembling the contour of a bullet suspended in space, closer inspection of which reveals that it is embroidered in red thread, stitched through perforations made in the print. Both are abnormalities. The first, as will soon be apparent, represents the disclosure of a malignant tumour in the body, and the second a material imagining of the cancerous lump, a three-dimensional analogue of the the two-dimensional image. Another work in the same series, Lv (2020), features the same breast, post-lumpectomy; the patch of tumorous calcification is gone, its absence accompanied by an indentation in the surface of the breast, a sign of the collapsed space beneath. As if in inversely proportional relationship to what must have been the sheer trauma of the process, the embroidered intervention here assumes the form of a diminutive red stitch over the breast itself, suggesting perhaps the presence of a suture in actuality – barely noticeable at first glance, a deliberately understated interposition.
Sunaina Bhalla is both an artist interested in textiles and craft, and a survivor of breast cancer. The title of the current exhibition, “Sharps and Such”, is derived from a label commonly found on plastic containers for sharps, a vernacular term for the category of medical tools used to penetrate the epidermal layer. The show conjoins those otherwise distinct dimensions of the artist’s life – her practice and personal medical history – in the motif of the needle, and the trope of violence. In choosing to engage with objects that signify intense physical distress and emotional upheaval for her, she acknowledges the ineluctable reality that confronts most patients with life-threatening conditions: the all too porous line between healing and harm, treatment and torment. The works here, including the Incursions series, foreground surfaces that are embroidered, sewn and stitched, paper and fabric punctured and perforated in the manner of skin pricked and pierced. The disruption of the material integrity of the medium finds correspondence in the record of corporeal incursions visited on the artist, one body symbolically substituted for another, one form of scarring reimagined in a different guise, the experience of trauma confronted in its catharsis. Her deeply intimate objects, then, seem almost to take on the dimension of sympathetic magic, interrupting the empiricism of scientific imaging technology with autographic traces of the artist’s hand, an attempt to exorcise the demons of disease in the encounter between radiograph and needle and thread.
The narrative of the show begins before Bhalla’s diagnosis of cancer, however, and a short biographical note serves to provide the necessary contextual framework here. Trained in textile design at the Polytechnic for Women, New Delhi, she began her career in her native city working with Indian designer Satya Paul, famed for his sarees and use of indigenous patterns. She spent a number of years living in Tokyo in the 1990s and early 2000s, where she picked up traditional Japanese techniques such as nihonga painting, and turned to art full-time; she left Japan for Singapore in 2003, and has been based in Southeast Asia since. The trajectory of her artistic practice, in its early years, was largely premised on paper and canvas paintings, informed by her personal cultural heritage and her embrace of traditional Japanese visual and material culture. Several solo exhibitions during this period, including those in Mumbai, New Delhi and Singapore, involved works that featured extensive use of East and South Asian symbols, as well as the pictorial language of abstraction. Bhalla’s origins as a textile designer were never far behind, though, and a number of paintings also incorporated textile patterns in their compositions. It was in a solo outing with a Mumbai-based gallery in 2012 that she began working with woodblock printing, and an exhibition held in New Delhi the following year saw the emergence of an interest in materiality, manifested in the use of wax in her works. This particular strand of her practice would assume greater significance when, beginning in 2016, she expanded the scope of her practice to include sculptural, sound and mixed media installation. These years were especially trying ones for Bhalla; it was also then that she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. Within a week of the diagnosis, she underwent a lumpectomy to remove the tumour in her left breast, followed by radiation treatment and, several months later, a hysterectomy, as a preventive measure against the possible onset of other types of cancer. The artist describes the experience in its excruciating reality:
Surgery happened. I was in hospital for 2 days. Then came the waiting for 3 weeks while tests were run to determine the type of treatment I would need … Radiation was recommended along with medication. 19 cycles of radiation over a period of 3 weeks targeted specifically at the area of the tumour – side effects were mild hair loss, extreme fatigue and burning and discolouration of the skin … After 3 months, I had the second surgery to remove the uterus and ovaries to prevent the occurrence of cancer of these organs. I was also willing to be pushed into menopause rather than get tested every 3-6 months. Menopause of course is inevitable for every woman but to have it so suddenly done resulted in a lot of symptoms – insomnia, weight gain, hot and cold sweats, mood swings.ii
About a year into the recovery process, Bhalla decided to enroll in the MFA program at the LASALLE College of the Arts. “I became fatalistic”, she recounts, “and decided I wanted to do everything on my bucket list so I did my MFA … the direction of my practice changed dramatically in terms of materiality, theory and reflection and I started experimenting with wax, medical detritus etc.”iii The seismic shifts in her personal life at this juncture, then, fed directly into the circumstances that enabled a drastic evolution in her work, and nowhere are the originary moments of that cross-fertilization – between autobiography and aesthetic sensibility – more apparent than in the video, Ephemeral (2017). Produced during her stint as a MFA student, the work is comprised of a tableau involving a tower of paraffin wax blocks, surrounded by a phalanx of candles, that slowly but surely, over the brief course of the sequence, begin to melt from the heat, to deliquesce, run, genuflect, crumble and, finally, collapse altogether, a witness to decay and death in real time. As with the Incursions images, what is pictured is mortality metaphorized in material form, the vulnerability of the human body given visual life and poetic license. The artist writes: “After experimenting with fabric and various kinds of pins in semester one [of the MFA program], I explored paraffin wax in its various forms … The tower of wax melts slowly … At one point it reaches the point where the tower falls. It is this point that I want to capture, the point where the wax candle destroys the tower of wax. In a way, I am visualizing the deterioration of the body by the disease as well as the medication for the disease which is, in a way, an artificial chemical which is harmful (poisonous) to the body.”iv
By her own admission, graduate school enabled Bhalla to push her practice towards a material turn, shifting from a motific visual vocabulary, dominated by the two-dimensional image, to a deeper engagement with materiality and texture – with craft-based techniques and the found object, including medical detritus, as well as installation and sound work. Sharps (2020), for one, consists of nearly two hundred white fabric ropes, suspended from the ceiling in the semblance of a forest of wintry arboreal silhouettes. Belying the impression of serenity, however, is a detail far more ominous; pierced through the lengths of satin-wrapped cotton are thousands of slender, glinting dressmaker’s pins, puncturing the body of the ropes like instruments of torture, or crucifixion. Here, again, is violence manifested in the trope of corporeal incursion and irruption, the pins a stand-in, of course, for the needle and syringe, a confusion of bodily pain and all too necessary medical procedures. While her personal struggle with cancer has defined much of her recent oeuvre, Bhalla’s life has been impacted not just by her own health issues, but also that of her child. For the artist, the repeated perforation of the fabric with pins constitutes a re-enactment of one of the central routines of her life, both pre- and post-cancer: the act of injecting her daughter, who is diabetic, with insulin multiple times over the course of any given day. “I have a daily responsibility that is almost like a ritual”, she remarks, “of dealing with blood tests and injections for my diabetic daughter.” She goes on to note that
The repetitive act of poking is a daily reminder of the fragility of human beings and the damage the body suffers in order to cure certain severe diseases and conditions … The first 2 years were a mental fog for my husband and me as we grappled with the reality of the Type 1 diabetes … Life became a daily ritual of blood tests every two hours … The exhaustion was intense. I could only eat and sleep during the day at the time and that routine dulled my mind … Finally I think in 2013 I went into adrenal fatigue – my body’s ability to fight the stress diminished so I went to the doctor and was put on medication.v
The lack of mental clarity that she alludes to also recurs as the conceptual premise of Fugue and Incomprehensible Repository (both 2020). The first assumes the form of a piece of fabric almost three metres long, embroidered into the expanse of which is a linear design loosely based on the labyrinth – a pattern that also recalls the language of geometric abstraction – with a dense cluster of the motif at one end slowly unravelling into a more diffuse scheme at the other. Slicing through the length of the tapestry is a single, long, jagged red stitch that resembles a raw scar, intercut at cross angles by suture threads with attached needles. Incomprehensible Repository is a vocal recitation, by the artist, of various medical reports that she received over the years of her cancer treatment, selected for their utilization of opaque medical jargon that often permits little access by the very individual most invested in the information it conveys – the patient. According to Bhalla, she was given a mere 48 hours, when first diagnosed, to decide on the sort of surgery that was desired (whether a mastectomy or lumpectomy), and the long road to recovery, after the surgery itself, riddled by an information that “was mind boggling and totally incomprehensible” in both volume and quality. Fugue, she remarks, “seeks to display that fugue-like state of mind in navigating the labyrinth of information which is always tinged with the fear of making the right decisions and the consequences thereof.”vi That labyrinth of information is rendered, with Repository, in a stream of sonic data tinctured by the artist’s vocal inflections that suggest underlying emotional tonalities; the work, in fact, begins with an audible sigh, an anticipation of what is to come.
To return to the earlier comparison with sympathetic magic, Bhalla’s works in “Sharps and Such” seem almost fetishistic or ritualistic, in the manner that cultural anthropology would recognize those qualities: objects studded with pins, pictures poked and pierced, materials deliberately reduced to abjection, a panoply of images and things at once intimate and portentous, an attempt to influence the animate world through interventions in the inanimate realm. What J. G. Frazer identified as sympathetic magic was, of course, a form of superstition based on principles of mimesis or contiguity, that “like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.”vii If, at their core, the objects here are informed by the illegibility between the methods of modern medicine and the concomitant discomfort that they often generate, then perhaps it is possible to understand Bhalla’s imitation and re-enactment of the causes and effects of her own un-well-being as a form of occultism, almost, in the psychological register, an attempt to quell the lingering spectres of emotional and mental aches in revisiting their origins. Tales of pain are frequently recounted with expressions of distress, and here one may locate that grief not in narratives coloured by melodramatic emotion, but in the simple gesture of needle and thread on paper and cloth, the repeated act of pricking with a pin, the verbal recitation of alienated states – the hope for deliverance embodied in the magic of catharsis.
- The titles of the works in the Incursions, Incisions and Transgressions series are individually differentiated by markers containing either the letters “L” or “R”, a reference to whether the scan in question is of the artist’s left breast or right, and Roman numerals that order the works in a chronological sequence. Hence, Incursions, Incisions and Transgressions Li indicates that it is a piece based on the first mammogram of the left breast.
- In an e-mail to the author, dated October 7, 2020.
- According to Bhalla’s MFA dissertation, titled Gesture and the Ritual of Pain (2017).
- E-mail of October 7, 2020.
- In an e-mail to the author, dated October 16, 2020.
- See the section on “The Principles of Magic”, in the chapter on “Sympathetic Magic”, in the abridged edition of J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, first published by Penguin in 1922.