Presented by:
The Fine Art Company
at
Museum Gallery, Mumbai
January 12th to 18th, 2009
 
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This exhibition is dedicated to my friend
Michael Fu
from whom I learnt how not to see the things on which it falls as it illuminates them but to watch light itself
 
ANATOMY OF A CHAIR, 24'' X 32'', 2007
 
 
 
BLUE MOON, 11'' X 11'', 2005   SQUARE MILES, 11'' X 22'', 2005   HORIZON, 11'' X 22'', 2005   SUNRISE, 11'' X 22'', 2005
 

Searching for Michael

In this the age of the internet where else does one begin one’s search!
I Googled michael fu cinemetographer singapore ftii. A few leads emerged. One looked very promising. It seemed quite plausible that Michael would now be a shading and optimization artist, or technical director associated with some of the best animation films made anywhere in the world in recent years. He would be a master at what I have been laboring over and trying to teach myself. A site that listed him as the winner of one of Hollywood’s most prestigious Visual Effects Awards instituted to honor Steven Spielberg, made me feel very happy for him until I saw a photograph of the awardees at the famed Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. Surely, this didn’t look like him. Not even by a long shot. None of the other leads took me anywhere.
I asked a few friends but no one knew any better.
It seemed perfectly in order though, that with a title like ‘Dematerializations’ I should not be able to find the actual person to whom I wanted to dedicate this show.
Michael was a student at the Film & TV Institute of India in Pune in the mid 1970s. He was training to be a Cinematographer while I was learning Film Direction. A native of Singapore, Michael lived simply—perhaps the only one who cooked his own food, in his little room in the hostel. For years I used his trick of dropping an egg into whatever food was on the stove, to make it nutritious and interesting. A foreign student who had invested all his savings in this training, Michael breathed photography. It was this common engagement that was at the heart of much of our interaction. He came from another culture carrying with him his own set of references and often brought a different perspective to the simplest of situations.
I remember one evening when there was a nip in Pune’s air, some of us rushed down to the Institute’s main theatre to watch a film.
“Let me quickly get a jacket,” I said.
“Why?” asked Michael.
“Because it’s cold,” I said.
“Then feel it,” came his prompt reply.
 
SUNBEAM, 24'' X 32'', 2007
 
MOONBEAM, 24'' X 32'', 2007
 

It is very tempting now to speak of him as a Chinese monk. He had native wisdom, was tough as nails, even stubborn and difficult because he demanded as much of the director and every member of the crew as he did of himself. Though he was never part of my unit we talked a lot about photography.

 
The Film & TV Institute of India was an ideal place those days for anyone wanting to learn almost anything. The students, from far and wide, attended classes, demos, lectures, seminars and workshops with eminent professionals on photography, lighting, art, visual design, sound recording, scriptwriting, acting… and all of their extended and attendant disciplines. They gorged themselves on the National Film Archive’s huge collection of the best of international cinema, housed on their campus, as they set their own ambitious dreams on celluloid.
 
UNTITLED, 24'' X 24'', 2007   UNTITLED, 24'' X 24'', 2007
 
Watching cinematography students learning to light up a studio set I realized the challenges involved. Film emulsions see light differently from the human eye. To recreate light on film—or in a frame—the way we experience it is a tough task. Multiple sources give rise to multiple shadows besides bringing in a host of other problems. To control anything, you need, first of all, to know it well. So it is with light. You must know its nature. This became an extended exercise with Michael. Whenever we walked into a space he would point out the light—the way it falls on the walls, how it fades further away on the surface, what happens in the corners… We would draw up an impromptu plan on how we could recreate it faithfully with artificial light.
I have not met Michael in thirty years. But I have continued watching light. Just watching it. Sometimes consciously, and sometimes out of habit. Starting from the source and seeing not just how light transforms its environment but how it itself gets altered. Its transformation from direct light to directional light, reflected light, hard or soft light, bounced light, diffused light… and not to forget the play that takes place in the shadows! Many thoughts and ideas—even those that have little or nothing to do with the physical or the visual world, have conceptually joined themselves to this simple exercise that has grown ever richer and more pleasurable.
As I reflect, looking back at my years at the FTII, I think about my peers. We discussed, even fought passionately over ideas and ideals. In the seventies these were still very much alive and real! Looking up to the great masters, and enthused by the possibilities of this extraordinary medium, the students learnt from the faculty, from eminent visitors, from books, from films, but above all they learnt from one another. In dedicating this to Michael Fu, I acknowledge, to each one of them, a sincere debt of gratitude.
 
 
UNTITLED (GREEN), 24'' X 32'', 2006   UNTITLED (BLUE), 24'' X 32'', 2006
 
UNTITLED (RED), 24'' X 32'', 2006   UNTITLED (YELLOW), 24'' X 32'', 2006
 
Looking at light but not at that on which it falls is an experience that transforms one’s physical reality. A ‘dematerialized’ world has been a much explored and an exciting idea not only in the spiritual realm but also in Philosophy and in the Sciences.
Democritus believed, “A thing merely appears to have color; it merely appears to be sweet or bitter. Only atoms and empty space have a real existence.” Plato believed such properties, “whatever their names may be, are nothing in themselves…” Galileo thought them to be only “names for certain effects upon the sense organs.” And for Newton atoms were themselves transparent; opacity was caused by “the multitude of reflections in their internal parts.”
None of this changed even with the advent of Quantum Physics. Heisenberg maintains that “Atomic theory consistently denies the atom any such perceptible qualities.”
At heart the “indeterminacy” of the world remains. Each particle-observer interaction creates a new reality.
Among the most objective of instruments of observation is the photographer’s lens. However, photography, though it roots itself in the actual physical world of matter and of objects also lends itself to the invocation of a de-objectified matter-less reality with light as its central principle. The tools made available by digital technology further open up this expanse giving rise to wondrous possibilities.
This exhibition explores the space that exists between photography and ‘not-photography’, between reality and abstraction, between a familiar world of objects and a ‘dematerialized’ one of forms, shapes, colour and light, giving free reign to the imagination. By turning its gaze towards the everyday this body of work tries to find the simple relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary.
“There are two ways to live your life,” said Albert Einstein. “One is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.”
Zen finds the unity between the two ways. Before you begin your search, it is said, a mountain is a mountain and a tea cup is a tea cup. Somewhere along the path, the mountain ceases to be just a mountain and the tea cup is more than a tea cup. After you attain the light a mountain is again a mountain and a tea cup, a tea cup.

- Ashok Ahuja
January 2009

 
 
 
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