When dead ships travel
BMP Building, Ground Floor, N. A. Sawant Marg, Colaba, 400 005 Mumbai, Maharashtra , India
September 30, 2015 - November 7, 2015
How do objects "end" their "lives"? Where do they go to die? How does an object have this presence beyond the monumental, a soul that is passing through time and place? Can both history and the ahistorical be dialectics in the same image? What is the afterlife of a technological process?
Shumon Ahmed's When dead ships travel, a show of photographic prints at Project 88, captures in its title a multitude of interpretations. These are images that speak for themselves over and over again. The “when” is when ships arrive at the burial site, Baro Aulia, a beach and shipbreaking yard north of Chittagong, Bangladesh. Of past and future, this “when” hinges life and the afterlife.
This is the starting point for Ahmed who, with his series Metal Graves, first showed these images in India at the Kochi Muziris Biennale in 2014. In the Biennale’s main venue, the Aspinwall House, abutting the Kochi harbor, one stood mute in the irony of the location. Images of past-date ships awaiting dismantling at a shipyard met the white noise of harbor whistles and the ghostly glide of ships on the busy waterway outside. Cropped by the window frame, the ships entered and departed; it seemed an eerie backstory to the death portrayed in the photographs inside, one that no historian could have described as evocatively.
Ahmed catches the melancholia of a life come to an end: consigned to dismemberment, the ship's lonely wait is hauntingly presented. Once majestic in motion, these time travellers accrue a physical/historical skin—of rust and mollusk, of stories and trade, of politics and technology. In Hasselblad square format ripples of sand, a lone worker, an eternal shoreline, close-ups of prows and hulls isolate the ships from what is to come. It is this cusp between life and death, that quiet moment between the busyness of both, that is captured, a pause that animates the abject.
These were the conquerors of centuries past, the mammoth movers of an industrial world. Today, China is dropping steel prices to lows that compete with recycled steel from these “dead ships,” and new European Union laws enforce environmental changes to the toxic South Asia shipyards. Consequently, from the coasts of Gujarat in India to Pakistan to Bangladesh, these yards of object re-incarnation in their re-cycle of life—post-industrial fodder for photographers—are shutting down faster than imagined. Photographers reap images as much as the shipbreakers reap the scavenged life of the ships, as in Ketaki Sheth's pictures of Alang in Gujarat, and Sebastiao Selgado (Workers) and Edward Burtynsky's (Manufactured Landscapes) documentation of Aulia. In their photographs, a human presence is implicit in the object is the ship: toiling laborers foreground destruction and death. It marks a specific kind of history, location.
Removing markers of location, the abandoned ships with barely a human presence, the mise-en-scene Ahmed creates could be a shoreline anywhere, with any history attached. If we delve, we know it's a shipbreaking yard, yet the trance-like shots induce fantasy—one could imagine being in a Fellini dreamscape, a magnificent Saraghina emerging, her formidable figure diminutive against the prow, livening up a beach in Southern Italy, embracing encrusted metal to the delight of a young Guido.
Where Ahmed departs from these shipyards’ myriad documentarians, is not so much in his insider status, but in technique and form, and in that, is the delicious doubleness in these images—they encompass not just the historical, but the history of image making itself.
As images about "dead ships" that speak of a story of politics, the environment, and economics, Ahmed's images seem ahistorical, yet they are redolently laden with history of another kind: that of photography. Ahmed, like the ships, sits on the cusp of life and death of print films' last sighing years. With stocks of refrigerated outdated film as his experimental ground, his lab of transition, throws up contingencies that in turn throw up new meaning. Knowing the digital world and the Instagram-like filters that abound making processors of every layman, Ahmed's is a physical, material trip into nostalgia, a chemical ephemerality that fixes the past with wit and knowing.
In When dead ships travel 7, Ahmed used a makeshift pinhole camera with 35mm color film. An exposure longer than the film required results in a blurry, hallucinatory print, like a mirage on the horizon. It looks like an illustration from the past, and has the emergence of surface in a chemical process. This “doubleness” is a recurrent way of seeing throughout this show: history and process are symbiotic. Some images are rendered a blue or green tint, the unexpected effect of expired film; others are manipulated manually allowing light to hit differently throwing up bands within a frame. With cross processing, film is intentionally processed in the wrong chemicals, creating unpredictable results in color and contrast. By shooting in color slide film and developing it in C41, Ahmed creates colorless backgrounds that highlight abjectness even more.
Using a plastic Diana camera (a low tech camera of the movement that spawned Lomography), light leaks and film advances allow for the chimera Ahmed sets out to achieve, as in When dead ships travel 5. Multiple exposures on a single frame make the ship appear to move within the frame. It's almost a reverse of Eadweard Muybridge's early experimentation with multiple frames to capture movement. Photography, a century on, plays with time, representation long conquered. In catching the ships thus, Ahmed imbues them with a character, the loss is compounded, an object personified.
In this lugubrious graveyard of place, a faraway shoreline to which ships make their last journey, analogue photography is animated. Experimentation shoots adrenaline to revive a slowing heart, allowing an uncertain chance of a prolonged afterlife, and multiple histories in simultaneity. It's this play within a medium that makes photographic possibilities exciting in this century, the knowledge of both, the analogue past and a digital future, and an artist's whim, willing to chance upon a dream.
Source: artslant India.