Written over a hundred years ago, the works of writer Franz Kafka and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud still find relevance with those who question the oddities of life. The Delhi-based artist and architect Rohit Raj Mehndiratta, in his new exhibition, has tried to explore the mental landscape of these two thinkers.
Aptly titled Navigating Mindscapes, his show is on view at Delhi’s Arpana Caur Gallery. Through the exhibits, visitors can relate to Kafka’s phantasmagoric visions, and Freud’s theories of the subconscious identity— both shedding light on the notion of human alienation and the persistent struggle to belong to a society.
Speaking about the starting point for the exhibits, Mehndiratta says, “The art for this exhibition really started after understanding and applying key Freudian concepts to my life. So this exhibition is really an expression of my own journey, understanding the multiple voices inside and literally characterising them. But as I compose my photographs I realised the strength of viscerally experiencing the materially rich world around us allows moments of catharsis akin to any technique of mental purging, be it meditation or psychotherapy.”
Mehndiratta’s mixed-media artworks, including photographic prints, pen and ink drawings, and acrylics and oils on canvas, tell several stories and highlight complex concepts. Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, about the insurance salesman who transforms overnight into a giant insect, served as inspiration for the artist’s pen and ink works. The canvas is divided into three black and white images. It appears that the artist has purposefully left colour out of the picture to compare the three images to the life of Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Kafka’s masterpiece.
The first image in the series looks like the actual metamorphosis of Kafka’s character, with uneven zigzag lines giving an oval shape. The second image shows the structure with a bend in the back and you remember the story—the point when an apple is thrown at Samsa by his father, injuring his back. The third image appears as though our hero is succumbing to flames, representing the death of Samsa.
Mehndiratta’s series of two works, titled The Conscious, is also done in pen and ink, and is inspired by Freud’s psychic structure of the ego and superego operative in the conscious areas of the mind.
It is not for the first time that Mehndiratta has explored the mind and its dark crevices. His first solo show in 2016, held at Delhi’s Alliance Francaise, titled (Un)fettered, was built on a subject similar to the present one—the coexistence of the inner realm with the outer reality. And in 2014, in his solo photography show, which was titled Placed Settings, he aimed to come to terms with the vagaries of everyday life in Brooklyn, New York.
Mehndiratta’s father is the highly acclaimed engineer Mahendra Raj, who is credited with creating Delhi’s Talkatora Indoor Stadium, and Mumbai’s Gallery of Modern Art among many other prominent buildings. And it was when the artist began to co-author and conceptualise a book on the life of his father, that he decided to devote more time to his own art.
His inner quest of creating artworks on the thoughts of Freud and Kafka started after his Delhi show in 2016. He says, “After my art show in Delhi and later the international tour for the book, The Structure-Works of Mahendra Raj, which I co-authored, my career paths were at a crossroads. My interest in Kafka grew. I kept thinking to myself: what did he convey in “The Metamorphosis”? Ideas of alienation from self, existential anxiety, notions that I felt very strongly that year made me move to Kafka. In 2016, I also actively read books on psychosomatic disorders and my interest in Freud also grew. And yes, the two did have a lot in common. They belonged to the same period and worked on similar ideas.”
For the visual artist, it has now become clear that he wants to work with multiple media on a given theme. He says, “I have a strong interest in expressing a given idea through different representational techniques to be able to bring out varied meanings. Currently, I am working with three mediums: photography and digital media, pen and ink, and acrylic and oil. I use these very differently to create a richer body of work centred around a particular theme.”
Mehndiratta has given careful thought to his art. And now, accompanied by the thoughts of great thinkers, he wants to give himself a free hand in creating a new visual language. “Expression of the idea of the self and the world is a lifelong endeavour where the subject matter may vary through the context I work with. I hope to create a body of work that continuously re-examines the shifting relationship we have with ourselves based on the changing environment around us,” he says.