Sohrab Hura. Still from The Lost Head and the Bird. 2019. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © 2021 Sohrab Hura

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New Delhi–based artist and photographer Sohrab Hura (b. 1981) has recently turned toward moving images, creating work that grapples with the “new economy of meanings” produced by the “violent deluge” of viral images and videos circulating through social media feeds and WhatsApp chats. The surreal images and juxtapositions in The Lost Head and the Bird (2019) emerge largely from India’s coastline, which Hura considers a metaphor for the tipping point of a society on the brink. Recently I spoke to him about the video, which is built around a montage of two sequences of images that build gradually to an explosive, frenetic pace in which fact and fiction lose their contours. Exploring what Hura calls “a frighteningly fast-changing, post-truth world,” this work also navigates caste and gender in an era in which images are no longer marked by stillness, but rather by glitches and overwhelming speed. The work is intended to be encountered as an immersive projection, but the artist has kindly produced a special edit for this online presentation.

Join us for other screenings in the Hyundai Card Video Views series, which considers artists’ engagement with a technology that has become central to our daily lives.
–Stuart Comer, The Lonti Ebers Chief Curator of Media and Performance

Sohrab Hura’s The Lost Head and the Bird screened here May 12–26, 2021. The film is no longer available for streaming. Read an interview with the artist below, and join us for the next Hyundai Card Video Views screening, beginning June 9, 2021.

Stuart Comer: The Lost Head and the Bird is a long-term project for you that began, really, more as a photographic project, and then moved towards being a moving image installation. I’m wondering if you could talk about the general makeup of the project and how you first began shooting these images.

Sohrab Hura: This work looks at systems of power that are enabled by narratives that are generated through constant manipulations of the stories that we tell. I realized that there was this aggression that was building in India in the early 2000s. And before the current government came into power in 2014, there were these new sort of narratives, one of which was Hindu khatre me hai, meaning “the Hindus are in danger.” And it was accompanied by seas of people wearing masks of [Indian president Nardendra] Modi.

So for me this idea of the masks, the masquerade, the kind of roles that we take on, the way we perform—all these things started to seep into what was happening here. And in the beginning I just reacted to it photographically. And because there was already manipulation happening in the context of images that were being put out that were recontextualized, this made me realize that there was never one sort of meaning that was settled in any of my images, or any of the images that I saw.

By 2014, the social media space had exploded and there were videos of lynchings that were all over, there were videos of pop culture that were being mixed into it. You know, I ended up in the beginning thinking that my work was about violence, but it took me a while to figure out it was actually about different kinds of systems. One of which was power, and it included all kinds of visual material that was out there.

Sohrab Hura. Still from The Lost Head and the Bird. 2019

Sohrab Hura. Still from The Lost Head and the Bird. 2019

Can you comment on the difference between encountering this work as an installation, and this special edit that you’ve produced for an online encounter?

In the version that’s installed, there are 12 versions in loop. I think that plays with the idea of doubt. You’re never quite sure whether what you’re watching in its second viewing is the same as the one before. And what ends up happening in that version pulls in all these different directions. And if you’ve watched the fourth or the fifth version, and someone else has watched the seventh and the eighth, you both might have totally different experiences. In the installed version, I feel pleased with this element of doubt a lot more because it keeps shifting, morphing into something else in its next viewing. And of course, in the version that is screened here, I’m hoping that you still have an option to watch it again and again, to really discover how it changes.

We’re now in a moment where forms of dissent in social media are being actively banned by the Modi government. What was assumed to be a free system of circulation is now under threat in India. And I’m wondering how you think about the moving image at a moment where there is less movement in the country, both because of the pandemic and because of the political situation, and how the work might have shifted in your mind in response to it?

In 2015, right before the election, a rumor was spread that a gentleman called Mohammed Akhlaq and his family were consuming beef. Now, on the basis of this rumor, he got lynched. And it was so absurd that a police case was filed against him and his family. The piece of meat was taken from the refrigerator and sent to the labs for forensic examination. So we had someone who was murdered and yet—because of this story that had gotten out of control—the focus was on the meat and not on the murder. And this is the sort of reality that is being fanned into existence.

So in the world that we’re living in today, things are hitting us so fast. In India, for example, we have a fact-checking website called Alt News, which I think is an extremely important organization. But the problem is that by the time the dust has settled and we get to know what has really happened, there is already an event of violence that has taken place, and someone’s died or gotten hurt. And for me, the shift to moving image is also a desperate attempt to catch hold of as much time as possible, which I wasn’t able to really do with a still image.

Sohrab Hura. Still from The Lost Head and the Bird. 2019

Sohrab Hura. Still from The Lost Head and the Bird. 2019

Can you talk about your use of montage, placing two images adjacent to each other, and this work’s gradation from almost total darkness to a very frantic and rapid sequencing of images?

I cooked up a story about Madhu, the main protagonist, who has had her head stolen. And there are three male protagonists as well in the story. One is the obsessive lover who’s stolen her head. Then there is the fortune teller who repeatedly sells her a crow, telling her that it’s a parrot with a bad cough. Because she doesn’t have a head, she believes in him. And every time the crow escapes, she goes back to buy another crow thinking it’s a parrot. And then there’s the photographer, who is me, and who’s complicit in the violence. But the photographer is also you, the viewer. Both of us are helping circulate these images.

While working on this project, I was very aware of a certain kind of images that were existing on social media. You know, whenever we have conspiracy theories, it’s always these broken images that are given to us. Because there’s something far more believable in these broken images, as opposed to these perfectly well-done photographs. Images have codes in them which affect the amount of trust that we have in them. And I use this kind of image-making to generate a certain intensity and a certain provocation.

I did start off with that story of the woman without the head. But beyond a point, it doesn’t really matter, you know? Because what for me matters is that I’m leading you to the more real space. The images that I made are meant to usher you into this very compressed, concentrated space of the world that is hitting us at every moment of time. If I had my way, I might have made a work that spiraled into this space of collected images, and would have gone on endlessly, out of my control. And it would still be going on in real time.

Media and Performance at MoMA is made possible by Hyundai Card

Major support is provided by the Jill and Peter Kraus Endowed Fund for Contemporary Exhibitions.

Generous funding is provided by the Lonti Ebers Endowment for Performance and the Sarah Arison Fund for Performance.