Nep Sidhu at Mercer Union

This week I decided to once again defy the inhospitable winds of this relentless winter and go see Nep Sidhu’s solo show, Medicine for a Nightmare (they called, we responded), at Mercer Union. The show is exhibited in two rooms. In the first, you’re confronted with two monumental hanging textile works, each spanning the length of their respective wall. Turn to your left or right and you’ll find a sculpture of a head on a plinth. A little further down the wall there is a third. They’re all coated with metallic paint and adorned with a variety of accessories and found objects. Following the faint sound of flowing water and pacifying synth pads, you’re led into the second space in which a large, boxlike concrete object, resembling an architectural model of a Blade Runner set, rests atop a cleanly bevelled mound of earth.

With this show, Sidhu acknowledges and reflects on the events of Operation Blue Star, a violent military campaign carried out by the Indian Government in 1984 on the Sikh religious complex known as Sri Darbar Sahib (or Harmindir Sahib). The goal of this action was to oppose Sikh activist groups and movements which “sought to address the impoverished economic, social and political conditions of life for Sikh people in India”[1]. Many Sikh pilgrims were trapped in the complex for a festival at the time, which resulted in the massacre of hundreds of people at the hands of the Indian army.

Despite the violent atrocity and its lingering memory of oppression, the tone of the Sidhu’s show is one of resilience, healing, protection, and community, offering both a recognition of the horrors of the past and a way to begin move past them. We see this focus in a depiction of a religious ceremony is painted and woven into his newly-commissioned tapestry, also entitled Medicine for a Nightmare, illustrating the realities of Sikh devotion and exhibiting the artist’s own devotion (of time and labour) to the craft of weaving. The mollifying resonance of Gong Bath, the sound work described above, brings to mind a temple-like space of serenity and restoration, reinforced by the use of flowers which have been placed on the concrete sculpture. Sleek metalwork objects feature prominently throughout the show, sometimes resembling kirpan (a sacred dagger)[2] and other devotional objects. These items function as symbols of protection, like talismans conveying a sense of safety in the face of danger or injustice.

Sidhu also collaborated with other artists in producing the work. He partnered with Nicholas Galanin in the making of Axes in Polyrythm, the other expansive textile piece which features materials like red cedar and forms that are prominent in Tlingit/Aleut culture[1] — and with Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes in the creation of the head sculptures, which they’ve deemed as “Salve Sayers / Unguent Urgers / (and) Poultice Prayers / of the Anti-Apocalypse”. The added symbolic depth created by these collaborations reveals the value of community and allyship in the pursuit of humanist goals.

The exhibition as a whole transmits the feeling of a science-fiction utopia, as if we’re observing artifacts from a future in which human spirituality and technology harmonize to maintain peaceful and just coexistence. It also provides us with a vision of a world where a reverence for history is central, and where the act of collective remembering and protection against violent erasure is considered crucial.

The show will continue to be exhibited at Mercer Union through to March 23.

[1] Turions, Cheyanne. Medicine for a Nightmare (They Called, We Responded). Medicine for a Nightmare (They Called, We Responded), Mercer Union, 2019.

[2] “Kirpan.” Merriam-Webster.

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