Belly of the Two-Headed Beast

Immersive installation for one spectator

Wouldn’t it be fun to take an artsy nap in an exhibition, gallery or museum?

Belly of the Two-Headed Beast is an experiential, interactive sculpture. It invites an individual spectator to crawl inside the tent, lie down and listen to an audio narrative on headphones. Here, time and smells seem to merge: the memory of an infant's crib mobile transforms into scents that are dancing on clockwork above you in this dark belly.

The audio is inspired by ASMR and mindfulness therapy. It encourages the audience to close their eyes and listen to words that weave a tapestry of surrealist images. In your relaxed yet aware state in the tent, you discover that there is no clear narrative; instead, the audio has fragments of imagery that feel like a dreamscape.

First installed at: Memory Palace - an interdisciplinary exhibition at Galerie AMU, Prague. Exhibition concept and curation: Captain Lightfoot. Co-curator: Eliška Žáková. Audio Duration: 12 minutes. Language: English. Measures: 1m (w), 1.5m (d), 3m (h).
Text by Nitish Jain with acknowledgement to Eliška Žaková and Captain Lightfoot for permission to quote from the GAMU press release and the exhibition handout.

The Memory Palace project

Belly of the Two Headed Beast took shape within the larger framework of Memory Palace - a collaborative project that brought together 7 international artists from various disciplines for a period of collective research, creation and exhibition in Prague. The project focused on the role of the unconscious mind in creative processes. We explored methods that allow us to create works devoid of critical thought and are more free and intuitive, relying on the improvised, instinctual and illogical. The collective artistic research drew inspiration from Dada’s rupturing of the link between art and the artist’s controlled decision making; Surrealism’s automatic writing and focus on the unconscious; Moholy-Nagy’s idea of the art object as the catalyst of an interactive event; and David Lynch’s technique of "transcendental meditation”.

Automatic writing and creating the audio pieces

The narratives (that later became recorded audios) were created through an immersion in these techniques. At a pre-decided date and time, all the participants of the collaboration interrupted their daily goings to write automatically for 5 minutes-allowing the unconscious mind to fill the minutes. Located in different time-zones, this exercise varied from 6pm some days to 3am on others; writing in the middle of a restaurant, a house party or concert or waking in the middle of the night- still in a dream state of mind. With each artist, the texts reveal a rambling stream of words and sentences, where the nonsensical is crudely interrupted by the intrusion of the conscious voice; questions, self-reflection and awareness. Here the unconscious and conscious mind overlap; feeding one another through creative process. An important part of this writing process was the feeling of being connected with the other participants and to know that they were also doing this at the same time in their respective countries. This body of automatic writings was then shared; with each participant selecting 3 lines from each other's writings. Each artist then re-structured these lines to create their own version of the collective memory/narrative.

Housing the audio

Each artist constructed an individual ‘tent’ like structure to house their fictive audios. Here the viewer would be invited to enter an intimate space, shut off from the gallery surroundings. Collectively, we circled back to the idea of memory palaces to find what these tents would look like for each of us. Belly of the Two Headed Beast came about by reflecting on these questions: What’s my memory palace? What images are stored in the depth of my subconscious? With exercises to let go of conscious thought and relying on instincts, I discovered images from my childhood: of domesticity and comfort; The epitome of which, for me, were my mother’s sarees and lunch-time aroma from her kitchen.

Materiality and layers

The materiality of the installation evolved as a conscious collaging of personal and cultural imagery from India, and found “domestic” materials, objects and textures. Through these emerged the idea of an imaginary beast with two heads and a belly that one can crawl into. I chose a saree of rippling black crepe - exquisite to look at and delicate to touch, and embodying a faint trace of nostalgia. The saree as a material informed the shape and size of the installation. The mixed aroma of dried and roasted turmeric, cumin, fenugreek and cardamom permeated the interior, arranged as a delicate clockwork mobile inside the belly. I imagined the surface of the belly, where the spectator would lie down, as an intricate fish scale pattern: to be a tactile contrast to the smoothness of the saree and be a compelling texture that could be grazed by the fingers. This was made using coffee filters that were ink dyed and dusted with gold. A strong motif of domesticity in India is found in the Drishti Gombe (demonic faces that ward off the evil eye) made from painted clay pots and hung on house façades. Using the vocabulary of contemporary art, this motif was referenced in the dual heads of the beast – charged with guarding this palace’s threshold.

We don’t experience dreams in a linear manner, they are often a multitude of overlapping images.

Audio Narrative: Based on automatic writings by Kadie Salmon, Emma Pratt, Anneli Holmstrom, ​Christian Henninger, Bára Anna Stejskalová, Eva Urbanová and Nitish Jain.
Sound: Robin Holmberg. Installation dramaturgy: Ran Jiao and Ine Ubben. Execution assisted by: Viktor Dedek, Matěj Šenkyřík. Pictures: Oskar Helcel.