[Column] Biennale

Vishal Onkhar stands once more at a crossroads and is painting a picture of the tumultuous chapter of his life in the past two years.

Vishal Onkhar: “Rembrandt’s forays into Indian drawing techniques might have guided his hand in The Jewish Bride, a copy of which hangs in the hallways of 3mE.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

As any Italian will tell you, biennale signifies that which transpires every two years, most notably an acclaimed contemporary art exhibition in Venice. Serendipitously for this columnist, who habitually scrambles to devise ideas for his articles, it is also a couple of years since taking the PhD plunge, picking up a pen for Delta, a fateful passage to India, and the advent of corona. And in true cyclical fashion, I stand once more at a crossroads, reeling in a sense of déjà vu and beset by doubt over the terminus of my research, writing, and personal relationships. One path is dangerously tantalising – forsake it all and lead an unassuming life in the dales of Limburg, or perhaps fade into the multitudes of suburban Rotterdam. I do not earnestly consider these possibilities, but their allure lurks sporadically on the horizon; a miniature quarter-life crisis, if you will.

The sole recourse is to transfigure this ordeal into art

It is no revelation that many young colleagues at 3mE (and beyond) resonate with this sentiment. After all, the past two years have scarcely been kind to the pursuit of science, leisure, and human connection. By way of my recent experiments (I perform human subject research), I was uniquely placed to converse at length with dozens of co-workers and friends. Some recurrent themes in their narratives emerged – discontent with their progress in life and research, disquiet over what lay in store after their PhD, fleeting urges to abandon academia, failed relationships, and abiding loneliness. And despite society being poised to unfurl its wings anew, I suspect the ramifications of corona on twentysomethings are sweeping and will take long to wholly disentangle. In other words, at the best of times, we navigate a tumultuous chapter of life, and the damage of the crisis has already been done.

The sole recourse then, by my reckoning, is to transfigure this ordeal into art and paint a picture, quite literally, of the previous two years by drawing from the wellspring of memory. And to do so in a style that befits that biennial commemoration of the art of our times. For there may well be a kernel of truth to the trope that art born of torment is often the most sincere.

When I mull it over, I see a backdrop of steel grey, painted with broad brushstrokes across a colossal canvas. Flecks and splashes of gold for all the high points, sparse at first but growing denser as my gaze trails across the cloth. Betwixt lie dribbles of cornflower blue, pervading and perennial, like the friendships they represent. And vivid streaks of red, rapturous red! Hurled with seeming reckless abandon and embodying passion, fury, or perhaps pain – I can no longer recall – darkening to indigo as they trickle down to gather in pools of midnight black tar. The pendant lights dangling from the ceiling, illuminating this wanton scene, remain a silent reminder of my fortunate circumstances in the face of a canvas of overcast skies. And perhaps unsettlingly, an artist’s signature is markedly absent.

Now, what do you see?

Vishal Onkhar is from Chennai, India and pursuing his PhD in Vehicle Engineering at TU Delft. He is an avid player of chess and video games, but he also harbours a special interest for reading and writing fantasy fiction. He doesn’t drink coffee but good music and film have the same effect on him.

Columnist Vishal Onkhar

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