Sangeeta Sandrasegar, ‘The Secret of Spiders, Shadows and Cells’, catalogue essay for NEW04, ACCA, Melbourne, 2004

At Combray, as every afternoon ended, long before the time when I should have to go to bed and lie there, unsleeping, far from my mother and grandmother, my bedroom became the fixed point on which my melancholy and anxious thoughts were centred. Someone had indeed had the happy idea of giving me, to distract me on evenings when I seemed abnormally wretched, a magic lantern, which used to be set on top of my lamp while we waited for dinner-time to come; and, after the fashion of the master-builders and glass painters of gothic days, it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted as on a shifting and transitory window.

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Sangeeta Sandrasegar builds in the shadows with filigree paper cut-outs, casting the haunting shapes of her serial motifs across receptive surfaces. She invites us into the intimacy of her lair, asking seductively:  come into my parlour … Sandrasegar weaves her work between obscurity and luminousity, in such a manner that shadows take on a materiality all of their own, which the clarity of paper and light merely frame. Her most recent project will feature the motif of the spider, who will make its way to us from her home in the shades in order to carry out her diligent household chores. In uniting the forces of the shadows with Arachne, the mythic persona of the spider who lays her trap as she weaves her home, we might speculate on Sandrasegar’s genealogy. The web of her explorations conjoins her practice with some of the themes explored by Louise Bourgeois, who knows all about the secret of spiders, shadows, and sacred cells. There is also a little of Marcel Proust’s magic lantern in the effects of shadow and light Sandrasegar creates. Mythic figures dance across walls that are rendered with an impalpable iridescence, and shadows become animated with life. To trace the thread of this tale, we will return to the ancient myth of the ill-fated Arachne.

The storyteller, Ovid, tells us of the grace of Arachne’s skillful movements as she wove the fine cloth that made her famous throughout the ancient world. The mortal girl, Arachne, intoxicated by her art, challenges the goddess, Pallas, to a competition in weaving. Arachne’s skill is found to be superior, and Pallas, in a rage, attacks her, repeatedly striking her in the forehead with a wooden shuttle, weapon of the weaver. Arachne, finding her plight unendurable, attempts to hang herself, as though on the thread of her own work. Pallas finally takes pity and transforms the mortal weaver, and all her descendants, into the arachnoid form we now so fear. The stricken Aracne’s hair drops out, her nostrils and ears disappear, her head shrinks to almost nothing, her slender fingers blacken as they lengthen, and her belly swells with the stuff from which she will continue industriously to weave her silvery web.  Her transmogrification is complete. Then, from the horror of the arachnoid form, Sandrasegar carefully weaves Arachne’s plight, fascinated in the way myths and stories stealthily enwrap us.

It is also from the fulsome belly of the spider that Bourgeois constructs one of her renowned cells. A steely webbed cage houses an old chair across which is laid a threadbare piece of tapestry. Bourgeois appropriates the trade of her father, a master in restoring tapestries and old furniture, and turns his weaves to her own ends. Though the centerpiece invites us to take a seat, we dare not rest still, as the door to the cell, hung with yet another tapestry, threatens to slam shut behind us, and the parlour chair become one of torture and death. The spindly, articulated legs of an enormous spider, the ends of which are sharpened like fine needles, extend beyond the cage, ready to clutch us in their lethal and sticky embrace. It is through these we must walk before entering Bourgeois’s cell, source of all threads. Bourgeois sets a spider’s trap, and creates her uncanny home, as each fragment of tapestry tells another secret tale. Sandrasegar likewise constructs a sacred cell as home to her spiders and their webs, it is coloured like the paper of her cut-outs, and levitates quietly in the main hall at ACCA.

Bourgeois and Sandrasegar both explore such figures as spiders, scissors that snip and puncture, long tendrils of silken or tangled hair, scenes of violence, and tableaus that feature the dire struggles of woman. Though Sandrasegar weaves the secret of spiders, shadows, and cells, along another passage, she too arrives at the inner sanctum of Arachne, the sacred cell of the labyrinth in which we fear we will find nothing but an immense and terrifying void. This is the threateningly empty place that Sandrasegar, reading Roland Barthes, identifies as the abyss of woman, her sexuality and her cell of her procreativity. Here the domestic and the sexual promise to become interwoven upon the transport of the spider’s gossamer threads. Sandrasegar relies not only on the west to extrapolate her myths, she also turns to the east, where she discovers the Japanese figure of the great earth spider, Tsuchigumo. The earth spider of Japanese myth digs its cell into the dark earth and refuses to be ousted by new comers. Tsuchigumo is the indigene that will not be colonized, and its determined immobility becomes its strength as, vampiric-like, it drains its opponents of their vital essences.

In the past Sandrasegar’s serial motifs, cut from paper, and occasionally ornamented with glitter and sequins that are applied with great delicacy, have featured scenes of erotica borrowed from diverse cultures, from pillow books, the Kama SutraThe Arabian Nights (which, it should be pointed out, Proust much admired, speculating that he had perhaps written the Arabian Nights of his own milieu). The thread of her incised line becomes the cipher of the cultural sources Sandrasegar has pillaged. Some of her vignettes entirely erase the conjoined figure of two lovers embraced, so as to leave behind the silent walls of an empty room or pavilion. Recently, she has taken up the sub-continental story of Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen. To augment this tale Sandrasegar has deployed the hand and foot shapes of henna stencils to mark out the confines of another kind of cell, one which frames the courageous and violent exploits of the ruthless outlaw, who subsequently remade herself as formidable politician before being assassinated.

With the present work, housed in ACCA’s largest hall, Sandrasegar further confines us with the shadows in a cell, but one now augmented with cut-out webs, like the lair of a mythical spider. The hair of this artist’s spider has not fallen out, but like the story of Rapunzel and her long golden tresses, becomes the promise of a means of escape. Sandrasegar tells us that the humming of the fabled spinning wheel of the spider-weaver sets the rhythm to her songs of immobility, as she dreams of the travels undertaken by her masculine counterpart, whether he is loved or reviled. As such, the discourse of absence is carried in the womb of the mother as earth spider, woman who weaves, but despite, or because of her immobility, she becomes mobile through her creations. Sandrasegar’s mythic weaver is housed in a discrete minaret, lit from within like a magic lantern, and enclosed with a length of drapery. The four long panels of web-like narrative that compose the magic lantern cast their patterns onto the inner walls of the spider’s sanctum. Each panel encapsulates another scene, as though stories of loss and mournful distance have been trapped in the loom of the woman who weaves.

Proust’s magic lantern both mesmerizes and disturbs his childhood self, for the familiar walls of his room become strange, and the myths projected upon the dissipating surfaces fill his imagination with both specters and poetic dreams. As with the proliferating and frequently contradictory stories of the Bandit Queen, the mythopoetic impulse is featured in Proust’s Search as he divulges his great fascination in the lineages of the French aristocracy. Proust’s cell, the one in which he chose to spend the better part of his writing life secluded, was largely woven of the fine strands composed of his overweening love for both his mother and his grandmother. In these most strong of his affective ties, Proust reveals himself as becoming-woman. He stands in the shoes of his mother, and grandmother, becoming indiscernible in their sticky embrace. Some months after his grandmother’s death he kneels to tie the threads of his shoelaces, and with these knots the involuntary memory of his grandmother returns to him, suffocating him with emotion. He is tied firmly by apron strings to his busy activity of writing, and the weaving of his grand text, his search for lost and wasted time. Gilles Deleuze describes Proust and his Search as a spider in its web. From the shades of Proust’s eternally twilit room (he always preferred to work through the silent midnight hours), with his fine, transversal threads, he casts lines of narrative association. Deleuze argues that with Proust there is, in fact, no difference between spider and web, and that together the two make up one marvelous loom. After all, what scenes were featured on the marvelous tapestries woven by Arachne and the goddess Pallas? Each depicted, in the most intricate detail, narrative threads telling the tales of the cunning and heroic exploits of mortals and gods, their inextricable and occasionally carnal relations. It is a tradition of weaving in which Sandrasegar has fully engaged, so much so that her delicate gestures become woven into the work itself.

The web flew out and floated wide, the mirror cracked from side to side. The woman weaver is always the one confined to the shadows of her cell at the risk of losing her life. And the spider’s children will eat her to gain nourishment. Such are the sacrifices that women have made, time immemorial. And yet the woman-mother-spider is resilient, her secret is woven into the sturdy tendrils of her work. From her apparent immobility, and in the modest, if not minute scale of her work, she resists, remaining unmoved, even lethal, as we, unwitting spectators, wander into her divine trap.