In Sreshta Rit Premnath’s exhibit “Grave/Grove,” now on view at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, a plaster-covered foam figure hunkers atop a mound of earth, ringed by aluminum panels. Plant life — weeds — spring up from pockets of soil underneath and around the figure. A gallon-size plastic water jug hangs from above, connected to a plastic tube that slowly infuses water to the plants like a giant IV drip. The piece, called “Hold/Fold 1,” is an abstracted version of a real-life street scene Premnath says he “couldn’t get out” of his head of a homeless man sitting under a tree.
Translated into the language of minimalism, the man becomes plaster, his cardboard home aluminum, and the weeds represent what they are: plant life that is seen and unseen, deemed “undesirable,” worthy of eradication for no other reason than we’ve decided it is so.
In “Grave/Grove,” nine pieces perform as a sort of breviloquent visual haiku, touching on pressing social themes outside museum walls, whether it’s the tent encampment near Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston or the Haitian migrants’ camps forming under a bridge in Texas.
"I’m very aware that the area that I'm living in always enters into my work, sometimes in more abstract ways."Sreshta Rit Premnath
Unhoused people linger on city streets. Refugees wait in camps. Prisoners languish in jails. And underlying it all there is always a sense of waiting — whether it be for reprieve, acknowledgment, or a helping hand. Premnath has turned that sense of ennui into arresting materiality.
“I’m very aware that the area that I'm living in always enters into my work, sometimes in more abstract ways,” he says. “There's a way that these images, metaphors and materials kind of commingle with each other.”
Based in Brooklyn, Premnath works in sculpture, photography, painting, installation and video. He is the founding editor of the contemporary art journal Shifter and an assistant professor of fine arts at Parsons School of Design in New York. His work in “Grave/Grove” consists partly of his “slumps” — foam covered with white plaster suggesting a depleted and exhausted human figure – which he has made for the last few years. In this show, there are four “slumps” that lie prone, folded over an aluminum box filled with sand, and curled up before a fence made with an aluminum frame covered in a shiny reflective sheet. The materials of chain link wire and emergency blankets allude to both desperation and dehumanization. The “slumps” are headless, faceless slabs that stand in for those society has chosen to reject, rebuff and discard. The pieces speak to visibility and invisibility, marginalization, oppression and precarity. Premnath uses live plants (cultivated at The Food Project greenhouse after being transplanted by students at Boston's Epiphany School) in his assemblages signaling a possibility for regeneration, renewal and hope.
His work, he says, has been strongly influenced by one simple fact: Premnath once had a studio that looked out over the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Also on the horizon, he could see the Statue of Liberty.
That “strange juxtaposition” he says, became the basis of his investigations into ideas of freedom and waiting. He started noticing those who had been relegated to the sidelines, whether they were day laborers in his neighborhood gripping water jugs filled with water in the morning and urine at night, or just the countless unhoused individuals to be found on New York streets, or perhaps, Premnath’s native Bangalore. His work, he says, considers “the way in which provisional surfaces become a way of claiming space.”
Using minimalism as a means of exploring such weighty themes may seem an unlikely marriage, although not to Premnath.
“I feel that there's something about the bodily and physiological aspect of encountering a material that I find quite moving about a lot of minimalist art,” he says. “But I find there's also something about the nonspecific nature of it, universalism, that I'm unable to access. And so, I approach materials through a kind of referentiality contingency where it's reflective and I'm interested in that. I'm interested in the fact that it’s [the aluminum] beside a body. I'm also interested in the fact that it's quite literally based on the box that a person without a home sleeps in.”
Unlike many minimalist artists, Premnath strives to keep the surfaces in his work a little rough. He uses mill grade aluminum as a stand-in for cardboard boxes, leaving all the imperfections and scratches intact. His emergency blankets are creased and wrinkled. He uses shiny aluminum duct tape to hold the blankets to fence frames, emphasizing a sense of instability and impermanence. The plastic IV drips, he says, “entered into my thinking during the pandemic. It’s sort of an irrigation mechanism for the plants, but also something that reminds us of the fragility of life.”
Emergency blankets, duct tape, plastic tubes— clearly, these are not the conventional materials of art. Intentionally, they lack the sense of monumentality that often accompanies minimalist work. They also successfully lend Premnath’s work a sense of immediacy and vitality that is often hard to come by in minimalism. That may be because Premnath himself is an immigrant who has had to negotiate all the dehumanization and waiting inherent in the U.S. immigration system.
"Although humans categorize and ostracize some beings, nature proliferates without judgement."Sreshta Rit Premnath
In addition to five free-standing sculptural assemblages, “Grave/Grove” includes a series of four works based on the classic exit sign. Instead of the word “exit” on two sides of a sign, we see signs made up of word pairs Premnath calls two-word “poems” like “Escape/Arrive,” “Grave/Grove,” “Insist/Exist” and “Wake/Wait.” The words are not quite opposites but clearly contrast while pointing to larger ideas around marginalization and confinement.
Yes, these themes could be considered dark ones, but Premnath’s use of plants that we consider “weeds” leads to a different conclusion: Within the cold, hard spaces of prisons, detention camps and even city streets, people can find and create their own growth, sustenance and care.
“Although humans categorize and ostracize some beings, nature proliferates without judgement,” he says.
The plants in Premnath’s sculptures may be unwanted weeds but they are, after all, still miraculous, life-affirming plants.
“Sreshta Rit Premnath: Grave/Grove” is on view at the MIT List Visual Arts Center through Feb. 13.