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Notes on Pallavi Paul’s “How Love Moves” at Martin-Gropius-Bau.

  • Mar 28 2024
  • Elisa Fuenzalida
    is a researcher and cultural worker. She has directed research projects such as El futuro era tu cuerpo, Ensamblajes del Cuidado and Afectos en Re-existencia. She is coordinator and co-curator of the Cátedra Decolonial Anibal Quijano at the Museo Reina Sofía, co-editor of the journal Arts of the Working Class and mediator in the citizen laboratory platform Redes por el Clima.

The Berlin rain has ceased, unveiling a sky painted in hues of blue beyond the bus window. It is March and across Kreuzberg, the melodies of flutes and the rhythmic beats of drums celebrate Nowroz. [1] Which whispers of spring's arrival are louder, the tender buds on the trees of the square, or the rising clamor of protest echoing through streets, universities, museums, and conference halls? As this dance of memory and rebirth unfolds around me, I find myself recalling the Sufi verses that artist Pallavi Paul uses to guide us through the closing scenes of How Love Moves, her latest film, and a key feature of her ongoing homonymous exhibition at Gropius Bau: 

“What a glow everywhere I see. Meanwhile my beloved sleeps peacefully under his shroud. The whole world has been opened for me.”

Under the overarching title of "How Love Moves", and the curation of Natasha Ginwala with Sonja Borstner, six rooms on the first floor of Gropius Bau host the first major institutional solo exhibition of New Delhi and Berlin-based artist and filmmaker. In the show, Paul embarks on a deep dive into the spiritual and biopolitical dimensions of illness, as shaped by multimedia explorations wherein the camera is deployed in dialogue with poetry and installations. As the artist links global healthcare crises such as the COVID-19 Pandemic with the outbreak of tuberculosis in Germany around the turn of the 20th century, breath becomes a recurrent point of reference, as a fundamental right besieged by inequality and authoritarian regimes, as a cinematic performance,  as a collective force weaving time, and as an act of faith. 


fig. 1


Located centrally, and serving as the conceptual starting point of the exhibition, I approached the darkened room of Salt Moon (2023), an installation evoking a graveyard through which the visitor must pass to enter, and to exit, the exhibition. The installation consists of a series of sculptures composed of a bed of soil and large stone slabs resembling tombstones. Within these monoliths, we see images projected of industrious ants and bees, vigilant birds of prey, and crimson-colored flowers reminiscent of motifs found in religious prints that evoke fertility, rebirth, and the triumph of life over death. The cemetery is also a crossroads leading to two possible paths to continue the experience. Drawn by a point of light in the depths of the otherwise dimly lit halls, I chose the left side of the exhibition.  

The first of the three rooms along this route hosts Twilight's Envelope / Und in der Dämmerung Hülle (2024), an experimental video essay commissioned by the Gropius Bau during the artist's residency and her time as a research fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. The film intertwines various audiovisual textures, timelines, landscapes and narratives concerning health and the body as sites of power united in the touching chronicle of a factory worker, Moritz Theodor William Bromme, during his stay in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Thüringen. As a prelude to a globalized future, turned now into the past, where images of deer and boars roam the city streets, and grass grows freely and unchecked, overlapped with scenes of confinement and death, the deteriorating structures of the Heilanstalten Hohenlychen sanatorium, in the outskirts of Berlin, collapse as other forms of life carve their way into its foundations and thrive. Twilight’s Envelope / Und in der Dämmerung Hülle, accounts for the weight of history's imprint on the vulnerability of the body, whether in acknowledging it, denying it, or abusing it. From 1942, after the sanatorium had been converted into a military hospital in the First World War and a sports sanatorium during the Nazi regime, the facility’s doctors and medical staff arranged and committed brutal experiments on inmates of Ravensbrück, the largest women’s concentration camp on Germany territory. One of the audiovisual archives Paul presents is a speech in which the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels refers to war as a great leveler and teacher. 


fig. 2


The notion of calamities and disaster as equalizing passages towards cohesiveness works also as a point of transition into the only fully illuminated space in the exhibition. In this room, we come face to face with the stark divisions that the COVID-19 pandemic wrought and those which it deepened, taking shape in large, white plastic bags hanging from all walls of the room. These bags, often are employed during wartime and contagion crises to dispose of dead bodies at scale and that today become once again a symbol of despair, hopelessness, and utter abandonment. Here they serve as embroidered canvases in the installation Trousseau (2023). To produce the work, a collective of New Delhi-based women were invited to embroider vibrant flowers and birds evoking fertility, such as are traditional in wedding garments, on these bags. The imagery contrasts sharply with the sterile material, emphasizing the irreplaceable worth of every life. These pieces are exhibited together with Everything is Still Damp (2024), a series of screen prints on sandpaper depicting the floral patterns used in Islamic funerary rituals to symbolize the convergence of the persistent and the transient. 

In the film How Love Moves (2023), the primal disposition of embodiment, spirituality, vulnerability, and history converge amidst stroboscopic images that dissolve into Sufi prayers of otherworldly beauty. Spanning the entire expanse of the broad wall of the final exhibition room of this area, the film transcends the standard artistic checklist of “posing questions”, “challenging relationships”, or “questioning binaries”; it unapologetically and rigorously examines the viability of paths systematically deprecated by the modern-rationalist principles of capitalism, such as faith and devotion. Paul has structured the narrative of the film into four parts, as they were phases of breathing, named after the Islamic prayer hours, signaling a disturbance in the prayer's alignment with the cycle of life. Indeed, in How Love Moves, faith plays a pivotal role in shaping the vessels in which love transgresses divides, both political and biological. In the film we meet Shamin Khan, a grave keeper at the Delhi Gate Islamic cemetery,  a guide and medium who allows us to glimpse not just what it means to be close to death in physical, political, and spiritual terms, but to traverse it as an inexplicable passage, an untransferrable experience with which one continues to live. In the cemetery, instances of health emergencies faced in India during the COVID-19 pandemic converge with the overflow of hospital care capacities, state terrorism, and exacerbated anti-Muslim hatred fueled by ethno-nationalist discourses, resulting in fatal lynchings. These transform the graveyard into a space contested between conflict, reflection, rest, and the nuances of presence and absence. In one scene, Shamin and his fellow gravediggers are discussing the rawest  aspects of their work. These logistics of death and putrid matter, carried out in conditions of inequity, social violence, and poverty, lead to such a visceral confrontation with mortality that it drives some to a nearly nihilistic position regarding the value of life. “If you want to know the worth of a body, go to a mortuary,” one cynically remarks. Shamin, a believer, calmly retorts, defending the value of every life and every death: “If you believe, everything comes to life. If you don’t, nothing exists.” 

After viewing How Love Moves two times in a row, an experience akin to encountering a passage that articulates an urgent yet orphaned sentiment with precision in a book, I found myself compelled to close my eyes and take a moment before proceeding further through the exhibition. I wonder now if I needed this pause to absorb that moment of resonance or to acknowledge my own traumatic experiences of the human organising of faith (aka religion). Ridiculing the spirituality of others comes easily, as though secular capitalism does not itself imply a secret form of faith in rationality and progress. When it comes to the value of the living and the value of the dead, spirituality holds a time and space of refuge from the rapacity of capital-worshiping societies. 


fig. 3


The two halls on the other side of the exhibition host the short experimental film Nayi Kheti/ New Harvest (2013), and the immersive multimedia installation Slumber (2024). Through a series of dialogues featuring found footage and works by the poets Federico García Lorca, Jack Spicer, and Ramashakar Yadav, the work challenges time-bounded narratives. In New Harvest Paul addresses the question of what happens to visual documents after their “death”, a counterpoint to Slumber, an immersive installation wherein an afterlife more-than-human utopia is at the forefront, and the human perspective dissolves among roots. A long exhale, a place of rest. 

In the exploration of spirituality and faith within mortality, as presented in the film How Love Moves, Shamin’s defense of the value of life and caring for the deceased contrasts against the backdrop of despair in which the German factory worker, and tuberculosis patient Moritz Theodor William Bromme watches his life dissolve into institutionalized oblivion. Within this philosophical tension lies a paradox: human worth emerges through acts of care and attention devoted to its existence. This paradox exposes the interplay between capitalism and patriarchy, systems that commodify labor and caregiving, transforming them into objects whose value is merely measurable through economic transactions. In How Love Moves, through a dialectic of faith and materiality, love confronts the rule of mortal dissolution. But if love is rooted solely in time and labor, can it survive in us if we remain silent in the face of systematic plunder, economic injustice, and annihilation? 



How Love Moves will be on show until July 21, 2024, at Martin-Gropius Bau in Berlin.Curated by Natasha Ginwala and Sonja Borstner.



    [1] New Year of the Persian calendar. The holiday is celebrated in Iran, Azerbaijan, Kurdish regions, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, in some regions of northern India and wherever Persian diasporic communities gather, coinciding with the spring equinox.

    [2] The informal group commissioned to embroider the body bags does not identify itself with any specific name.


    Cover: Pallavi Paul, How Love Moves, Filmstill (2023). © Pallavi Paul. Courtesy of Gropius Bau.

    fig. 1: Pallavi Paul, Salt Moon. Gropius Bau (2024). © Pallavi Paul. Foto: Luca Girardini. Courtesy of Gropius Bau. 

    fig. 2: Pallavi Paul, Trousseau, detail shot (2023). © Pallavi Paul. Foto: Laura Fiorio. Courtesy of Gropius Bau.

    fig. 3: Pallavi Paul, Slumber, Gropius Bau (2024). © Pallavi Paul. Foto: Luca Girardini. Courtesy of Gropius Bau.



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