Louis Ho


First the realization of the void [shunya],

Second the seed in which all is concentrated,

Third the physical manifestation,

Fourth one should implant the syllable.[1] 

Zero does not exactly begin with a nullity, but with a seed, as close as organic life gets to the irreality of the pre-existential void. North Star (2007) is a sculptural rendering of a red saga seed, a shell-shaped curve sloping in from both ends to meet in a pronounced linearity around the middle. Displayed in the first gallery that the viewer encounters, the four walls around it rendered a similar, stark shade of vermilion, the piece slips in and out of optical definition, as if attempting to delineate its own being from the space it inhabits, the effort at nascent self-actualization analogized by the blurred chromatic borders between the subject and its surrounds. The trope of being, of coming into being, serves as an apropos opener for the exhibition, concerned as it is with the cycle of worldly existence – as well as, according to South Asian traditions, the essential nothingness at the heart of all matter and experience. The virtual environment of the show is comprised of four galleries connected by passageways, and oriented around a central spatial vacuum, leading the viewer from gallery to gallery, through one passage after the next, back to the ultimate starting point.

The central void at the core of the site – a blank expanse of cyberspace, the spectral correlative of information flows between physical equipment connected through wires or electromagnetic waves – informs the idea of zero, or nothingness, the twin, as Kumari Nahappan avers, to the concept of infinity. The word itself, “zero”, is derived from the Arabic al-sifr, eventually appearing in the English lexicon through a sojourn through various other European languages including Italian and German.[2] The Arabic term itself corresponds to the Sanskrit word, shunya, which refers to a void or emptiness, and later came to encompass the numerical concept of zero. As a historian of mathematics describes it,

In India, zero as a concept probably predated zero as a number by hundreds of years. The Sanskrit word for zero, shunya, meant “void” or “empty.” The word is probably derived from shuna, which is the past participle of svi, “to grow.” … It is possible that the two  different words were fused to give shunya a single sense of “absence” or  “emptiness”with the potential for growth. Hence, its derivative, Shunyata, described the Buddhist doctrine of “Emptiness,” being the spiritual practice of emptying the mind of  all impressions … An architect was advised in the traditional manuals of architecture (the Silpas) that designing a building involved the organization of empty space, for “it is not the walls that make a building but the empty spaces created by the walls.[3]

Here, then, the act of structuring virtual walls around a void may be said to be positioned in a particular conceptual tradition, the zero or nullity of the space functioning as an allusion to the philosophical and religious notions of sunyata, or anatman (non-self), and the associated symbolic character of growth. The sequential arrangement of objects in the exhibition is intended to evoke the cyclic character of mortality, regulated, as Hindu and Buddhist doctrine hold it, by the law of samsara, the continuous, illimitably reiterated circuit of life, death and reincarnation. However, the breadth of the works included, from the most recent decade of Nahappan’s practice, also evokes the circular path of her creative trajectory. Motifs that have remained a constant in her visual vocabulary, such as the saga seed, have taken on renewed conceptual urgency; the seed has moved from its own two-dimensional representation to being utilized as a found object, an organic, three-dimensional entity. The concern with color that has been present since she first began painting and making installation pieces have been pared down, in the paintings on display here, to an almost single-minded preoccupation with the aesthetics of pigments.[4] The present exhibition, then, utilizes the fundamental notion of cyclicality both in its broader religio-cultural context, as well as on a deeply autobiographical level, symbolically spatializing the recurring round of existence in general, and mapping out a specific artistic evolution.

The cycle begins with a solitary seed, a kernel that holds within its form the potential for emergence and growth, as well as eventual demise and resurrection. The artist observes that “Seeds hold a sense of mystery.”[5] Remarks Nahappan: “Seeds are a mysterious thing. They have potential energy, and I’m always keen on exploring different types of energy.”[6] It is indeed the unfolding of various energies through the space of the exhibition, embodied by different visual vernaculars and aesthetic moods, that North Star presages. The works included here evince, in particular, the twin facets of her practice: the conceptual tenets of Hinduism (and, to a lesser extent, Buddhism), as well as forms of abstraction that are owed to the lineage of abstract art in the twentieth century, from Modernism to Minimalism. Exiting the first gallery, for instance, brings the viewer into an encounter, in the passageway, with another piece that features the motif of the saga seed. Seed Tower (2019) utilizes the seed as modular units, stacking them upwards into a sculptural pillar. The immediate reference is, of course, Constantin Brancusi’s numerous variations on the Endless Tower, the most monumental version of which stands in Targu Jiu, Romania (completed in 1938). Brancusi’s use of repetition as an aesthetic strategy has been understood as signalling the possibility of infinite expansion, and, here, the idea of growth – from one seed to many, from a single entity to multiple ones – likewise connotes the infinite renewal of its own processes over and again, as in the Hindu scheme of things.

In the second gallery are two paintings from Nahappan’s red series, Pooja Three-O-Two (2003) and Page Twelve (2011). Like her blue series of paintings, these works speak to the history of abstraction in the twentieth century, drawing as they do from various abstract idioms, ranging from monochromaticism to color field painting. The colour red takes centre stage in these works, shading from scarlet to crimson to carmine, and expressed in near monochromatic compositions sporting various geometric shapes. Not unlike, perhaps, Mark Rothko’s floating squares of pure pigment, her use of varying tonal values results in a pulsating palette, as if the canvas was vibrating with barely perceptible movement. “Red is associated with power, strength and energy”, she declares, “… it speaks to us about positive and negative energies, about the sun, about fire, about love, about passion, about envy, fear, resentment, aggression and war.”[7] Beyond the indebtedness to Western art history, Indian aesthetic theory provides a suggestive backdrop against which to understand Nahappan’s interest in colour. The notion of rasa, commonly translated as “essence” or “taste”, is regarded as the emotional flavor of aesthetic experience.[8] The Sanskrit treatise, the Natya Shastra, codifies the range of rasa into eight different moods, each with its corresponding deities and colours. The raudram rasa, for instance, denotes fury or anger, and is, unsurprisingly, associated with red. Here, the deployment of colour clearly exceeds the rather narrow span of emotional tonalities prescribed by rasa theory, but the latter nonetheless serves as a particular cultural context, and a point of departure, for the artist’s own chromatic explorations.

Between the second and third galleries sits Seed Bank (2013), an installation of natural saga seeds contained in two glass columns. Unlike other works that recreate the seed as a sculptural form, organic seeds are also a constant in Nahappan’s work. Seed Bank recalls, for instance, Anahata (2013), which comprised more than 4000 kilograms of saga seeds foraged from various regions of Southeast Asia and sent to Nahappan by friends, family and acquaintances, was included in the fourth edition of the Singapore Biennale. The Weighing Scales (2016) was commissioned for the Indian Heritage Centre’s exhibition, “Once Upon a Time in Little India”, and likewise featured three tonnes of seeds spilling out from the titular instrument, cascading down a flight of stairs.

As the viewer enters the third gallery, s/he is confronted with a shift in tone and mood. The space is rendered a saturated cobalt blue, almost corresponding to the unitonal background palette of Blink (2020). The piece was crafted from a mixture of fabric and papyrus palm that were stitched together onto a wooden panel, and coloured with natural indigo, the field of blue streaked through with linear patterns of yellow that allude to the Vedic idea of the chakras, physiological points in the body that are connected by lines; the result is a haptic visual experience. Accompanying the painting is a sculptural piece, Windows (2009), a minimalist, streamlined bronze object that evokes the shape of a frame. Here, the pairing of both works – of the tactile and ocular senses – is intended to foreground the gaze as a synesthetic phenomenon: “Seeing, according to Indian notions, is a going forth of the sight towards the object… While the eye touches the object, the vitality that pulsates in it is communicated…”[9] Textural complexity, then, or the act of sight as touch, is not unrelated to the Hindu gesture of darsan.[10] Darsan is the dynamic of seeing, and being seen: “The central act of Hindu worship, from the point of view of the lay person, is to stand in the presence of the deity and to behold the image with one’s own eyes, to see and be seen by the deity… the deity presents itself to be seen in its image… And the people “receive” their darsan.”[11] Here, the framing of the gaze, as suggested by Windows, dovetails with the haptic explorations of Blink, the twinning of the two works amplifying the discourse of darsan and its multisensorial modes.


Exiting the third gallery, the trope of hapticity is furthered with Many Moons (2018). The work comprises numerous modular, hooped structures, crafted from a wire armature and wrapped around with woollen fibres, that the viewer, in real life, may interact with, creating various configurations at will. The notion of tactile contact reinforces its conceptual basis: the idea of connectivity. Those connections occur between surfaces (skin and fibre textiles), between body and object (viewer and artwork), between object and object (different components of the work), but the ultimate attachment that is signified, or desired, as Nahappan avers, is between the individual and the broader cosmos – the anima mundi, the world soul. It is also not entirely coincidental that, at this particular stage of the proceedings, the title of the piece recalls the passing of time, of the temporal stretch that has elapsed, as one arrives at the penultimate zone of the exhibition. In the last gallery, a pallid grey of a space, is Connect #3 (2020). Its fundamental unit is the triangle, rendered as a painted wooden form and assembled into a geometric arabesque of angles, lines and an interplay of negative and positive spaces. For Nahappan, the color white signifies the ultimate step of liberation from the cycle of existence: nirvana, or moksha. The triangle is evocative of scared geometry in South Asia visual culture, a commonly witnessed form in Hindu yantras, for one, and also serving as the abstract representation of Ganesha. Underscoring the suggestion of the final liberation from the dukha, or suffering, that is mortality, is the nondescript grey palette of the gallery. It recalls the colour of ash, a substance that signifies, in Hindu ritual, the point of destruction – by the purifying action of fire – in one’s sojourn in the physical world.

Finally, as the viewer leaves, s/he moves out into the ultimate passageway, which links the fourth and first galleries, enabling one to return to the beginning of the exhibitionary cycle. There is, appropriately enough, a complete absence of work here – merely an expanse of digital space, a stretch of emptiness, a return to the idea of the zero, before the viewer begins the circuit around the space again, if so desired. The deliberate lacunae marks not just a symbolic imagining of the philosophical void, but also suggests future evolution, or iterations, of the current show. “Just as emptiness of space is a necessary condition for the appearance of any object”, it has been remarked, “the number zero being no number at all is the condition for the existence of all numbers.”[12] The notion of nullity, in other words, serves not just as a correspondence for the conceptual gesture of negation, a recognition of the transitory nature of phenomena, but also sets the stage for change, growth and metamorphosis; it is the phase before other, eventual numerical presences.

One begins at Zero.



[1] According to an unnamed Tantric Buddhist text, as quoted in George Gheverghese Joseph’s The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics , 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 345.

[2] See Joseph, p. 344.

[3] Joseph, p. 345.

[4] The scope of Nahappan’s practice, especially in its earlier days, is sketched out and analyzed in the monograph by T. K. Sabapathy, Fluxion: Art & Thoughts (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2013).

[5] In a text message to the author, dated January 14, 2021.

[6] Qtd. in Mayo Martin, “Meet the Singaporean who’s spicing up the art scene with her giant chillies”, CNA Luxury, (accessed January 2, 2021).

[7] In an interview with Urs Ramseyer, (accessed January 5, 2021).

[8]  For more on rasa, see, for one, Kathleen Marie Higgins’ “An Alchemy of Emotion: Rasa and Aesthetic Breakthroughs” in Global Theories of the Arts and Aesthetics, ed. Susan Feagin (New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006), pp. 43 – 54.

[9] According to the famed Indologist and art historian Stella Kramrisch. Qtd. in Diana Eck, Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India (Chambersburg, Pennsylvania: Anima Books, 1981), p. 6.

[10] The implications of sight and touch as knowledge, with regards to Nahappan’s Referencing series, is addressed in an earlier essay of this author’s, Seeing-Touching-Knowing: Kumari Nahappan’s Abstraction, that accompanied her solo exhibition, “REaDINGs”, in 2013.

[11] Eck, pp. 3 – 5.

[12] Joseph, p. 345.