Tag Archives: Art India

Object lessons

Subodh Gupta greets New Yorkers with A Glass of Water

waterSubodh Gupta’s stainless steel glass, filled to the brim with water, created quite a splash in New York. This isn’t surprising for an artist who is often referred to as the ‘Indian Damien Hirst’ in international circles. What is surprising, however, is that Gupta’s show, titled A Glass of Water, at Hauser & Wirth from the 5th of May to the 18th of June, was most notable for its subtle, quiet tone. While Gupta’s sculptures and paintings show attention to detail, rarely are his exhibitions completely devoid of shock value. Rather than hitting the viewer over the head with the proverbial saucepan, this time, Gupta let the meanings in his work emerge more slowly. 

Take, for example, the show’s title work. The ubiquitous stainless steel glass was placed on a wooden table and filled with water each morning till it almost overflowed, creating a convex meniscus. In its simplicity, this one glass, compared to Gupta’s earlier towering sculptures of pots and pans, spoke volumes. The tension between abundance and waste elevated this installation – a common marker of Indian hospitality was transformed into a work of art.

This show had several examples of huge sculptures that were basically enlargements and embellishments of quotidian objects. “Mark off”, a large, looped measuring tape in bronze, and a giant untitled bronze button were imports from the tailor’s shop. Two other sculptures resembled found objects – “Repose”, a blown-up, stainless steel sieve and an untitled, over-sized oil lamp in steel and copper. 

These sculptures were imbued with Gupta’s sense of humour – again, it was more subtle here than in his previous works. In particular, “Mark off” poked fun at itself – a giant measuring tape, its precisely etched centimetric increments were scale-wise completely inaccurate. Its gently folded, burnished surface, punched with holes, mimicked an actual measuring tape.

The mottled bronze button was 1.4 metres in diameter and slightly squashed. It had a strong tactile appeal and the style of its casting was closer to a corpulent Rodin nude than a giant Oldenburg object. The broken oil lamp too invited the viewer to touch it or climb onto it; its dented surface and damaged parts suggested a long, eventful history. 

tapeGupta’s gift of breathing life into inanimate objects was evident in “Repose”, a battered sieve, which despite its well-worn state, was balanced in a position that approximated the recline of a lounge chair. Gone were the shiny milk pails and tiffin boxes that populated Gupta’s earlier shows, which had coincided with the glory days of the India Shining campaign. One can’t help but wonder whether the artist believes that the optimism of Brand India now seems a bit tarnished.

Grime and use were also evident in the oil painting “Full moon”. Consisting of a white dinner-plate-like orb with assorted dirty forks set against a smoky black background, the painting was an ambiguous play on words; it suggested a pun albeit not a literal one.

The exhibition’s other large oil painting, an untitled work, was a close-up of a couple of balls of dough (“Atta”), one of which was stretched out to reveal its bubbly innards. The detailed painting, which looked like an example of a foodie’s macro-lens photography, tied in nicely with Gupta’s “Atta” sculpture. The work seemed like the bread complement to “A Glass of Water”; on a wooden table, flour covered a lump of what looked like dough. On closer inspection, however, it was revealed to be a lump of bronze. 

Fake reproductions, trompe l’oeil and visual puns are Gupta’s stock-in-trade. As with Hirst, part of the uneasy appeal of his work is the realisation that the viewer may not quite be in on the whole joke. As before, Gupta’s elevation of objects of daily use to the status of art seems to speak to the widely disparate levels of consumption in society – from the consumption of a glass of water to that of dough. Gupta’s A Glass of Water proved to be very refreshing, especially, since it offered the viewer the subtle pleasure of teasing out these meanings.

Originally published in Art India, 2011.

Published: June 7, 2011

Looking back at you

While Gieve Patel’s Clouds and Skulls come across as simple studio sketches, his Wells offer a meditative exploration of the natural world ♦

WellsOver the last four decades, Gieve Patel’s work has turned inward. Wells Clouds Skulls, his solo at Bose Pacia Gallery, Brooklyn, from the 5th of May to the 25th of June, displayed this shift from narrative works (street scenes inflected with social comment, among others) to more reflective and layered works.

The three 8’ x 8’ canvases captured Patel’s impressions of looking into wells. These paintings were the latest from an ongoing series that spans over twenty years. The restricted space of Bose Pacia made for an intimate encounter with these large canvases, forcing the viewer to see them in close proximity, thereby mimicking the feeling of peeping down into a well.

Among the paintings, “Looking into a Well: A Spray of Blossoms” (2010) has lighter hues as compared to the other paintings. The exterior of the well, done in muted dove-grays mottled with green, is dull compared to the circular reflection of the sky at the centre-right of the picture space: it has a playful composition in robin’s egg blue with floating pink and mulberry shapes that suggest flowers. However, a hanging creeper with red and orange flowers at the left catches your attention. The ambiguous boundary between the exterior and the interior is crucial to the draw of Patel’s wells. In this painting, balance is achieved through the relationship between colours: a black border creates a sharp division but doesn’t entirely block the space outside the well. The eye goes back and forth between the flowers on the left of the painting and their reflection inside the well.

wells2Looking into a Well: Bougainvilleae” (2010) is a dark green canvas with a slightly unbalanced, upside-down composition consisting of clearly demarcated concentric circles with a blue-white, moon-like reflection of the sky in the centre. Pale, almost translucent roots, creep around the stone edges, which fade into a textured patchwork of dots and crosses. During a gallery walk-through, Patel mentioned that he enjoys the freedom that acrylic provides, and his pleasure in layering the work is evident here.

In “Looking into a Well: The Green Bush” (2008), the topsy-turvy composition creates an instant feeling of vertigo. Chromatically, this is the simplest painting (blue, green, gray and brown). An ochre seam in the shale-like layers of rock diagonally bisects the canvas. This particular well’s reflection is the brightest and it looks almost mirror-like with crisp, sharp borders. The ocular sky gives it a strong presence. With the dark reflection of the overhead foliage creeping into the blue, the viewer expects to see her own face looking back up.

During a conversation with poet Ruth Padel at the gallery walk-through, Patel said that he had once painted the reflection of his own face. But finding it intrusive, he wiped it out. While the well paintings invite conclusions about inner versus outer spaces, reflectivity and meditation, Patel seems to shy away from too much interpretation.

The series of drawings in charcoal, ink, pencil and pen titled Cloud similarly evades meaning. Executed with scratched lines that coalesce and dissipate on the page, the 17 works seem to avoid recognizable forms. The more pleasant of these look like mountainous landscapes while others look like iron filings scattered across the paper. Apparently, Patel works on a few of these pieces at a time, marking lines on each page every day. He mentioned that this way of working gave him an “immense sense of freedom”.

As an accomplished artist, poet and playwright (and a physician), Patel has certainly earned the right to his artistic freedom. However, one hopes he recognizes this freedom as a by-product of his earlier success. Displayed in simple wooden frames, these line drawings seemed included in this show by grace of Patel’s more effortful and relevant work.

Similarly, the Skulls would, in any other context, have been considered simple studio sketches. Against the white of the page, each skull is executed in a mix of gestural lines, shadowing and detail – too loose to be the anatomical drawings of a medically trained hand and too generic to bear the stamp of Patel’s style. At the gallery, a jumble of cloud drawings was bookended by one skull with a slight grin: a full stop punctuating the frivolity of the scribbles before it. Patel is a sincere rather than a sarcastic artist, and it is doubtful that this skull mocks the earnestness of his viewers. Unfortunately, an alternate explanation for displaying these works – other than as fillers for the otherwise excellent show – remained elusive.

Originally published in Art India, 2011

Published: June 7, 2011

Music of the spheres

Ranjani Shettar’s fluttering installations at a New York gallery reveal their secrets ♦

articleLargeRanjani Shettar’s skeletal sculptures hung festooned from the ceiling of Talwar Art Gallery from October the 2nd to January the 30th 2010. The filigreed shapes – loops, curlicues and disk-like embellishments – seemed to be suspended in mid-air. From their spare beauty, it would be difficult to guess the arduous, earthy process involved in creating these ethereal works.

“It stinks,” Shettar said, speaking from her home in Sagara, Karnataka. She was describing the smell of fermenting iron and jaggery used to make kasimi, a black dye required for the installations. Shettar used kasimi and colours prepared from pomegranates and areca nuts to dye muslin cloth, which she then swaddled around stainless steel ‘armatures’. “It takes three weeks. There’s a whole process for the cloth: using myrobalam, soaking it in cow’s milk and then dying it,” she revealed. These latest sculptures were inspired by the way Kalamkari artisans use dyes “made in their own backyards” – as was “Sun-sneezers blow light bubbles” (2007-2008), a simultaneously spindly and frothy sculpture displayed at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas in February 2009.

Shettar, who is from Bangalore and studied at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, has been busy showing at various notable venues in the U.S.A. The 32-year-old’s sculptural installations fuse abstract minimalist motifs with the processes of traditional craft. For her well-travelled piece “Me, no, not me, buy me, eat me, wear me, have me, me, no, not me” (2006-2007), which was on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Rooftop Garden from March to July in 2009, she wove strips of metal, re-cycled from used car parts, into cornucopias – as if effecting a reclamation of the man-made world of waste by a more natural crafting process.

The works in Shettar’s recent solo show were subtler and smaller. The Bird Song series echoed Shettar’s own lush ‘habitat’. “I live in an area where I am surrounded by birds and I hear their chirps all day. It’s the joy that I derive from them that I am trying to express,” she said of the four sculptures that composed Bird Song. They looked like line drawings that had gone three-dimensional: some of their loops were filled with stretched muslin, while others outlined negative space. “Bird Song I” contained two trumpet-shaped and two sphere-like pieces, dyed golden-beige and evenly spaced. One of these resembled a deconstructed flower. In areca nut-dyed “Bird Song III”, a disk and a trumpet-like object faced each other: a jaunty conversation ensued between the two suspended shapes. The coal black “Bird Song IV” was a swan-shaped structure hanging under another ‘petalled’ flourish. Its welded steel frames were like stretched ligaments or the bony wings of a bird, while the shadows it cast were light and feathery.

Another room held a collection of tinier installations. “I’ve been doing large projects for two or three years now and this time I wanted to make something more intimate,” Shettar confessed. The show’s smallest work, “Waiting for June”, was as evanescent as a fleeting thought. Several small pieces of cracked dry terracotta were arranged in a cluster on the wall, reminiscent of parched earth, thirsting for the monsoon. In “Harp and Drumbeats”, antique teak dowels were used to stretch lengths of muslin, so that their taut structures evoked the catgut used in musical instruments. “They are not direct references to a particular type of music,” Shettar said, “I am trying to capture the progression of notes, like in a raga.” The five structures that composed “Drumbeats” were placed at careful intervals – suggesting the beats in a musical measure. The carved teak dowels also recalled the handles of hand-made tools, such as trowels and rakes.

The show’s least successful piece, “Leap”, consisted of four muslin ovals of varying sizes. Two of them had holes cut out, one of which contained a smaller oval shape inside it. An exploration of material per se – “Leap” was more like a preparatory sketch for the other pieces than a work in itself.

Shettar said that her show possessed a ‘human scale,’ and this came through successfully thanks to her incorporation of low-tech, craft processes. At their strongest, her installations reminded this viewer of the importance of the natural world, signifying the possibility of a harmonious co-existence with it. For instance, Bird Song’s shadows and shapes looked like artful reconfigurations of the tangled branches of trees. In fact, Shettar confided that she had considered using bamboo frames for the work, but chose steel instead because of its flexibility and durability. Yet the delicate installations concealed their industrial core well: softened by skin-like muslin, natural dye and tamarind kernel glue, they suggested the very rustling, chirping and burgeoning of life in nature that inspired their maker.

Originally published in Art India, 2009.

Published: December 7, 2009

Flights of fantasy

An interview with Alia Syed ♦

1911Experimental filmmaker Alia Syed was born in Swansea, Wales, to Indian and Welsh parents. Over the last thirteen years, Syed’s films have discussed diaspora, subjectivity and narrative, creating mesmerizing visual experiences. From the 24th of December to the 31st of March, Delhi’s Talwar Gallery held Syed’s first solo show in India, Elision. Recently, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, screened Eating Grass (2003) – a film ‘inspired’ by Pakistani former president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s 1974 promise to Pakistanis that they would have weapons of mass destruction to rival India’s, even if they had to eat grass to fund them. Syed weaves political and historical references into her work, but she also captures the process of filmmaking itself. Sonal Shah gets into a Q and A with the London-based Syed.

Sonal Shah: You are an artist and a filmmaker. Do you see ‘film as art’?

Alia Syed: Art is not medium-specific. I don’t classify ‘film as art’ any more than I do painting or sculpture. Film has been part of human consciousness since the late 19th century and it is part and parcel of Modernist thought, influencing the way we think of time, perception and notions of the real. Man Ray made his first film Le Retour à la Raison (Return to Reason) in 1923 and artists have been experimenting with notions of the moving image ever since.

S. S.: Have there been any specific influences on your work?

A. S.: I remember being very influenced by a film by the Taviani brothers, Kaos, which encompasses four separate tales of Sicilian life. It opens in the Sicilian hills with a group of shepherds who find a male crow on a nest full of eggs. At first, they want to kill him, but then one shepherd ties a bell around the bird’s neck and sets him free. Each folk story is linked by the image of this large black ungainly bird flying and the incessant sound of a bell. I also like Italo Calvino and Salman Rushdie.

S. S.: You’ve mentioned that you write stories and poems as well.

A. S.: I do not see this as a separate activity; it is very much part of my overall process.

S. S.: Broadly speaking, your films fall into two categories. Swan (1989) and Priya (2008) are abstract pieces that contain a fixed subject, repetition and a build-up towards a visual crescendo. Other works such as A Story Told (2006) and Eating Grass (2003) are more narrative. How do these different types of works relate to each other?

A. S.: We tend to think of narrative as linear, but how it affects our inner emotional landscapes does not always conform to a rational sequence. I am affected by the world in many different ways – sometimes all that is left is to stand still and observe. For me (the two modes of observation) are different aspects of how we exist in the world.

S. S.: Your films also incorporate the process of filmmaking – through the use of heightened colour effects or the inclusion of “rough cut” editing in the final works, for instance. In Priya, you treated the film like an object by burying it. Would you call this a stylistic approach?

A. S.: Style is not something that interests me. My interest lies in showing how our gaze is infinitely complex. I am concerned with notions of rupture: how to arrest the gaze, how to hold the gaze so that it becomes a meditation, a reflection. The original shot that lay before me was problematic; it was too easily consumed. I wanted to draw attention to the layers I felt lay within it. For a long time I didn’t really know how to deal with it. In between this, I made other work. I became interested in notions of the “trace” and decided to bury the film and deal with what was left.

S. S.: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that Priya is a bit like a diary…

A. S.: All the vegetable matter left over from cooking went into the compost bin, so all our household waste has left marks on the surface of the film. I was very aware of seasonal changes. I planted a walnut tree in my garden and, in the late autumn, walnut juice (which behaves like a black dye) was the main component of the bin.

S. S.: Your work has been screened in both 16mm and digital formats. How much hinges on the way a gallery screens your films?

A. S.: When you show a film in a gallery, the work extends beyond the actual film. The space of projection impinges on the work. This is also true of the cinema space – there are no two cinemas with exactly the same sonic conditions. There are even more variables within the gallery. This interests me: how the work takes on other meanings; how the space enforces external geographical edits. Modern technology does offer more ways of intervention. However, the filmic image is formed very differently to the digital image and I think it has its own specificity. Whenever possible, I do prefer to show my work as 16mm projections.

S. S.: Your solo Elision was titled after a term used in film editing. Why?

A. S.: The Latin root of the word is “elidere” which means “to crush out” – this is quite literally what was done to the image in Priya. The emulsion has been crushed in the ground, forced to decay. I like the term; obviously, it describes many of the processes inherent in filmmaking and also the processes that are integral to creative thought. We begin with a certain notion, certain aspects of which are then discarded. Sentences, phrases and notes are juxtaposed to create meanings and tensions. But the contemporary world seems to hinge on elisions or omissions that maintain particular fictions. These fictions are political: they are very much about increasing control whilst creating the illusion of increased freedom.

S. S.: As a ‘diaspora artist’ your work is often seen to refer to cultural synchrony, identity and belonging. To what extent do you agree with this classification?

A. S.: I think the notion of synchrony is interesting in musical terms. It means that one has to be in time, in sync. Cultural synchrony becomes a very controlling notion – the idea of keeping in step. Time is something that is very intrinsic to filmmaking: how to pace things, when to come back, when all of the layers and associations have been exhausted.

The reality of the post-industrial era is that diaspora is made up of successive waves of migration. Narrative needs to be rethought along these new realities. It is very comforting to be able to see your own personal narrative extend before you both in terms of lineage and personal progression. We are brought up to believe that this is good, but in fact this is rarely the case. To be still is also to hold power. Ironically, it is also easier to exert control and meaning onto something that is still.

S. S.: Your third film, Swan, and your latest one, Priya, share formal similarities in their capturing of a relatively fixed subject in motion. Yet the raw, black-and-white simplicity of Swan is a sharp contrast to the riot of colours and textures in Priya. How has your work changed over time?

A. S.: When I made Swan I also made a film called Unfolding (1987), which is set in a public launderette. It is a document not only of the women who used the launderette but also of my feelings about making the film, as an outsider from a very different background. What happens throughout the piece is an analysis of language, storytelling and the politics of representation. I don’t think my concerns have changed that much. I am interested in how we represent the world through film.

S. S.: Are you working on a new project?

A. S.: I am working on a number of things – all of which have to do with notions of performance, endurance and the roles we play within the family unit.

S. S.: Speaking of family, aspects of your South Asian background are obvious in your work. Does your Welsh heritage also figure?

A. S.: I do not think you can delineate the two so sharply, as families create their own micro-culture. Oral history played an important part in my family life. Storytelling is very much part of my practice and I have inherited this concern from both my parents. My current project deals with four generations of women in my family: me, my daughter, my mother and grandmother. I use two central metaphors to investigate memory and tradition. One is the wallpaper my grandmother made and the other is the bike ride my great-grandmother used to take – travelling from a small Welsh mining village every weekend to her place of work in Neath. The journey as the crow flies is 24 miles. I intend to reenact this ride with my mother and daughter.

Originally published in Art India, 2009.

Published: June 7, 2009

Thukral & Tagra

Admen, artists, ambassadors ♦

bosedkIn the ongoing search to furnish India’s contemporary art scene with international emissaries, it is appropriate that two most prolific ambassadors have a background emblematic of the country’s most shining industry: advertising and design. Anything but appropriate, however, is the impish name of the fake brand that artist/designer duo Sumir Tagra and Jiten Thukral have invented – Bosedk Designs.

This cheeky attitude hides a pair of highly imaginative minds and two pairs of capable hands. Working in a variety of media – graphics, videos, music, interiors, products, paintings, sculpture and installation – Thukral and Tagra showcase design as high art. Yet Bard College curator-in-residence Trevor Smith writes aptly in a recent T&T catalogue that their engagement with design is “not one of distanced reflection or appropriation as is typical of visual artists, nor is it an academic critique of design.”

The artist/designer duo have had several major gallery shows, but also work in graphic and product design, including commissioned work – such as a 1”x1”x1” book titled David and Goliath – for companies such as Condé Nast, United Colors of Benetton and Ogilvy & Mather. Working collaboratively, T&T defy definition; are they artists or designers? Indians or global citizens? Dead serious or completely deadpan?.

What remains consistent is T&T’s almost branded style, straddled insouciantly between art and design. Their paintings – executed with the polish of digital prints – are stylized arrangements of stencil-like cut-outs, precise lettering and ornate embellishment. The question of whether these are backdrops for installation work, studies for projects or product overviews remains one for the critics. In Thukral and Tagra’s major shows, paintings rub shoulders easily with installation, seamlessly connected through content while varying in form.

T&T’s 2007 Everyday Bosedk exhibition at Nature Morte perfectly illustrated this easy coexistence. An exhibition that specifically built up the all-encompassing Bosedk brand and, in doing so, called into question the commercialisation of art and a commodification of style, Everyday Bosedk incorporated wall-size paintings, sculptures and a central installation. Upon entering, each viewer received a pin – a miniature version of an installation of chocolate sauce bottles (with questionably chocolatey boys on them) – forcing the spectator into interaction. Paintings like “It rains everyday” provided ample window-shopping with cookie-cutter figures engaged in various mundane and bizarre activities. But the centrepiece installation, “Keep out of the reach of children” encapsulated the uncomfortably satirical point of the exhibition. The gallery’s basement was transformed into a mini-supermarket – the whole venue branded to dizzying totality with neatly packaged, mysteriously multi-purposed Bosedk products. From bottles reminiscent of cleaning fluid to alcoholic beverages, the installation raised several important questions. Is this packaged seamlessness the real art-mart of India’s elated (perhaps inflated) art scene? Does the work’s title imply a condemnation of homogenization – a note of caution about the effect of dangerously attractive consumer culture on young children? By creating the illusion of mass-produced, monopolizing corporate unoroginality within an installation that was – given its galleried context – highly original, Thukral and Tagra have the last (albeit ambivalent) laugh.

The duo continue their political engagement in new projects, despite a certain self-directed irony. Peter Nagy writes in their catalogue that “Blinders are helpful when jumping into any fray… Most necessary [for artistic creation] may be an inert stupidity (in no short supply) against which to measure one’s own actions and intelligence…” The knowledge that world-saving may be arrogantly idealistic but better than doing nothing  at all underlay the pair’s recent “Put it on” exhibition at Bose Pacia, New York. The show handled spreading awareness of HIV/AIDS and condom use with witty delivery and a strong conviction in content. Whatever else they make think of themselves, Thukral and Tagra take their job as communicators seriously – coming up with underwear that promotes condoms, slippers with correct steps for condom usage printed on them, and a diagram, appropriated directly from market-strategy, of the moments during foreplay at which condom-awareness intervention through media is necessary. Extolls Nagy in the catalogue, “The Revolution will not only be televised but also commodified. The call to arms is to Personalize, Strategize, Sensitize, and Diversify.”

T&T’s latest show at Art Statements during Art Basel 38 – Adolescere – Domus – included works that spoke of more personalised touch, less evident in other, artistically aloof, pieces. In these and older paintings from 2004, the pair show up occasionally – not just as their cartoon avatars – but painted realistically if incompletely – a shoulder here, a pair of legs there. References to Delhi Public School, rotory phones and old-fashioned televisions curl up against iPods, bikinis and  self-portrait cartoons. These passing, pastiched icons are as close to self-explanatory as anything T&T have done. We’re in the thick of it, “deformed olive lover” and “skinny-kinky mind”[1] seem to be saying. We don’t care what you call us. We’re just having a damn good time. And then an echo of (canned?) laughter.


[1] Descriptions of Sumir and Jiten from their website www.bosedkdesigns.com

Originally published in Art India, 2007.

Published: October 7, 2007