Collateral damage: Indian artist Sheela Gowda burns installation in UK gallery


Read our last post on “Therein & Besides”? Inspired to know more about this Indian artist’s work? In a recent talk with exhibition curator Grant Watson, the artist revealed the intention and the artistic processes behind her ash installation Collateral, a work originally produced in 2007 for Kassel’s Documenta 12.

Sheela Gowda's 'Collateral' (2011), Rivington Place (UK). Image courtesy Iniva.

Sheela Gowda's 'Collateral' (2011), Rivington Place (UK). Image courtesy of Iniva.

Click here to listen to the full recording of Sheela Gowda in conversation with curator Grant Watson, Senior Curator at Iniva (Institute of Visual arts).

Sheela Gowda‘s large scale installations incorporate commonplace materials such as cow dung and human hair. In Collateral, incense was added to the artist’s repertoire. Curator and conversation partner Grant Watson described the installation as,

A series of frames with shapes made from material that is used in the production of incense which has been moulded into different forms and then burnt to leave ash.

Collateral‘s eight wooden frames, which differ in length and width are raised thirty-five centimetres above the ground, cover the whole upstairs gallery space, called PS2. A fine metal mesh is stretched across each one. Square and oval pieces of burnt incense in various grey tones sit on top of the mesh and are crossed by narrow elliptical lines of ash. In one corner of the gallery space sits a glass jar which contains ash from the installation’s 2007 version.

Sheela Gowda, 'Collateral (installation detail), 2007, at Documenta 12, Kassel. Image courtesy Iniva.

Sheela Gowda, 'Collateral' (installation detail), 2007, at Documenta 12, Kassel. Image courtesy of Iniva.

From painting to the political

Gowda’s artistic practice radically changed in the early 1990’s when she moved from painting to installation. During their talk, Watson explored this shift in her artistic practice.

You started to experiment with materials in a way that extended. Initially, [your experimentation with materials] was incorporated into [your] painting but then, quite logically, it extended into three dimensional form. This was partly in response to the political situation, maybe the riots in Bombay in 1992….

Gowda replied that she had taken painting to a certain point and her artistic practice needed a “radical change or major shift.” In the early 1990’s, she experienced a “brainwave” and she decided that the political rise of the Hindu right-wing and the consequent shift in India’s political and social dynamics needed to be critiqued. Gowda described this brainwave as,

A logical result of [this political situation] was to critique ourselves, what we were using and what we were doing, and I tried to find a [way of using materials from my everyday surroundings] that addressed that.

Watson alluded to the strong social and cultural meaning incense has in India when talking to Gowda about her choice of art materials:

Your choice [in the early 1990s] was not to go into [new] media but [into] materials, the particular meanings which they have and the ways that [materials] intercept with social, religious and practical usage. … Materials mark certain kinds of social practices and certain social transformations.

Indeed, the making of Collateral deals with transformation of material and the concept of metamorphosis. The installation has been compared to a war-ravaged landscape.

Sheela Gowda, 'Collateral (installation detail)', 2011, at Rivington Place, UK. Image courtesy Iniva.

Sheela Gowda, 'Collateral' (installation detail), 2011, at Rivington Place, UK. Image courtesy of Iniva.

Collateral created

Gowda assembled the incense shapes required for Collateral by kneading charcoal, water and tree bark powder into a dough. This dough-incense was then shaped into rectangular and circular pieces and placed on the raised mesh-covered frames. Gowda said of these frames:

I would love to have a linear floor piece without any intervention but it does not burn. Putting [the incense pieces] on mesh became a necessity [because] the incense would not burn, if there was no air coming up from underneath…. Therefore, [the mesh] had to be incorporated into not only the formal aspect of the work but the conceptual aspect of the work.

The artist described this mesh as having “human-size” proportions:

There are three sizes, two that I call ‘man-size’ and two which are ‘child-size’. I kind of play around to imagine relationships between father and son, mother and son. There is a pairing that happens but on the whole [the mesh pieces] are together. They have silence, I see silence there.

Over one to two days, the artist used a blow torch to burn each piece of incense, leaving matching shapes of ash in their place. Gowda also burnt ropes or strings of incense so that wormy lines of ash cross the mesh.

A knock-on effect followed: as one incense shape burned, it touched the next one and the next one and so on, leaving behind trails of ash as each piece burned out. In some cases, the incense shapes were not touching or linked and it was at these points that the burning process naturally came to a halt.

Sheela Gowda, 'Collateral (installation detail)', 2011, at Rivington Place, UK. Image courtesy Iniva.

Sheela Gowda, 'Collateral (installation detail)', 2011, at Rivington Place, UK. Image courtesy Iniva.

Gowda described this “highly orchestrated process,” replete with much trial and error and some cross-cultural concerns, to Watson:

Back in India we do not have fire regulations and we do not have sealed windows so you don’t have to go through this horrible session of what do you do with the smoke? Where will it go? Which alarm will go off? … If you mess [the burning process] up a little bit, the whole work is gone, and then you do not have time to rectify it.

Large machines were used to remove the smoke from the building but despite this the installation still has a potent smell of incense. This effect, Gowda explained, was not intentional.

Click here to watch a video of Sheela Gowda making Collateral at Rivington Place.

How to interpret a good work of art

According to Gowda, she begins a journey with a material upon a discovery that it can have multiple readings and social contexts. Watson elaborated on this point, saying that the artist’s initial attraction to a material is followed by a protracted period of both physically and conceptually testing the material in order to find its potential. This process, he said, prevents the material from being interpreted either too specifically or too simply.

Sheela Gowda, 'Kagebangara', 2007, installation view, Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (MuHKA). Image courtesy Iniva.

Sheela Gowda, 'Kagebangara', 2007, installation view, Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (MuHKA). Image courtesy of Iniva.

Viewers of Collateral are invited to navigate the space so as to view the sculpture from all angles. Watson said that the audience’s “focus [should be on the] materials and the configuration of those materials in space. Social meaning emerges rather than being directly addressed, as [Gowda’s] works avoid ‘storytelling’.” Gowda’s works should, he said, be interpreted with an “eyes-open policy”.

While it is not about urban spaces and particular economies, it does not deny them or seek to hide them. The political aspect of the work is somehow allowed to reside within the work without … dominating.

Gowda herself described how “a good work of art” should be interpreted:

A good work of art would not have to cross boundaries; it would always encompass both [abstraction and figuration]. From the beginning I have always understood abstraction not to mean the absence of form but [rather it should suggest] a reading that is multiple.

Another level of interpretation was revealed when Gowda explained the naming of Collateral as “referencing the wooden frames themselves and the way they are sized and arranged in space rather than the ash, as the ash has been [used] in earlier works.”

"Therein & Besides", 'of all people', 2011, installation view from outside Rivington Place, UK. Image courtesy Iniva.

"Therein & Besides", 'of all people', 2011, installation view from outside Rivington Place, UK. Image courtesy of Iniva.

In February this year, Art Radar attended guest curator Ruth Noack‘s participatory tour of Sheela Gowda’s lastest commission of all people (2011), shown with Collateral at Rivington PlaceClick here to read our summary of this tour.


Related Topics: installation artSheela GowdaIndian artists, ash

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