Keeping it clean: Indian artist Krishnaraj Chonat on changing histories – video interview

Bangalore based multimedia artist Krishnaraj Chonat looks at the effects of urbanisation on the diverse Indian landscape.

In a recent video interview with Indian art scholar Kathryn Myers, Chonat talks about his art works and what inspires him to use materials like soap and electronic waste. The interview is part of an ongoing series called “Regarding India: Conversations with artists”, which was started by Myers while she was in India in 2011 on the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program.

This video can also be viewed on Kathryn Myers’ website Regarding India.

Chonat aims to question people’s perceptions of landscape, urbanisation, progress, waste disposal and smell. In the interview, he explains how and why he uses these themes. “Everything’s so constructed, simulated that you don’t know if you have to trust your instincts, that you actually experience what you’re seeing,” he says. He questions society’s tendency to perceive technological development as progress.

Art works like Private Sky (2007) and The Tree (2008) are a result of his investigations into the impact that changes to a landscape have on local populations. In the interview, Chonat describes how, in The Tree, he used performance art to highlight the loss of identity of an area.

I had this idea in mind of using a huge industrial crane, a construction crane, to actually suspend this tree. […] That tree kind of posed a question mark, you know, over that area, over everything that happened there, its history and what it projects into the future.

Krishnaraj Chonat, ‘The Tree’, 2008, site specific installation on Barakhamba Road, New Delhi, in "48 degrees celsius: Public. Art. Ecology". Image courtesy GALLERYSKE.

Krishnaraj Chonat, ‘The Tree’, 2008, site specific installation on Barakhamba Road, New Delhi, in “48 degrees celsius: Public. Art. Ecology”. Image courtesy GALLERYSKE.

Chonat’s preoccupation with the impact of urbanisation on India is evident in Private Sky. As the artist explains,

I was very interested in working with the idea of housing. Personally, also, I’ve been very, very drawn to this because our own experience of having lived in the city and having moved out of the city and, you know, into this beautiful place. Over the years, all these lands around were denotified, and all this construction suddenly happened, new roads were laid right through living colonies. Everything was thrown up. ‘Private Sky’ actually happened somewhere around that same period of that realisation.

In the artwork, a wooden house, which is a replica of houses found in Southern California, sits in the branches of a dead tree. A huge mosquito squats at the foot of the tree and a moon made of faux fur hangs overhead. The design for the house was inspired by a brochure describing a housing colony (residential development) that was being built on what was once a mosquito-infested lake.

Krishnaraj Chonat, ‘Private Sky’, 2007, steel, fibreglass, fake fur, plastic, automotive paint, mist machine and mirrors, 203 x 127 x 156 cm approx., in "Island", GALLERYSKE at Project 88, Mumbai. Image courtesy GALLERYSKE.

Krishnaraj Chonat, ‘Private Sky’, 2007, steel, fibreglass, fake fur, plastic, automotive paint, mist machine and mirrors, 203 x 127 x 156 cm approx., in “Island”, GALLERYSKE at Project 88, Mumbai. Image courtesy GALLERYSKE.

In their promotional brochure, the development company described the colony as containing “East facing Californian houses, French windows, […] a Venetian colony with Balinese gates and gondolas and canals.” They glossed over the earlier landscape.

As the artist notes in the video,

You flip their catalogue and, you know, you travel from Bali to Thailand to Venice and back to Bangalore, and the mosquito never happens anywhere. That’s when I thought, you know, it would be nice to focus everything on that because, how would you keep that away, you know? It’s like, you can keep anything else away, you can push all the other people out, but you cannot keep that away.

Chonat returns often to the “architecture of smell” in this discussion of his themes. In My Hands Smell of You, a work that was part of a project held at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 2011, he uses Mysore Sandalwood Soap, which, due to its strong smell, is a popular brand of soap in India.

The scent of the soap reminded the artist of his childhood and led him to question the function of the cleaning product. He says,

The idea was to bring this kind of a very everyday cosmetic product […] that stays with us so much, and somewhere its primary purpose is cleansing. So the idea of cleanse what, you know? […] [Do] you cleanse yourself or cleanse something much deeper?

Krishnaraj Chonat, ‘My Hands Smell of You’, 2011, sandalwood soap mounted on board (24 panels), 18 x 12 ft, in "Paris-Delhi-Bombay", Centre Pompidou, Paris. Image courtesy Krishnaraj Chonat and Centre Pompidou.

Krishnaraj Chonat, ‘My Hands Smell of You’, 2011, sandalwood soap mounted on board (24 panels), 18 x 12 ft, in “Paris-Delhi-Bombay”, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Image courtesy Krishnaraj Chonat and Centre Pompidou.

Krishnaraj Chonat, ‘My Hands Smell of You’, 2011, electronic waste, 18 x 13 ft, in "Paris-Delhi-Bombay", Centre Pompidou, Paris. Image courtesy Krishnaraj Chonat and Centre Pompidou.

Krishnaraj Chonat, ‘My Hands Smell of You’, 2011, electronic waste, 18 x 13 ft, in “Paris-Delhi-Bombay”, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Image courtesy Krishnaraj Chonat and Centre Pompidou.

For the artwork, Chonat constructed two walls: one was made of soap and the other of discarded e-waste that was donated by the citizens of Paris. Both walls could not be viewed at the same time. In the video interview, he explains the purpose behind this act,

I was also hoping to speak about the ways in which stories are constructed. We always see only one side of the story and the other side of the story is always imaginary. I thought, why not construct a work where you would not reveal everything, that people would eventually be able to connect.

Krishnaraj Chonat, ‘No Title’, 2013, acrylic on black somerset paper, 72.5 x 105 cm, in "All Sunsets are Sunsets", Nature Morte, New Delhi. Image courtesy GALLERYSKE.

Krishnaraj Chonat, ‘No Title’, 2013, acrylic on black somerset paper, 72.5 x 105 cm, in “All Sunsets are Sunsets”, Nature Morte, New Delhi. Image courtesy GALLERYSKE.

Krishnaraj Chonat, ‘The Coracle’ (installation view), 2008, steel, acrylic, fiberglass, wood, found objects, fabric and PU paint, 305 x 300 x 175 cm, in "The Coracle", Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Image courtesy GALLERYSKE.

Krishnaraj Chonat, ‘The Coracle’ (installation view), 2008, steel, acrylic, fiberglass, wood, found objects, fabric and PU paint, 305 x 300 x 175 cm, in “The Coracle”, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Image courtesy GALLERYSKE.

More on Krishnaraj Chonat 

Krishnaraj Chonat was born in 1973 in Chennai, India. He completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Karnataka Chitra Kala Parishad in Bangalore in 1994 and graduated from MS University of Baroda with an MA in sculpture in 1996. His most recent solo exhibitions include “All Sunsets are Sunsets” (Nature Morte, New Delhi, 2013) and “My Hands Smell of You” (Gallery SKE, Bangalore, 2010). Other recent major projects include the group exhibitions “Paris-Delhi-Bombay” at Centre Pompidou, Paris (2011) and “Homespun” at Devi Art Foundation, Delhi (2011). Chonat lives and works in Bangalore and is represented by GALLERYSKE.

Indian artist Krishnaraj Chonat. Image courtesy Kathryn Myers.

Indian artist Krishnaraj Chonat. Image courtesy Kathryn Myers.

This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar, too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

Ria Sarkar

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Related Topics: Indian artists, site-specific art, sculpture, installationlandscape, mixed media, memory, community art, identity art

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