15 years of Bharti Kher at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum – picture feast



Indian artist Bharti Kher reflects on fifteen artistic years at her solo show at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum.

Bharti Kher’s first major solo exhibition in Asia, “Bharti Kher: Misdemeanours” at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, charts fifteen years of her artistic practice. Kher’s work reflects her Anglo-Indian origins and her experiences of the contradiction, chaos, confusion, hybridity and transience of New Delhi.

Bharti Kher, 'The skin speaks a language not its own', 2006, fibreglass, bindis, 142 x 456 x 195 cm. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, ‘The skin speaks a language not its own’, 2006, fibreglass, bindis, 142 x 456 x 195 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

On 11 January 2014, the Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) in Shanghai will launch British-born Indian artist Bharti Kher’s solo exhibition titled “Bharti Kher: Misdemeanours”. Running until 30 March 2014, the exhibition is curated by Sandhini Poddar, a Mumbai-based art historian and Adjunct Curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

The show charts fifteen years of Kher’s artistic career and features a variety of works, including loans from leading international private and public institutions as well as new commissions for RAM. The twenty works spread out on the entire six floors of the museum comprise sculptures, Kher’s much-celebrated bindi paintings, photographs, site-specific installations and an outdoor mural consisting of a gigantic multi-paneled bindi painting, modeled after Kher’s 2007 bindi diptych, Target Queen.

Bharti Kher, 'Lady with an ermine', 2012, fibreglass, granite, wood and leather, ceramic, fur, 230 x 60 x 60 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, ‘Lady with an ermine’, 2012, (detail) fibreglass, granite, wood and leather, ceramic, fur, 230 x 60 x 60 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

The exhibition examines Bharti Kher’s oeuvre and the main ideas and concepts that inform her work, including, as stated in the press release,

… the interlocking relationships between man and the animal kingdom and the attendant notions of hybridity, transmogrification, and ethics, which are pervasive topics in contemporary art and critical discourse today; the links between abstraction and figuration; the question of the other; gender politics; globalisation and cosmopolitanism, and finally what it means to be a contemporary artist and cultural producer.

The artist’s work displays an intrinsic love of counting, subtle understanding of scale and predilection towards human drama and contemporary life. Her practice also includes the cyclical appearance of characters such as the ape, and a sensitivity to the subtleties of language, as expressed in the evocative titles for some her artworks.

Bharti Kher, 'This way', 2008, bindi diptych, 2 panels, 244 x 183 cm each. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, ‘This way’, 2008, bindi diptych, 2 panels, 244 x 183 cm each. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Millions of Bindis

Bharti Kher has found an original and yet completely clichéd material for her art: the ready-made bindi. The bindi – a traditional forehead decoration – has become commercially manufactured and widely used by Indian women. Traditionally, it was used in red as a symbol of marriage. Kher, who thrives on creating art that is about misinterpretation, misconceptions, conflict, multiplicity and contradiction, adopted the bindi to invite ambivalent meanings oscillating between tradition and modernity. As Serpentine Gallery Director Hans Ulrich Obrist said, “Kher’s works are ambiguous in their meaning … [they] show a very relevant negotiation with old India and the present. […] It’s a productive tension between tradition and modernity.”

Bharti Kher, 'Target Queen', 2014, mural, 18 x 18 m. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, ‘Target Queen’, 2014, mural, 18 x 18 m. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

According to Rajesh Punj of Asian Art Newspaper, Kher’s bindis “suggest symbolism is subject to social change and challenge the role of the woman in a continent rooted in tradition.” Above all, Kher wants to emphasise the bindi’s traditional spiritual meaning of “the third eye”, which goes beyond cliché and misinterpretation: “It’s more about an idea: that you have another eye, another way of looking, another way of seeing,” Kher reveals to The Wall Street Journal.

Bharti Kher, 'This way', 2008, bindi diptych, 2 panels, 244 x 183 cm each. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, ‘This way’, 2008, bindi diptych, 2 panels, 244 x 183 cm each. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

In her work Target Queen (2007) the artist uses mass-produced felt bindis in large format to create a hypnotising, geometrical and hyper-colourful painting. This way (2008) contains millions of small bindis arranged in a motif that seems to flow, like water in a stream, in a direction that invites the viewer to follow.

Bharti Kher, 'Lady with ermine', 2012, fibreglass, granite, wood, leather, ceramic and fur, 230 x 60 x 60 cm. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, ‘Lady with ermine’, 2012, fibreglass, granite, wood, leather, ceramic and fur, 230 x 60 x 60 cm. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Women and domesticity

Women in India are traditionally associated with domesticity, their realm circumscribed to the four walls of the home. This enforced domesticity is revealed in Kher’s work, in works such as Lady with an ermine (2012) and All the while the benevolent slept (2008), in the form of crockery, such as tea cups and teapots, which may also hint at India’s colonised past by a tea-drinking imperial power. At times, domestic appliances such as Hoovers also represent the domestic realm.

Bharti Kher, 'And all the while the benevolent slept', 2008, fibreglass, porcelain plastic, pedestal in wood Mahogany, copper wires, 178.5 x 220 x 121 cm. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, ‘And all the while the benevolent slept’, 2008, fibreglass, porcelain plastic, pedestal in mahogany, copper wires, 178.5 x 220 x 121 cm. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Monster-goddesses

Kher has made various life-size sculptural portraits of women that look like goddesses. Their appearance suggests links with mythology but the artist insists that there is no reference to any ancient legend or religious myth. Her goddesses are made for contemporary times. Talking with Art News in 2009, Kher spoke about her interest in the idea of the monster: “The idea of the monster is almost always warning of something in the future. These women are a continuation of that – they are like portents.”

Bharti Kher, 'Warrior with cloak and shield', 2008, fibreglass, banana leaf dipped in resin, cotton, stainless steel, 190 x 205 x 160 cm. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, ‘Warrior with cloak and shield’, 2008, fibreglass, banana leaf dipped in resin, cotton, stainless steel, 190 x 205 x 160 cm. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

In Warrior with Cloak and Shield (2009) Kher portrays a small woman partially covered with a torn fabric wearing Mary Janes. Huge antlers protrude from her head and curl down towards the floor, so big they make her look like she is becoming a tree; for the artist, the antlers are a symbol of rejuvenation.

Bharti Kher, 'The skin speaks a language not its own', 2006, (detail) fibreglass, bindis, 142 x 456 x 195 cm. Work displayed at Nature Morte Gallery, New Delhi. Photo: PabloBartholomew/Netphotograph.com. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, ‘The skin speaks a language not its own’, 2006, (detail) fibreglass, bindis, 142 x 456 x 195 cm. Work displayed at Nature Morte Gallery, New Delhi. Photo: PabloBartholomew/Netphotograph.com. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

An animal world

Kher has produced a series of works based on animals that RAM describes as “the embodiment of the spectacularised uncanny par excellence,” after Benjamin H.D. Buchlo. The most famous example of this series is her bindi-covered elephant The skin speaks a language not its own (2006). The work sold at auction at Sotheby’s London in 2010 for USD1.5 million, making Kher the top-selling Indian woman artist of the time and surpassing her husband Subodh Gupta’s selling record.

Bharti Kher, 'Misdemeanours', 2006, fibreglass, bindis, fur, 155 x 183 x 58 cm. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, ‘Misdemeanours’, 2006, fibreglass, bindis, fur, 155 x 183 x 58 cm. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

A life-size fibreglass elephant recoiling on the floor, the sculpture is completely covered in sperm-shaped bindis. Kher was inspired after seeing a newspaper photograph of a collapsed elephant in the same position being loaded into a moving truck. Misdemeanours (2006) is a nude hyena with only a patch of fur on its back and decorated with bindis.

Also on show at RAM is An Absence of an Assignable Cause (2007), a life-size replica of the heart of a blue whale, intricately covered in bindis. The sculpture emphasises the romantic idea of a ‘big heart’ and the mysteries that bind the heart to concepts of love, life and death.

Bharit Kher, 'Hybrid series: self portrait', 2007, digital C-print, 45.54 x 54.65 cm. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharit Kher, ‘Hybrid series: self portrait’, 2007, digital C-print, 45.54 x 54.65 cm. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Hybrid identities

As the RAM press release explains, for Kher,

the central question of identity (as body, gender, language, and motif) is inextricably linked to the question of artifice — as an existential, aesthetic, biological, and ethical trope.

In her photographic suite The Hybrid Series, women exist in an in-between space, which the curator calls “a liminal state between humdrum domesticity and violent phantasmagoria.” Her subjects are photoshopped into part human, part animal individuals, appearing bizarrely seductive and demure in their tranquil poses. They seem to agree with the role they have been assigned and exude strength and determination, in the curator’s word, “relishing in their own duplicitous and multiplying selfhoods.”

Bharti Kher, 'Hybrids series: family portrait', 2004, digital C-print, 76.2 x 114.3 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, ‘Hybrids series: family portrait’, 2004, digital C-print, 76.2 x 114.3 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

In Self Portrait (2004) the artist portrays herself with a baboon’s face, her unflinching gaze looking right through the viewer with a sense of self-empowerment. Family Portrait (2004) depicts a family of three with recurrent monkey body parts, a snake-headed Hoover and a mother with a motorcycle helmet concealing her identity. This maternal figure reappears in Angel, this time holding a blue-skinned baby with bat wings and a dog-headed Hoover.

In Chocolate Muffin (2004), hybridity becomes even more apparent in the blurring of female-male identities and the multiplicity of animal parts inserted into the human frame, such as the baboon’s face and the horse’s hoof.

Bharti Kher, 'Hybrids series: Angel', 2004, digital C-print, 76.2 x 114.3 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, ‘Hybrids series: Angel’, 2004, digital C-print, 76.2 x 114.3 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, 'Hybrids series: chocolate muffin', 2004, digital C-print, 76.2 x 114.3 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, ‘Hybrids series: chocolate muffin’, 2004, digital C-print, 76.2 x 114.3 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

The perpetual “hunt for a chimera”

Art critic and India editor of Flash Art Kanchi Mehta talks about Kher’s works as “interactive works, both on an emotional and an experiential level that have an undeniable ingredient of seductive beauty married to the grotesque.” The artist has described her practice as “the hunt for a chimera”, explained in a press release for her 2012 exhibition at Hauser and Wirth as “a search through which she has come to see the self as a multiple open to interpretation, projection and shape-shifting.” Talking to Italian art magazine Arte in October 2012, Kher explains her hunt as the pursuit of “the five-headed monster, the hybrid as a symbol of a mutating identity, in conflict with itself.

Bharti Kher, 'Not all who wander are lost', 2009-2010, wooden stools, table, antique globe, mechanism, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, ‘Not all who wander are lost’, 2009-2010, wooden stools, table, antique globe, mechanism, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Rajesh Pun of Asian Art Newspaper describes her practice thus:

The confusion or impossibility that exists in Kher’s works is precisely the point of departure for her artworks and allows Kher to act and react as she chooses.  This dogged ability has allowed her to begin to write a new history for a new location of contemporary art.

Bharti Kher, 'The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker', 2008, glass bricks, pedestal in rusted iron, LED lights, 51 x 115 x 68 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Bharti Kher, ‘The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker’, 2008, glass bricks, pedestal in rusted iron, LED lights, 51 x 115 x 68 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

More about Bharti Kher

Bharti Kher was born in 1969 in London to Indian parents. She studied at the Middlesex Polytechnic and graduated from Newcastle Polytechnic in 1991 with a BA in Painting. In 1993, she travelled to India, where she met her now husband, artist Subodh Gupta. She lives and works in New Dehli.

Kher works with galleries such as Hauser and Wirth (London), Galerie Perrotin (Paris), Jack Shainman Gallery (New York) and Nature Morte (New Dehli). She has exhibited at various museums and institutions around the world, including the Serpentine Gallery (London), MAXXI (Rome), Centre Pompidou (Paris), Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, The Saatchi Gallery (London), Queensland Art Gallery – Gallery of Modern Art (Brisbane) and National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art(Seoul), among others.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related topics: Indian art and artists, the human body in art, the female form in art, art about identity, art and domesticity, art and myth, blurring reality and fiction, museum shows, events in Shanghai, picture feasts

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