Measuring the human impact on the land: Mumbai artist Hemali Bhuta – interview

Indian artist Hemali Bhuta’s work reflects on the role of man as an agent of landscape transformation, while discussing broader issues of change and instability in today’s society.

Mumbai-based artist Hemali Bhuta talks to Art Radar about her recently closed exhibition “Measure of a foot” at Project 88, while taking this occasion to expand on her deeply matter-oriented research. 

Hemali Bhuta, '16 sq.ft', 2015, glycerine soap, edible colour and nylon thread, 10 x 11 x 12 x 2 nos. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Hemali Bhuta, ’16 sq.ft’, 2015, glycerine soap, edible colour and nylon thread, 10 x 11 x 12 x 2 nos. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Where are we now? How do we claim our own existence on earth when identity, relationship and society’s current general life enjoyment are turning non-physical, almost ethereal? How do we measure the action of mankind on the landscape we live in? Mumbai-based commercial space Project 88 held the solo exhibition “Measure of a foot” from 10 March to 16 April 2016, presenting a series of “space-responsive” dark sculptures and installations by Indian artist Hemali Bhuta.

Art Radar catches up with the artist to talk about the recently closed show, while broadening the discourse to her creative process, research and issues of interest.

Starting this conversation from the very beginning, can you explain to us what “Measure of a foot” stands for?

Through “Measure of a foot”, I am trying to decipher what it means to measure, what tools are adopted to measure and whether there can be a personal logic to measurement. What is contained within one square foot, one tile of terrazzo, that encompasses within it histories, geologies of millions of years, of displaced landscapes. What we stand on, walk over, does that in any way affect our reading of the land, of all that forms that land, all that dies within it, of all that gets recycled as well, where time and climate become the biggest measures to discover our existence within the fabric of nature and the creation of the cosmos.

Hemali Bhuta, 'Stumps', 2015, acid free foam mounts and acidified aged paper, 5.75 x 5 x 16 inches x 4 nos. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Hemali Bhuta, ‘Stumps’, 2015, acid free foam mounts and acidified aged paper, 5.75 x 5 x 16 inches x 4 nos. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

According to Nida Ghouse’s essay accompanying your recently closed exhibition at Project 88, “Many of the works […] were made by means of unmaking what were once finished works in Point-Shift and Quoted Objects”. Can you explain to us what relationship is between the two solo exhibitions at the gallery?

The previous solo, “Point-Shift and Quoted Objects” in 2012-13 was an attempt to fabricate/make everything outside of the studio, where all the works didn’t carry the mark of the artist’s hands rather the technical drawings induced within the show, further emphasized on the same fact, that of it’s absence. 

Many of the works in recent show mark the time between the making and the unmaking of my own constructed realities, mistakes. It attempts to deconstruct, break down, inverse, subvert as though folding in of the previous show and its monumentality. It functions as minor architecture trying to destabilize the function, material, form, system of major architecture, as though becoming sites of strategic spatial operations, as though graveyards, site of ruins, a site of experimentation, limitation and emphasis on a continuous breakdown. What is the stake when the artist wants to play the role of a novice, of a child maybe… what fun it could be and besides there is no pressure of failure and being judged… where no-closure both with the work and the install as a proposition is at play, where attitudes become form, where there is a sense of eliminating the notion of work being a finished, beautiful, perfectly fabricated, totally resolved object.

Hemali Bhuta, 'Roll', 2015, binding cloth, m.seal, acrylic copolymer emulsion, 47 x 3 inches dia. tapering to 2 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Hemali Bhuta, ‘Roll’, 2015, binding cloth, m.seal, acrylic copolymer emulsion, 47 x 3 inches dia. tapering to 2 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Hemali Bhuta, 'Pieces of the Circumference', 2015, soap and vegetable colours, 27 x 17 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Hemali Bhuta, ‘Pieces of the Circumference’, 2015, soap and vegetable colours, 27 x 17 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Your latest works presented at Project 88 carry simultaneously a sense of past and present, as well as of life and death in them, recalling archaeological relics of a polluted dark reality, appearing as today’s sculptures that are already worn-out, consumed, recycled. How would you comment on this approach to your work?

Jagine jov to jagat dise nahi

Ungh maa atpata bhog bhase

(When I wake up, the world recedes from my sight.     

Only in sleep, its bewildering miseries and enjoyment perplexes me!)

(Says Narsi Mehta, a mystic)

and

Bhala hua meri matki phuti re

Mein to paniyaan bharan se chuti re

(Now my clay jar has shattered,

Finally I am free from this water filling business)

(Doha, mystic Kabir)

Both the above extracts of philosophical enquiry through the mundane have a play of being transported from one state to another, (real and illusion), they have a sense of the container and the dissolution of the same. This sense of realization resonates with the idea of detachment, acceptance of change and instability to be inherent within the work. The work tries to address the problematics of the system, codifies a critique of the system and the way it operates, its hegemonies, its almost fascist ways under the mask of being liberal. These sculptures, almost propose anarchy but at the same time refrain from partaking in protests. It wants to suggest invisibility… As Cage said “We got the idea from Artaud that theater could take place free of a text, that if a text were in it, that it needn’t determine the other actions, that sounds, that activities and so forth, could all be free rather than tied together… so that the audience was not focused in one particular direction”.

I wanted to calculate the amount of wax in a solid sculpture through the process of liquidification. The sense of matter within a solid cylindrical wax seems to have reduced as it became fluid. How does one measure this and whether it makes any meaning to do so?  This transition from one state to the other as a thought, as an experiment, as a tool to measure, encompasses within it many images, many derivations in order to further one incarnation to the another. Time is marked here both through the process of liquidificaction and then solidification, through the dissolution of one form into the making of another and then eventually further being consumed by a larger body/form, thus leaving traces of its presence. The cycle of life and death and afterlife has been a recurrent implication in my works. Temporality does become a major factor in approaching a continuous breakdown of the form.

Hemali Bhuta, 'Printing paper', 2016, screenprint on newsprint paper, 18.5 x 24.75 inch. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Hemali Bhuta, ‘Printing paper’, 2016, screenprint on newsprint paper, 18.5 x 24.75 inch. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

A sense of displacement seems to be very strong in your research, either transposing works in the space or constructing objects that usually evoke a different solidity. What does the notion of displacement mean to you?

Displacement and disruption can’t be separate. Fracture/rupture happens within the landscape/structure, but also in the vision, in practice as well. Each particle, each molecule, each grain is disrupted in the making of a work. So death takes place in other ways as well… There is a certain constellation, the way magma is formed, the way it decides to erupt and the way it freezes to become basalt. The traces of the flow of magma are erased so easily by merely moulding them into blocks of stone, used for construction, its beautiful, its disturbing, so is death. The solo proposes ways of navigating through a landscape, where fragments of past grandeur seem to shift, emerge, are excavated from beneath, almost as the plenum operates where the space within and without become one..

At another level, crawling like a child on a terrazzo tile, one almost discovers how deceptive the floor surface is. It camouflages all that goes on it, within it. One tile could encapsulate, freeze within it a marble stone from Rajasthan and also from Italy. What is the sense of displacement happening in this case? I don’t see no difference between depth and death. Depth as under the surface like burials, catacombs, caverns, mines, places of The Dead. Within a cave, stalactites are living stones and there is a certain kind of displacement at play here. In that case all stones are living or at least seem to be living as other factors are responsible for its growth, erosion, alteration, fracture, displacement. Death comes to life, the transportation of the liquid state to the solid state is of value here, elements like skeletal fragments of marine organisms, minerals, water, calcium carbonate, lava, time etc come at play.

Hemali Bhuta, 'The Fit', 2015, yellow basalt and alum, 24 x 7 x 3 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Hemali Bhuta, ‘The Fit’, 2015, yellow basalt and alum, 24 x 7 x 3 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

The matter and its inner identity are relevant to your practice. It would be interesting to know more about the process of transformation from the initial idea to the final sculpture. Can you explain how you translate your thoughts in material representations? What role does the matter play in this transformation?

Making meaning of matter is a tricky one, as I believe the value is only in the translation of the object into an art object… so the translator himself/herself may not be able to revisit, re-experience the same after the making of it… neither will the viewer/audience experience that process of translation, which cannot be contained within the structure of another language. Only certain intentions can be voiced and only the aftermath can be experienced. The aftermath becomes a ground of dissection, of articulation which can never be The Thing… it is always going to be the representation of The Thing, limited…

I am only and always drawn by the tactility of the material/object… material is for what has made it, and for what has become of it. And hence I can’t imagine a practice wherein I can’t touch it, can’t feel it, can’t smell it. I like to work with materials that can be mostly handled with the hand, wherein the use of machine is negligible… this comes through my own phobias of machines… when I have to use a machine, I can only think of violence, wound and hence the need to keep them at bay… whereas I am at complete ease when I am handling hot wax, boiling oil (soap), alum, coal tar et all. I listen to my sensory organs… when they indicate some resemblance of materiality, of tactility in materials, their ability to deceive me as a viewer and maker… I enjoy the most when a soft and vulnerable material like alum camouflages itself to look as robust and solid as concrete. Its interesting to see how one replaces the other… how this repositioning fools me/viewer and gratifies the weak, where the quality of the one replaced and the one replacing resonates at levels and at other levels depart, where the I-ness of both collapse, so does mine/viewers’.

Hemali Bhuta, "Measure of a foot", 2016, installation view at Project 88. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Hemali Bhuta, “Measure of a foot”, 2016, installation view at Project 88. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Hemali Bhuta, 'Group B', 2015, Set of 7 works. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Hemali Bhuta, ‘Group B’, 2015, Set of 7 works. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

The works Group A and Group B in the show at Project 88 were both a set of elements. Can you tell us more about the idea of the group?

The renowned Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind writes that “Ancient painters used to practice putting dots on paper in artistic disorder. This is rather difficult. Even though you try to do it, usually what you do is arranged in some order. You think you can control it, but you cannot; it is almost impossible to arrange your dots out of order.” This proposition through the show, through the group as well was to bring some kind of disorder, where even if there is an arrangement called Group A, it still can become Group X, Y, Z with other elements… so there is no fixed group. Even though, we seem to give the viewer a group, it at the very same minute proposes to break the group. Having said that, there is a certain dependent co-origination amongst all, whether it is lead and silver and then relation between lead and graphite, coal, coal tar, paraffin wax, petroleum, crude oil etc.

Hemali Bhuta, 'Inlaid Out', 2015, grey basalt stone, bidding patti, tape and polymer, 99 x 48 x 4 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Hemali Bhuta, ‘Inlaid Out’, 2015, grey basalt stone, bidding patti, tape and polymer, 99 x 48 x 4 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Was “Measure of a foot” an exhibition built upon site-specific works? If so, can you tell us more about the process of creation and setting of the works in the space?

“Measure of a foot” in certain manner is site-specific and in other ways not. I can definitely say it is site responsive. Although it suggests a breakdown of works that responded much to the structure of the gallery, also responded to simple and technical exercises in art schools. This became more of a critique of institutions and the way they function. Like I mentioned earlier, the time between the two shows allowed for climate to mark its presence. My job was to collaborate with it. It became easier for me to just take that formation further by further deconstructing it using various exercises like, overlap, slice, copy, rub, roll etc. These acted like ways to capture the gesture, almost making drawings, impressions, markings on it. For example the character of the gallery becomes more visible by the invisibility of the works, or maybe the virginness of the canvas/gallery makes visible markings, manifested. It opens up thoughts/ideas of exploration, navigation, dealing with suspense, excitement and body of an organic silence.

These markings suggest a certain kind of tactility, its need to become the image, where time, action, reason and the tool get frozen. The marking is alive, momentary, vulnerable, the image kills it. So this image, who is the murderer of marking/memory, can only give birth to its incarnation. It can construct a language that depicts the imagination or the translation of the same but can never be the same. The force that makes the marking is not solely responsible for making one… there are other forces acting here… sometimes rational sometimes not… The marking marks the friction between the maker and the object/surface being marked. Hence it reflects both the character of the marker and that being marked alongwith other forces/factors like wind, air, humidity, light and experience that transcends through the action and the decision to act or the reason for translation.

Hemali Bhuta, 'Painted', 2015, coal tar sheet, coal tar, black japan, blackboard paint and felt, 102 x 50 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Hemali Bhuta, ‘Painted’, 2015, coal tar sheet, coal tar, black japan,
blackboard paint and felt, 102 x 50 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

I had the chance to know your work when exhibited in the large group exhibition “Indian Highway” at the Roman MAXXI Museum in 2011. There you presented the site-specific installation Growing overwhelming the viewer not just visually, but multi-sensorially. How relevant is the viewer’s involvement to your practice?

Again, don’t know if it was by any chance responding to the site. It just stood there like an alien body, trying to inject a sense of being experiential, of some kind of an environment which one definitely experiences before one approaches it, through its olfaction. Viewer as I suggested before, is in ways experiencing something other than the work. So I don’t know if the viewer is of as much importance in the making of the work, but definitely becomes important in the making of the exhibition, in the install. Here work seizes to be what it was in the making. Thus it opens up into being other things as well, into a continuously changing moment frozen.

Hemali Bhuta, 'Graphite Drawing on Graphite Block', 2015, graphite, 12 x 8 x 2 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Hemali Bhuta, ‘Graphite Drawing on Graphite Block’, 2015, graphite, 12 x 8 x 2 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai.

Are you working on upcoming projects?

Yes, have a few things lined up this year on a personal front. Besides I run a space alongwith my husband called CONA Foundation and we are currently working towards a game design/ distraction workshop for the month of May, publication for our project Bartered collections and setting up our mentorship programme and residency programme for the year ahead.

Carmen Stolfi

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