“Charming Journey” at Mori Art Museum in Tokyo marks Indian artist N. S. Harsha’s first mid-career retrospective.
Encompassing 75 major works made by N. S. Harsha since 1995, this retrospective explores the tensions between traditional and contemporary, individual and collective, earthy and cosmic in the artist’s work. The exhibition, which also includes recent commissions, is one in a continuing series of solo shows at the Mori Art Museum featuring mid-career artists from Asia.
The exhibition’s title “Charming Journey” encourages the viewer to read N. S. Harsha‘s practice as a journey that runs parallel to other historical or political journeys such as India’s processes of modernisation. The “charming” of the title recalls a body of work entitled “Charming Nation” – a cycle of 12 paintings made between 2004-2006, produced during a time when the artist was travelling frequently. In this series, represented in full at Mori Art Museum, the artist presents aspects of Indian national life, its peculiarities, its historical disjunctions, its enchantments and its comedy like a series of instructive scenarios, lessons that must be understood and dealt with by the next generation, who are depicted in the works as children with halos.
The exhibition’s focus on repetition – of imagery, motifs and techniques – as a main theme connecting the 75 works on display, however, obstructs any linear readings of the artist’s career or the way in which modernisation in India is imagined. For N. S. Harsha, narratives of progress are material to be dismantled and fragmented, in both a personal and national context. “The journey” for N. S. Harsha then is more of a state of movement, of travelling perpetually and productively in between “the contemporary” and “the traditional”, “the earthly” and “the cosmic”.
The cosmic and the collective
The artist often invokes a notion of the “cosmic” in reference to the practice of transcending divisions between local and global, historical and contemporary, individual and collective. In the 2006 work Cosmic Orphans, a site-specific painting installation at the Sri Krishnan Temple created for the Singapore Biennale, Harsha covered the entire surface of the rooftop above the inner sanctum and the floor surrounding the temple’s tower with paintings of sleeping figures. Painted directly onto the floor using flat colours, the figures occupy a space not normally associated with traditional painting, their displacement provoking the audience to consider what is permitted and forbidden in relation to where they tread in the temple. The work inspires a spirit of disobedience with regards to transcending borders but also rules.
N. S. Harsha’s Missing Cook beyond the Cosmic Twigs (2016) imagines the cosmic as a space of collective exchange and activity that disrupts a cultural focus on the individual as the subject of history. The work recalls a traditional fable that narrates the moment in which a community arranges a large meal for their village. Harsha’s work depicts the feast: resplendent birds, perhaps ancestral spirits, fly across the frame; the food is being cooked, but by no visible agency. The theme of the painting is the unseen efficacy that animates the universe through cycles of activity, nourishment, work and rest. Harsha proposed an enchanted space between the cosmic and the terrestrial.
In the 2010 installation Sky Gazers, the borders that Harsha encourages his public to breach are the divisions between collective and individual experience. Produced for the Liverpool Biennial, Sky Gazers consists of a room with a large installation painting covering the floor depicting a crowd of people looking up to the sky as if aspiring, hoping or wishing. The ceiling was fitted with a mirror, such that as the public move among the crowd they become one with the image, in an exercise that encourages individuals to recognise themselves as part of a larger collective.
In so doing, the expression of individual projections was transformed into a communal act. Established tactics of “participation” in artworks is elided by the artist in favour of a more meditative notion of emotional involvement in the individual and collective woes of the world, which N. S. Harsha’s work explores as inherently connected. Another work that actively gathers and visibilises moments of collective emotion is the work Come Give Us a Speech (2007-08): a large, six-panel painting depicting hundreds of attentive figures sitting in chairs. The work, produced for the National Museum Cardiff, was awarded the Artes Mundi 3 prize in 2008.
Through the lens of Indian miniature painting
N. S. Harsha often works with traditional fine art and craft traditions in India in projects that investigate the ways in which modern and contemporary art have traditionally been interpreted through a Western canon. Many times, the tradition of Indian miniature painting has provided the framework for his explorations of the collective and individual. The practice of Indian miniature painting started in the Western Himalayas, around the 17th century and its most common theme comprises the musical codes of Indian classical music, also known as the Ragas.
N. S. Harsha’s work carries the marker of the intricate and delicate brushwork which lends miniature painting its unique identity. As the colours are all handmade from minerals, vegetables, precious stones, indigo, conch shells, pure gold and silver, the paintings carry a peculiar materiality often out of sync with the “modern” subject matter. It is the distance between the materiality of tradition and the irreverence of popular culture that N. S. Harsha makes his viewer travel.
Journey (or “ascent”)
In 2015 at Victoria Miro Gallery in London, N. S. Harsha presented the exhibition “Upward Movement”, in which the artist presented recent works that explore the universal trope of “ascension” or “moving to the next level”. Talking to critic Harry Thorne about the motivation for the shows thematic focus, N. S. Harsha commented:
For the past 20 years or so, I have been a great observer of different happenings around mankind and the human, but about three years ago I had a bit of a hit. It was then that I began to put a lot emphasis on the idea of ascent. It has become such a beautiful phenomenon because, even in the modern world where we witness high-end science, ascent is still the key word.
In this body of work there is a particular presence of cows, monkeys and dancers, all imagery intimately linked to a Hindu imaginary. His repeated use of animal imagery has often led to descriptions of his works as a direct dialogue with Hindu scripture. Especially because of N. S. Harsha’s appropriation of Indian traditional techniques, his work is often described as innately “spiritual”. The artist, however, rejects cultural or religious readings, pointing out that there are also references to machinery, farming, music and popular culture. He instead encourages viewers to read his images as investigations of shared imagination and as motors for moving beyond cultural and political boundaries.
In the same article, the artist affirms the centrality of (upward) movement to the human experience, stating:
Ascent has been hijacked by that religious gang, and I want to hijack it back into this form that is independent because, ultimately, ascent is an embedded phenomenon in the human context. Whether you want it or not, your mind is equipped to always looks for it.
The exhibition “Charming Journey” reveals N. S. Harsha to be an artist of the journey: in constant movement between the historical and the contemporary, between the collective and the individual, local and global, earthly and cosmic, affirming the possibility for divergence. For N. S. Harsha art is the condition for redirection.
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