1000+ wooden chips brought to life – Sheela Gowda UK curator tour


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Sheela Gowda’s “Therein & Besides”, curated by Grant Watson, has opened at London’s Rivington Place. For her first UK solo Bangalore-based Gowda has chosen to show just two large-scale installations. Art Radar was among the enthusiasts that toured the exhibition with guide Ruth Noack and we bring you our experience below.

Sheela Gowda, Collateral, 2007, installation, Documenta 12, Kassel. Image from iniva.org.

Sheela Gowda, Collateral, 2007, installation, Documenta 12, Kassel. Image from Iniva.org.

Click here to read more about “Therein & Besides” on the Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts) website and here to read curator Grant Watson’s biography. To read more about guest curator Ruth Noack, click here.

Having trained as a painter in the early 1990s, Sheela Gowda later moved into sculpture and installation. of all people (2011) is the artist’s newest commission and it stretches across the entire ground floor of Rivington PlaceCollateral (2007) takes up the whole of the upstairs PS2 (Project Space 2).

The interactive curator-led tour focussed on exploring the audience members’ interpretations of the new of all people, a work described in a press release from Iniva as probing,

…states of abstraction and legibility using diverse scales. The dimensions of the gallery, elements of furniture and architectural features, are a framing device for thousands of wooden chips which have been hand carved by artisans. Moving through this environment, the viewer is invited to recalibrate their experience of the work from a number of different perspectives and heights.

Sheela Gowda, 'of all people' (overall view), 2011. Image courtesy of Iniva.

Understanding framing

Curator and guide Ruth Noack began by pointing out the structural components of of all people which included wooden door frames, columns – some standing, some broken and some suspended, window frames with shutters and an upside-down table. These structural elements work, she said, as a “discovering principle.”

[The structural elements] are … an entrance into these architectural forms, showing a process. If we did not have this process we would not read these as door frames.

In consensus with Noack, an audience member critiqued the role of these frames:

These elements make one pay attention to the little elements in the piece, which make one look closer at the human figures [wooden chips], which creates some sort of connection as the architectural frames become a prop for the figures.

Why colour?

Gowda applied bright pink, emerald green, turquoise and off-white synthetic paint to the door and window frames with a palette knife while leaving some of wood bare. When an audience member said they were “repelled” by this use of colour, Noack responded positively.

‘Repellent’ is a good thing. Being repellent is a form of love, an antagonistic strategy. It’s synthetic colour, not made from pigment, [and its use here is] very different from other works by Sheela Gowda where she uses colour with materials. Why colour? In the Western context of painting, there is a long history of colour of form that gives us pleasure: Rothko, Yves Klein. This colour on the surface is not the real interest of the artist.

In different Sheela Gowda works, she gives so much attention [to] this aspect of colour. She works with pigment to dye something and colour becomes symbolic.

Sheela Gowda, 'of all people' (entrance), 2011. Image courtesy of Iniva.

Avoiding “trap of nostalgia”

Another audience member said that the bright colours “create a contrast of some kind to the natural earthy colours,” while someone else attached different meanings to what each colour could symbolise. Noack provided her opinion:

To me, the colour does not mean much. … The artist applies the colour then later refers to its context to see if it adds meaning. She is using the colours to de-aestheticise objects. I think she wants to avoid the trap of nostalgia; that is why she is using colour. Colour can symbolise the present, colour is reactive.

In the Western world, we categorise. Non-Western artists are always [referenced by] their political identities which is problematic. It is not just about ‘this is there’ and ‘this is here’. The canon needs to be opened up; there are other categories.

Sheela Gowda, 'of all people', installation, 2011. Close up of wooden figures standing up on a beam as individuals. Each have two chiselled eyes and a mouth. Image Courtesy of Iniva.

Wooden-chip figures conceptually interpreted

The pedestals, the window frames and the chains that hang from the ceiling all support the wooden-chip figures. Says Noack,

One can also think of [the architectural elements] as figurative or imagined pedestals. The figures need these pedestals to work. [Gowda] uses these architectural elements to do just that. One could say the windows could also be a support for the figures. The pedestals organise the space. The chains [are] suspended [and] this is not due to the pragmatics of the work. The three-dimensional figures standing up in certain ways are autonomous. The forms suspended on chains, they become signs, linearity, a gesture of voice, not just themselves.

Here the discussion turned from the large structural elements of the installation to the meaning of the wooden-chip figures. Noack pushed the audience for questions: “What do you make of these details?” Said audience members,

The little details are the most important as the structure, the unattractive colours, do not make you feel anything. They are a way to highlight, to invite you to get closer to the figures.

The figures, their position and function, and the relationship between the figures, are crucial.

Exhibition tour of "Sheela Gowda: Therein & Besides" with curator Ruth Noack, 10 February 2011. Image from iniva.org.

Exhibition tour of "Sheela Gowda: Therein & Besides" with curator Ruth Noack, 10 February 2011. Image from Iniva.org.

Noack, in agreement with the audience members, tried to shed light on how the figures could be understood conceptually:

It is [a] relationship between humans. Humans are not autonomous but are dependent on things. … This is a point that interests Sheela: ‘I want to relate to the object myself.’

She stressed the importance of noting how the installation is crafted:

The … figures are variables. There is a parallel between [the figures] and the architectural forms. In her conclusion she is very precise, but she does not want to fix meaning in a final way. The figures have a lot of pathos; they are positioned on the edge. There are so many things we can extract from the figures. To humanise, to anthropomorphise, is something we do a lot. We can connect to the figures – tell stories such as colonialism, coming to the end of the world, a journey, a passage…. What is the human face? These little men have to matter; their individuality needs a pedestal.

Scaling creates engagement

Noack asserted that the scaling of the work creates engagement and interaction between the viewer and the installation, leading to a realisation that the wooden chips are in fact figures with individual identities, even though they are mass produced.

The question of scale is very important….. We become part of this process, making this de-individualising mass. These figures are objects that can be made; you can buy them as an alias of yourself. … They are used in a ritual sense, they stand in for people. The title of the show is an indication that [Gowda] is interested in this shift, not in the dichotomy between individual and mass. [Gowda is] showing us an absence but at the same time the figures describe the present. … The objects are mass produced in an industrialised form in India [and] bare some connection to the … acceleration of economic development in Bangalore.

Sheela Gowda, in conversation with exhibition curator Grant Watson, spoke of this scaling:

The table becomes a piazza and the table legs become minarets or towers. Then when you look at the windows and doors, you become small. Then when you look at the cityscape, you become big. There is a scaling of yourself which is intended when you look at the work.

In an artist portrait, taken at Rivington Place, Sheela Gowda stands in front of one of the structuring components of 'of all people' (2011). Image courtesy Iniva.

Open interpretation concludes tour

I do not want to judge interpretations [because] I do find it important [that] you think about [the installation] your way, as you cannot just read it as a purely aesthetic abstract installation. There is another meaning: How do we relate to each other in this world?

– guest curator Ruth Noack on Sheela Gowda’s of all people

Therein & Besides is showing until 12 March 2011 at Rivington Place in London, UK. It is presented in association with Iniva and Autograph ABP.

To gain further insight into the work of Sheela Gowda and her first UK solo, “Therein & Besides”, click here to watch a video (3:00m) of Gowda installing Collateral at Rivington Place and click here to read Sheela Gowda’s artist biography on the Iniva website.

Stop back next week for Art Radar‘s overview of the artist’s talk with curator Grant Watson, where she focusses on the challenges of the transformative process in the making of her 2007 installation Collateral.


Related Topics: installation artIndian artists, London galleries

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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