What’s fascinating about futuristic playgrounds and found objects?
The young installation, performance and video artist from Mumbai tells Art Radar about the city that inspires him, exhibiting at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, and the importance of infusing his works with absurdity and wonder.
Sahej Rahal (b. 1988, Mumbai) graduated from the Rachana Sansad Academy of Fine Art, Mumbai. He has been a recipient of many prestigious international residencies and won the Forbes Award for Debut Solo Show in 2014.
Rahal’s ceaselessly growing body of work is an expanding narrative that includes mythical beings from various worlds and engages them in a banter with the present. Within the frame of this narrative, his characters perform absurd acts in seemingly normal parts of the city, tapping into their potential to transform them into sites of ritual.
Art Radar catches up with Sahej Rahal about his successful sojourn at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and his love affair with the absurd.
You are currently showing at the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2014. Tell us about your exhibit there and about the process of making it happen. Are you happy with the response to your work so far?
I was working in the Lab space in Aspinwall. Essentially it functioned as a spice warehouse and was owned by the Aspinwall brothers – this is where the spices were cleaned and sorted and stored. This was the space that has been converted into a lab. It looks like your typical high school chemistry lab with bathroom tiles and all! It’s a really large space, maybe about 2500 square feet, and the sheer scale of it made it a pretty challenging space.
Keeping in mind the history of the space, I’ve tried to create Muziris – the absent city. I’ve displaced it in time and space. I’ve created these tall structures that seem futuristic, like something you’d see in a sci-fi movie, but I’ve built them all in clay and in fact used quite a traditional and an “old fashioned” method of constructing these structures. I was drawn to clay because, well, during archaeological surveys, earthenware is the first that tends to be found, isn’t it? In fact, I had even done a site visit at a digging site near Fort Kochi for Muziris and I saw fragments of pots and other things strewn about. Also, the clay was locally sourced, so it has strong and direct ties with the land.
To create these Soviet-era war memorial-like structures, I used straw or hay and the armature was packed with clay. For me, the scale was challenging. I went to Kochi in July and started working, and in September I had three people join to help with the work. Since the structures are so large, I couldn’t fire them, so they began to crack and crumble in places, but I think it helped add a certain depth to the work. Walking through it now feels like one is walking through a crumbling city.
Maybe in 5000 years, our world would look like this? How would mankind look at our cities? I’ve even included quite a few references to pop-culture to that effect in the work, things that I feel constitute our shared present. The entire feel is that of a futuristic playground, I think – I’ve constantly tried to weave in elements of absurdity and wonder into the work.
I stayed on for ten days after the installation was completed and I was personally quite happy with the response. The kids loved it!
How has the experience of the Biennale been for you? Is there anything that you would like to change?
I stayed there for five months and have seen it evolve from very close quarters, so it would be very difficult for me to say. The whole thing was put together by a team of less than thirty people, on such a large scale, in such a short time – and I think that’s an achievement in itself! Creatively for me it was great because, like I’ve mentioned, it was the first time I’ve worked on that scale.
Jitish (Kallat) was incredibly supportive and gave me a free hand, he encouraged me to experiment as much as I wanted to, he sort of morphed into a mentor for me. The whole experience for me has been great and the response from people has been phenomenal!
You work primarily with found objects. What fascinates you about them? And is there anything you are working with at present?
I was trained in painting, but I think I’m a terrible painter! It all started with a tanpura, actually. I was still in college when I randomly saw it discarded outside a music shop near my college and on an impulse I picked it up. It was broken and it didn’t play any music, but I imagined its history and was fascinated by it. I think that’s what draws me to ‘found objects’ – they have their own lives, characters and layered history. Their embedded histories interest me.
Thrown or discarded objects have all sorts of marks and scratches on them, and I feel like I’m playing with building blocks, there’s a meta-narrative that I’m subconsciously drawing out. I feel they add depth to my work, and often – as with the tanpura which in fact spawned one of the first characters in my earliest performance piece – they inform my practice. I am often intrigued by how the objects fit together, how they stand together or fight for space with each other.
What are the main concepts and ideas that you explore in your works?
With my performance pieces, often it’s about negotiating space – public space – and identifying their layered history with my imagined characters and their interaction with people in the city. With sculpture, I like to think of my works as toys, as things that can be used to create narratives in our heads.
I enjoy seeing people come with their own ideas and experiences, engage with my works and form their narratives. It’s tied to my fascination with archaeology, you could say. Archaeologists essentially find pieces of the past and try and fit them together to create a narrative or a story. I like to throw in absurdity or wonder into my works, though, whether it’s a performance or a sculpture.
What is your process when starting a new project? Do you usually map out the process with a specific end or go with the flow, so to speak?
Mumbai is an inspiration. I’ve lived here, studied here and practice here, and this city fascinates me. Mumbai is a bricolage of so many things and ideas and I can’t really define the magic moment that might spark off inspiration. But I don’t really have a fixed process. Personally for me I wouldn’t even like to, and when you work primarily with found objects, it’s not even possible to define the trajectory. I often feel like a viewer myself. I don’t usually know what the end result is going to be like until I see it for myself. I enjoy seeing how the pieces I’m adding fit together, whether it’s a physical object or a piece of text. When I’m working, I’m usually making sense of the larger narrative myself.
What sort of reactions do you hope to elicit from your viewers and, keeping that in mind, which has been your most memorable exhibition or project?
I have never worked keeping a specific reaction from viewers in mind. For me, that would defeat the entire point of my practice, from my usage of objects to my absurd performance pieces. I think the viewer completes my work, especially in the case of the performance pieces. It is important to me that they form their own narratives in response to my work. I feel that all reactions are valid. We try to make sense of the world through experience and dialogue; my work is simply one version, a skewed version at that. It’s a distorted representation of the world. With my work, I’m trying to be a part of the conversation that seeks to make sense of the contemporary while weaving in the absurd.
The most memorable reaction, though, would have to be at my first Brahmana performance, which is something like a wandering, spiritualist act in spaces of commute. The characters are influenced by Paganism, Shamanism, mythology and even Anime – quite a patchwork! Anyway, I was at the Bandra skywalk and was in full gear and moving through it when some kids sort of started body-popping along with us. It was incredible, we were sort of fighting for space – they made it clear we had invaded their turf – I was navigating myself, negotiating with them for space and it morphed into something akin to a ritual that was taking its own form! I hadn’t accounted for or premeditated any of this.
Another favourite was also during a performance piece. I fashioned a musical instrument out of PVC pipes and branches and took it to the Subway in Dhobi Talao. That place has weird acoustics, which I wasn’t aware of. When I started playing the instrument, the sound filled the whole space! It was as if the subway were an extension of the instrument. The people that were passing by were intrigued. They couldn’t tell how many people where playing, they were trying to locate the other musicians.
Each performance takes its own form as it happens, in ways that I can’t predict at all. In fact, that’s the difference between an exhibition and a performance piece. In the exhibition, I’m inviting people to come and join the talk, to add to the narrative, but in a performance they own the work for themselves, in real time. However, in both cases, people bring in their own experiences and memories making it very textured.
From where or whom do you draw inspiration?
I’ve mentioned that Mumbai is hugely inspiring. The objects that I collect and insert into my work serve as inspiration too. I’ve always been fond of literature – Borges is a huge inspiration. I even used the text “The Exactitude of Science” in one of my works.
In terms of artists who inspire me, the list is long. In sculpture, I really admire the work of Louise Bourgeois, Rosemarie Trockel and Kiki Smith – the sense of narrative and the aura in her work is just beautiful. I love the work of Joseph Beuys, I like how he brought in an element of the Shaman in his performances. I’m practically in awe of Atul Dodiya – I’m really looking forward to his exhibition at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum – he is definitely my favourite painter, conceptually and artistically. I love how he weaves an entire sensorium of images – it’s like a million images in one image, together, across art history! It’s like being in the realm of the history of painting and it’s truly humbling.
I also greatly appreciate the work of Nikhil (Chopra). He is almost like an alchemist, bending time. When he’s performing, it feels like time flows differently. I was documenting his performance at the KNMA [Kiran Nadar Museum of Art] recently and it was incredible to watch how he seemed to alter the passage of time altogether.
How important are time and space in your work?
Objects and performances both occupy time and space, in real time, in real life. It’s one of the reasons I turned away from painting. Personally, for me, I feel that painting draws you in. It compels you to step away from the present. This is a highly simplistic view of the practice, but it’s how I feel and how I experience painting as a practice. Time and space are important to me, because through my work I like exploring the way they flow. Objects and performances have the ability to speak in real time and that really interests me.
Take us through the process of realising a performance piece, from preparation to performing, to post-performance.
It’s quite simple actually. I identify a place first – more often than not, it’s a place I have walked through, lived through. The idea is to revisit these spaces. I know them but I also don’t. History gets written in real time and with each day a space acquires new layers. The same space is different on different days. It’s all about the subtext and, with my performances, my aim is to unpack them. I think absurd happenings allow that unpacking to happen, the layers unravel or open themselves up and become things that we can play with.
So I identify a space and I think up a character. I have no rules for how I do this, it’s very instinctive. Then I head to Manish Market or Crawford Market and pick fabrics and create the garment. I do a couple of recces of the space, just to have a backup plan also – in case the performance takes a downward turn – although I can’t ever be fully prepared for what might unfold. Then I get dressed and make it happen.
My characters always have their faces covered or are faceless because I want them to be anonymous, it could be any citizen. When I’m performing, I’m stepping out of myself, the codes and the rules are different or are experienced differently. I do plan out an end and exit accordingly.
You play a lot with layering – you try to seam in wonder into your works and you’re constantly straddling the mystical and mythical. Why is that element of uncertainty or instability so important to incorporate in your works?
We are living through dangerous, scary and uncertain times. Through my practice I’m simply trying to understand it through its own language.
What’s in the pipeline for you now?
I’m on a sabbatical now after Kochi – that was intense – but I’m also working on a project with my partner Pallavi Paul. We’re collaborating on a film centered around the Mars One project, the idea of space travel and a sort of neo-colonialism. The people who’ve signed up, who are seeking a ticket to leave Earth, seem like the new colonisers – eager to get hold of some Mars marble! It’s been in the making for a while now, though.
One of the films called Forerunner will be showing at Moneta 11 in Canada. It’s a mockumentary. A few years ago I found a Tughlaq era observatory called Pir Ghaib Observatory. It has a weirdly interesting history and apparently it was a hunting lodge and fortress as well. There’s a little cylindrical structure on top, called a Zenith cube, and apparently astronomers would look through that to chart stars. All you can really see through it is a little dot, though. Anyway, my film is the story of this observatory from my perspective. A lot of my characters have populated it, I’ve got fictional characters and light-saber wielding warriors sharing screen time with footage I got from NASA.
Another thing that I’m involved in is an initiative by the Mohile Parikh Center called “Geographies of Consumption”. It’s yet to be begun and we’re a small group taking part and it’s supposed to last the span of a year. I think it will be very interesting and I’m looking forward to that!
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