REORIENT brought together art professionals in a three-day event to explore views across various locales in South and Southeast Asia.
The symposium comprised one-on-one conversations, short presentations and panel discussions. Art Radar summarises the presentation given by acclaimed Indian artist Sheela Gowda.
From 30 November to 2 December 2017, M+ organised a public event, “REORIENT”, to gather art professionals from the fields of visual art, design and architecture, and moving image, to inform the audience in Hong Kong about the artistic practices in the region of South and Southeast Asia.
In the previous article of this two-part series, Art Radar interviewed M+ Deputy Director and Chief Curator Doryun Chong about his views on curatorial practices in the region. On the occasion of the second day of the three-day event, namely “Art, Ritual and the Everyday”, Art Radar summarises the presentation of acclaimed Indian artist Sheela Gowda.
Bangalore-based Indian artist Sheela Gowda is known for her site-oriented large scale installations, which are comprised of found materials, such as cow dung, metal barrels, wood, car bumpers, incense and human hair. Originally trained as a painter, she has explored the materiality of everyday objects and the meditative working process throughout her oeuvre. Through her monumental works, the artist examines notions of gender, labour and economic disparities. Her works have been shown at Tate Modern, UK; Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India; Para Site, Hong Kong; Centre Pompidou, France; Perez Museum, USA; 53rd Venice Biennale, Italy; Sharjah Biennale, UAE; and Documenta 12, Germany, among others.
Quotidian materials and objects
Sheela Gowda was trained as a painter, but in the 1990s, due to the political turmoil in India as a result of the rise of right-wing Hindu ideologies, she started creating installations. She thought that oil on canvas could not capture her reaction towards the communal violence that was happening in the country, so she began using quotidian materials instead. She remarks during her talk:
The material already says half of what I wanted to say. We need to let the material speak.
The artist started incorporating cow dung as a medium in her art in 1993, and showed the works in Bangalore and Mumbai. In her presentation, she noted the irony of the symbol of the cow – it is meant to symbolise non-violence, yet is also the cause of violence in India.
A decade later, Gowda’s work Behold (2009) explored the tension between the industrial and the organic. In the large scale installation, steel bumpers from cars are suspended on the walls by ropes made of human hair. It references the common practice of protection used by people in Bangalore who try to ward off accidents by tying human hair to car bumpers. The artist comments on the work:
You are in control of the car, the vehicle you are driving, but you are so vulnerable.
Sheela Gowda has also made artwork out of wood. In vernacular colours, traditional sculptures of a man and a woman are crafted using red sandalwood doorframes. The doorframes symbolise passage from one space to another, as well as connection. She mentions that these sculptures of human figures have no religious significance, and are only referencing the notion of ritual. Though the figures are mass produced, they are done by hand. Unique markings on the sculptures signify individual identity.
Space and performance
Drip Field (2009) shown at Sharjah Biennial 9 was an outdoor site-specific installation at the parking lot right outside the museum. Sheela Gowda filled the space with water about three inches deep. She is fascinated by the dripping irrigation system. In the presentation, she mentions that there are underwater microphones, so that the work becomes a concert of the dripping of water.
In And Tell Him of My Pain (1998/2001/2007), the artist uses the room and the space as the canvas, where the lines are a form of expression. In a labour intensive manner, Gowda uses threads to create columns of red coils. As if it were a private performance, every thread of the rope has been through the eye of the needle. She mentions that the work was done after she had a baby, so she did not want to work with messy materials such as cowdung. She laughs, saying:
What you sometimes think is the right idea, sometimes leads you to the real right idea.
Another installation that uses the colour red is And that is no lie (2015). Red cloth cut in zig-zag patterns was suspended across the gallery space, while the middle collapses onto the floor. The colour red symbolises rupture, violence, aggression, and ironically, celebration.
At Para Site, Hong Kong, she has shown an installation called If you saw desire (2015). Reacting to the sights and sounds of the city, the artist used textiles gathered from the fabric markets in Hong Kong to put them on flagpoles across the space. The excess of variety was what the artist wanted to express in this piece.
Intensity of history and politicals of materials
In Darkroom (2006), Gowda is inspired by the temporary road shelters by migrant road workers in India made out of flattened sheets of metal from tar drums. The experience is unusual because of the tar drums, the sticky resin, the curvature of the materials and the sheer weight above the head. Ironically, she observes that there are some Malevich-like black squares that are placed under the feet, which shows that the object is not seen as precious at all. The exterior of the work looks as humble as any rusty container; however, upon stepping inside the small space, the viewer will be surprised to find that the numerous punctures and holes in the ceiling make it seem like they are looking at a vast and infinite night sky.
This experience translates to the interpretation of “oppression”, which is a close-minded view of what “confinement” means. The artist reiterates that this work is not about poverty, as many western viewers might interpret. She says that in the non-western context, if everyday materials are used, it is common to misread it as a work about poverty. She noted in her earlier convesations with Hans Ulrich Obrist, they agreed that this narrow view was known as the notion of “consumption of difference”, which was not the main presumption of the artist. She thinks that as an artist looking from an outsider’s position, especially a privileged one, there is no legitimacy to talk about poverty. She summarises this work by saying that “The material determines the dwelling.”
Meanwhile, in the 31st São Paulo Biennial, Gowda showed a work entitled Those of Whom (2014). In the installation, she drew upon the history of Brazil and incorporated the material of rubber. The work also contains rigid and old metal frames gathered from recycling areas. In preparation of the work, the artist ventured into the Amazon forest for a research visit. It was an eye-opener to world history for her. There she saw the rubber trees and the rubber seeds, which sparked her interest in the history of the trade of rubber, the exploitation of the environment and human labour in Brazil to serve the economy. In the presentation, Sheela Gowda explained the dark history of rubber. British explorer Henry Wickham stole the rubber seeds in Brazil back to Britain to figure out how the plant could be used for industrial purposes. As a result, rubber plantations in Asia, such as in Malaysia, started operating.
During World War II, however, the Japanese army took over the plantations, and the Europeans and the United States lost access to rubber. Out of desperation, they seduced the people of Northern Brazil (who are not forest dwellers) to steal rubber in the Amazon forest for them. Tragically, tens of thousands of Brazilian “Rubber Soldiers” lost their lives during their quest. Eventually, the United Sates won the war, yet the promise they made was forgotten after D-Day. To this day, descendants of the so-called “Rubber Soldiers” still live in that area in Brazil. In her work at the Biennal, Sheela Gowda also incorporated black squares that resemble the iconic work by Malevich, to comment on the dark side of modernity and its effect in Brazil.
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- “Sub-Plots: Laughing in the Vernacular”: Exploring Indian contemporary art with a sense of humour – curator interview – January 2018 – Art Radar speaks to the curator to find out more
- Raghubir Singh: India’s pioneer of colour street photography – artist profile – December 2017 – Art Radar profiles the artist on the occasion of his major exhibition “Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs”
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