The Indian artist returns to his roots to celebrate his multiple roles of painter, storyteller, author, speaker and educator with an exhibition that reimagines scientific reality.
Art Radar talks to the artist about both his practice and the show that is on display until 20 April 2018 at Art Musings in Mumbai.
The artist and his multiple incarnations
Raghava KK, a contemporary artist living and working in Woodstock, New York and Bengaluru, India, was named by CNN as one of the 10 most remarkable people of 2010. He is a multidisciplinary artist and born storyteller whose work has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. Raghava started his artistic career as a newspaper cartoonist in 1997 after quitting a formal education at the age of 18 and since his youth has explored applying his artistic practice beyond the traditional gallery space. He has been actively involved in a number of cutting edge innovations in the world of contemporary art, including a radical education initiative called NuVu Studios, an offshoot of Harvard and MIT, in order to redefine creativity in education.
Raghava has lectured at several universities and art institutions, including NYU Stern School, Carnegie Mellon and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and in 2013 he was inducted into the National Geographic Society as an Explorer, for pushing the boundaries of scientific exploration through art. He is a four-time TED speaker and uses his talks to tell the story of his artistic journey, both to new places and through his multiple reincarnations as an artist. These talks are known for inspiring his audiences to expand their socially and psychologically-settled selves using art.
Artistic creativity for Raghava is a deeply decentred enterprise, shared with the users of the artwork, which is evident in his numerous collaborations with other artists, technologists, corporations, educationists, scientists and academia. He has worked with international artists in various genres, including Moroccan master painter Farid Belkahia and musicians Paul Simon and Erykah Badu, two-time FIFI Award winning perfumer Yann Vasnier and celebrity chef Dan Barber, among others. In 2015, he was also the artistic producer of Shanti Samsara, a music album with over 500 musicians and 22 Grammy award winners from 40 countries.
Exploring transcendence and the sublime
Raghava’s art explores transcendence for the digital anthropocene without sacrificing the particular. In addition to working with traditional forms (painting, installation and performance) his art practice involves inventing media to express post-human contemporary realities. His recent exhibitions include “Incoherent Scraps of Gluttony” (2008), “Brooklyn Bound R Train” (2009) and “That’s All Folks!” (2013).
The artist considers knowledge, art, and technology to be active, dynamic verbs that share similar processes of enquiry. His neurofeedback artworks like MonaLisa 2.0 and his visual discovery engine Must# anchor digital algorithms in physical space and in the specific locus of the viewer’s body and her emotions. With Mona Lisa 2.0, Raghava attempts to define a new role for the spectator, one that transcends beyond contemplation, perception or purchase (of an artwork), but which makes the viewer an active influence on the work’s creation and outcome.
In Must#, Raghava created a digital photo library with an intelligent UI (User Interface), that learns how the viewer makes meaning visually and pushes him to transcend the limits of his taste through the suggestions of the Visual Empathy Algorithm. He created a new compositional process, part human and part algorithm-driven, to endow material reality to form purely digital modes of creation (like procedural drawing tools, vector brushes and gradient fills). His latest project was a painting machine, named Lisa, developed for him by ArtMatr at the MIT Media lab.
In his latest series of artworks, “Sublime Machines” (2018) on view at Art Musings in Mumbai, he imagines scientific reality as a source of the sublime, reinvesting the sphere of science with emotion and human intent. These large, vibrant and almost other-worldly acrylics on canvas are arresting and powerful, magnetically capturing and holding the visitor’s attention.
Art Radar spoke to the artist about his journey as an artist, his relocation to India and his future plans.
It is amazing to see how much the art world and the art community have matured in India over the last 15 years. I’m blown away by the quality and sheer genius of the Kochi Biennale. At the same time I’m sensing a homogenising of the contemporary art world where specificity is lost to a universal conceptual language of art.
In your work as well as your writing and talks, you celebrate your multiple avatars – as an Indian, a son, a father, a husband, a brother, in your personal domain and as an artist, storyteller, author, speaker, explorer and producer, in your professional life. How has this influenced your artistic vision and philosophy?
Somehow I feel that either I was a little ahead of my time 15 – 20 years ago or I’m lucky that we have entered an age where it is relevant to think like the way I do. During the industrial age it was perfectly okay to create and live in silos and perform specific roles. Being a good spoke in a solid machine meant something. However, in the creative age that we find ourselves in, we have to understand how to stitch a narrative of disparate elements. We have to play many roles and perform many identities which are complex and interwoven. Technology, science and artificial intelligence are rendering even our creative labour irrelevant. So to answer your question – playing multiple roles, seeing the world through multiple lenses and going outside of a silos is a critical part of being a citizen of the post-Anthropocene digital era. One that seems to suit my temperament perfectly.
You have been a huge collaborator, working on projects in education, music, dance, scientific innovation, authorship and art. The history of Indian art is replete with artistic collaborations, and the individual artist is more of a western construct that evolved in the late 19th century. How do you feel this legacy has impacted contemporary Indian artists?
For me creating media as art has been a very important part of my art making process. In order to do this I had to collaborate with people with different sensibilities who can bring different perspectives to my work. I see that the contemporary artist is breaking out of traditional art-making and venturing into new territories. This will require collaboration with materials scientists, engineers, data scientists, artificial intelligence scientists, etc., although most of the art that is created and shown in India still falls under traditional media forms. I think that a few are daring to break out. I was very disappointed at the India Art Summit [now India Art Fair] that recently took place in New Delhi. What you see galleries displaying is an indication of the ground reality of the Indian art scene. Very little of the artworks on display at the fair had to do with new media and the invention of new forms of transcendence for the post-post-post industrial age. I definitely come across underground art projects and niche galleries doing experimental works. But it is yet to become mainstream in India.
You have talked and written a lot about your work with children all over the world. In India you started your artistic career teaching them and you have continued to collaborate with them. Are there any imminent plans of working with the Indian youth in the field of art?
I think that the best art comes from first principle learning. That is the ability to make sense of something without any baggage of prior knowledge. It is the direct sensual interaction with anything. Children are brilliant at first principle living. Conceptual learning and second hand learning are alien to them. This allows them to be authentic and wildly creative. I find that as we grow up and the more “educated” we get the less able we are to learn through the way we feel.
I also think that the work of art is sacred in that the sensual experience of the encounter with the work allows us to experience transcendence. At least, a good artwork in my opinion takes you out of the self. I believe that the expedience of craving transcendence is one of the most fundamental [aspects] of human experiences. Designing to create a transcendent experience requires a certain sensual alertness. This comes naturally to children somehow.
I definitely will work with children in India. I’m extremely passionate about education, in particular, alternative education. In particular education for the creative age. My children go to a very unusual school called the Hudson Valley Sudbury School. It’s a free democratic school where they are encouraged to direct their own learning and develop their own sense of self. They do this by going through multiple stages of absolute freedom, boredom, existential crisis and eventually deliberate action. This cycle, leading to a better understanding of the self.
Amidst your monumental oeuvre of artistic practice, what makes the vibrant, geometric compositions of “Sublime Machines” unique? What was your artistic inspiration behind this particular series?
Having spent the last two decades painting, I find great comfort in manipulating pigments to create transcendent experiences. This is the first time I bring my multiple worlds together – my interest in algorithms, many leading scientific realities, art history, transcendence, identity politics, etc. In these artworks, I have invented media to try and reconfigure the notions of transcendence and sublimity for our time and its future. In this series of artworks, “Sublime Machines”, I imagine scientific reality as a very powerful source of the sublime. Therefore I’m reinvesting the sphere of science with emotion and human intent.
Could you share with Art Radar readers what the following months have in store for you and what they must look out for?
Unfortunately much of the work that I’m working on currently is in stealth mode. Here are some of the projects… I am excited to announce that I am currently collaborating with a mind-blowing innovative technology art company called ArtMatr that came out of the MIT media labs in Boston. We’re going to create physically painted art that is a product of true collaboration between man and machine. They have designed a specific robot that will assist me in the creation of my works. I’m also getting ready to launch a unique children’s book funded by the National Geographic Society in collaboration with conservation biologist Dr Krithi Karanth, writers Netra Srikanth and Tina Thomas, illustrated by Prabha Mallya and myself, and published by Kokaachi.
KK Raghava’s “Sublime Machines” is on view from 15 March to 20 April 2018 at Art Musings, 1 Admiralty Building, Colaba, Mumbai 400005. KK Raghava’s TED Talks can be accessed HERE.
- Celebrating 50 years of contemporary art with the Cholamandalam Artists’ Village in Chennai – interview – April 2018 – artists of this village continue to be excited about presenting their ‘small-format’ contemporary art to the world