A conversation with Bharti Kher

 

Aura Portrait of Bharti Kher © 2000 by Chrysanne Stathacos

Aura Portrait of Bharti Kher © 2000 by Chrysanne Stathacos

CHRYSANNE:

I first saw one of your bindi pieces in the mid-nineties when I went to your apartment for a party. It was installed directly on the wall and I fell in love with that work the moment I saw it. What compelled you, as an artist born in London, who went to India and started a family there, to use the bindi as both a symbol and a material within your artistic practice for the past twenty years?

Sweet Violet's Deathly Kiss, ( detail)_ Image Credit:  Guillaume Ziccarelli

Sweet Violet’s Deathly Kiss, ( detail)_ Image Credit: Guillaume Ziccarelli

BHARTI:

I think the reasons I started to use them initially and the intentions with which I continue to use them now are very different. If I look back to the early nineties, when I arrived in India, it was completely alien and I felt peculiarly out of tune and out of step. So as an artist there is a way to look—it is not even a journey, because you have not even started one yet—it is about basic things: “How do I start work, what do I make, what do I look at?” So I started to look at the readymade, and I think, essentially, that was my first concern. That just became an investigation into what I did when I went into the streets—the things that I observed.

Some of the earlier pieces that I made in the nineties really started to kick in about 1994 to 1995, after I had spent three years making pretty terrible work! I made a couple of shows, but I think I was just looking for something else other than painting, because I really didn’t know how to create meaning for myself.

Yet there were all these strange idiosyncrasies that I noticed, usually contradictory. The paintings of the suitcases covered in camouflage fabric for example. People at train stations would carry and wrap their suitcases in camouflage army fabric and then they would have these posters all over the station saying. “Watch out for bombs.” Why would you cover the suitcase in a fabric when your suitcase is actually protecting your clothes? So this idea of laying an exterior that was about “other” began as early as then. I made this work called, Don’t eat meat on tuesdays, which was made up of seven suitcases painted on that army fabric, with a little wire attachment that ran down to the floor to a ticking timer.

Don't eat meat on tuesdays, 1998, image credit: Bharti Kher

Don’t eat meat on tuesdays, (detail), 1998, image credit: Bharti Kher

CHRYSANNE:

Is it because the bindi itself is a more transformative object that you can re-imagine in different contexts?

BHARTI:

I think I originally approached it and thought of it as a material, in the same way that I was approaching sculpture. But when I started to really look, I think what I was able to do was incorporate it into my practice and make it integrally mine, and so I was able just to push it a bit further. I realized that there was probably a lot more going on because the surface was quite extraordinary, and yet I was doing something aesthetically and conceptually which was art historical in some ways, it reminded me of minimalism, of the pixilation in impressionism, Bridget Riley, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, all the early abstract works. I guess somehow, those artists were able to connect with something, and I did not know what that was yet in my case, but just thought: “Maybe you are just not finished with this yet.”

CHRYSANNE:

At the same time I remember the series of the small paintings, the mustaches. I love those works because being Greek—there is a history of so many men from so many countries and they all have the same mustache.

BHARTI:

What I thought the work to be about was really the male gaze. The bindi work is masculine/feminine, the feminine as masculine and suddenly the moustaches were the masculine as feminine. Strange, the paintings of the moustaches were like vaginas in the end.

CHRYSANNE:

And the paintings are just of the mouth and the mustache.

BHARTI:

They are life size. So, first of all, I went out with a camera because the streets in India in the 90’s were so masculine, I mean they still are, I just think I am used to it a lot more. The camera was like a shield, and being a photographer somehow gave me another eye to see, and some kind of other power.

CHRYSANNE:

On my recent trip to India the streets seemed more female than they had been, but I had not been back for four years so it seemed to be a big change.

Hirsute, 1999-2000, image credit : Bharti Kher

Hirsute, 1999-2000_ image credit: Bharti Kher

BHARTI:

Sure things have changed but only a bit. Back then I didn’t really know how to deal with the masculine gaze, which was penetrating and could be in some ways extremely personal. With a camera, I just stopped guys in the street with moustaches and said, “Can I take your photo?” Strangely, a camera can disarm people, and they sometimes like having their photos taken. So mostly they were all smiles and anyone with a moustache, from my guards, taxi drivers, to the cigarette and pan wallah, to my neighbors were very compliant … so I did about 225 of them and then I just got tired with it because I had to paint them too.

SUSAN:

There are certain parts of the world in which, when I look at a newspaper for instance, anytime I see a photograph of a crowd in the street, it is composed almost entirely of men. And the public space is not about women at all; so it is funny to take this mustache from the public male world, and turn it into something that looks like a woman’s private parts.

BHARTI:

Well I didn’t realize that would happen, but when you put them together—women started laughing. They are highly sexualized and oddly erotic. And it’s interesting in that they represent more than just what comes from the image of the mouth. “What is the mouth?” You start to really examine other elements, political as well as social and sexual; what is eroticism and the notion of the mouth when gendered? I think it just came out of the time, out of a very particular moment. I don’t think my practice has specifically changed in the way that I respond to the idea of the body. A lot of my work is directly concerned with what I am thinking at the time, or where I am in the specific space. At that time I was looking around for something to hold on to. I was also looking for an audience to begin a discussion with and a place for myself to think about notions of gender that seemed so clear cut but were clearly not.

An absence of assignable cause; 2007; The work in progress image is by Bharti Kher Studio

An absence of assignable cause (in progress), 2007_ image credit: Bharti Kher Studio

CHRYSANNE:

Do you feel as if you have two countries in your head, England and India? Is there an interesting dialogue between them? When you moved to India, from Indian heritage but born in England, were you seen as an outsider?

BHARTI:

I was an outsider in both places. Poor me. Lucky me. Often I had conversations about the idea of authenticity because I think within the first few years when I arrived in India, it was very difficult—I mean to find a place, I wasn’t really Indian enough, and so how could I comment on the culture?

CHRYSANNE:

I remember that …

BHARTI:

“You’re not from here.” And I remember being afraid to say what I thought, but eventually, I just had to say: “I don’t believe in authenticity. I think it is bullshit.” I don’t think you have to be from a specific place to experience a more profound “anything.” If we are going to talk about authenticity of cultures, then it’s a completely fucked up prospect, especially in relation to experiencing art. Because art touches something that is common to us all. So nationalism is not my agenda. I couldn’t care less where I was from or where you are from. If your art is going to define you by your place, that is something that I am not actually interested in at all.

CHRYSANNE:

Neither am I.

BHARTI:

This is something that I have actually been forced to think about more than I thought I would, because people ask a lot about this idea of India, and what it means to be Indian artist. My first answer is always: “Well have you seen the demography of this country?” I mean it is so large. You may live in Europe. It takes me four hours to get from the north of India to the south of India. It takes you four hours from London to Moscow. To take on and represent this huge geography with 400 living languages and closing fast on two billion people…. How is it possible for art to talk about this in a way that means more than that sum total of statistics? I think it is absolutely impossible to think that art somehow clears a path of definitions of who you are; that there are codes you can read and then eureka! To answer questions when there isn’t one answer. The role of art for me is not to answer but to ask. Sometimes the eyes that see every day don’t see everything. So who is right? And more than that, why is my agenda to specifically examine my foreignness so that you get it? What if that doesn’t interest me?

CHRYSANNE:

Exactly.

An absence of assignable cause; 2007,  Image Credit: Guillaume Ziccarelli

An absence of assignable cause, 2007_image credit: Guillaume Ziccarelli

SUSAN:

Outsiders can often see things that are invisible to everyone else because so many things are taken for granted by the insider.

BHARTI:

Yes. I think you are forced to do that because when you do not speak the language, other sensory perceptions have to take over and kick in, because you don’t hear so you don’t speak much. I didn’t speak Hindi. It took me about two and half years to learn how to speak the language, whether or not I felt comfortable talking to people in between was irrelevant.

SUSAN:

Do they still detect that you are from somewhere else?

BHARTI:

I am a foreigner still in many ways, pretend as I may. My kids tease me about my Hindi, especially my accent, as I used to do to my mother actually, about her English accent—she still has an Indian accent after all these years. You don’t lose these things; they are ingrained.

It’s interesting, you asked if there are two countries in my head. It’s really about memory, and I think your memory has such a profound effect on the way you experience things. “Do you have two heads?” Yes.

CHRYSANNE:

One of the reasons I asked, is that I often feel that I have many countries in my head. In the art world, with the stress on the Biennials, where artists represent their countries, what does it mean to represent a country? I think that artists want to be artists first. Maybe they do not identify with their country or even want to represent their country. There is a pressure to categorize artists: they are American artists, Canadian artists, Greek artists, Indian artists, English artists. It is a form of nationalism: the Indian show, the Italian show and so on. Artists are pushed into these categories, and maybe it isn’t really their choice, and they would want to break out of them.

BHARTI:

It’s all corrupted! We say: “Yes, okay I’ll be in the show, it’s fine.” At least your work gets seen. And then it’s an inconvenience because how do you break out after you have been categorized and filed away.

video ©2013 by MOMMY

SUSAN:

There seems to be more awareness, and there is a desire now to be a part of “the international art scene.” The rapaciousness of the art market has allowed the art world to spread and to become less provincial. That was not the case before. For example, people once talked about New York as the center of the art world. And prior to that, in the late 19th and the early 20th century, up until the post-war period, that center was in Paris. There was a time when people believed that one city was the center of the art world. I think in New York there is a real sense of loss and mourning over that lack of center. The world is smaller in one sense, but more diffuse. The center of the art world is an absurd assumption and it was a Euro-centric and imperial one.

CHRYSANNE:

To be an artist, like many from Cal Arts, you all went to New York.

SUSAN:

Everybody went to New York. Most of us in graduate school in L.A. felt that we needed to go to New York in the eighties because at that time the tacit assumption was that New York was the center of the art world, at least here in the States. Ironically, in part because some really talented people didn’t leave L.A. at just that juncture, the assumption began to dissolve, at least in relation to having a serious international art career from Los Angeles.

BHARTI:

It’s like in India, if you want to work, you probably have to come to Delhi or Mumbai. I think it was at one time about looking for people—you have to find your peers. It was a very small scene here 20 years ago, but it was also very fresh and exciting. What I imagine London could have been like in the sixties—that kind of energy. It’s still here.

SUSAN:

Finding peers is extremely important. But I think there was also a real sense at one time of cultural hegemony. It is not true, but people believed one city could be the center of the art world and that belief implied a great many things. That feeling would be difficult to maintain any longer and would strike most people today as not only reactionary but silly.

CHRYSANNE:

In looking back I have been fascinated by the Hybrid Series. I remember when I saw the photographs, “Oh My god, Bharti!” The woman who has a cow’s leg and hoof, and the pregnant woman with the blue baby. I found the whole group of them so radical, and the statues that came out of them. I was wondering if you could speak about them a little more, where they came from, and how they have informed your practice.

BHARTI:

I always look at the Hybrids as mythical urban goddesses, creatures who came out of the contradiction of the idea of femininity or the idea of womanhood. I think that I was aware that narrative and mythology have played a really massive part in how my consciousness has been shaped. The Hybrids were amorphous creatures who were part woman, part animal—you don’t know which is more animal or more woman—multi-dimensional, multi-faceted: she is the goddess, the housewife, the mother, the whore, the mistress, the lover, the sister… everything. She is at one state extremely powerful but kind of fragile in some imperfect way. It was very clear that the background of the works was an inside space; this is a domestic space and so within their own realm they were: all seeing, all knowing, all speaking, all powerful and yet not. At the time when I showed them, I never imagined I would get the kind of reaction that I did; some people were quite angry.

Angel (Hybrid Series), 2004; Image credit: Bharti Kher

Angel (Hybrid Series), 2004_image credit: Bharti Kher

CHRYSANNE:

Really, what were they angry about?

BHARTI:

They thought the works were violent, which in some way they are, but it is no more violent than the story of say Ganesh, and there is nothing more specifically violent than what you read everyday in the newspapers in India. I think they are more powerful than violent, more erotic than strictly sexual.

I would say those were my first mother and child works too, actually. Lola was about five months old and they were really about taking stock but also reclaiming some power back again and creating this other being. It was almost like an avatar or partly new person. I don’t ever really use myself in any of my works but in all of those works I would put my eyes back into the women so that all of them would have my eyes just to be back in there.

SUSAN:

Was the perception of these works as violent the same in the East and the West or was there a different reaction?

BHARTI:

The first few years those works were shown mostly in Asia, and until now they haven’t been shown that much, in a few biennials maybe… but for me they were pivotal works in my career. They were an epiphany of some kind; something that just triggered off a whole new body of work.

CHRYSANNE:

A genesis?

BHARTI:

Yes. It started this whole new way of looking at the body. Then I made the first woman sculpture. If I look back at my very early paintings and drawings, I have been making half animal, half human hybridized animals since way back; creating the idea of the monster. I suppose the idea is of looking at the word monster as a portent… so they are like warnings. I talked a lot about the idea of the monster and what it meant and created these fantastical beings. In mythology what were great mythical creatures? They were all sort of….

Warrior with cloak and shield; 2008, Image  credit: Stephen White

Warrior with cloak and shield, 2008_image credit: Stephen White

SUSAN:

The Minotaur?

BHARTI:

No, They were portents for the future. I want to read something to you which I think is relevant. When you go looking at things like skin, when I keep putting skin over the skin of a woman, it was to give her a shamanistic energy. To make her another.

Reads from sketch book:

If I could see my practice as an inquiry into substance, a vehicle for metaphor, then in the life of these works the skin serves a function as a cover, to maintain the integrity of the body and the soul. So if you carry the skin of another, do you make yourself more entire or more yourself? By taking another skin, or parts, you enhance your own identity, like the shaman or the hunter or the seer. Why do we wish for more energy than we already have? After all, are we not just atoms of energy? Can we make those atoms change and affect our covering?

So then I think about what skin is and I start to think about surface, cortex, dead skin, flaked skin, living skin. So this idea of creating a cover for yourself; is it a protection, is it a sense of false cover … are you creating a truth or are you creating a covering? And then you can start to play between these two things.

Then I started to look at the bindis in the same way. How was it that I was creating the skin for an animal? What was I doing with this surface—creating; looking at this surface as intoxicating. And if we take the word intoxicating; it can be both uplifting but also deadly in some way—so using this idea of intoxication both visually as well as philosophically.

SUSAN:

We also have those expressions in English, thick skinned and thin skinned. Its about one’s inner resilience in the face of adversity. With an elephant, which we think of as having an incredibly thick skin, would it now be even more thick skinned because you gave it an extra skin?

BHARTI:

Yes. I also like the idea, in the case of the elephant, where the bindis become a skin, like the memory of a life. So it talks about time as well as all the markings of your body. They are like sign posts, in a way, that mark the journey. So the bindis became the story of the life of this elephant: the journeys that she had made, the places that she has been, and the stops that she has made, and the memories that she had—a witness to life.

SUSAN:

In Confess are the bindis on the inside?

BHARTI:

Yes.

Confess,  2009/2010; Image Credit: Andy Keate

Confess, 2009/2010_image credit: Andy Keate

SUSAN:

So that is quite different, because you are taking an interior, a place that symbolizes the confession and the abdicating of power to another—and they cover that interior space. That seems like a different construction of meaning.

BHARTI:

Well, inside/outside, you know, those are like antithesis, just pushing it in a different way. What does it mean? When I found that object, I thought at the time it was a confession room. Actually, it turns out it is not a confessional, it is a matrimonial chamber. I am still not entirely sure what this room is, but when I entered it I felt I was there to confess—not in a “Catholic way”—I was hugely aware when I titled it Confess that it was just my overemphasis on the word confess. It’s actually more a confession to yourself, which is what you do as an artist constantly—a dialogue with your other.

Confess ; 2009/2010; Image Credit: Andy Keate

Confess, 2009/2010_ image credit: Andy Keate

In a way, that work was a palimpsest of all these different stories, and memories of narratives; perhaps me, perhaps other people, perhaps other women that I have met. It feels like it is a beginning, it’s certainly not an end. And so I almost feel like here, I walk into the house, I put my bags down, and then that space becomes mine. I think it has that feeling, it’s not that you’re leaving, you’re here to stay in that space. The idea to put the bindis on the inside—it already had a light bulb inside and it just felt like right. It’s about the internal.

In terms of the rest of the exhibition, when I made that work, I made another piece from gynecological charts of women in pregnancy that were made in the 50’s, and they were such beautiful drawings and I was thinking: “Shall I do these in watercolor? What shall I do?” I had them for about a year, and then I realized that perhaps they were a foil to this piece because they were really about, again, exterior/interior. And to have a child, you protect and cocoon this extraordinary alien that’s growing inside of you, and you’re protecting it and it’s actually responding to every single thing; to every touch, in such a profound way. And perhaps in our psyche we still have a memory of the womb. But we don’t—we want to have one, because that was the first and the most protected space. You’re cocooned, and it’s warm, and you get food.

SUSAN:

And you hear voices and you see light.

CHRYSANNE:

You’ve been casting pregnant women for a long time.

BHARTI:

Yes, I haven’t actually gotten to the point where I’ve done the series of the woman and child yet. But being in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, there are many woman and child images here. So, I have actually started making some drawings, and suddenly I did another pregnant cast here of a friend. You talked about the hybrid works and I’m realizing that perhaps that was my first mother and child.

SUSAN:

I am curious, partly because I myself am obsessed with mirrors, about all the pieces you have done with mirrors? And it is difficult to tell from reproductions if all of the mirrors are broken or only some. In the United States, at least, the broken mirror is seen as bringing bad luck.

BHARTI:

All of the mirrors are broken.

CHRYSANNE:

Is the symbolism of the broken mirror in India the same?

BHARTI:

I don’t know anywhere in the world where there isn’t symbolism of the broken mirror giving bad luck. It’s the self broken up. The beginnings of the mirror works didn’t start with a broken mirror. They started with the bindis on the mirrors in the bathroom. When I would go into some bathrooms, I would see all of these bindis stuck on the mirror, “Oh, that’s great, being with this woman all day and that’s her eye on the world.”

Reveal the secrets that you seek,  2011; Image credit: Genevieve Hanson

Reveal the secrets that you seek, 2011_ image credit: Genevieve Hanson

SUSAN:

So they place it on the mirror to keep it for the next day?

BHARTI:

Yes. They just stick it on the mirror at the end of the day. So I started looking at making things with mirrors quite far back. With the new works you start to see yourself and a double seeing: the eye, my eye, their eye, your eye, this eye. There’s this constant to and fro, of just looking. I think that breaking the mirrors came about like fracture. A physical act of defiance as well as celebration and mischief: “I will break this mirror and nothing will happen to me.” And then, to challenge other people’s ideas of what they think about a broken mirror, because it’s my karma, it’s not yours.

Belief is really a strange monster and so is how we have faith, or how we can then instill faith into a work; which is also how you look at art in the first place. So I believe this work has the power to transform me in this way. But actually, you are just looking at an object in which you instill faith. But that mirror is an innate object, it’s not talking to you and if it is, why is it talking to you? How’s it talking to you? And are you listening?

Reads:

Is the mirror’s representation of us a means of self-knowledge or self-delusion? And in the story of light, we use mirrors to reflect our own contradictory nature. The mirror is ultimately tied to that questioning ambivalence of knowing and not knowing what it is to be a human.

If you go back to the first discoveries of mirrors that date back to 620 B.C., they were made from polished obsidian, and this was created from volcanic eruptions. This massive catharsis of some great explosion therefore was why these beautiful shiny objects would get used to reflect. Early painters would use them to reflect landscapes… which is why they often painted the mirror image. Just by looking at this idea of ambivalence and looking at the mirror image and the fact that you see what you don’t see. When the bindis start to come on you get the reflection of the broken glass, so you are getting double image, and triple image, the third eye, this ambivalence, the contradictory nature of: “Who am I, what am I, why am I here?” “I’m this big and there I’m this big.”

So when I was writing about these mirrors, I thought: “When they speak, they say nothing and when they write in codes they conceal the truth.” Art is a primal language, and I suppose visionary insight would then lead you to a language of paradise, which names all things according to their essence. When you experience those mirrors, I want you to get a sense of the essence of the work, which is that you walk into a space and you are transformed into another place and perhaps for that very short moment, time will stand still.

SUSAN:

It’s interesting in terms of psychological theory—via Lacan—that we get our sense of body integrity by seeing the entire body reflected back to us in a mirror. While you have, by fracturing the mirror, presented us with images of ourselves that disrupt the image of body integrity or wholeness.

Reveal the secrets that you seek, 2011; Image credit: Genevieve Hanson

Reveal the secrets that you seek, 2011_ image credit: Genevieve Hanson

BHARTI:

Yes. The surface is interrupted so that you see yourself in fragments or you see yourself distorted because of the bindis obliterating the surface. And I can look at the mirror as a broken surface on its own. The extraordinary texture—there is all this doubling. They are extremely seductive, these works. It’s like a thick nectar. You are falling into this thick nectar that in some way drowns you and seduces you, suffocates you in some way. And then you can come back, come back for air. It’s the intoxication of all those ….

SUSAN:

Do you think, since we tend to think of woman spending so much more time in front of the mirror—and I don’t even think this is true, but it is part of the cultural mythology surrounding women—that this broken mirror also functions as a metaphor for woman taking risks via you taking the risk of incurring bad luck?

BHARTI

“I broke the mirror, you didn’t break it.” It’s defiance in some way, and freedom. Do you know where the idea of the broken mirror bringing back luck came from? Mirrors were so extraordinarily expensive in the 17th century. A mirror had more value than gold. There was a time when a Raphael painting was cheaper than a mirror! Mirrors were produced only by two companies: St Gobain and Murano. One was in Paris and one was in Venice. The great artisans of mirror making were so covert; it was like creating gold. They were considered to be the great magicians of their time. Their art was so concealed that there were stories that when some of the great glass makers tried to leave Venice, they would reach no further than the second village before they were poisoned. There was a secret code of conduct because they were alchemists and they believed that what they were creating magic. They were finding the source of life, because the mirror reflected back the soul, which they believed was the soul of God. So when mirrors would break in the factories it was thought that the devil was interfering with the work of the divine.

CHRYSANNE:

Mirrors have a divinitory meaning. The oracles revere the mirror. There is a wonderful Leonardo De Vinci drawing of the witch holding the mirror.

BHARTI:

The orator, the seer, would carry the mirror because it meant he/she possessed vision. When people would die they put the mirror near to see the condensation of the last breath and that would be the soul going into the next life. Many ideas of divinity and religion have associated the mirror and this idea of finding oneself as central to all of it. Lots and lots of people have written about the mirror. I thought I was going to drown in the literature by the end of it. After a while I had to admit that I am not patient enough to learn about everything Lacan said about the mirror, I just want to understand what I want to get from these pieces. I think for me it was really about this sense of freedom; freedom from the reflected self in the mirror, yet about an idea of self.

I made a piece recently called Lao’s Mirror, and the title came from a story in which the mirror reflected the thoughts in your mind. What an extraordinary idea. Quite frightening.

SUSAN:

I would like you to tell us a bit about this large felled tree that looks as if it has small sheep and goat heads blossoming on its branches.

The Waq Tree, 2009; Image Credit: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich

The Waq Tree, 2009_ image credit: Stefan Altenburger Photography, Zurich

BHARTI:

The Waq Tree. That was a piece that came out of many stories; the first one being from a very small 18th century miniature of a Waq tree from Persia—a speaking tree. I’ve made a lot of trees and I continue to. Alexander the Great, as he crossed Persia/Iran over to the Punjab was told by his seer/psychic to visit the fabled Waq tree and this tree was supposedly in Iran. It had the heads of gargoyles, of hybrids, of animals of no known shape or form. It warned Alexander that he would die if he crossed into India. Alexander the Great was apparently poisoned as he passed through Punjab. What I had thought was that he was shot by a poisoned arrow, but he died of food poisoning, which is a bit boring. So I remember thinking about this tree and always wanting to make the speaking tree, the messenger tree, the portent for the future.

The first set of smaller trees were called the Solarum Series. People ask me about this and say they have been researching it and can’t find anything about it—it’s because I’ve made it up. I make up my own myths and hope for the best. Solarum Series sounds like a proper tree. One that I’ve researched and that’s from a proper academic, scientific journal but actually the Solarus tree is a plant, it’s not even a tree. It’s a plant that goes into other habitats and then destroys everything else, so it’s like the Cuckoo. It goes into places and takes over everything and then dominates like some alien species. The Solarum Series is a tree that speaks. If you plant it in your garden it will kill everything else and it will just keep growing because it is the heads of many, it is the minds of many, it is all me and you.

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The Waq Tree (detail), 2009_ image credit: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zurich

The fallen tree came about when I did the show for the Baltic. I made a small tree and I made a really huge tree. It was three times the size of the smaller one and they were like mother and child, just as I made the little elephant first and then I made the big one. I would see at some point that they are mother and child and this was very deliberately the baby Solarum and a giant monster one. And during the installation of the work the tree fell over. It came crashing down the day before the opening and we were very lucky actually that nobody got killed because it weighs about two and a half tons. The whole bloody thing fell over. And I watched it miss one of the technicians by about two feet. It made such a sound! And I looked at it and walked straight out of the gallery. My pride. And I called Subodh and said: “My tree’s fallen over. My opening is tomorrow.” And he said: “Um. Okay. Does it look good?” And I was: “What the fuck do you mean, does it look good?” And he said, “Go inside. Does it look good?” So I went in. And, “Shit yes, it looks good.” So he said, “Fix it.” So then, of course, we fixed it. And so nobody knew. I went back in and we fixed the tree and so we made it look like it hadn’t accidentally fallen over. I repaired it. There were no cracks. I just left it on the floor as it was. But if you had moved it, the whole thing would have fallen apart. The body was broken, but the heads were really strong. The heads were cast in my studio and the rest was made in China. And I don’t think it was made specifically well in terms of material or engineering.

The lesson of that was make everything in your studio so that you’ve handled the production because my works are so organic in some ways. So sometimes good things come out of accidents. I asked the installation team to cut off all the heads and send them back to my studio, and we made another tree, took a crane and pushed the tree over on the floor and it broke like it had fallen, which is different than just creating a broken tree. So it had that same sort of crashing effect of the weight, where the different branches just collapse under itself and then we re-fixed it and we reinforced it, and reassembled it. That was a really great project for me in many ways. Just in terms of pure practical production, that work really taught me how much I do know about engineering and production and I really trust myself to make the work now.

CHRYSANNE:

Do you think the fallen tree relates to the dying elephant?

BHARTI:

Yes. I think they should be shown together. It would be beautiful to show those two works at one point together.

CHRYSANNE:

What is the proper title for the dying elephant?

The skin speaks a language not its own, 2006; images credit : Pablo Bartholomew

The skin speaks a language not its own, 2006_ image credit: Pablo Bartholomew

BHARTI:

The skin speaks a language not its own.

CHRYSANNE:

And what was the inspiration for that?

BHARTI:

I saw a photograph in a newspaper of the back of an elephant’s feet, the hind legs, just these big round discs—an elephant shoved into the back of a truck with a tarpaulin sheet thrown over. You could just see these two round discs. So it was on its stomach and I just kept thinking about the weight of this massive animal trying to get up? I’d made the baby elephant already. And I wanted to make a full sized mother but I didn’t have a production space big enough, so when I got the opportunity to do something for APT, I proposed an elephant. It was just one of those works where you say, “I’m going to do it.” And then, you just do it. I don’t think at that time that I was thinking very clearly about intent. You’re in this other space of—why is it looking like this? Where is its center? Why does it look like a potato—we built that animal three times.

SUSAN:

It is made from a mold?

BHARTI:

It was made in clay, yes. Then we took a plaster mould and it was made from fiberglass—hollow from the inside and one piece. I spoke a lot about this work and sometimes I feel that I don’t really need to say anything about it because it’s one of those pieces that speaks. It tells you what it is. It tells you how you feel. It tells you what you want to know.

CHRYSANNE:

It’s an incredibly moving piece.

BHARTI:

The less you say about some of the works the better. I think you just have to experience it. Sometimes when I look at it I think, “God, did I make that?” Or, did it make itself? It sort of strangely made itself.

The Skin Speaks a Language of its Own (detail)

The skin speaks a language not its own (detail), 2006_image credit: Pablo Bartholomew

CHRYSANNE:

Some pieces do.

BHARTI:

At the same time, it took a year.

SUSAN:

When I was in India, I remember going to a Jain temple where a number of women worshipers were sitting on the floor and they each had a large tray in front of them. And there was a large pile of rice in the tray. And they would arrange the rice on the tray into an incredibly elaborate and totally legible image and as soon as they’d finished they would shake the tray and begin again. And I was reminded of this by a piece of yours—a bowl filled with grains of rice that had writing on them, in English.

BHARTI:

Sing to them that will listen are the grains of rice in a Tibetan singing bowl. I’ve been looking at the matrimonial columns for a long time and what I like to think about them is that they are these strange social and anthropological studies of the entire sub-continent of India in five pages. If you were to read this newspaper, then you would think you understand the breadth, the depth etc., but no, you won’t even begin to, you can just categorize and turn people into strange definitive structures: nationalistic, caste wise, wealth wise, family wise and they are these strange things and you think you understand but you don’t really understand anything. People wish to look for the same type of people that they are. We search our own kinds. I did other works with the matrimonial columns. I’ve done a painting, I’ve collected the matrimonials for three years; every single one and I’ve made sculptures out of them and I’ve made a video, which I’ve never shown. I kept thinking that I should turn it into a Dada song. Like some crazy Fluxus performance, but it’s not me yet, but when I’m looking at it I’m thinking, “How bizarre is this?” One day I’m reading Tristan Tzara on how to construct a Dadaist poem and it’s perfect structurally and so I made this work—I’ll read it to you.

“Take a newspaper, take a pair of scissors, choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem, cut out the article then cut each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag, shake it gently then take out the scraps one after another and in the order in which they left the bag, copy conscientiously. The poem will be like you. And here you are a writer, infinitely original, and endowed with a sensitivity that is charming, though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.”

So I met this rice writer. I’m in Dilli Haat, which is a tourist place, and I’m with my children. We all write our names. I ask him: “Would you be interested in doing a project with me?” And he says, “Yeah,” and he gives me his card and I’m not really sure what I’m going to do but I’m thinking that I have to work with this guy to do something —it all starts to come together, I have this poem, I’ve written it in my sketch book, and I’m thinking how strange and I’m looking at the matrimonials and now I’ve met this man—it’s perfect—so I bring them all together.

 Sing to them that will listen. 2008; Image credit: Florian Kleinefenn

Sing to them that will listen, 2008_ image credit: Florian Kleinefenn

It took him about one and half years and there are about 95,000 pieces of rice written on in one bowl. We wrote in english, hindi and punjabi.  First the studio enlarged the newspaper and would give it to him in sections. He would then give back each one in a bag and I would check every grain of rice and I’d tick them off—okay, that’s one line or two lines or that’s five lines.There are ten pages in the paper. The process is probably as important—I would go back and say, “You missed a full stop here.” And he’d look at me. “Are you insane?” And I’d be like, “Yup.” This guy got a team together from all around the country. All the rice writers he knew. They worked per grain of rice. So we’d have to count the grains of rice. It’s like counting grains of sand. And then finally, you’ve got the whole thing, they’re all in the bags. Then I worked out how to preserve them and spray them so they wouldn’t get eaten by animals and then I took them all and put them in a bowl and mixed them all up again. And they are all in one bowl. All the people, all the classes, all the structures, all the men and all the women. It’s a work that I think about in relation to the whale heart, An absence of assignable cause, which is about love. Both pieces in some way are about love. About this idea that is so ephemeral. You’re trying to work out how all of these people are trying to find something, someone or a space at least in their lives or in their heads. People are always looking for some kind of completion.

SUSAN:

I like the idea that your two pieces on love range in scale from a grain of rice to the heart of a whale.

BHARTI:

But I see those works as intrinsically linked somehow. And I think scale is very important in my work too. Sometimes I think really big and sometimes very tiny again.

CHRYSANNE:

A bindi is very small.

BHARTI:

But the bindi works are also big. It’s really about the physicality of entering a space that is bigger than you with things that are so tiny that you might not even be able to see them sometimes.

CHRYSANNE:

Is this the first time you’ve had a residency in the United States?

BHARTI:

Yes. Not just here. I’ve never done a residency. I’ve done one or two workshops. I don’t really go many places. I stay in my studio.

CHRYSANNE:

How does it feel to be in Boston living in a museum and having such access to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum?

BHARTI:

It’s really extraordinary because you can just go upstairs and look at a Velasquez and come back down. Or go look at Jan Van Eyck’s hands.

SUSAN:

There is actually one other piece I wanted to ask you about. It is a massive cube made up of old metal radiators. It has the scale and theatrical presence of certain minimalist works yet it is composed of smaller bits of industrial detritus—an internal contradiction for a minimalist work of the sixties.

BHARTI:

If I could remake my artistic career, I think I would be a minimalist painter. All the art that I love comes from the tradition of reduction—but I can’t because I’m super maximum! When I think about the purest form, it really goes back to the intention of the object and the integrity of the object with its narrative and name. This project will probably be a book about the journey of this work. Like a lot of the projects that I do, the journey and failure are integral to how the work actually then is shared. Because sometimes the work demands that it has to do something other than what I intended it to do. And I think the radiator work was one of those. When I found them in America I thought, “What a great idea, I can make radiator sculpture animals. They are like dinosaur carcasses. They are strange ribcages.” I was just seeing animals.

Then I changed again. I have all the machinery to make these radiators work and reach up to 45 degrees Celsius. The idea was that I would create a room where it was so hot, it would be like a Delhi summer. I found them here, in Connecticut, very close by on Ebay. We shipped them all to India in a 40 foot container. It was complete folly.

And they moved from studio to studio as I kept shifting …ten tons of radiators 5 times. I would say: “I know what I’m going to do, I know what I’m going to do.” And as with many materials in my studio, I live with things for a long time. They sit with me, they talk to me. I ignore them for a long time; then suddenly I’ll find a space where I know what I’m going to do. So with these, I had engineers from Singapore come to India with their technicians, and we had all the systems built up so that these radiators would not only heat but some of them, if I wanted, would make sounds. We developed systems where they would open and close. We’d have all these things that were moving. They’d be like these breathing but dead animals. Then we started to assemble them and I realized that actually I really didn’t need to do anything after all of that process.

The hot wind that blows from the west, 2012  image credit: Genevieve Hanson

The hot wind that blows from the west, 2012_image credit: Genevieve Hanson

So what it actually became was an overload and a very slow process of disintegration, where I just keep reducing: reduction, reduction, and reduction. And then I was back to where I started. I was back to the original object after I’d been through this exhaustive list of processes. It’s like an exercise in drawing. Like taking an orange. First of all, drawing the orange, peeling it and then drawing it and then drawing the peel and then deciding what you are going to do with the peel and then cutting the peel and drawing a piece of that and then slicing it and drawing a cross-section and a mid-section of it and by the end you are left with nothing. Except, lots of drawings. And after all that, I don’t really need to do anything with this work. And it came right at the very end. This work is actually doing everything that it needs to do; which is to function as this great folly. It tells you how hot it is. The orange is still an orange somewhere in the exercise called enquiry.

We have so many drawings and we have two or three years of correspondence backwards and forwards and ideas about what the work should do and what it could do and I think for me it’s a really important piece. And the fact is, that it came from America on a ship and turned around after seven years and went back exactly as it was, just stacked up neatly. It came as a message to me and I sent it back as a warning. And that’s what art does.

Bharti Kher in residence at the Gardner Museum, photo © 2013 by Susan Silas

Bharti Kher in residence at the Gardner Museum, photo © 2013 by Susan Silas

 

 

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