Steel as a medium for sculpture is yet to find a distinctive voice. It lacks the gravitas that history bestows on other materials such as bronze, brass, iron and stone, and is not as cutting edge as digital or video installations. Shorn of the delicate appeal of glass and the ethnic associations of terracotta, steel has so far been accepted more for its utilitarian value, but rarely admired for its sculptural qualities.
So, can steel stir the imagination? Alex Davis, a mechanical engineer-turned-designer and sculptor, doesn’t doubt it. Deepika Jindal, an aesthete who married into the family of steel major Jindal Steel, is just as confident. “Steel is being used internationally by the likes of Philippe Starck and Anish Kapoor. In India, there is still very little awareness about steel as an art form. It’s so beautiful that it would be a waste to restrict it to day-to-day use only. Steel is also hardy and makes for very good outdoor installations,” says Jindal.
An expression of her faith is The Stainless, a gallery that threw open its doors in New Delhi on 25 August, with an exhibition of works by Davis titled My Lazy Forest.
“My main aim is to create awareness about steel as an art form and establish it in the field of art. I also wanted the gallery to be large enough to accommodate big steel installations. We plan to rent out The Stainless to artists and sculptors who work in both traditional and new media,” says Jindal, who launched the art d’inox brand in 2004 to give steel an all-new artistic avatar in India.
Vishal K. Dar, a new media artist, sculptor and architect, worked on Jindal’s brief. “This was conceived as a space that would conceptually and dimensionally expand and contract to the imagination of curators, presenters, designers and artists,” says Dar, for whom The Stainless was the first gallery design project.
The 5,500 sq. ft gallery, located on the ground floor of a glass and steel multi-storeyed office block, sets the tone right from the entrance, with pure white walls offset by warm teakwood flooring. The sense of space is heightened by two large windows that look out onto patches of landscaped garden.
Two LCD television monitors beneath the gallery logo give a hint of its hi-tech character.
The pivot of the gallery, Dar explains, lies in the jet-black ceiling. Outwardly, it is punctuated by a grid of hooks, from which artworks can be suspended. “I prefer suspensions to pedestals. The suggestion of levitation or floating adds that special element,” he says.
The core of the audio-visual system also lies in the ceiling. The Wi-Fi enabled digital projection system for new media or interactive art consists of projectors that can rotate 360 degrees, mounted on telescopic arms, suspended from six guide rail points on the ceiling. Then, there are the wide angle and zoom lenses to alter the size of the projections. Equal attention was paid to the sound system. “Even a soundscape artist can get the flawless surround sound effect he desires,” says Dar.
The daylight filtering into the gallery is augmented by a series of spotlights and wall washers. Though the gallery uses 4,500 lumen, the light does not flood the room and overpower it.
“We have used Erco lighting systems, the same as are used in the Museum Grand Louvre and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Special glare-free Quinta & Optech fixtures with special lenses and embedded potentiometers have variable lux levels, as we were quite aware of the possibilities of having projections, installations, sculpture and paintings being exhibited simultaneously. We had to be sure that lighting from one display did not interfere with the other,” says Dar, who collaborated with Amit Gupta of Vis-à-vis, which represents several major European lighting brands in India.
Illumination is arguably one of the most important aspects of any gallery and a sore point with many artists who complain of inefficient lighting that results in scallops and hot spots on their canvases or sculptures.
At The Stainless, the Erco system also comes with accessories such as barn doors that can light a painting edge to edge, and a range of lenses that can project horizontal and vertical beams to create precise “area light” effect, a critical issue when installing sculptural artworks. “As a result, no light spills from one display and cuts into the luminosity of another. And if an artist so requires, the gallery can be darkened during the day. The Hunter Douglas motorized blackout system can cut the daylight completely, instantly creating an evening environment,” says Dar.
Alex Davis, like all artists, won’t settle for anything less than the right ambience for his displays. He conceptualized the inaugural exhibition of My Lazy Forest in a moonlit environment, or “flat white light, like that of the sky.”
Davis’ works comprise a range of lifesize foliage crafted from stainless steel—bamboo, lily, ivy and monstera—that reach more than 10ft in height. Sculpting foliage in steel appears to banish the ultimate argument against the medium—that it is lifeless.
“My Lazy Forest grew out of a series of smaller installations called My Lazy Garden. It was a statement against the modern habit of shunning anything that requires love and care by branding these high-maintenance. A regular garden requires regular attention, but not a steel garden,” says Davis, who followed up his stint at the prestigious National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad with a major in industrial design at Domus Academy, Milan, before working with international designers such as Andrea Branzi, Massimo Morozzi, Isao Horsoe and Ezio Manzini.
He has won awards, from Elle Décor International in 2003 and at the International Glassware Design Competition. Steel is his latest inspiration.
“My engineering background gave me an understanding of steel, and I found that it vibes well with my sensibilities. It is neutral in colour, reflective in surface and has a dreamy, watery character,” he says. “Steel has a versatility that most other materials lack—it can be used to create precision equipment as small as surgical needles as well as bulky objects. It can change in perspective from the technical to the romantic; not many materials can do that.”
Davis’ sculptures have a high-gloss finish, a mark of perfection because it can exaggerate even the tiniest flaw, including finger impressions.
Each leaf, petal and tendril is constricted into form—using laser cutting, hand cutting, argon welding and buffing. Wouldn’t casting steel into a definite shape have been simpler? “That’s the reason I didn’t do it. Also, I liked using a combination of hi-tech art and hand skills in my works,” he says.
His pieces, more concept-based than realistic, are strongly occupied with form. One of the most powerful sculptures is called Mango—a globe of mango leaves.
“I was intrigued by the arrangement of five leaves of mango, and translating this form into a steel sculpture proved extremely challenging. I began to study miniature paintings in which mango leaves are represented in abstract form. This helped me extract the essence of the leaf for my work,” he says.
The sculpture, towering at 10ft, is an awe-inspiring creation. The sculptor confesses to a predilection for bamboo, thanks to the years spent in native Kerala.
My Lazy Forest features single bamboo pieces as well as bamboo groves, with a smooth exterior in the case of the former and with shoots in the latter (to support the surrounding bamboo structures in the installations). His first foliage work began with a bamboo in 2003 for the “Global Local” show and was displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Another challenging installation was the champa tree, which had to be cut open several times as Davis tried to get the form right. Come September, and he will travel to the Maison et Objet trade fair in Paris with his My Lazy Garden series.
The Stainless will host about four major steel exhibitions every year, the next being The Saptrishis. This will showcase the works of seven sculptors—Valsan Kolleri, Pankaj Panwar, Shiv Kumar, Sumedh Ranjan, Karl Antao, Vivek Vilasani and N.N. Rimzon.
“We plan to have only a few, but very good, shows at the new gallery,” says Jindal, ruling out the possibility of exhibiting the more famous international names at The Stainless in the near future because the price tags may be too prohibitive.
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