Bharti Kher’s Gurgaon studio is an imposing but starkly utilitarian structure that makes me think of Andy Warhol’s Factory. As we walk in, the first thing that arrests the eye is a giant staircase, poised precariously against the ceiling, and pierced by a couple of cartwheels. Women in saris are quietly sticking bindis on a solitary pillar on which a door leans. Two shattered mirrors, densely patterned with bindis, rest against the wall.
Shrines, vitrines, chests of drawers, clothes hangers: We are surrounded by the fragments of an ordinary home, though variously defamiliarized. A headless skeleton lurks in a corner, a reminder perhaps of those metaphorical skeletons that remain hidden away in middle-class closets. No wonder the original German word for “the uncanny”, the subject of Sigmund Freud’s famous 1919 essay, is “das Unheimliche”, literally “the unhomely”. The unhomely seizes us when we are most at home.
“For me, home does not connote only safety, it is fraught with violence, anxiety, sexuality and confusion,” Kher tells me later. We are sitting in her first-floor office, talking about her first solo in five years in Delhi, which is on till 16 February. All around us books, furniture and art lie in a harmonious jumble. There is a palpable synergy between life and art. It is often difficult to tell, as with the best conceptual art, where one ends and the other begins. This ambivalent, in-between state is beautifully articulated by the title of Kher’s new show, Bind the Dream State to Your Waking Life—which is also what the centrepiece, the towering staircase, is called.
“When I look at this work, I think of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase,” says Kher. “Both the staircase and the wheels signify movement, but the wheels also interfere with the fluidity of time.” This duality of the passing and pausing of time is captured in the silken layer of green—bindis simulating moss—that covers the steps. Human feet may have stopped treading on these, but time’s arrow keeps moving inexorably, and nature leaves its tender impress behind.
Kher’s practice has always involved binaries. We find it in her early work like Hirsute (1999), depicting a panel of moustaches, and Spit And Swallow (1998), where her signature “sperm bindis” float away from the centre, forming a sphere. “The idea was to show these works together,” Kher explains, “to bring the masculine and feminine into contrast.” Even the white cube of the gallery is transformed into something rich and strange in her hands. GallerySKE in Bangalore, which is an old colonial bungalow, Hauser & Wirth in New York, and Nature Morte in Delhi: Kher’s found objects and hybrid creatures have made these spaces their own special homes.
The two massive mirrors, which will be on display at her solo show, subvert traditional feminine motifs, as her “great heroine”, the late artist Louise Bourgeois, did in her drawings and sculptures. “Years ago, I went to a friend’s house and found bindis stuck on the bathroom mirror. That set me thinking,” Kher says. In the Nature Morte show, hundreds of blue bindis converge in a vortex on two shattered mirrors.
“The pieces are as much about destruction as regeneration,” Kher explains. “First the mirrors are smashed, defying dearly-held notions of luck and karma, and then the bindis are put back on, like a maternal caress that has a cathartic power.” The broken mirror also darkly suggests a scene of domestic violence, and at its most fundamental, an act of looking into one’s troubled soul.
Kher’s grotesque figurines and eerie installations have the power to shake the viewer out of his comfort zone. Think of the ape-woman Arione (2004) and her humanoid sister, the illuminated tree of the Solarum Series (2007), or the iconic elephant in The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own (2006). Existing on the interstices of the real and the surreal, these works challenge and complicate our perception of interior spaces. To literally find an elephant in the room—dead or asleep, no matter—is an unsettling experience. Although now known for these staggering installations, Kher started out as a painter in art school in England.
“I hardly read any art history but I did look at a lot of art,” she tells me. “But even my earliest paintings were big—they would often be triptychs—and I would end up making only three-four paintings a year.” She has always understood scale in terms of her own physicality. “I have always wanted to be completely surrounded by art, to lose myself in it, to feel overwhelmed, like a child, in the presence of great art.” Of course, working in India in the 1990s meant negotiating with limited space, so her early works were not as large as they are now. “My journey has been gradual, holistic and, in a sense, entirely natural,” Kher admits.
But it must have been rather unsettling to move to India for good in the early 1990s, leaving behind her relatively sheltered life in England. “It was a huge culture shock,” Kher confesses. “I hadn’t planned my career at all. I came to India in 1992, my first visit since I was 4, met (the artist) Subodh (Gupta), we fell in love, got married, and then we had a choice of either going to Europe or staying here. And we chose to stay.”
India, in those days, was exciting. “You could be anything you wanted to be—artist, film-maker, journalist—you did not need an entry card, a degree or a friend to have a career. Of course, there were heavy bloodlines in Delhi, but Subodh and I were these ‘bastard types’ who came from outside, and managed to claim a space for ourselves.”
For the first 10 years, nobody paid them attention, Kher says with a laugh. “You had a lot of time to make really bad art, stay up all night, get drunk, think, read, practice, and most importantly, talk with your friends about everything under the sun. We used to sit in Lalit Kala Akademi and read four-five-year-old Artforum magazines. It was impossible to get any reading material from abroad back then as they invariably got stolen from the post office.”
Like all first-time visitors to India, Kher had a brief moment of inspiration when she decided to go backpacking but made it as far as the New Delhi Railway Station. “You got jostled, felt up, harassed. I realized I wasn’t tough enough to do this,” she recounts. “As the events of the past few weeks show us, even now women in India are yet to confidently own the space outside their homes.”
Kher’s own life at home revolves around her family, though she never ceases to work. “I am usually forced to go on a holiday,” she says, “but making art is not like any other job. I can give my children time because I don’t have to necessarily work out of an office. I carry my work in my head.”
When she encounters “artist’s block”, she walks around the studio, makes some sketches, tries to get the work to talk back to her. “Or go to the bar, perhaps!”
Before we take our leave, I ask her if happiness is inimical to making art. “God, no!” Kher exclaims. “Angst is a brutal place to be in. And what is happiness anyway? Can you know true happiness if you don’t know despair? But I must say it is an act of faith to wake up every morning and create things nobody may want to look at.”
Bind the Dream State to Your Waking Life is on at Gallery Nature Morte, A-1, Neeti Bagh (011-41740215), from 19 January-16 February, 10am-6pm (Sundays closed).