Rahul Kumar: Experiments with scale
Artist Rahul Kumar plays with dualities in his massive ceramic installation
Like sand dunes, the markings on the 101 pieces comprising circle uncircled… seem to shift. Look closely at the individual platters, and fantastical shapes peek out: Fossilized schools of fish give way to unresisting plankton being swept away by the current. A gorge cuts through the ochre glaze of a ceramic plate, staining the resulting troughs deep amber. Many of these handmade plates bear lines and swirls that have a hieroglyphic quality.
Now, step back to take in the entire 24x10ft ceramic installation by Rahul Kumar: It looks like a tiny solar system with a huge tangerine sun at its centre.
To Kumar, who received a Fulbright Scholarship in 2007 to study art at the University of Dallas, Texas, in the US and the Charles Wallace award to research in the UK in 2013, this dichotomy between seeing the work as a whole and looking closely to take in its details is central. It is part of his design to try and increase the duration for which a viewer stands before his work, which was shaped, fired and glazed painstakingly over 18 months.
Circle uncircled… will be on show in the Capital from 29 January-1 February, as part of the Artist Projects section at the India Art Fair. The 22 projects in this segment have been curated by Girish Shahane, who has joined the fair as its first artistic director this year.
Kumar’s installation began as an experiment in 2013, when Kumar received an “extending arts practice” grant from the Bengaluru-based non-profit, India Foundation for the Arts (IFA). He wanted to try and build large platters.
It was a technological challenge, and most frustrating in the early days. Fissures could appear at any stage of the process.
The IFA acknowledged while giving the grant that it would be a challenge for Kumar to even find a kiln large enough to fire plates of the dimensions he had in mind.
During the grant period, plates that survived Kumar’s sometimes cautious, sometimes bold attempts to persuade the clay into desired shapes and sizes on the pottery wheel would often break in the furnace or not survive the tedious process of colouring with the glassy, smooth glaze.
Experimenting with scale was important to Kumar at this juncture, however. His previous exhibition, Astronomically Small, comprised tiny pots—some 2x2 inches. His Tranquil Flames series too was a collection of miniature pots, with a maximum height of 3 inches. It had been a mammoth challenge to pour his artistic narrative into objects that would fit easily into a child’s palm. Now he ached to create something humongous, something that refused to be contained and climbed up, taking up an entire wall at the godown space of Gallerie Alternatives, which is supporting Kumar’s installation at the art fair and where we previewed the work. “I am constantly looking to challenge myself, to stretch my boundaries as an artist,” says Kumar.
“Scale is important in contemporary art in general,” says Shahane. “At the Kochi Biennale, which is on right now, there are a number of significant large-scale works by artists such as Bharti Kher, Sahej Rahel and N.S. Harsha. In the last edition, we had Vivan Sundaram, Subodh Gupta and L.N. Tallur produce interesting large-scale works.”
At the gallery godown in Gurgaon, ahead of the art fair, the platters in ochre yellow, cobalt blue, and shades of green, ranging from sea green to teal, are arranged in no apparent pattern. But make no mistake, they follow their own logic. “If you shift one piece, everything around it will have to move to reach equilibrium again,” says Kumar. The resulting fluidity is arresting.
In the midst of the installation, the brilliant orange sun—the largest platter, 3ft in diameter—commands attention. Its edges are upturned, like those of many other plates. The rims have a functional, as well as artistic, purpose. They lend stability to the structure, and their tactility makes them irresistible: You’ll want to reach out and hold them.