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Five (more) reasons to update your art

Five (more) reasons to update your art

Rohini Devasher, 31

Straddling science and art

When I visit her studio-in-residence in Noida, Rohini Devasher shows me her treasure box of dried flowers and seeds collected from across India and the UK. They have curious country names such as “love in a mist" and “eye of the devil". The photorealistic art they inspire is even more curious, with multi-hued biomorphic shapes that look beautiful and grotesque, both at once.

Photo: Priyanka Parashar / Mint

In her art practice, Devasher straddles science and art. Among her influences are the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and the science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke. These days, she is adding on to her 2009 Bloodlines project, to be presented by Mumbai gallery Project 88 at the Hong Kong International Art Fair in May (prints priced at Rs2.5-3 lakh each).

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The delightful snowflake-like forms that stream on her Mac screen are generated from video feedback, a technique that was a favourite of the psychedelic art scene in New York City in the 1960s. Using software, Devasher layers and stacks these video feedback visuals. And then, inspired by a Java applet that Dawkins created to study genetics, she lets these visuals “breed" and produce progeny.

Biomorphs: Devasher’s 2007 Hybrid-I, archival pigment print and colour pencil.

Devasher has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Delhi College of Art and a master’s degree in printmaking from the Winchester School of Art in the UK, which she acquired in 2004. Her training in printmaking is evident in her work, deeply entrenched as it is in multiplication and repetition.

She talks with much enthusiasm, using technical jargon that is hard to keep up with. She believes that form emerges from chaos. In keeping with this belief, she is prolific in her production. What she ultimately shows is a careful selection though, a fact that curator Sree Goswami from Project 88 doesn’t fail to point out. In the last six years, Devasher has participated in around 10 group shows. But she has had only one solo till now—at Project 88 in March last year. “You have to be careful who you show with," Devasher observes, suddenly assuming a seriousness befitting the scholar who seems to lurk behind the artist’s work.

Devasher is empirical in her methodology. “Let’s see how this turns out" is something she tells herself a dozen times in a day. For her debut solo show last year, she wanted to see if she could do something sculptural with drawing. The result was a large wall drawing which extended from floor to ceiling, done over the course of 10 days directly on the wall surface.

She is currently an active member of the Delhi-based Khoj International Artists’ Association which promotes experimental art and international exchange among artists and, over the last decade, has increasingly promoted some of the best emerging art talent in the country. She has been working there part-time ever since she attended their residency programme in 2007. Her work involves administration and helping artists with grants. It was here that she met Goswami. “She’d come looking for emerging talent and I’d slipped her my digital portfolio," she says. This chance meeting gave Goswami one of her favourite artists. She has since then exhibited Devasher’s work at the Hong Kong art fair in 2008 as well as at the India Art Summit in 2009.

Devasher is presently under the associate fellowship of the “City as Studio" initiative of the Sarai Programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Delhi. For this, she is investigating a community of eclipse chasers. This is another feather in her cap: The artist has been a member of Delhi’s Amateur Astronomers Association for the last 11 years. When she joined, she thought it might be the closest thing to a science fiction convention in the city. She strikes a balance between the two worlds, cheerfully commenting, “Now that I’m an artist, I can let out my inner geek."

Sandip Pisalkar, 32

Interactive sculptures

The wheels of a 19th century bullock cart form the tail of a 21st century motorbike. The resulting vehicle—fully functional—is called Pushpak after the mythical chariot of the Hindu demon-god Ravana. This 2008 sculpture is one of Sandip Pisalkar’s most representative works, appropriating ancient motifs to contemporary usage, blending history with high-tech.

High-tech history: The Paduka (left) is an example of the artist’s technique of meshing historical objects with modern technology. Ramesh Dave / Mint

Born and brought up in the district of Yavatmal in Maharashtra, Pisalkar has an impressive art school pedigree: a bachelor’s degree from Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art and a master’s in fine arts from MS University in Vadodara.

He bagged the Fica Emerging Artist Award and the Bodhi Art Award barely out of art school in 2008. In the same year, he was selected to be part of Khoj Peers, instituted by the Khoj International Artists’ Association.

The prolific young artist presently works in a studio in Vadodara and is preparing for his debut solo at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery in August.

Pisalkar’s studio has more in common with a mechanic’s workshop: automobile parts, antique objects and welding irons lie strewn. A visit to his studio these days will reveal a hand-drawn rickshaw culled from the bylanes of Kolkata. This is the centrepiece of his forthcoming show. Pisalkar is reworking the inhuman contraption to make it passenger propelled, subverting its original context and turning its associations with exploitation on its head.

His works simultaneously startle and confuse. Visual references remain intact while the context of his found object gets reinvented. A glance even at his brief oeuvre reveals a progression. Some of his early creations were Paduka (2007), antique slippers he found in a temple at Yavatmal and styled with circuit boards; and Charkha (2007), made with an old, worm-pitted wooden frame strung with a neon light thread. From these purely sculptural works, Pisalkar moved to interactivity with Toph (2007), an installation that urged viewers to put their ears to the cannon’s tube to hear recorded war sound bites. More recently, he has added a layer of social function to his work with Human Enemy Killer (HEK), which was exhibited through March at a group show, Let’s Talk, at Delhi’s Exhibit 320 gallery (works priced at around Rs5 lakh). The HEK is a motorbike fitted with an insecticide dispenser. Pisalkar even rode the HEK around slums in Delhi to document the reactions of slum dwellers.

Over the phone from Vadodara, Pisalkar speaks rapidly, explaining each of his projects in great detail. But there is a quiet assurance in his tone: “I want to keep working along these lines till I’ve refined my language," he says, in an articulate mish-mash of Hindi and English.

Latika Gupta, curator at Khoj, had chosen Pisalkar’s work for their 10th anniversary exhibition during his residency. She recalls how striking his works were. “It was amazing that he’d never worked with video before but wasn’t afraid to take a leap of faith with only a few weeks to go," she says, referring to a seven-piece video installation called Broom for which Pisalkar created an elaborate fabric duster and travelled to seven places of worship, documenting the ritualistic cleansing of these places with his piece of art. “He is extremely original."

Hemali Bhuta, 32

Spatial and material manipulation

In her 2008 installation The Shedding, a dense forest gets denuded: Horsehair cleaning brushes are strung in a way that makes them look like shedding hair. A 2009 response to this installation is called The Growing. It represents growing back into a thick forest. But the form is different: It was hair then and it is incense sticks now.

Those who haven’t confronted Hemali Bhuta’s art in person can only imagine the spectacular scale of her installations—the dread induced by uncomely horsehair brushes, the pleasure of walking into a room filled with incense. In her debut solo show, The Hangover of Agarlum, at Project 88 in January (works priced up to Rs1.5 lakh), visitors were standing under 35,000 candlesticks suspended from the gallery’s ceiling. They looked like stalactites. Bhuta, it seems, has already achieved mastery in using unique materials. Wax, alum, soap and rubber are of particular interest to her. With these mundane materials, she reacts to spaces, creating experiences that overwhelm the viewer. The organized advancement of her art practice—the way she responds to and builds upon her own work—mirrors her education. Bhuta first studied interior design at Mumbai’s Sophia College, finishing in 1997. She then went on to study fine arts at the LS Raheja School of Art, before finally acquiring a master’s degree from MS University in Vadodara in 2009.

Deception: In 2009, Bhuta made artificial wasp homes with clay and incense powder.

Over Skype from the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California, US, where she is currently attending a two-month residency, Bhuta says she believes in “lateral growth". “I believe in progressing slowly and horizontally," she explains.

Bhuta’s work has stretched to include incense paste moulded to look like excreta, cactus fashioned to look like tulsi (a variety of basil held sacred by Hindus). She has made artificial wasp homes with clay and incense powder in public toilets. She has modified her living quarters and studio in every residence she has been to. The bathroom of her apartment in Saratoga has become the canvas for her latest work. Inspired by the mineral-rich algae in the springs of this Californian city, Bhuta is creating an installation of algae with coloured soap. “I wanted to bring some of the colour from the outside into the inside," she says, adding that one of her goals was to comment on how the city exploits its algae-rich springs for tourism.

The philosophy underlying Bhuta’s work is invariably deep but she understates her concerns by adopting a minimalist approach, forcing the viewer to scratch beneath the surface. Curator Gitanjali Dang, who has worked with Bhuta on two shows, believes that Bhuta gives minimalism a successful spin. She particularly cherishes The Movement (2007). “What started as a site-specific installation of rubber bands, threads and some breeze, transformed into a mesmerizing video and finally into some lovely photographs," says Dang. Art collector Swapan Seth, who bought one of the three works on display at The Hangover of Agarlum—a 200kg alum bucket—has several reasons to believe that Bhuta is one of the most promising artists today. He likes the fact that she is not too prolific and that she edits her own work tightly. “She comes up with these brilliant works, well-spaced and well-timed. There is really no one else doing what she is doing today," he says.

Bhuta is married to another up-and-coming artist, Shreyas Karle, who has also been awarded the Montalvo residency along with her. Being married to an artist highlights another aspect of Bhuta’s artistic approach: Her commitment to art goes beyond the studio. She breathes her art, making it a part of her living space. Likewise, the audience that experiences her art is haunted for days to come.

Charmi Gada Shah, 30

Architectural pasts

Nostalgia is the raw material for her art. In Relative VisA, a 2009 show at Mumbai’s Bodhi Art Gallery, Charmi Gada Shah displayed photographs of the facade of a partially demolished building she had come across in the small town of Miraj in Maharashtra. In her prints, the original facade had been juxtaposed with a miniature model of the building that she had made—brick, concrete and all—working in elements she had reimagined through conversations with the original inhabitants of the space. This visual trickery played with notions of memory, destruction and conservation.

Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint

This is the essence of Shah’s work: She reconstructs lost spaces with scale models, paints staircases and windows that once existed on renovated building structures. Chipped wallpaint, dented walls, broken bridges hold great significance for her. She is a poet, talking about how structures that are removed leave traces; the romance between inanimate things that once lived together.

Through February and March, Shah had her works shown in Mumbai at Gallery BMB’s massive group show, Her Work is Never Done (the works were priced between Rs2-4 lakh), and she is presently working for another show at the same gallery, which is to be held sometime next year. Artist Bose Krishnamachari, who curated the show, believes Shah is one of the most conceptually strong and sincere artists among the current crop of young artists. “She is aware of the world around her," says Krishnamachari, who first met her in 2005 when she came to his studio to show him her work.

Tricking memory: A photo of Shah’s miniature model at Relative VisA in 2009.

After graduating from the LS Raheja School of Art in Mumbai in 2002, Shah studied fine arts at the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London. Since her return to India in 2004, she has been living and working in Mumbai.

There is an astonishing precision to her methodology. Shah’s day begins at 7am, she devotes 8-9 hours to her work, following it up with sitar lessons in the evening.

Her work evokes the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark, who is best known for his 1970s’ site-specific works. Matta-Clark was famous for his “building cuts", a series of works in abandoned buildings in which he removed sections of floors, ceilings and walls. Shah, who acknowledges him as one of her favourites, works the other way around—reconstructing lost architectural traces instead.

One of her typical works is the 2008 Koder House project. It started with researching the architectural restoration of the heritage Koder house; home for nearly a century to the Koders, a Jewish family in Kochi. Today, this edifice has been converted into three hotels. Shah’s project was to study how these hotels were once connected. “What memory or traces are left behind when something is erased?" she asked, as she discovered marks of violence on the common walls of the building; attempts to remove door and window frames. She investigated by looking at old photographs and created a visual memory of the house by drawing sketches on the walls of the hotels.

When we speak, Shah is in her apartment in Ghatkopar in Mumbai. She is disturbed by the demolition and construction work going on in her relatively old neighbourhood. But her interest in what she calls “non-spectacular spaces" prompts her to be inquisitive. Recently, during a random site visit, Shah came across a bathroom that had a peepul tree growing right through it. It will be broken down soon. But before that happens, Shah would have made a model of it for posterity.

Shine Shivan, 27

Soul-searching gender issues

In what was christened as one of the most striking debuts in the recent past, Faridabad-based artist Shine Shivan overwhelmed viewers with a sense of shock and wonderment at his solo show, Sperm Weaver, which ran through December and January in Mumbai’s Gallery Maskara (the sculptures were priced between Rs1.75-6 lakh).

Sexual subtext: Shivan’s Rape of Ganymede is made with taxidermied eagle and crane wings. Photo: David De Souza

There was, among other sculptural installations, the Rape of Ganymede (2009), made with taxidermied eagle and crane wings, semi-precious stones and fabric. The piece was a throwback to the Greek myth of Zeus abducting the beautiful shepherd boy Ganymede. It highlighted the complexities of the gay male identity. The eagle wings represented independence, pride, resilience and physical strength—all traditional attributes of masculinity. The crane wings signified the diffident, emasculated identity of the stereotypical gay male. Using wings as a representation, his installation depicted the dominant male triumphantly penetrating through his more effeminate partner. Evoking this theme was ambitious by all counts, considering the Rape of Ganymede has been covered by masters such as Michelangelo and Rembrandt.

Another installation, Used Dicks, was based on an exploration of the nest-weaving habits of the Baya Weaver bird. Although weaving is socially viewed as a feminine act, in the case of the Baya Weaver bird these roles are reversed. The male Baya Weaver weaves the “cockswing"-shaped nests that Shivan recreated. He used Baya Weaver nests, grass, coconut, cotton thread and human hair—his mother’s hair.

Like these works, all of Shivan’s creations are semi-autobiographical excavations of the nature of masculinity. He redefines psychological tropes attached to gender. His methodology is deeply personal—a fact that renders an authenticity to his works while posing a threat at the same time.

He employs a range of materials: animal bones, used fabric, seeds and leaves that he collects on random strolls. Those who have observed him at close quarters, such as Natasha Ginwala, who was a critic-in-residence with Shivan at Khoj in 2009, speak of how committed he is to these objects. “He will collect and preserve things that fascinate him for years," Ginwala says. Shivan explains how he only injects these objects into his art once they assume a special significance for him. “I don’t jump into things. I’d been seeing these Baya Weaver nests for 10 years before I decided to do something with them," he says.

Shivan has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Delhi College of Art and a 2008 master’s in visual arts from Dr BR Ambedkar University in Agra.

Shivan shifts between performance, new media, photography and sculpture, though presently he is most interested in exploring the performative aspect of his work and intends to weave in his training in Bharatanatyam to add to his performances. He is presently working on another solo for Gallery Maskara to be held later this year or in early 2011.

Shivan’s art suggests the instability of gender, implying that it can always be subverted by practices such as drag and cross-dressing. It is here that his interest in high fashion comes through. He admits to being highly influenced by designers such as Alexander McQueen and John Galliano.

Speaking with him, one would know instantly that he is a compulsive multitasker. Although he is almost childlike in narrating his ideas, his sculptures are extremely sound technically. Take Psycho Phallus for instance, an 11ft structure made from cow dung, grass and wood resembling the bitora (used for storing cow dung in north India).

One reason Sperm Weaver made waves is because Shivan is exceptionally young. It came about by happenstance. On a visit to Mumbai in early 2009, he had stopped by Gallery Maskara and left the curator Abhay Maskara a note along with a CD of his works. “Many young artists come by the studio but I was especially touched by that note," recalls Maskara, who even went down to Faridabad to meet the artist.

What the curator values in Shivan’s art practice is his original visual language. “I work intuitively and I believe that art, no matter how complex it is, has to first grab me at a visual level," Maskara says, explaining why he signed on Shivan. “Another thing I value is how connected the artist is to his work. Shivan’s art comes from his very core."

The way this worked

The contemporary art scene in India is bubbling over with emerging talent. In September 2007, we gave you “Five reasons to update your art" (by Sanjukta Sharma). The artists featured were Alwar Balasubramaniam, Jagannath Panda, Chintan Upadhyay, Shilpa Gupta and Riyas Komu. Three years later, we interviewed 20 art world pundits once again—critics, gallerists, curators, auction house representatives and collectors.

This time around, our interviewees threw up a younger and lesser-exposed bunch (the average age is 30 as opposed to 35 in 2007). The definition of an “emerging artist" might have changed but our idea remains to introduce our readers to young artists who’ve achieved critical acclaim and are on their way to commercial success.


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