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The Lazarus effect

Five days before artist Sudarshan Shetty’s first show in Delhi in about a decade, Galleryske, a Bangalore transplant that opened in Connaught Place about seven weeks ago, is clangorous with industry. Hammers echo, though the source is indistinct. The sounds of metal and wood being thumped in this part of Connaught Place is ambient noise, a modernist soundtrack for the developing city.

Men are putting up what looks like a wall made from woodchip. There is a hybrid construction, a sort of “temple-hut" that also looks built from found wood. Close by is a three-panelled sculpture, half wood with their rough textured surface and half smooth and marble-like. There are words carved into the wood and from the other half a chair sticks out, again a found, broken object pieced together to make it new and strange.

Shetty’s show is titled Every Broken Moment, Piece by Piece. Titles matter to him more perhaps than to most artists. His most recent ones have a peculiar beauty, the arresting ring of poetry. Take his 2010 show at the Tilton Gallery in Manhattan, The More I Die the Lighter I Get; or the title of his show the following year at the Galerie Daniel Templon in Paris, Between the Teacup And a Sinking Constellation; and his show in Vienna the year after that called The Pieces Earth Took Away. I mention these three titles because Every Broken Moment... is a variation on the preoccupations expressed in those other shows, in those other titles, a preoccupation with decay and renewal.

The work on display at Galleryske is quieter than some of Shetty’s previous work. It isn’t as much of a spectacle as, say, the mechanical dinosaur humping a car in Love from 2006, maybe even lacks some of the wit, but it has a kind of mystery, a bathos. Art critic Ranjit Hoskote, who says in an email that he has known Shetty since the early 1990s, writes of his friend’s “formal and conceptual ability to counterbalance the aura of the monumental with the plangency of the intimate, the promise of stability with the risk of precariousness".

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The video installation ‘ Waiting For Others to Arrive’

Gayatri Sinha, the critic and curator, says in an email that Shetty is “probably the only contemporary artist who draws on the philosophic conflation of life and death, the banal and the awe inspiring, the quotidian and the theatrical." His “great achievement", Sinha adds, “is that his work looks beyond his own time and place, into the deeper, universal condition." She writes too of the viewer being amused, being titillated, even shocked, but ultimately “also led to question, to stop still with doubt or understanding".

In his new work, Shetty shows us that broken objects don’t have to stay broken. The break, the missing piece, may mean that the object cannot be reconstituted whole, but it can perhaps become something else. Porcelain is combined with wood, the wood carved to fit the contours of the missing porcelain. It is painstaking work and Shetty is quick to acknowledge the craftsmen with whom he collaborates. He says the use of wood and porcelain together is an example of how he “constantly tries to bring together polar opposites, to look at whether these opposites can be contained within a single space as mutually inclusive ideas".

Meaning in Shetty’s art is nebulous, malleable. It is a living thing, changing according to circumstance and interpretation. In the temple-hut for instance, the shrine, you walk in and find a distinctly irreverent thought—“God envies my mortality". Not dying, then, is its own kind of curse, preventing regeneration, preventing the creation of something new. As Hoskote notes, “Sudarshan’s art provokes us into questing for the location of whatever makes us most vulnerably human—where is the self or soul or spirit in a body that is part flesh and part machine, or, in (the philosopher Gilbert) Ryle’s phrase, the ghost in the machine?"

Flesh and machines, of course, break down. And Shetty’s work accounts for that fallibility. Hoskote talks of his fascination for Shetty’s “phantasmagoric gift for creating sculptures that functioned like giant toys with both the delight and horror these can induce". How those early sculptures, dating back to the mid-1990s, about a decade after Shetty left the Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai, reminded Hoskote of the poet Charles Baudelaire’s “beautiful essay on toys", in which he describes the child’s disappointment at discovering that his toys, once he has broken into them, have no soul. “A discovery", Hoskote writes, “that becomes the template for lifelong existential distress and disillusionment." It is a trope dear to Shetty and crucial to understanding his work.

That said, Shetty is not a particularly melancholic artist. He is not sentimental about loss; he is not nostalgic. When Mumbai’s beloved double-decker buses were being phased out a couple of years ago—Shetty has more or less lived his whole life in the city; his father, a Yakshagana theatre performer, moved to the city to find work—he made an extraordinarily popular piece of public art, recreating the bus whole in front of Maker Maxity in the Bandra Kurla Complex. He added a pair of stainless steel wings, fluid in the changing light, and within the bus he invited other artists to show their work. At once, a beloved relic about to be cast off was regenerated, revivified. It’s that prized Shetty ability, on show in more subdued form at Galleryske, to make the dead or dying sublime, to give objects grace.

Every Broken Moment, Piece By Piece, 11am-7pm (Tuesdays closed and Sundays by appointment ), is on till 2 March at Galleryske, First floor, Shivam House, 14-F, Middle Circle, Connaught Place, Delhi (65652724/25).

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