Two of India's most interesting artists show medium is not the message

  • Manjula Narayan, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 08, 2015 17:08 IST

We are in Bharti Kher's large Gurgaon studio that's stuffed full of objects - monumental sculptures stand alongside hundreds of little painted terracotta dolls from Tamil Nadu, mannequins, a profusion of delicate antique china tea sets, an ancient stapling machine - and after Sanjiv, the HT photographer, clicks two of India's most interesting artists, we settle down to a conversation that was intended to be about art but ended up being a discussion on choice and how that leads individuals down distinct intellectual pathways.

Bharti Kher (left) with Dayanita Singh

Dayanita Singh: Let's talk about one aspect of our work. Like, what is the most urgent aspect of your work right now? I would talk about dissemination and the book. What would it be for you?

Bharti Kher: I work with so many different things at one time. I never focus on one thing. Like you see the studio - there are nine projects going on!

DS: That's interesting. We have two completely different ways of working.

BK: Yeah, you get into one idea and go completely OCD about it. I am so fickle. Upstairs I'm doing a project right now; I have no idea what it is. It looks like something that somebody else has made. I don't know why I create these forms but they sit for a long time. Then they sort of reveal themselves.

DS: I could say the same about my photographs because they sit in my contact sheets and I always think there should be two dates because there's a time when you make it and there's a time when the photograph…

BK: Is ready…

DS: is realized and reveals itself. That's what happened with Museum of Chance. Those are images made over 30 years but they only revealed themselves now.

BK: You're taking from an archive; you're taking from your experience.

DS: Yes, but I'm also building up the archive at the same time with the same obssesiveness so if its machines that are going around in my head, I come to your studio and I can immediately spot the machine that I want to come back for!

BK: I think that what artists do is that they make libraries; you create your experiences; you make your spaces, and then you just build. It's like making languages, your creating a language. Because the point is not to speak actually, the point really is that if you experience a work, a sculpture like you saw the piece at the fair... You come to the work with your own experience. It's like you saying about Mother and Child, 'I felt like my sons had cannibalized me'. It's a very profound thing to say. When I knew I was having a son, I kept saying my God, I am the perfect hermaphrodite - I am a man and a woman at this point in my life and I will never be a man and a woman again. Men can never be women. We can be a man at one point if we carry a child which is a son and you feel it in your body. It's a very strange connection.

DS: We're not as different as we thought. When you come to see the Museum of Chance, for example, you have to bring your reading to it and all that I am doing is presenting, I am making my work but I'm aware that if someone were to read it I want to give clues. I don't ever want to tell you the full story. You read it one way. I think that is what one hopes with the work that one does; that people will bring their own readings to it. Otherwise, one can write a paragraph and say this is what I wanted to do. If I could actually put in words everything that I hope Museum of Chance will do, then why make the work?

BK: Most artists are actually doing the same things. They do work because it stops them from going into the madness maybe. It's like catharsis in some way. I think you just make because you want to. Basically, art is about deception. I show you, I give you something which constantly shifts between elements of what you know and elements of what you think is true, and the fact that I'm lying to you because I'm creating, I create this narrative for you which doesn't exist. Certainly, in terms of my own work I'm not interested in making things that you know about or that you understand or that you experience. So it's not real.

DS: That's amazing what you're describing!

BK: I'm interested in what you do as a photographer because you create narratives around what the photograph is; but that photograph is the reality of that person doing that thing. The difference with me is that I don't make any reality. It's all about things that I don't know about. So I'm not interested in the things that I know or I hear or I see. It's all about what I don't know.

DS: It's not that different because one takes that reality and makes fiction out of it. One of the ways of making fiction is to take away. So the more you take out of the frame, the richer the frame becomes… if you're talking about photography. But what you're describing earlier is exactly Go Away Closer. Because you want someone, you want to pull them into your work. But at the same time, you're also pushing them away because they don't get it immediately. And so people sometimes get frustrated or annoyed because they want to read 10.53 I think it's more with photography because they're not used to exercising rigour in their thinking as they would with sculpture because they know that sculpture is to read elsewhere; that it's not directly connected to what is in the object.
But it's no more about the image; it's no more about the photograph; I'm no more a photographer; it's gone beyond that now. The photograph is just my raw material.

BK: You're not a photographer; you're an artist.

DS: So my library that you spoke about, that we all have, is the material. The archive is the material but what forms it takes on keep changing whether it's the book or the museums or projections. Hopefully, it'll always keep changing.

BK: The medium is not the message, huh? It never has been. For most artists, it's not; you just do. You find the material to work through the idea that you have. Art is about ideas and so this is your job. Your job is to literally make ideas and so then see them true.

DS: And so where do you get those ideas?

BK: Through my practice. It's like an ongoing process. I see the same threads that are coming from my wok since the early 1990s when I was in school making paintings. At that time, maybe you're not so literate, you're not so aware of how you're actually creating and conceptualizing, or you don't even know what your ideas are necessarily and I think sometimes there's a very strong over emphasis about the intellectual thought process of how artists actually arrive. All of it is extremely intuitive.

DS: But I think the ideas for me come very much from conversations, from literature, and from music. So now I'm obsessed with TM Krishna's voice so I'll definitely go to Chennai for all the sabhas in December. It's not because I'm going to suddenly become a singer or learn singing, but I just I feel there is something there, something that is drawing me and I now have the confidence to trust it completely, to book myself into a hotel for two months and say to TM Krishna, 'I just want to be in your space, I want to travel with you'. Not because I'm going to necessarily photograph him but I can feel that there is a great conversation there. The reason being a soloist is important to me is because I want to be able to drop everything. When I hear that hint of a conversation, I would go anywhere in the world for it.

BK: See I wouldn't…

DS: Yes and that's perhaps one difference.

BK: I come here (to the studio) every day; I wouldn't break this for anything. This is my room. Where is the space that you create for yourself? It can be in your head; it could be a physical space; it could be the space that you make conversations; it could be so many places -- for me, it's my studio, this is my room; this is the place I come to.

DS: My room is in my head and so that travels with me wherever I go.

BK: You've got wheels under your feet, yeah.

DS: And chance, to be open to chance! So if you tell me that there is this man making lithographs somewhere in Russia and that you think I should go and try the posters with, I'll go. And when I go there, that may not happen at all; I may not meet the guy. No, to me being a soloist is very much about being open, open all the time and to equip your life in such a way that you can follow through on that. My work feeds off that; your work feeds off your presence here.

Manjula Narayan: I'm thinking what about things like family?

BK: For me, it certainly defines how I live and how I've chosen to live. Why do I come to the studio and go home every day? Because I have two kids, right? Family plays a massive role in how you live; on what you do and your practice. Maybe, in three-four years when your kids get big, maybe I'll get wheels under my feet and I'm going to start running around. So far, this works for me. Also my practice has been very busy for the past 10 years. I have a lot of deadlines and I have a lot of exhibitions and I have a lot of things to finish. So, in one year, I can be doing four or five projects and that's a lot.

DS: I really admire this. I cannot do that.

BK: I can't concentrate. I do lots of things. I always say that my studio is like this big kitchen with 10 pots on the go. I'm making some stew and I'm baking a cake and I'm getting the party ready and I'm making the sandwiches and I'm making something else and everything's at different levels of cooking and I don't know when it's going to be ready.

MN: And nothing ever gets burnt?

BK: I destroy a lot of work; I reject a lot of things. There was a time when it was a problem. Making art is really expensive; materials are very expensive. And so there would be a time when you were so precious about your material, especially. To have a room of one's own is not just having a space; to have a room of one's own is about your independence as a woman as well and I think that's a really fundamental part of the idea.

DS: I don't need a physical room. Freedom is the biggest luxury. But I can't bear deadlines. It's completely the opposite for me. It has to be something organic. So I don't tell people what I'm working on because I don't want any voices coming in. I feel my work needs a long gestation period from when I've made it to when I show it.

BK: I think the most important thing for anyone to do is to realize the project. That is why I set myself so many deadlines and I say 'yes' to almost everything if I like a project. 'Will you do it?' I always say yes. I've been saying yes for so many years that this year I'm actually going to say no to everything. So this is the first year in 10 years that I have no project.

DS: But it's so important to take a sabbatical.

BK: I don't have to, though.

MN: If you don't take a sabbatical how will you think?

BK: I have four brains!

DS: No, no, I need complete sabbatical. It's like getting to zero. Going to another place like Japan will help; the books one reads, the music one listens to, and then to start. It's very important to have an open slate, so no to everything, no commitments this year, nothing!

MN: That's almost sort of ritualistic.

DS: Absolutely, which I need and that's where I get my sustenance from.

BK: You're such a grown up!

DS: Like a grown up? I thought like a child!

BK: I'm like a highly wound up clock that keeps ticking faster than a second… My clock's really wound up. This year, I'm learning to slow my clock down.

DS: No, we have to do that because otherwise one goes crazy. After my books, I have to just calm down now because you start dreaming about them. And then there's no separation between your awake life and your sleeping life.

BK: You dream?

DS: I dream about my book objects these days constantly. Now I just have to go away because otherwise you go crazy.

BK: I don't dream you see.

MN: You don't dream? You don't remember your dreams.

BK: I don't remember my dreams.

DS: My mother says I'm like a soldier who marches in their sleep. This is perhaps the big difference between having family and being a soloist. You don't stop and that, I'm sure, can be quite damaging.

BK: Darling, if you're a mother, you don't stop either.

DS: No, no, no! But you have to stop your work, no? You have to give time to your children; you have to.

BK: Yeah. I think you also become a very good manager of time. Like, you actually learn how to do that when you have a baby. When I used to go to the studio for one-and-a-half hours, then turn around and go back home and feed her and then go to the studio again. It was like a discipline. Also, if you're sitting with your child, you have to focus.

DS: Yeah, that's why I don't have children, and I don't have plants and I don't have pets.
BK: Yeah, I have all three.

MN: Talk about the kind of ideas that attract you.

BK: I'm going to make a whole series of work this year like Mother and Child. I'm making this new body of work and it's all mother and child. Someone asked me, your son is 17 and your daughter is 11, how strange that you suddenly decide to do this. And I said, 'It's called perspective.' Like, you can actually go back and look at this idea. Also the idea of femininity and what it means; your sexuality as the body ages… It's all these other things -- when you've had a baby, you're a bloody milky cow that one year and nobody really understands. Your brain is in your tits and people sort of go, 'Where are you?' You meet any mother with a baby that's two months old and they can't have a conversation about anything, their brains simply don't function. It's very strange but it's also beautiful. A woman's body is constantly changing; you are constantly transforming yourself. We're like plants actually; we really are like organic forms. I think that even just the psychosis of being a woman is really interesting.

My son saw that piece (Mother and Child) when he came to the studio. I said "Ma beta hai." He looked at me and said, "It's a bit violent, isn't it?' and I looked at him and said, 'It's not really about you and me; it's about the boys that we are making; these boys that we have, as women, created in this culture in the past 30 or 40 years. Who are they and why aren't we taking responsibility as mothers because we make our sons. I totally believe that mothers make their sons. Why have we created these monsters, who are they? And at that point, he went 'Yeah, that's really smart.' That for me was the best compliment I got from anyone.

DS: That's a lot of work! Something has shifted and I woke up on the first of January in a house full of friends from New York and I thought what do I really want? Is work going to be everything? Then I said, actually, it's conversation and friendship. So then I started researching friendships and wanting to photograph friends. What I'm going to do for the next year or two is that I'm going to go back to all the people I photographed, all -- the mothers who've become grandmothers, the little girls who've become young women, the little boys who've become young men, and just see where everybody is because it's really about Time. And to allow that to happen in a way, to go back to and make something for each of those children and give it to them and that way I will deposit a little bit of my archive as well in these homes. But when I make something for all these people, who allowed me into their lives so many years ago, whether that becomes a show or not is not the point. This year seems to be about reconnecting and friendships, however trite that might sound. At the end of 53 years, I think it's really about friendships and conversations.

MN: Talk about being a soloist and consciously avoiding family because you don't want your brain to be mush! Because that's a big challenge, no?

DS: I think being single at some level is a choice. I chose at age 18 to be single and I chose photography because I thought it would allow me to be the soloist I wanted to be.

MN: Why did you think that?

DS: Because at that time I didn't know any women in photography so I could make up make up my own rules. So I would say to relatives, "I would love to get married but I'm a photographer; and I'd love to have children but I'm a photographer" and they believed me! But to me the goal was not photography or artist, the goal was freedom. I wanted complete freedom from all social expectations at that time. Today, it would not be like that… but in the mid 1980s…

BK: But what is this soloist thing?

DS: A soloist is someone who doesn't want to be in a couple situation; who wants to be on their own and that's where we are in completely different places. I don't like the word 'single' because it somehow means that you could have been a couple. I came up with 'soloist' because I didn't like saying to people that I was single because there's sort of an expression on their faces when you say that. I think it is a choice that you make and it's great if you know it. I think lots of my friends didn't realise it and then they got married when they were essentially soloists. But they didn't get divorced because then you get into a habit.

MN: Do you think that choice has helped you to be more contemplative in your work?

DS: It's allowed me to focus on my work very much because I'm 100 percent concentrated on that one thing. Maybe I'm autistic. So if there is a relationship or whenever there has been a relationship, then that becomes the focus…

BK: Why?

DS: That's the way I am. So it suits me very well to be a soloist. There was a time when I tried to deviate from that decision and it just didn't happen. You know it's not about who decided; it doesn't matter because I think it was just not meant to be because that's not what I really wanted.

BK: I hear what you're saying but I also don't think it's such an issue. I just think that you are born to interact and you can be alone and you can not be with somebody else and you can find space even if you're living with someone.

DS: It's not an issue for you because you are in a situation which is the more accepted situation. Being a soloist is not an accepted situation so it is an issue for me.

BK: Maybe this is really a cultural thing, which is why I don't understand it. I was brought up in Europe, I didn't have to marry anyone. If I wanted to live with someone for 10 years, that was okay too. My parents divorced when we were both five and they both married English people and everyone has their life and my brother was not married and was in a relationship for 20 years. It is very different for people in India, yes. To be a single woman in India must be an extraordinary challenge.

DS: It's a huge thing. I'm very, very lucky because I've been able to make my life such that it's not such a big issue because I'm economically completely independent. That choice that I've made has been very important to the work that I've made and will continue to be really important to the kind of artist that I am. I couldn't be with anybody. I just had to be free all the time to follow the path that reveals itself.

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