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Artist Bharti Kher reconfigures the idea of the body

In her latest show, ‘Strange Attractors’, the artist responds to the way a body moves through life and its multiple experiences, both personal and political

‘Crushed Breathless’, (2018), wax, metal. Courtesy of the artist and Nature Morte
‘Crushed Breathless’, (2018), wax, metal. Courtesy of the artist and Nature Morte

In the exhibition, Strange Attractors, at Nature Morte, one can see artist Bharti Kher’s long-standing engagement with hybrid forms— half-female forms, in-between spaces— in works such as Animus Mundi (2018). In Cloak for MM (2018) and Benazir (2021), she brings this together with the sari, a sign of feminine identity in India. In the past too, she has engaged with such markers like the bindi and bangles to make strong statements. In The Deaf Room (2010-12), for instance, she had used 10 tons of melted bangles to build a room of glass bricks. Kher had drawn on the memory of an image of a burnt out house, where a broken bangle could be seen as the sole witness to the violence of the Gujarat riots.

True to her style, she has been recontextualising ‘everyday’ materials such as these to make the invisible in our lives visible. The eight works on display relate particularly to the body in multiple manifestations. “Bodies, human, magical, and animal, are present, reconfigured, hidden, compressed, and extrapolated. Where in the past we would have interpreted these strategies of collage and juxtaposition as having a Surrealist pedigree, today they appear as something similar to Realism. The works are Kher’s responses to how we move through life and its multiple experiences, both personal and political,” mentions the curatorial note. 

The works on display were made between 2017 and 2021. Kher usually ruminates over materials, found objects, and works-in-progress in her studio for many years, allowing their final avatars to coalesce at their own pace. In an interview with Lounge, she talks about the influence of Chaos Theory on her work and choosing these particular works for the show. Edited excerpts:

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How do the material, object and the artist enter into a conversation with one another in these works? How did a concept from Chaos Theory inspire the title of this particular show?

The unity of opposites in nature is what makes each entity auto-dynamic, and provides constant motivation for movement and change. These works describe states of flux, where chaos seems to be a tipping point at any point of time. Yet there is always counterbalance and stability in what surrounds us in our lives. There is beauty in disorder and all opposites confront each other, both in the physicality of the work and the objects in balance. In these balance pieces, objects produce a tension of opposites, without which no forward movement is possible. One object is on top and its shadow underneath, and just as high seeks low and hot seeks cold, all matter seeks its unconscious opposite.

‘Animus Mundi’, (2018), sari, resin, metal. Courtesy of the artist and Nature Morte.
‘Animus Mundi’, (2018), sari, resin, metal. Courtesy of the artist and Nature Morte.

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There is a familiarity of material and imagery—the bindi and the morphed animals—and yet there is a departure in the way you are using them now. If you could talk about this change and recontextualisation?

The bindi has always been a representation, a sign for me. It’s a language I have invented and developed over time. I practice it to make sense of and question my own ideas. How was it that I was creating a skin for an animal or surface using a mirror or a board? What was I doing with this surface, was I making it intoxicating? And if we take the word ‘intoxicating’; it could be both uplifting and noxious or hallucinatory in some way. So, using ideas that could work both visually as well as philosophically, I was able to make works that spoke about the journeys of the body and also felt like the internal workings of the body. The mirrors are now sculptures leaning against the wall and this somehow makes the work move a step forward. The work grows organically, one step at a time.

You have often called your hybrid works, and those centred around the body, as mystical — but in a primal in a way. Could you talk about ideas of the body that you explore in this exhibition?

Take Pieta, for instance, which shows the body from inside of a mother. It is cast from life. I have broken it to re-enter the body of my mother as when I was a child. The idea is ‘going in and being let out’. In Strange Attractor, I look at the possibility of the body as a shaman, with the skin or power of another. It is at the entrance of the show to summon visitors in. The animal stands as a metaphor for things we don’t know. Cloak for MM is about the concealed body — to be made invisible, shielded, magical. There is a natural unity of the opposites, the space around the body, and all things in balance in both the outer and inner worlds. In Animus Mundi, one can see she, who is connected to all living things as the vital force of the world. She has both animal and human energy, and is a friend to the Strange Attractor.

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It’s almost as if you are looking at the skin memories of materials such as plaster. How do they go on to represent the vulnerability of the body?

Casting is a strange and cathartic process. When you caress the skin and rub the plaster gently over and over so as all the pores and creases are etched and filled with plaster, it's like encasing and mummifying a living being. You are trying to capture their breath, to find the imprint of their minds and thoughts and the secrets of the soul.

What led you to choose these particular works for the show?

The body, definitely, in its psychological, physical and mythical form. There are 8 works in this exhibition. They all describe the space within and without the body.

Strange Attractors can be viewed at Nature Morte, 287–288, The Dhan Mill, 100 Feet Rd, Chhatarpur Hills, New Delhi till 9 January, 2022

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