Mumbai-based artist Sudarshan Shetty had just finished work on two expansive international exhibitions—for the Ludwig Museum in Cologne and Galerie Daniel Templon in Paris—when the pandemic hit last year, forcing the postponement of both. Apart from a three-day shoot in Goa this January, he has not been able to produce much work in this period, but he has used the time to “step back and introspect”.
Shetty, 60, is one of the first Indians to wear the tag of “conceptual artist”. He is also among the most political, though in his characteristically measured way. In 2019, two days after some of his curated exhibits were barred from viewing at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, allegedly for oblique references to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) protests, Shetty issued an impassioned statement about the need for art spaces to function freely. “As far as the show I curated is concerned, why (should) a caption saying an artwork could not reach on time for the exhibition due to transportation delays (because of) CAA protests in the northeast be a problem,” his statement said.
Over a call from his home in Mumbai, Shetty spoke about why it is important for artists to register their protest, the function of art, and a return to painting after 12 years. Edited excerpts:
Has the covid-19 lockdown been conducive to art production for you? You have been exploring more video art since ‘Shoonya Ghar’ in 2016. That must have been hard to do with the pandemic?
A lot of my work has been influenced by cinema for a long time, even before Shoonya Ghar. I am very conscious about creating a narrative through my exhibitions. For me, that is part of the experience.
I have not been able to physically produce a lot of things but it has been a good time to look at how things are going and if it’s necessary to change course.
What is your hope for how this slowdown will reorient the way contemporary art is taught, created, exhibited and sold?
I have been thinking of an artist’s societal role. There has been this sense of helplessness, especially with the mass exodus of labourers. I feel privileged to be able to look at it from a distance but that’s not enough. This is a conflict I hope to resolve in my work. Unfortunately, most of the art that we see, which is supposed to be “socially relevant”, does not engage with the people or communities in question. Something ought to change.
You signed an international petition for charges against the comedian Munawar Faruqui and others to be dropped. Why is it important for artists to register their protest? Some artists believe that they respond to the world in their own way, in their own time. How do you decide when to identify as an artist and a citizen?
I don’t see a distinction between being an artist and being a citizen. Each artist responds differently, the kind of protest can vary in form, it can be advertent or inadvertent, but I believe any voice that comes from that space is as important as the other.
In India, we are battling censorship in the arts at various levels. You had your experience with censorship at the Serendipity Arts Festival in 2019. Where do you draw the line?
One of the functions of art is to challenge limitations, whether moral or societal. Or at least to show a mirror to those limitations. If things are going to be censored the way it is happening now, nobody will be able to make anything or say anything. This function of art has to be kept alive for a healthy society to function.
Is it a bigger danger when artists start self-censoring?
Self-censoring is a very dangerous phenomenon. Most artists I know are responsible human beings and one has to trust that they will respect their freedom, and the ways in which they explore their limits.
The last time we spoke was in 2016, which was hailed by all—including ‘Lounge’—as the Year of Sudarshan Shetty. You had your NGMA exhibition, the Rolls-Royce commission, and you curated the Kochi Biennale. What was your big takeaway from the biennale experience?
For me, every year is my year (laughs). A lot of things came about when I started thinking about a curatorial brief for the biennale. I realised I was limiting myself to a straitjacketed idea of being a curator who comes with a brief and then looks for artists to fit into it. I felt it needed to be much more open-ended. I knew it had to have multiple perspectives. I was interested in looking at the biennale from the outside in: spatially, culturally, psychologically.
The Chilean poet Raúl Zurita was the first artist we announced. He came from the “outside” in multiple ways. He’s extremely political; though none of the political ideas are apparent in his work, it’s always underlying. He’s from the world of poetry, though he thinks very visually. That gave me a direction for how to approach the biennale. We looked at blurring the outside and inside spaces, explored collaborative practices as much as possible, and took the entire town of Kochi as our landscape. A novel by Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec appeared on the facades of multiple sites across the town. If you wanted to read the whole novel, you would have to move through the town. The text kept changing over the months. All these ideas opened up new areas in my own work. Particularly the idea of taking things out of a demarcated space.
You studied painting at the Sir JJ School of Art but then moved on to found art, installations and video. Do you miss the act of painting?
I have always said I had the local recognition of being an artist much before I went to art school. When I was still in school, I painted portraits from photographs. I made a lot of portraits of our neighbours’ dead relatives.
I haven’t painted in about 12 years but I am getting back to it now. I have ordered canvases. Painting demands a different discipline, it is solitary in nature. In my installations, I work with a lot of people— that I also do enjoy. Maybe I won’t exhibit these paintings but I want to get back to it for myself.
I am going to start with what I am comfortable with and see where it goes. I think it is very important to include the idea of change in your process; to allow it to become something else from where it began.
That is something I have been thinking about lately: You can embrace change but how do artists and novelists know when they are done?
They often don’t. There’s the famous story of the French painter Pierre Bonnard, who went into a museum and convinced an artist friend to keep guard while he touched up some older paintings of his own!
Your practice has been focused on the idea of multiple perspectives. From ‘nirgun’ poetry that posits opposing views in a couplet to the influence of your father’s background as a ‘yakshagana’ artist. Why is multiplicity important for you?
I am interested in the idea of self, different from what we are made to believe in our education. In a yakshagana performance, each performer has to extemporaneously argue their character’s point of view. It can be different in different performances.
There’s an old story retold by Rumi in which a man goes to a pool and takes a dip and comes out as a woman. The woman goes out into the world and lives a full life until circumstances draw her back to the pool, where she takes a dip and becomes the man again. I am enormously fascinated by these possibilities. Of becoming the Other, of playing with the notion of linear time. There is no conclusion to this kind of narrative. There is no beginning, middle or end. Does this cycle continue every time the man or woman takes a dip in the pool? What is the idea of self if it is not wrapped in the idea of a physical body?
Do you feel we are losing the idea of multiple perspectives as a society?
We are not losing it, we are losing the recognition of it, possibly. If you look at the production of art, it’s always based on the converging of ideas coming from different places. But I feel it must open itself out to go in different directions in some way. We have to in some way challenge the idea of the singular belief.
What can you share about the forthcoming shows in Germany and France?
The show at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne is centred on a video work about the possibility of becoming the Other, and there are installations around it which are objects cut into half and replicated in marble. I have been reading the science fiction of the astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar, which might have informed me in some way. This was scheduled for June 2020, which became June 2021, and now it may go over to later in the year or early next year.
The show in Paris is at my gallery, Daniel Templon. The dates are not fixed yet. It’s hard to articulate this but I have asked people from different backgrounds about their idea of climbing, the ideas of ascension and descension. I am still figuring out the title of the show.
Finally, the usual: If you could have a conversation with anyone right now, dead or alive, who would it be?
Conversations At Large is a fortnightly interview column. Anindita Ghose is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.