Raiders of the new art
We throw the spotlight on South Asian artists who are using unconventional media, materials and technology to explore the infinite plurality of art
Works at the intersection of photography, sculpture, installation and architecture to explore the possibilities of physical and psychological spaces
Yamini Nayar’s practice presents the viewer with a conundrum: What they see is her work—but that’s not all. At a glance, the eye rests on what is ostensibly a photograph, an interface between the past and the present. But in Nayar’s case, it opens up another window too.
Over the years, her images have moved away from depicting more representational forms to conjuring up abstract shapes. Nayar calls these subjects “assemblages" and constructs them with materials commonly found in hardware stores—wood, cardboard, paper, house paint. At every stage, the work is photographed using film on analogue, and once done, it is “deconstructed". Only the photograph remains in the end, faithful to its traditional role—of bearing witness, keeping a testimony, preserving the evidence of a long and complex creative process.
“My background is in photography, with some sculptural training," Nayar says on Skype from New York, where she lives. Between India, where her parents come from, and the US, where she’s lived most of her life, she has a rich repository of visual references. But an opportunity to study with American conceptual artists like Sarah Charlesworth opened up the possibilities of photography as a medium.
The word architectural has always hovered over Nayar’s work, but she has become more ambitious with scale. Just as her relationship with materiality has evolved sharply, so has the persistence of the body become more heightened in her art.
In Akhet (2013), a ragged sculptural form sits in the centre of the image. “You could read it as a ‘body’ made of photographic collage elements, while the vertical slab of wood suggests a spine," says Nayar. “I was thinking about the egg form in architecture. There is a darker piece of material to the left of this wood, which suggests a shadow to the body."
The urge to tease the human out of the abstract is ancient. It’s there in the first principles of hieroglyphs as well as the abstract paintings of modernist masters like Mark Rothko. In Nayar’s universe, abstraction merges with architecture to form its own mythologies. Chrysalis (2013), she explains, “depicts a corner in which a vertical column made of collage fragments supports the top half of the sculpture", like an arm holding up the concrete ceiling.
“When going through historical archives, or living in an urban environment, I’m often much more drawn to architecture in construction, with all the scaffolding and labourers on site," she says. As a child, she remembers observing the Durga Puja pandals rising, day by day, out of the streets of Chittaranjan Park in Delhi, only to be taken apart at the end of the festival. “There’s something compelling about those moments where you see the background of a structure being built, the evidence of labour and the hand, the vulnerability of a structure that is actually monumental in its finished state," she adds.
In her own work, too, Nayar reveals the fragility and transience inherent in hard, solid forms, and the photograph’s magical ability to recall them even when they are gone.
Yamini Nayar’s work is represented by Thomas Erben, New York; Wendi Norris, San Francisco and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai. Her latest show was Crash, Dig, Well, along with Asim Waqif, which ended at Jhaveri Contemporary on 13 January.
Creates multimedia art, especially installations, often using canned noises recorded in natural and urban settings
Navin Thomas works in an attic studio in Cooke Town, East Bengaluru, enveloped by a daily symphony of noises. Vehicles honk, trucks clatter down the streets. Apartment blocks rise out of rubble, machines howl, concrete is churned. This mechanical chorus is pierced by the occasional bird call as the day wears on.
Against this setting, as he begins to explain his concept of “electro-acoustic ecology", it all begins to make sense. The idea, Thomas tells me, struck him about a decade ago, when he was at a residency in Sri Lanka. “I was staying close to a rainforest, next to a lagoon," he says. “Every evening I would hear the croak of frogs fornicating." He recorded these calls, many of which would emanate from sewage lines, derelict bus stops, jungle crash sites—from the intersection of ecology and built architecture. This coexistence of the natural and the man-made, a condition that is inescapable in most urban settings, underwrites the concept.
For Thomas, the progression to this rarefied idea has been gradual: It began with creating audio maps in galleries, moving on to “sound sculptures", to conceptual installations, and emerging, at last, into formless art, pure sound. Having started with graphic design and film studies, he did ponder the prospect of making documentary movies, but he wasn’t into teamwork, preferring the more immersive and solitary life of the artist in the studio. Over the years, he has not stopped making work with his own hands, even as his peers and colleagues have moved on to outsourcing the labour of creating their art.
Among blocks of wood, instruments, tools and materials in his studio, his philosophy begins to come to life. His interest in sound began with music—like many young people in Bengaluru in the 1990s, he was part of a band—but evolved, by complicated turns, through encounters with several key influences. If the work of ethnomusicologist Paul Bowles opened his ears to the sounds of the “non-Christian world", his fascination with Indian classical music, especially with its inflections and nuances, made him alert to the possibility of translating it into the language of art.
The turning point came with Long Live The New Flesh, inspired by David Cronenberg’s cult classic Videodrome. In Thomas’ piece, two archery targets send out signals at each other by shooting a variation of arrows. “To me, this work speaks of the evolution of language," he says. “It indicates a movement from the formal and literal to the abstract and symbolic." The ultimate aim, from that point, has been to take the viewer into the realm of the senses, where the experience of the art is paramount, privileging formlessness, “where you don’t even see the work any more".
At a time when many of his contemporaries are obsessed with the spatial dimensions of their art, scaling up massively and overwhelming the viewer, Thomas, who won the prestigious ŠKODA Prize for Indian contemporary art in 2011, is crafting a language of minimal simplicity, setting polyphony against harmony and creating a beautiful synchronicity. His experiments, Thomas says, have given rise to meanings on multiple levels—one of which is to imagine India as “a conceptual idea of over a hundred languages, existing together and getting along with each other". “Maybe we should call ourselves a beautiful concept, not a country," he says.
Thomas is represented by Gallery Ske in Bengaluru, but has shown his work at several galleries across the world. In 2017, he participated in a group exhibition at the Maximillian Forum in Munich, Germany.
Creates site-specific installations and sculptures out of ‘junk’ materials
“Artist" might be too limiting a word to describe Asim Waqif. Environmentalist, activist, traveller, researcher, urban planning decrier and a sometime academic might just cover it.
“I don’t want that tag to limit the things I want to do," he says, adding that he’s just written an academic essay on “water harvesting systems in pre-colonial Indian towns". His wide-ranging interests in waste management, urban planning, traditional methods of building and the environment feed into his art, made of things considered “waste".
We’re in his studio at Delhi’s Tughlaqabad Extension which looks somewhat artfully run down. There are artworks made from “junk" hanging from the ceiling, mounted on the walls, kept on the table and lying here and there. Usually, he’s out working on his gigantic site-specific installations, for which he is better known. These are works that combine materials like reclaimed timber and modern technology—touch or motion sensors. Their architectural scale invites navigation and the sensors that activate sounds (often hidden) reward curiosity. “I want to find ways to be able to communicate with that person," he says.
Waqif’s size- and waste-obsessed practice is perhaps a result of his unusual route to the art world. He was born in 1978 in Hyderabad, trained as an architect in Delhi, then did a design stint in film and TV before turning full-time to art. The architectural background informs the mammoth interactive installations that draw on his environmental concerns.
His ongoing project Salvage is an installation that sits next to a street in Vancouver, Canada. Made as part of the outdoor public art project by the Vancouver Art Gallery, it’s a shack-like structure constructed by cobbling together materials from city landfills and demolition sites. Discarded doors, windows, roofing, cabinets, drawers, a piano and other salvaged bric-à-brac form this new architecture that questions our relationship with “waste".
To a Vancouverite walking down that street—alongside buildings made of glass, steel and concrete—the out-of-place ramshackle structure will give pause. That, after all, is Waqif’s intention. “I want to see how some value can be brought out of things that are considered junk, without any value," he says.
In 2011, he made a floating installation titled HELP, Jumna’s Protest, in which he attached used plastic bottles (with small LED bulbs in them) to a metal grid that read “HELP". It was floated on a stretch of the Yamuna in Delhi. At night, against the blackness of the river, the installation brightly screamed “Help". It was meant to be “a protest on behalf of the Yamuna", a river that many still worship as a goddess, but which is now choking on industrial discharge and sewage.
Given the use of junk in his art, does Waqif place any value on aesthetics? “Oh, absolutely, art is also about aesthetics, which we’re forgetting more and more," he says. “It’s becoming too conceptual. Sometimes the idea sounds awesome, but the artwork looks like shit."
That is something Waqif can never be accused of. In his case, the inverse is often true. On paper, his junk artworks may sound “shit" (they may even float in it), but in the end, with their gigantic awe-inspiring size and form, they turn out “awesome".
Waqif’s works will be on view in the Nature Morte gallery (booth A1) at the India Art Fair in New Delhi. His next solo show will open on March 6 at Nature Morte.
The photographer ‘extracts’ sound from his images
There are a few photographers who are experimenting with sound beyond the mainstream ambit of video. Magnum photographer Sohrab Hura’s A Proposition For Departure, for instance, explores the relationship between images and sound. He selected eight images from Life Is Elsewhere—a poignant and personal series that explores the interiority of his mother’s schizophrenic illness—and “extracted" sound from each of them, to create eerie, haunting musical scores. These tracks form part of the sound notation book, titled A Proposition For Departure—a culmination of experiments with sound that he began in 2016.
To “extract" the sounds, Hura used an online synthesizer, which allowed him to convert the whiter parts of a monochromatic image into higher sound frequencies. “It’s based on a very old idea between light and sound," he explains over the phone. “The more whiter (or lighter points) there are in an image, the higher the frequency or sound, and vice versa."
For A Proposition For Departure, Hura assumed the role of a digital orchestrator, altering and manipulating the images to tease out the right sound. “For instance, I dodged certain photographs to bring out more detail, when I’ve felt that the sound was dipping too much. I also looped (certain image) scans, because the loop brings rhythm. And I tried to overlap different octaves—so when you hear the piece, it almost sounds like it’s reaching a crescendo, but it’s not quite there."
Hura then stitched these eight musical notes to form a sonata-like three-movement piece that encapsulates three phases. “A lot of my work is in the form of movements, because I am also looking at the idea of the narrative. In the book Life Is Elsewhere, which itself is in three movements—I start from home when my mother was not well, and then it kind of goes out into the outside world, and then after having had some sort of closure, I come back home. So there are these three different patches within the book which are quite distinct."
For his sound book, however, Hura decided to invert the three-movement piece. “If I actually look at the images which are used in the sound piece, the images start from the outside world, go back to home and then go out again. Since 10 years have passed since the series, I couldn’t relate to the idea of the same movements any more, because that was also the time when I was actually stuck at home. Whereas now, while going back to this work, in some ways, the inverse made more sense because I was coming from a more free space."
The sound piece titled A Proposition For Departure conveys Hura’s altered understanding of photography. “I’m putting forward the idea that my reading of images has now totally changed. A few years ago, if I was to think of an image, I would think of it as a photograph, but today, an image, for me, is something that is still, something that is moving, it’s text, it’s sound—the possibilities are infinite. I no longer have a concrete idea of an image. So, for me, the sound piece is also a point of departure in itself—from my relationship with the image."
Hura is a Magnum nominee and is represented by Experimenter gallery, Kolkata. He will be showcasing his work titled, Lost Head & the Bird, in an upcoming group show which will be on view at 24 Jor Bagh from 9-25 February.
The multidisciplinary studio experiments with technology and new media
Art, it has been debated, must serve a purpose. It must push us to imagine and think critically. This ideology weaves into the fabric of CAMP’s sensibility. Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran form CAMP, a Mumbai-based multidisciplinary studio set up in 2007 that is known for its eccentric and convention-snubbing methodology. While looking through the prisms of technology, history and politics, the studio’s work delves into the realms of cinema and video, among other things.
CAMP is an acronym—its full form keeps changing from Comrades After Missed Promises to Challenges After Media Practices, to something else.
An experimental practice, the studio has always pushed itself to envision the future in the arts. Technology forms a strong core of its artistic practice. For instance, its From Gulf To Gulf To Gulf (2013) is a film stitched together using diverse video formats, including footage and music recorded by a group of sailors from Kutch, documenting their lives at sea over many years on the mobile phone.
Perhaps one of its most fascinating works is CCTV Landscape From Lower Parel (2017), a video project in which CAMP attempts to experiment with historical timelines, juxtaposing the visuals of present-day Mumbai with a verbal narration of an older Bombay. CAMP mounted an ordinary PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) CCTV camera atop the PVR cinema in Phoenix Mills, Lower Parel, projecting the camera’s live feed on to the IMAX screen within the complex. “Through the camera, you could see the Mazagon docks on the eastern waterfront and the Bandra-Worli Sea Link on the west. You could also see people in the mall, the Trump Tower under construction and the Grand Maratha (restaurant) foregrounded by the (India) United Mills nearby," explains Anand. The visuals were controlled live along with a running commentary by CAMP that provided the 200-year-old history of Parel.
Sitting a few feet away from the screen, the team—comprising Anand, Sukumaran and Simpreet Singh (whom Anand describes as a “walking-talking encyclopaedia of Bombay")—took the audience through the history of Mumbai, Lower Parel and Phoenix Mills. “From hot-air balloon travels to reclamation, to the opium trade to the cotton boom, to the mills coming up, electricity, sewage, the end of Girangaon, the land grab, up to its transformation to its current state, our story gave the audience a deep sense of Bombay history," says Anand.
In January, CAMP performed a similar performance-cum-lecture (90 minutes) at Kolkata’s iconic (but defunct) GEM cinema, where it mounted a CCTV camera on the roof of the building that offered visuals of the surrounding Moulali and Entally areas of the city. “We did a 360-degree pan of the camera in mid-shot, it lasted 10 minutes. Through this, the audience got reacquainted with the city and its geography, both as fact and fabulation," says Anand. Interestingly, this aligns at some level with CAMP’s intimate association with cinema. “Cinema makes you travel, it’s a journey," says Anand—and through this project, the audience too can time-travel into the city’s history.
CAMP also collects and archives media. Whether it’s through Pad.ma, a non-state, digital media archive that is accessible to everyone who has internet; or Indiancine.ma, established in 2013, to serve as an all-access, non-state repository of Indian cinema. Pad.ma will celebrate its 10th anniversary on 28 February, and CAMP will host a gamut of events, expected to be attended by film-makers, film theorists, artists and activists from around the world.
CAMP, which is represented by Experimenter gallery, Kolkata, is currently presenting a film at the ongoing Transmediale in Berlin.
The multimedia artist’s work encapsulates films, painting and sculpture, but also explores the realm of virtual reality
It’s an esoteric thrill. To slip into a world—constructed but unreal—miles away from the location where you presently are. Virtual reality is transforming the landscape of artistic creations. A departure from the conventional four-walled experience, it’s akin to sliding down a rabbit hole.
British-Asian artist Shezad Dawood’s work is anchored in imagining the future, and spills across the spectrum of film, VR, painting and sculpture, where technology performs an important role in driving the narrative. He has experimented with the 3D canvas of virtual reality. As an artist, says Dawood, he has used art as the means to take people on experiential journeys that would “bring them back, changed, or with a different sense of openness or empathy for things they might have otherwise overlooked".
Kalimpong (2016), a virtual tour of the small hill town of the same name in West Bengal, is a meticulously layered body of work that functions as a point of convergence between the virtual and real worlds. Kalimpong, which will be on view at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, from 23 February-21 May, is irreverent about the boundaries of time and space, and draws influence from Buddhism. Dawood builds five virtual environments ranging from the early 1920s, all through the 1960s to today. “Notions of illusion and reality as a hologram deriving from esoteric Buddhism were key to my wanting this to be my first work in virtual reality. I didn’t want to approach the medium uncritically, and so was keen to look at the pre-history of the virtual, and ideas of waking dream and heightened consciousness that various traditions have spoken about for millennia," Dawood explains.
It was Kalimpong’s rich history and intrigue (it was described by Jawaharlal Nehru as a “nest of spies" during the Sino-Indian war) that pushed him into creating his first VR work on the town.
Among the virtual scenes designed by Dawood is the Himalayan Hotel (renamed later to Mayfair Himalayan Spa Resort, it once served guests like the Everest summiteer Tenzing Norgay), where you are allowed to walk through its hallways, or look outside to get a panoramic view of the Himalayan mountain range. Another scene will locate you within a cave where monks practise magic. Or you’ll find yourself wading through the snow in the Himalayas, with the possibility of bumping into a yeti.
In fact, it was Alexandra David-Néel’s writings, which Dawood pored over as a teenager, that stirred his interest in Kalimpong. “It was her combination of far-fetched (but apparently true) adventure stories with the esoteric that thrilled my youthful imagination, and filled me with a longing to move beyond the limitations of the ‘real’," he explains.
Dawood is currently working on the next stages of Leviathan: a 10-part film cycle which explores how marine conservation and climate change have something to do with mass migration. Over the next 14 months, he will be working simultaneously on a couple of new VR works or installations for institutions and biennales.
Dawood is represented by Timothy Taylor Gallery, London, HE.RO gallery, Amsterdam, Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai.
Creates art, music and musical instruments with scientific materials like biotechnology, visual programming languages and interactive media
Yashas Shetty doesn’t believe in the concept of a cloistered artist, working in splendid isolation. “The artist exists in a community and the work is created by his interactions and collaborations with the community," he says on email. An artist in residence at Bengaluru’s Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology and a founding-faculty member of the institute’s Centre for Experimental Media Arts, Shetty has always attempted to create art from science. However, he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t work with science, as much as he works with scientists. “Science is too abstract a thing to engage with. My first works were done with a hydrologist who happened to be doing his fieldwork in Bengaluru," he says. In that instance, in 2006, Shetty used a century of Indian rainfall data sourced by Vishal Mehta of the non-profit Stockholm Environment Institute, to create a musical composition using Max MSP, a computer visual programming language for music and multimedia.
Among the many non-traditional art materials he’s worked with, one startling material was biological. His 2009 installation for a Massachusetts Institute of Technology sponsored competition, Teenage Gene Poems, created quite a stir. For it, Shetty worked with his students at Srishti, and researchers from the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru, to create an organism that would emit the aroma of wet earth following monsoon rains. “It was kind of a romantic organism," he says, “Something that would have been dreamt up by a Bollywood scriptwriter." He calls the competition a “beauty contest for genetically altered organisms", one that didn’t exist previously in nature. Shetty says he was intrigued by the idea as he has always been fascinated by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, it isn’t something that he would work with again. “I feel the ethical aspects are crucial, and since I was responsible for doing this myself, I implicated myself and could draw my own conclusions about it. I wouldn’t do such a thing any more."
His main interest these days is working with data and sound. Shetty is also a musician who seeks to create new instruments and audio technology that would transcend the traditional ideas of both. “Instrument building is the ultimate trans-cross-multidisciplinary discipline," he says. He created a version of the theremin using the Arduino, an open-source electronic prototyping platform. The theremin, he feels, is a good example of his idea of a trans-disciplinary instrument. “It has an almost esoteric, mystical quality to it, but then it was also caught up in a lot of Cold War intrigue, spying, etc.," he says.
Out of this fascination with sound has emerged Isro, his current project. It’s not the Indian Space Research Organisation, but the Indian Sonic Research Organisation. True to Shetty’s principles, it’s a collective of Bengaluru-based instrument builders. “The goal is to create and disseminate experimental music, musical instruments and support artists and musicians who want to push the boundaries of sound and music," he says. As an example, he cites Isro’s deconstruction of stereophonic sound. Working in a 3D Audio Lab built by German artist Felix Deufel for Isro, Shetty and his collaborators created 32 channels for reproducing sound, as opposed to the traditional two of stereo.
Shetty is also working on an experiment with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning called Nine Billion Names Of God (Ninebillionnamesofgod.com). It’s based on Arthur C. Clarke’s short story of the same name where Buddhist monks seek to record the names of God and bring about rapture. In Shetty’s experiment, a programmed bot searches and downloads porn files off the internet. However, these aren’t just any porn clips, only those in which the word “God" is orgiastically uttered. A “God Count" keeps track, and the experiment will cease when nine billion utterances of “God" have been captured. The world might end then.
Shetty’s latest show was for HKW Berlin’s Parapolitis: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War in Berlin, from 3 November 2017 to 8 January 2018. It was an “ambiguous archive" called FSMR: Selected Electronic Music from South India Volumes i and ii.