Climate change and environmental degradation have come to inform many an artistic practice in recent times. For visual artist Manish Nai, repurposing discarded material forms the core of his work. The act of de-familiarisation of everyday is essential to Nai’s practice. While his works cover a vast spectrum of scale—from small-format to large-sized works—his approach remains minimalistic and monochromatic. The busy and dense urban life have spurred Nai to create works that are calming. “The city is so overwhelming, with an overload of stimuli; it compels me to go in the reverse direction of opting for ‘less’,” says Nai.
His practice employs creative use of extensive waste and by-products created by our hyper-consumeristic lifestyle. The process (and his technique) to mould and literally sculpt these objects is important in this quest. He is less concerned about the original purpose or histories associated with each object he uses. He rejects the idea of these objects as memoirs of past journey. Instead, he says, “I keep myself busy with the process of creation than to over-thinking the theory. I avoid historical significance of material and information of its origin. That allows me to remain focussed on transforming things into something else.”
Nai grew up in Laxmanpura near Idar in Gujarat The arts were not actively pursued in his family, but Nai himself was observant and sensitive to visual stimuli. “I grew up in a small village. I must have been five years old, when I began to observe a cement block that people used to sit on. Over time, the surface aged and got de-coloured. I picked a random brush, thrown away on the road, and ‘painted’ it with water. Suddenly, the surface appeared new. But once dry, it gained same old and degenerated appearance. This observation stayed with me—these ideas of memory, about material and surfaces, about old and new,” he reminiscences.
To repurpose is an integral part of the Indian ethos. Faded fancy clothes become part of the everyday home-wear, and once they are torn, they become dusting rags. Nai recalls how his mother stored away clothes that he outgrew to barter for stainless-steel utensils. “So, this idea of reusing what has lived its life is something that has always been part of my subconscious,” he says. And once, he chanced upon a cardboard carton stacked away in the loft of his family home. It was stuffed with pieces of jute cloth. “When I removed the jute from the carton, I was fascinated with how it retained the shape of the box,” describes Nai. This, probably, acted as a trigger later for his jute and metal works.
Later on in life, sights of the city added to his visual references. Walls along the railway tracks, with layers of pasted posters and graffiti, were huge influences. Soon billboards got added to these. The idea of excess too has informed his work. Nai talks about 150 dailies in 70 languages. And each of these newspapers are meant to last one day. “So, the quality of ink and paper used is naturally poor”. Soaking the sheets of paper washes away part of the printed text, adding an incredible layer of ambiguity, metaphorically washing away the non-essential.
Nai adds that what looks simple, takes a lot of skill and effort in the making of it. “For my work to look effortless, I spend hours developing my technique,” he says. “I use up as many as 25 pieces of clothing for a small cube of seven-inches. Isn’t that helping reduce material in circulation?”
Rahul Kumar is a ceramic artist and culture writer