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My workspace is a mirror and therapist: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

An artist-academic on why sitting in front of a blank wall helps with coherence, if the idea of an artist’s studio is steeped in convention, and more

Vishnupriya Rajgarhia, an assistant professor in the School of Design at Anant National University
Vishnupriya Rajgarhia, an assistant professor in the School of Design at Anant National University (Courtesy Vishnupriya Rajgarhia)

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She is one of the youngest faculty members at Anant National University, a design and architecture university in Ahmedabad. Vishnupriya Rajgarhia, an assistant professor in the School of Design, has moved various cities and lived in three different countries. But regardless of where she’s set up a workspace, she’s always plugged in to a playlist when working.

“Even at home, though I live alone, I prefer to use earphones while working,” says the graduate of the Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi, who later went on to do a Masters in Fine Arts at Oxford University. “I feel like it helps create a distinction between the world and me,” adds Rajgarhia, who works at the intersection of arts and policy, through the medium of interactive art.

In this interview with Lounge, she talks about why she prefers to think of her studio as a blank, lab-like space, how the work of German artist Hans Haacke changed the course of her own career, and more. Edited excerpts.

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Describe your current workspace to us.

My workspace is divided between my space at work, and my sanctum at home. Light has been an important part of both these spaces, and I need a blank wall to face. I feel there are too many dots I keep trying to connect, and they lose coherence in the face of excess stimuli, so I instinctively sit in front of a blank wall.

Across my workspaces, I’ve always kept a place (post its, a huge whiteboard) to put up questions, to do lists, and some thoughts I need to return to.

Has it always been this way? Or has it evolved over the years?

My workspace has changed with every city, every country I lived and worked in. The closest I came to defining my ‘space’ was in the UK. I was principally against the idea of a studio because it represented a sense of convention I was trying to break away from, and it didn't feel honest to then sit in one and ‘practice’. So I would shuffle through libraries, and parks and desks in college till I found a place to just be and work.

It was a long conversation with my tutor who challenged this notion, and helped me revisit the idea of a studio beyond its conventional use. That is when I returned to working from that space — but still, I’d refused to call it my studio. I treated it as a lab, and remember the walls being a pristine white, blank as it came. Over the years, I continue to keep this blank space with me.

Rajgarhia's desk at one of her projects, Free Trade Museums, of which she is director.
Rajgarhia's desk at one of her projects, Free Trade Museums, of which she is director. (Courtesy Vishnupriya Rajgarhia)

How would you define your daily relationship with this workspace?

My workspace is both a mirror, and a therapist. As a mirror, the clutter on my desk represents my headspace, be it too many looming deadlines or hitting a dead end with a question. You’ll find sheafs of paper, an empty cup of coffee, lots of notebooks and plugged-in earphones. On other days, the workspace is like therapy, it gives me answers I didn't know I was searching for.

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Tell us about some of the eureka moment or a moment of serendipity you had at your workspace.

A serendipitous moment I had at my workspace in Delhi here has been life-changing. Back I 2016, when I was browsing through several websites, trying to find a program I wanted to apply to, and somehow, stumbled upon an artist who determined my path forward, and till date continues to be someone I look up to. This is Hans Haacke and his ‘MoMA Poll’. He is considered the person who helmed interactive art, and is the kind of artist I wanted to be but wasn’t able to articulate back then.

If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?

I wouldn’t trade one workspace for the other, they each represent a shifting plane of time, and each phase brings with it its own set of experiences and learnings. However, the workspace I do often return to is in my parents' home. It’s the same set of two desks I have had since I was 8 years old, and in the past 19 years, this has been where I have confronted dreams, ideas, plans. It is often the site of catharsis.

What's the one thing that has always been at your workspaces over the years. Why?

A notebook and a micron pen, or some black pen. I draw, write and scribble out of mental pathways of thought and ideation, and these are archives of these years.

Rajgarhia's workspace at home
Rajgarhia's workspace at home (Courtesy Vishnupriya Rajgarhia)

Who was the first artist whose work you followed closely or revered? What about them appealed to you?

Being an artist has been an aspiration I have nurtured over years, sometimes with confidence and ease, sometimes with disbelief, but I knew I wanted it to be from a place of honesty, not reverence or imitation. However, there are have been a few artists I deeply admire, not for the tangible product of their work but the thought and the process that has gone into it. When I read their work, I derive my own meaning from it, and when I see their process I have a conversation with them, in a way.

Hans Haacke, who I mentioned earlier, is the artist I look up to. His work offers an incisive clarity about how art is beyond the object, and how the (powerful and responsible) role of the artist in society. His honesty and courage, taking on some of the biggest institutions in the world through his observations and work have been deeply moving. I go back to his words very often and come back with a renewed sense of courage and purpose.

You also take a keen interest in Indian-American printmaker Zarina Hashmi and her work. Why do you see her life and work as relevant in current times?

Zarina Hashmi’s work to be has been poetic. It moves me, disturbs me in the best sense possible, and leaves me speechless. Her works comes from a deeply personal space, and her ability to share that with a stranger through her work alone is commendable. The way she utilises paper — to explore themes of identity, home, belonging, love, loss — is so evocative, simmering the spaces of home and country through symbols so simple yet effective.

I think her work is relevant today, and will continue to remain relevant for many decades to come. In an increasingly globalised world, where we traverse oceans in search of opportunities and exposure, I believe most of us are constantly in a state of flux and unable to articulate what ‘home’ means beyond the address we punch in for couriers. I’ve lived in three countries and still can’t articulate where home really is.

Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces.

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