Art and material

Art and material

Artists across the world are employing newer materials and mediums in their practice, and producing stunning and sometimes bizarre works, notes Giridhar Khasnis

Tata car with pop art imagery by Ketna PatelVisitors to the India Art Fair (Delhi/ January 26 -29) would have been struck by art works created by contemporary practitioners employing unique mediums and unusual material.

Some of the stunning works on display had material ranging from textiles, decorative ornaments, glass silicone, cotton, painted steel, polyester resin, cast aluminium, to marble dust, iwa-enogu (mineral pigment), bicycle ball bearings, bottle caps, junked automotive parts, recycled plastic, gunpowder, to ropes, rags, hair, and even deer droppings!

A sculptural installation at the very entrance of the venue attracted attention. From a distance, it appeared to be a standard outdoor sculpture of a royal figure astride a stallion. As one got closer, the visitor realised that Baroda-based Siddhartha Karawal’s ‘The Hangover Man’ (2011/ 8ft x 9ft x 3.5 ft) was a recreation of a public statue of Maharaja Sayajirao and made entirely of soft white T-shirt material on armature.

The T-shirts themselves, one learnt, came as donation from an American charity for distribution among poor Indian communities but instead of reaching the targeted group had somehow appeared in the open market. It was to the credit of 27-year old Karawal to have used this material to not only make his sculpture but also a stinging social comment. The young artist, incidentally, is known to produce large scale sculpture and installations composed of non-traditional and low-tech materials like foam, resin, rubber, used blankets and gloves.

There were several such instances at the Art Fair including South African resistance artist William Bester’s ‘The Trojan Horse’ made of junk and scrap; Australian artist Sam Jinks’ hyper-realistic sculpture titled ‘Small Things’ (silicone, human hair and resin); Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui’s fascinating tapestry ‘Eco Map’ (aluminium bottle caps and copper wire); Asim Waqif’s ‘Wasted’ (junked automotive parts), and Damien Hirst’s ‘Afterworld’ (butterflies and household gloss on canvas). 

Arguably one of the most intriguing works on display was a piece by Faridabad-based Shine Shivan titled ‘Sex Fumes’.

It was made entirely of deer faeces which the artist had collected from the Aravali Hills on the outskirts of his city. An explorer of sorts, Shivan revealed his fascination for several behavioural traits of the deer.

For instance, he found out that the animal continued to defecate in the same place every day to mark its territory and announce the presence of a dominant male. Further, the female, when she had chosen which male she wanted, would go and defecate on top of the mound of the chosen one. “This, for me, is a microcosm of what happens in life as we know it,” said the artist.

To the amazement of many, Shivan’s work not only attracted a good amount of attention, but also supposedly found a buyer who paid a whopping Rs 10 lakh for it on the third day of the Art Fair.

Many artists, many mediums

Art is not new to innovations, be it material, medium, concept or execution. History shows that artists have always tried to make their statement using inventive methods.
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968) bought a urinal from a plumber shop, titled it ‘Fountain’ and placed it on a pedestal at an art exhibition. It created an instant uproar, but also came to be hailed, over the decades, as a major landmark of 20th century art. On his part, Duchamp described that his intent with the piece was to shift the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation.

In recent times, English artist Damien Hirst (born 1965) produced one of the most expensive and controversial pieces of contemporary art in 2007 by casting an 18th century human skull in platinum and embedding it with high quality 8601 diamonds. Calling it ‘For the Love of God’, Hirst did not conceal his own admiration for the piece. “I think it’s ethereal and timeless.”

Among other Hirst’s signature pieces are the pickled shark (‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ /1991); the picked cow and calf (‘Mother and Child Divided’), and a glass box containing flies, maggots, and a cow’s head (‘A Thousand Years’/1990).

Another celebrated British artist, Anish Kapoor (born 1954), well-known for his geometric and biomorphic sculptures, not only employs simple and often elemental materials, but also multi-ton circular stainless steel for his work.

Incidentally, a spiralling sculpture taller than New York’s Statue of Liberty designed by Kapoor has been chosen as the monument to mark the London 2012 Olympic Games.
In passing, one might also mention that the title of ‘World’s Most Badass Artist’ belongs to Wim Delvoye, the Belgian conceptual artist whose unusual (bizarre, for many) includes the (in)famous ‘Cloaka’, also known as ‘the Poo Machine’!

Indian artists

Contemporary artists in India have not lagged behind in employing both usual and unusual material in their art practice. The poster-couple of Indian art, Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher, are known for many novelties. Gupta’s massive stainless steel and aluminium sculptures have in a sense become iconic while Kher’s ‘bindi’-ridden works have not only been exhibited on a global scale but have also commanded astronomical prices in national and international markets.

Kher’s massive work titled ‘The skin speaks a language not its own’ (2006/142x456.2x195 cm) showed a slumped life-size she-elephant whose body was almost entirely covered with white sperm-shaped bindis; the sculpture notched up a record price of Rs 6.94 crore at the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening in London on June 27, 2010.

Bangalore-based Sheela Gowda is also known to bring rare sensitivity to her works by employing several mediums and materials. Winner of the first Sotheby’s Prize for Contemporary Indian Art (1998) and currently shortlisted for this year’s £40,000 Artes Mundi Prize, Gowda has used material ranging from human hair, incense, cow dung, coconut fibre, needle and thread to abandoned stone grinders and tar drums.

Navin Thomas, winner of Skoda Prize 2011, has a fascination for old, discarded electrical and electronic appliances which he lovingly collects from kabaadi bazaars (scrap markets), and converts into evocative sound and light installations. Visitors to Skoda exhibition at Lalit Kala Academy, Delhi were somewhat taken aback to find among other exhibits, Navin’s specially erected room with live birds perched on copper-wire aerials amidst transistor radios emitting white noise.

These are but a few instances. Many artists across the world are exploring newer and newer materials and mediums. That may not necessarily mean that traditional paintings and sculptures are eliminated from the high pedestal of art, but one thing is clear: the search for the new material is truly on. 

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