Significance of space

Significance of space

Significance of space

With her latest bronze sculpture of roots, Hemali Bhuta looks to alter perspective, notes Gayatri Rangachari Shah

One of the more intriguing cultural voices to emerge from a generation brought up in an increasingly global and ascendant India is the contemporary artist Hemali Bhuta.
Three years after getting a graduate arts degree at the University of Baroda, Bhuta, 34, is currently showing ‘Speed Breakers/Roots’ at the Sculpture Park at Frieze London.

Modelled on beech tree roots, the bronze work evokes two central themes in Bhuta’s art: spatial exploration and the idea of transience. The Frieze sculpture, the culmination of the artist’s three-month residency at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in northern England, is laid on the ground, allowing a viewer to walk around, over or past it.

“The work is called ‘Speed Breakers’ and literally the composition is intended to stop people in their tracks, or at least to slow them down, give them pause,” Clare Lilley, the programme director at Yorkshire Sculpture Park and curator of the Frieze Sculpture Park, said in an email.

This sense of the work providing a serendipitous moment of pause is shared by Diana Campbell, director of the Creative India Foundation, which created and designed the residency in Yorkshire and funded the production of the work being shown at Frieze.

“It’s based on the idea of shrines,” she said, “that this everyday idea that you bump into — in this case, roots on the ground — can take you into a meditative state.”


In a video interview, Bhuta said that the work was inspired by the numerous walks in the woods she undertook while residing in Yorkshire, which, she said, were often languorous because she was mindful of what was underfoot. In the same way, the sculpture attempts to bring to the fore the human tendency to not notice what lies below. “I want it to be something you walk over and not notice,” Bhuta said.

Helen Pheby, the curator of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, said in an email that what distinguished Bhuta from other artists was her “sensitivity to spaces and places,” with the artist fashioning a creative response only after spending a lot of time walking around and learning about Bretton Estate, the home of the sculpture park.

“There’s a lot of thought and contemplation that I see at the heart of her practice,” Pheby added. Born to an architect mother and an engineer-turned-businessman father, Bhuta was brought up in a middle-class environment in Mumbai. She initially studied interior design, but found work as a decorator unfulfilling, though it did instill in her a fascination for space. Always sketching, Bhuta switched to art school, where she met her husband, Shreyas Karle, a fellow artist, to whom she has been married for three years. The couple also overlapped while studying for their masters degrees in Baroda.

“We’ve stayed together because of our artistic relationship,” Bhuta said. “We’re constantly discussing and criticising each other, and understand each other’s aesthetics well. I am very much a process-based artist, whereas he deals with the ‘Idea.’ ”

Last year, Bhuta and Karle worked as visiting faculty members at two architectural colleges in Mumbai.

Since her student days, when she majored in painting but lobbied to produce installations for her final year exams, Bhuta has been toying with the significance of space through the use of everyday materials. For her master’s project, Bhuta took as her leitmotif the daily squalor and smells surrounding her living space in Baroda, scattering incense shaped like dog waste in the college corridors and filling the dirty, insect-infested student toilets with incense-coated clay resembling wasp colonies. Through these works, Bhuta transformed otherwise grim spaces into fragrant environments where other living forms could find a home.

“There’s a quiet elegance to her works,” said Campbell of the Creative India Foundation. “They are not overtly Indian but I find that by looking at them you learn more about India from them.” Indeed, Bhuta’s interest in one of Hinduism’s core tenets — fleetingness — guides her work. As a child, she attended lectures with her father, a follower of the Indian thinker Jiddu Krishnamurti and his disciples, and read philosophical texts. The death of someone close to her when she was a teenager led to a lingering worry of death and bodily decay, she said. Two years ago at a residency at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, Calif., Bhuta explored this anxiety by creating ‘The Green Tub’, using bath soap and salts to form a mossy layer in a bathtub.

“Never having had a bathtub, I had a fear of the water, a fear of lying horizontal,” Bhuta said. The Saratoga residency was the first time Bhuta had lived outside India, and she admits to having felt nervous about going outside in a foreign place. Instead, while there, Bhuta worked in her studio, bringing the external environment within by deftly employing widely available local bath salts to symbolise a cleansing of the inner self. (That same year Bhuta was named a finalist for the Rolex Mentor Protege Arts Initiative under the British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor.)

In the ‘India: Art Now’ show at the Arken Museum in Denmark, Bhuta developed the same worries she depicts in the bathtub in ‘Inversion ... Inverted ... Eureka!’ — by inverting an alum cast of a bathtub. By crafting a perishable tub made of material that can be washed away, the artist similarly inverted her phobia of drowning in a tub.

Different angle

Another work, ‘Stepping Down’, constructed for her first solo show at Mumbai’s Project 88 gallery in 2010, utilising wax, cotton thread and a metal grid, and suspended from the ceiling, recalled stalactite formations found in caves. Invoking the gallery space as a metaphor for a cave, Bhuta said she conjured up memories of her previous surroundings — the ubiquitous calcium deposits on taps, pots and pans found in many Indian homes from washing with hard water. Poonam Bhagat Shroff, a prominent Mumbai-based art collector who owns significant works by Anish Kapoor and Subodh Gupta, said she purchased the work on the spot. “I didn’t know the artist but I found it very unusual, very serene and sublime,” Bhagat said.

Two years later, Bhuta revisited stalactites in ‘Curved to Broken to Straight’. Made of ferric alum and stainless steel, the sculpture shows a floor-to-ceiling pillar that moves from a straight column to curved to broken to straight. Bhuta said that the column represented a conceptual division between heaven and earth as well as between ceiling and ground.

Because Bhuta’s past installations comprised materials like rubber bands, moss, wax, alum, hair and incense, the use of bronze for the Frieze work reflects a critical shift for the artist. “Hemali created bronze elements that imply something ancient and this sense of time, too, tugs at our common consciousness,” said Lilley, the Frieze curator. Yet even here, Bhuta brings an impermanence to a substance that is in its very composition quite the opposite.

“Bronze has a history of being a precious material,” she said. “But I wanted to shift it to something mundane, something over which nature will take its own course.”

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