Of art that's alive

Engaging realm: Through his interactive artworks, artist Harsha Vardhan Durugadda seeks to conform to the universe's fundamental rules.

Of art that's alive
It is not often that a conversation with a sculptor skews so much towards philosophy that I want to abandon art and immerse in a Q&A about god, nothingness, and mindfulness. New Delhi-based artist Harsha Vardhan Durugadda recently won the prestigious $50,000 Rio Tinto Sculpture by the Sea Award for his 8.5-ft-tall ‘Column of Sound’, and it was art that I wanted to fuss over in a session with him. Well, it began with art, about ‘Column of Sound’, that won over 76 entries from around the world.

Made of marble slices and mild steel, the sculpture “signifies the idea of translating sound waves into a three-dimensional sculpture,” as Durugadda explains. He first recorded audio from the sculpture’s site and then stacked, adjusted the marble slices to match the visual of the sound waves. The sculpture tries to lock a sound recorded from a certain space and time and then freezes it in tactile form to stay forever. The two steel hemispheres hold the sound down.

First created for his debut solo show in New Delhi’s Lalit Kala Akademi, Durugadda disassembled the sculpture to lay it horizontally in a container to ship it to Australia as an entry for Western Australia’s most generous award for sculptures.

Of whirling & spinning
How does one trap or represent sound with stacked marble slices? I was intrigued. Durugadda has an answer — he calls it a profound transformation between audio and visual realms. The artist relates sound to tactility. He says he is not being scientific or literal but is allowing people to experience the possibility of relating sound to tactility. Put simply, you can touch and engage with the invisible sound. That is what Durugadda wants; that is why he likes the word ‘ethereal’, which appropriately puts his sculpture in the realms of entanglement.

By now, I could feel philosophy slyly sneaking into the conversation. Gently wrapping art in the existential questions of eternity and ethereal. From sound, I skip to whirling and spinning, two recurrent themes in his work. Durugadda has done a ‘spinning top’ series for a solo show titled ‘Whirling Out’. Spinning tops take cue from childhood, but it is not mere nostalgia. “A spinning top becomes a metaphor of the world we inhabit. It mimics the macroscopic world of the revolving planets and the electrons around nuclei at a microscopic level.

Everything in nature seems to be revolving around itself as praxis,” says Durugadda, who also sculpted a life-size revolving ‘Whirling Man’. The idea came from Turkey’s whirling dervishes.

Just as a spinning top is not just for a child’s play, a whirling man is not just communing with the Supreme. He is fulfilling a condition of his existence. “It is scientifically recognised that the fundamental condition of our existence is to revolve. Everything revolves, and the human being lives by means of the revolution of these particles, by the revolution of the blood in his body, and by the revolution of the stages of his life, by his coming from the earth, and his returning to it.” 

I drag the artist into his confession about being greatly influenced by Buddhist sculptures and whirling dervishes, and proclaiming his atheism in the same breath. “What is your idea of the Supreme? Is there one?” I ask. “I call myself Atheist 2.0, which I draw from a book by Alan de Botton, Atheism 2.0. This book talks about how one can embrace specific elements of religious belief drawn from various religions to enrich oneself,” he adds.

For Durugadda, the Supreme lies within each being, whether alive or not, and is not someone/something who sits there to judge what is right or wrong. The Supreme exists in tiny quarks/atoms spread across the universe in the form of energy rather than as a single being.

Art, his language
I was soaking in philosophy, but I dragged the talk back to art, of Durugadda’s move from Andhra Pradesh to New Delhi, his love for large-scale works of art, and his self-admitted idea of “starting where language ends.” Large city for opportunities and large-scale artwork for creating and facilitating public engagement with his work. That explains why Durugadda’s art can be touched or spun.

For him, the idea is to invite the audience to interact and immerse with the work, when in public space. And how/when does he know that language has ended and his work will begin? “It is as if the work is beyond language and has a deeper emotional connect. That is why rituals, artistic practices always have direct and powerful messages embedded in colours, textures, and body moments. I can communicate directly through art more effectively than language.”

This artist loves green and calls wood his favourite medium. His favourite sculptor is David Carny and V S Gaitonde, his favourite painter. His ‘Column of Sound’ will stand by the sea in Western Australia, storing the memory of sound in a tactile form, so that it exists forever in a public space.

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