ANY TIME, ANY PLACE
Artist Bharti Kher’s cultural heritage informs her work but definitely doesn’t define it, writes Victoria Laurie
Artist Bharti Kher has felt alien in two places: Britain, where she was born into an Indian migrant family, and India, where she arrived as a 22-year-old English-speaker, married, and stayed to work and raise a family. “I was an outsider in both places,” she declared in 2013. “Poor me. Lucky me. Often I had conversations about the idea of authenticity because I think within the first few years when I arrived in India, it was very difficult — I mean to find a place. I wasn’t really Indian enough, and so how could I comment on the culture?”
Kher has since vaulted over the arbitrary fences that divide artists into one category or another, based on nationality, sex, gender or the materials they use.
“I couldn’t care less where I was from or where you are from,” says Kher with a matterof-fact directness softened by infectious enthusiasm for her topic. “If your art is going to define you by your place, that is something that I am not actually interested in at all.”
What interests and delights her, when we meet in the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at the University of Western Australia, is the way her dozen artworks — paintings, installations and sculptures — sit in the gallery’s elegant and sparse spaces.
“I love making art but it’s such a joy to see work out of a studio,” she says. “It creates context and it helps one understand imagery.”
Getting a clear view of her bigger works is near impossible in her crammed studio in Delhi. “Sculptures can sit in my studio for years, I work on 30 to 40 projects at a time. It’s like a kitchen: there’s jam being made here, something else there.”
She’s pleased to be invited — for a second time — to Australia, this time by Perth International Arts Festival’s visual arts program. The resulting exhibition, Bharti Kher: In Her Own Language, which runs until June 13, is her first solo show in Australia. She also has work showing at Cockatoo Island in Sydney as part of the Biennale of Sydney.
Kher’s languages are English and Hindi, the latter painfully learned after meeting and marrying artist Subodh Gupta in India. Their two children are English and Hindi-speaking. But her language of expression is art, “which touches something that is common to us all. The idea is not to be national or international, but to just do what you do to make your work.”
One glance at her sculptural pieces tells you much about Kher’s singular thinking. Warrior with Cloak and Shield is a striking female figure — resin cast from the body of one of Kher’s friends, naked except for underpants and shoes. The figure stares calmly at you from under an elaborate set of horns sprouted from her head. It is neither a feminist statement, nor an ode to Grecian antiquity, although oddly it stirs thoughts of both. In reality, the inspiration comes from the recesses of Kher’s mind, usually after a half-made work has sat gathering dust.
“This one sat in my studio for about two years. And then one day I realised it needs horns and hair. I’m looking at African tribal styles to bind up hair, so I think: ‘Let’s use that.’ The idea is that these women are not from a particular time. There’s a sense that you can’t place my women, they defy time and any kind of logical placing.”
Warrior embodies a complex vulnerability; this powerful woman is burdened by huge horns that don’t allow her to move easily.
“But she has a cloak and shield to protect her,” says Kher. “I’m playing with the contradictions between what it is to be male and female, deconstructing the idea of (men) being the warrior by feminising them. I think she’s beautiful.”
Kher leads me to an austere, shrinelike alcove where, on a marble plinth, sits a golden bowl. The work is called Sing to them that will listen, and its meaning lies in thousands of tiny grains of rice contained within the Tibetan singing bowl. If you peer closely, you see minuscule writing on every grain; Kher explains that each grain holds part of a real person’s plea for a partner, advertised in an Indian newspaper’s matrimonial column.
“I was trying to take this idea of how everyone seeks love, what we will do in communicating and finding love,” she says. “I’ve been collecting matrimonial columns for a number of years … I think of them as social and anthropological studies — in five pages — of the entire subcontinent of India.”
The use of rice grains was inspired by a professional rice writer in the Indian tourist town of Dilli Haat, where he inscribed her name and those of her children on rice grains.
“It all starts to come together, I’m looking at the matrimonials and now I’ve met this man — it’s perfect — so I bring them all together.” You sense that India’s infinitely creative, always chaotic artisan scene suits her well. With her obsessive attention to detail, Kher worked out how to spray the grains and preserve them so they wouldn’t be eaten by insects. “I put them all in a bowl and mixed them all up. All the people, all the
and Shield, classes, all the structures, all the men and all the women in one bowl.”
We move on to Cloudwalker, a life-size fibreglass figure that is part woman, part Hindu goddess and part animal, brandishing a pitchfork and dancing on one foot. Kher describes her as “an urban witch, a woman of both mythology and everyday life, a hybrid”.
One of her most famous works is a life-size female elephant slumped prone on the ground, her skin covered in an intricate patina of spermshaped bindis. One of three elephant versions sold for nearly £1 million in 2010 at Sotheby’s; commentators variously described the elephant form as representing India’s environmental decline or the nation’s seething life force.
A central motif used by Kher is one of India’s oldest cultural adornments, the “bindi”, a decorative dot worn by Indian women on their foreheads and representing the third eye. Massproduced “bindi” dots are used in their thousands, in different shapes and sizes, to form swirling layered patterns. The bindi works on display in Perth include Virus, a 3m spiral made of 10,000 hand-dyed bindis on a gallery wall.
Similar installations have been made in Norway, Japan, Britain and China, with each work being completed when the entire set is installed in a handcrafted box.
“It’s almost like you give a life to an object and you put faith in it. Virus is a timepiece that marks a year, a space into which this work has intervened.”
Each work is also tagged — in notes Kher includes in the box — to a notable historic event for that year. “This Virus will mark the recent discovery of the sound of two black holes clashing,” she says. “So I’ve created a time vortex that you can enter in Perth.
“The project started in 2010 and will continue until 2040, when I’ll be 70 … I may or may not be alive but the work continues to intervene and create a sense of meaning.”
Kher’s use of the bindi, the “third eye”, “is not cultural, it is conceptual”, she insists. “I like the extraordinary possibility that these works can ‘see’ you, just through [exploring] an idea.”
It comes back to Kher’s determination to speak a universal language through art, even if aspects of that language derive from a specific culture.
“We are all communicating through imagery, whether we are from Africa or India or Australia. I’ve changed this (bindi) symbol’s meaning, its syntax and semiotics. It’s so much more now than its origin, and that’s why art is interesting.”
She adds with casual afterthought: “And you’ve got to take it somewhere else. Otherwise it’s boring.”
is at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth, until June 13. Her work is also showing at Cockatoo Island as part of the Biennale of Sydney until June 5.
Bharti Kher at Sydney Biennale this week, left; Warrior with Cloak