Behold the Future – Katie Paterson interview

Behold the Future – Katie Paterson interview


Born in Glasgow in 1981, and educated at Edinburgh College of Art, and the Slade School of Art, respectively. Paterson belongs to a successful crop of Scottish artists who have broken onto the international art scene in recent times. While her fellow graduates are still likely to be faltering over their second or third group show appearance, Paterson has established herself as one of the most precocious young talents to emerge in the last five years. With solo shows at Modern Art Oxford, UK (2008), Albion Gallery, London (2008), James Cohen Gallery, New York (2011), and BAWAG, Vienna (2012). Paterson moved to Berlin after graduating, from where she positively engages with a wealth of creative approaches that are less painting and sculpture, and more a cache of inventive mediums that turn her otherworldly interests into artworks. Paterson’s collected works are born of her wonder of such magnificent manifestations as cosmology and universal causality, and her investigative exercises can appear as sound pieces and atomized rock. That begin and end their journey in localised spaces (gallery and site-specific). Encouraged by a new wave of interest in planetary studies and global issues, Paterson has drawn our attention to timely subject matters that ground us all, and in so doing has delivered artworks that scrutinize the elemental value of our lives in time and space.

All the Dead Stars 2006, courtesy of the artist

Leading works include All the Dead Stars 2009; which reads as a constellation of 27,000 known dead stars, that Paterson has had carefully laser etched onto black anodized aluminum. An artwork that reads like a blueprint of a sea of astrological fatalities in space. Inside the desert lies the tiniest grain of sand 2010, initially appears as utterly futile, but upon closer inspection becomes something else entirely. A work in which Paterson collected a grain of sand from the Sahara Desert, and using nanotechnology has it reduced from its original microscopic size to something even more impossible to see with the naked eye. The minuscule detail of this grain of sand was then returned to the Sahara and buried deep into the desert. And for all that what remains is a single black and white photograph of the desert, and a figure in the middle distance rising from a sand dune with an arm outstretched. A work that recalls Francis Alÿs’s 2002 work Faith Moves Mountains, (In which Alÿs recruited an army of volunteers in Peru, to move a sand dune several inches).

Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight 2008, courtesy the artist
Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight 2008, courtesy the artist
Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight 2008, courtesy the artist
Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight 2008, courtesy the artist

Another work Light bulb to Simulate moonlight 2008, appears as an impressive installation of coloured domestic light bulbs. That have been removed from an oversized wooden crate, which appears as part of the artwork. The bulbs running side by side within an open cabinet attached to the wall, in an amusement park styled display. The configuration of 289 bulbs, in which each bulb burns for 200 hours, alludes to the lifespan of a human being in relation to the light transmitted by the moon in a given lifetime. A ‘light’ and ‘life’ installation, the infinite calculables of Light bulb to Simulate moonlight 2008, proves like so many of Paterson’s work, that they are greater than the sum of their parts.

Rajesh Punj: For an audience less familiar with your work, can you begin by exploring and explaining your practice?

Katie Paterson: I often work with many different people to realise my ideas. My art practice is multi-disciplinary, exploring ideas relating to the landscape, geology, space, time and the cosmos; using technology to bring together the commonplace and the cosmic. Everyday technologies – such as mobile phones, record players and radios – connect with vaster, more intangible phenomena. The imagination always plays a key role. In the past, I have broadcast the sounds of a melting glacier live to a visitor on a mobile phone; mapped all the dead stars; compiled a slide archive of the history of darkness across the ages; custom-made a light bulb to simulate the experience of moonlight; and buried a nano-sized grain of sand deep within the Sahara desert. My studio practice is changeable and dynamic. I have a modest studio in Berlin, and two assistants. In the last few months our research has ranged from lunar chemistry, forestry, geology, clock making and horology, to paleontology and perfumery.

Inside this desert lies the tiniest grain of sand 2011, courtesy of the artist
Inside this desert lies the tiniest grain of sand 2011, courtesy of the artist
Inside this desert lies the tiniest grain of sand 2011, courtesy of the artist
Inside this desert lies the tiniest grain of sand 2011, courtesy of the artist

RP: When was it you first turned your attention to the world outside?

KP: I don’t think I’ve been attuned to anything other than the world outside. As far as I can remember, it has always been this way. Over the years and through learning via subjects like astronomy, it is becoming clearer that the world outside and inside are the same. The same atoms that were formed in the early universe pervade through the universe now; our planet is formed from the remnants of exploding stars from millions of years ago. These remnants and elements flow in our blood.

RP: You describe having ‘no particular interest in the cosmos’ prior to going to Iceland in 2004/2005, and definitely ‘not of a scientific mind’. What was it about the extreme environment there that altered your practice so fundamentally?

KP: Being in Iceland adjusted my perceptions and senses about living on, and belonging to, a planet that revolves around a vast star, amongst billions of others. It took being in Iceland’s otherworldly nature to remind me of this. Iceland is exploding and shaking with life and energy, the sun sets and rises in the same moment, the light continues through the night. Lava poured across landscapes evoke its evolution. I looked upwards and all around, and became interested in geology and time, the moon and the wider cosmos.


Vatnajökull (the sound of) 2007, courtesy of the artist
Vatnajökull (the sound of) 2007, courtesy of the artist


RP: You have termed your works ‘subtle and minimal’, and that you require the audiences ‘imagination to take a leap, and its where that takes you that matters.’ Is your work less about the idle act of looking, and more an invitation to engage with an idea?

KP: First comes the looking, or reading in the case of the Ideas – Sterling Silver texts, haiku like statements – on show at Ingleby Gallery now. Then I hope, comes the transportation, to the place or image formed. Works like Vatnajökull (a live phone line to a glacier) or Second Moon (posting a fragment of the moon around the globe) involve real live processes, but much is unseen, perhaps only heard, or encountered through a simple tracking slip. The collapsing of space and time takes place in the mind, and the encounters are within the imagination. The minimal nature of my work is intended to leave no space for distraction, but plenty of space to take the leap into the day-dream.

RP: You appear fascinated by the elements, ‘on earth as they are in the universe’; how might we begin to comprehend the visionary ideas that you want us to experience, in the artworks and installations that you produce for us?

Fossil Necklace 2013, courtesy of the artist
Fossil Necklace 2013, courtesy of the artist

KP: I am fascinated by the elements; distant lightning storms on earth, explosions in space, weather on other planets, ancient fossilized forests. The elemental nature of the universe in the period after the Big Bang. Ancient Darkness TV looks back to a time in the universe where the first light existed.

A faraway meteorite was molten, recast, and then returned to space. The time is evident in the materials and alchemical process. Fossil Necklace charts the evolution of life across earth through carved fossils – trees, rocks, creatures, coal, coral, even fossilised rain. On the surface Fossil Necklace might look like a discrete and aesthetic object, but when probed further its dark side is revealed, the death and mass extinction of life repeatedly.

RP: How do you effectively combine ‘art with science’ so well, as has been written about you?

KP: I do collaborate with scientists – astronomers, lighting engineers, genetic evolutionists, paleontologists, to name a few. These collaborations are central to what I do. However, these fields of interest are not only within the realm of science. The matter, material, phenomena in my investigations exist around us, inside us, everywhere. My artwork follows from a curiosity about the world and universe, and sometimes this involves fields of science (examining gamma ray bursts, the temperature of moonlight, the time on other planets), but also philosophy (is there a time before the Big Bang?) literature (Future Library) and poetry (the recent Ideas).

Second Moon 2013, courtesy of the artist
Second Moon 2013, courtesy of the artist

RP: With your work resembling more of the scientific, has your studio become a laboratory from where you correspond with a whole network of scientists? And do you have a library of books on astrophysics, where other artists might have sketches and paint plied to the wall?

KP: The studio rotates from moments of order to complete chaos. I work best in a calm, empty, quiet space. However at times the studio does resemble a laboratory. During the development of Fossil Necklace for example, there were huge bones of extinct beasts, the thigh of an ancient mammal next to chunks of tree from Egypt, strange sea creatures and piles of fossil dust everywhere. The studio became an excavation site. We test things out in the studio, prototypes, models etc., it gets messy. There is a lot of communication too. When the studio was built I thought we had enough space for 10 years of books, but we seemed to have filled them already.


RP: It is fair judgement to say your works are ‘simple’ while they deal with the complex?

KP: I like to think that each of my artworks can be expressed in a few sentences, even a few words; laconic. My works aren’t intended to provoke a particular response, but function more like a butterfly effect, beginning like a shadow and rippling out, quietly. My own creative processes are quite similar. Ideas come, often through a process of writing, images appearing clearly, often in nano, milliseconds. The idea is discrete, described in a few words, and later if I’m lucky its ripples might catch up with me, and I’ll think about bringing it into existence. I hope the complexity is evident, wrapped up in the simplicity of the ideas.

RP: Words like ‘time’, ‘distance’, ‘transformation’, and ‘a sense of awe’, have been used to describe your work. Are you attempting to capture a vast matrix of evolutionary ideas in each of your works; that are of the earth and not of this earth at the same time?

KP: I like the idea that my work is ‘of the earth and not of the earth’ as the same time. Fossil Necklace brings together micro and macro worlds. Ancient ammonites carved out look like mini Saturns’. Planets of coral seas. Second Moon is hovering on the boundary between planet and sky, sky and galaxy, galaxy and universe. The thousands of pinpoints etched on the map of dead stars represent light that has travelled through the universe to earth, and the material from these stellar explosions combined to form earth. I hope my work has an ecology of ideas, forming connections between distant times, spaces, species, gaps, universes.

The Miniaturist – Imran Qureshi Interview

The Miniaturist

Midnight garden. 2014. Acrylic Canvas. Diptych. 78 inches X 54 Inches each panel.
Midnight garden. 2014. Acrylic Canvas. Diptych. 78 inches X 54 Inches each panel.

Imran Qureshi is at a point now where he possibly spends much more of his time hovering just above the clouds than he is rooted to earth. Softly spoken and looking exhausted for the all of the accumulated air miles under his belt, Qureshi is fundamentally a very honest and well intentioned artist, whose success he still has trouble comprehending. Describing the turning point as his Sharjah Biennial commission in 2011, in which he decorated the courtyard of the Beit Al Serkal building with the work Blessings Upon the land of my Love. Qureshi’s signature style of layering beauty over violence was heralded with his receiving the biennale award that year. Which in turn lead more significantly to his being recognised as Deutsche Bank’s artist of the year in 2013. Which like a monsoon led to a whole series of high profile shows at the KunstHalle, Berlin (2013), Museo d’arte Cotemporanea, Rome, (2013), Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, Antwerp, (2013) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (2013), in less than twelve months. Qureshi’s work is a combination of lashings of creative spirit, reeled in by pockets of miniature details that appear to anchor his work, and give it its cultural currency. And for Qureshi as reluctant as he original was to take on the style, it has proved the making of the man.

Here and there.2014. Acrylic and gold leaf on wasli paper. Collection Edythe Broad Art museum
Here and there.2014. Acrylic and gold leaf on wasli paper. Collection Edythe Broad Art museum

Rajesh Punj: Can I initially ask how do you work so effectively over so many continents and countries now? Do you seek to surround yourself with a team of technicians and gallery assistants?

Imran Qureshi: No I mainly work alone, I only take help when I am working on a site-specific floor or wall painting on a larger scale. Otherwise I do everything by myself, even managing my own studio. But now I feel like I need someone because it has become too much. But I have always been more comfortable when I am alone.

RP: Have you now arrived at a point where you can stop teaching and concentrate entirely on your work, and all of the commitments that come with being so critically successful now?

IQ: I think teaching is still integral to my work, it is something I have been doing since day one. And the college is very understanding of my needing to be in Dubai, Paris, London or New Delhi. And they let me, and even encourage me to do my own practice. Even if I am here I manage over there as well, constantly talking to my teaching assistant. And they are always informing me that this thing is happening in the class, and of what to do regarding that.

Trespass.2014.Gouache and gold leaf on wasli paper.
Trespass.2014.Gouache and gold leaf on wasli paper.

RP: So originally you began as a miniature painter?

IQ: I was trained as a miniature painter at the National College of Arts, Lahore in 1993, and as a student I realised there was a point where I had to choose an area of specialisation. So I chose printmaking as my elective, and painting as my specialisation; not choosing miniature painting originally at all. But then my lecturer who introduced me to miniature painting in my second year at the NCA, he persisted in telling me to take on miniature painting as a practice. He said ‘you can do it and you can be very good at it.’ And I said no my temperament is very different. I was very social and into performance at that time. I was originally doing performance based theatre with other students. And of course miniature painting was something that was very demanding.

RP: I assume with miniature painting there isn’t the scope for being as spontaneous as you would have wished to be?

IQ: Yes but for me it became a curiosity, a calling if you like; having been almost coerced into choosing miniature painting as a professional practice. I thought I should give it a try, and I took it as a challenge. There is a general perception about miniature painting that it is only about reproducing existing miniature paintings. That it is entirely about the craft of reproducing a work, and about a standard technique. And that under such circumstances you cannot express yourself as an artist. But for me when I decided to engage with and become a miniature painter, I decided to break away from these pre-conceived ideas.

RP: So you decided to introduce contemporary elements to the process of painting?

opening word of this new scripture.2013.gouache and gold leaf on wasli paper. 27x22cm. Collection The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York
opening word of this new scripture.2013.gouache and gold leaf on wasli paper. 27x22cm. Collection The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York

IQ: I kept asking myself what contemporary miniature painting might be, and I tried to find an answer through my art practice. So possibly it wasn’t entirely about introducing something new into miniature painting, it actually happened very naturally. The academic training at the NCA was very strict and incredibly disciplined, and I learnt the technique with a certain kind of understanding, and then when I was doing my own work I was free. It is in my blood, so now even if I am doing a rooftop commission or a miniature painting, there is a connection of two very different things.

RP: In terms of miniature painting what was the next step for you, because obviously now when we consider your work, the scale of the works have become monumental. How have you so effectively made such a shift from the minor to the major?

IQ: That goes back to my interest in performance that I mentioned earlier. I was always interested in contemporary painting, and in mixed media as a student. So I think for me whether I am making a small miniature or a giant installation, they are one and the same. I can easily comprehend both, even with issues of differing scale and size. Because it is in my nature that I enjoy such challenges. And with a major show I don’t wish to plan too much of it, because if I do follow certain guide lines and stick to a predetermined plan, there is no excitement in it for me. For the forth-coming Ikon show in Birmingham, the original idea was to bring the And they Still Seek the Traces of Blood work there, and I suggested we remove some of the work and I decided to introduce a new element to the work for the show.

RP: So what of the works you are currently working on now?

IQ: There are different exhibitions coming up. My work is in the Manchester Triennial, which has just opened; which includes collected works from my gallerist Corvi Mora, as well as from other collections. And then there is another show in Toronto at a new museum called the Aga Khan Museum, and this will be the inaugural show of the museum. Interestingly they have their own collection, which is Islamic art, where I will be exhibiting with five or six Pakistani artists. I am making new works for that, including miniature paintings, plus a site-specific piece in the gardens of the gallery. I am also planning to show my new video works there. I am making two when I return to Lahore, and then two are already on exhibition at Rhode Island, New York.

RP: The pièce de résistance for me are your monumental paper installations; And they Still Seek the Traces of Blood, a version of which was in Antwerp. What are you attempting with that work?

And they still seek the traces of blood. 2014. off-set printed sheets of paper. dimensions variable. site specific installation at MUHKA Antwerp. photo courtesy MUHKA Antwerp.
And they still seek the traces of blood. 2014. off-set printed sheets of paper. dimensions variable. site specific installation at MUHKA Antwerp. photo courtesy MUHKA Antwerp.

IQ: That is one of my favourite works too, and it will come to Ikon, Birmingham in November aswell. Essentially the work is made up of different images of previous installations I have completed. At the Macro Museum in Rome, the work was made up of images of the Metropolitan roof top work, with photographs of the details of that. And I had those details printed up on both sides of a thousand pieces of paper, and then it is rumpled up and already coloured, so it looks like meat or flesh. And the red colour comes from the print itself. So when you construct it you transform it into something. So I originally used the architectural plans of the Sharjah court yard in a show in Lahore and again in Berlin; and then I used images of the Metropolitan Rooftop at the Macro Museum in Rome and Dubai. And more recently in Michigan I used the Metropolitan rooftop again; but in Mukha, Antwerp, I used my recent installation from Michigan.

There are six different images in total, with details on both sides of the paper; and there are more than twenty thousand sheets of paper in total. The work is built up systematically, and the basic shape is constructed. But out of twenty-eight thousand sheets of rumpled paper, if twenty sheets fall down, I can live with that. You cannot stop something from happening, even if someone wishes to touch it, and in a way it is about the audience investigating the work as some kind of incident. Because the original idea was about how an incident can happen on the street, and it is the ‘common people’ who suffer the most. And immediately afterwards the common people are asked to stay aware from the site of the incident, in order the authorities can be allowed to investigate what has happened. And as a consequence you don’t get the whole story. So the work becomes about the audience, who can’t touch it, or investigate it. And the work becomes traces of an incident or an event that has happened previously.

RP: On the nature of the temporality of your work, have you been commissioned as yet to create a more permanent work?

IQ: No, nobody as yet asked me, and it would depend entirely on the space. But there are two elements that are always consistent in my work, whether I am doing miniature works or larger scale work, to do with violence or beauty. In order I can create loosely defined marks with carefully drawn images; and a place, space, city, will always add something new to that mix. And it can be in a subtle way, but it does allow for something new every time. For example the paper installation, the first time And they Still Seek the Traces of Blood was first shown in Lahore, and then it went to Berlin, the display was entirely different because of the nature of the space there, and of the facilities and everything there. And again at the Macro Museum in Rome, it was completely different again. The layout was more like lava melting and coming down and creating a landscape. And for the Ikon it will be a variation again. It is always very subtle and very slight, but I will add something new to the work every time it goes somewhere else. And it is always about the work and how it sits in the space, in order it can have a strong dialogue with the audience. And the works are always about the human experience.

RP: But I guess that’s the nature of the beast, of your international success allowing for one show after another. Was Deutsche Bank’s recognition the turning point for you?

IQ: No the turning point for me came earlier with the Sharjah Biennale, and of my installation over there; and it definitely made the world look at my work. I never expected that. People were telling me that the award for best artist was for me at the dinner. And I was asking why am I going to get it? Why should I be chosen over everyone else? And when they announced my name I was more interested in my fish supper than anything else. And that was the moment, and the response was so powerful that it was a very different experience from what I had known before.
Not just from the curator, gallerist and museum people, but from the common people who were coming to the show. And everyone was relating to the works immediately. Some people in the audience were actually crying. And they were saying this is the first time that a work has made us cry, actually cry.

Building a Foundation – Lekha Poddar interview

 ‘Lekha Poddar 2010, courtesy of Lekha Poddar and the Devi Art Foundation’
‘Lekha Poddar 2010, courtesy of Lekha Poddar and the Devi Art Foundation’

In terms of everything positive that is of the contemporary Indian art scene now, then Lekha Poddar is its tour-de-force. Demonstrative and equally demanding of what she expects of those around her, Poddar’s original interests, fashioned by her son Anupam Poddar; appear to have expanded well beyond the visual arts and into the realms of cultural diplomacy. Based between Gurgaon, (Delhi), and London; and with an eye on the art scenes in Lahore, Tehran, Karachi and Kabul; the Devi Art Foundation’s attentions are as inclusive of the regions immediately outside of India as humanly possible. Outspoken in her criticism of the infrastructure for the arts in India, Poddar is fully aware of what is and isn’t working there. And rather than letting things take care of themselves, she is known for positively lambasting the art establishment of which she is a part. Responding to India’s Venice Biennale absence last year, Poddar forthrightly commented that before we think of going on to global platforms, we need to get our house in order in India. Accusing the powers that be of infrastructural failings that have allowed for a climate of inertia. Leading the way with a creditable alternative, the foundation appears to have gone from strength to strength, and in five years they have managed to amass a vast collection of works of immeasurable significance, from the early and contemporary periods.

Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, courtesy of Lekha Poddar and the Devi Art Foundation
Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, courtesy of Lekha Poddar and the Devi Art Foundation

Harper’s Bazaar Art: What is happening outside of Mumbai and Delhi in India in terms of art now?

Lekha Poddar: Bangalore, Pune, things are happening there, Kolkata as well. Not a whole lot happens but there are two people, Abhishek Basu (of Abhishek Basu Contemporary), and Prateek Raja of Experimenter Gallery, both in Kolkata, both are doing amazing things. And I think Prateek is very important for the contemporary scene, because I think what he is doing is really path breaking. Sitting there in Kolkata with no cliental, but selling to the world, and establishing a really good global reach. Really taking up artists who I am not saying would not be taken up by other galleries, but I think he (and his wife Priyanka) picks very carefully and he picks very well. And the artists are not all based in Kolkata; they are from Bangladesh, Pakistan, of course Indian, and some are in Kolkata. I think (Prateek) is really amazing. It is one of the best gallerists in India at the moment, and I do think he is truly brilliant. Mort Chatterjee and Tara Lal have also done what other galleries have not done, introducing performance art before anybody had even though of it.

HBA: Does that come with greater awareness of the contemporary European and American art scenes?

LP: I think a little yes; I think otherwise I find that the Indian galleries unfortunately are really lacking professionalism, and they are not pushing boundaries. Some are taking care of their artists; this that and the other. But basically it is all about the market, rather than creating a market. You can say, ‘I am following the market, so what do I do if so-and-so doesn’t sell’. But it shouldn’t be about creating a great deal of hype over an artist in order to create a market for them. If you look at their practices and guide them, that proves better in the long run.

Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, courtesy of Lekha Poddar and the Devi Art Foundation
Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, courtesy of Lekha Poddar and the Devi Art Foundation

HBA: That appears to be an enormous infrastructural issue with how the arts are managed in India; is that the case?

LP: I think so, very often the artists don’t like very much conversation, and the gallerists won’t have that conversation either. And if we want to move forward, developing an artist and providing them with a platform is a very important part of the art world. I mean gallerists should guide their artists, criticise their work, and also agree with their work. Give them a direction as to what the market would like, or discuss the next sets of works. I think it is very important, but unfortunately I am not sure enough it is really happening.

HBA: Is that to do with the more established gallerists thinking entirely of art as a commercial enterprise, and not as a vocation with a long view?

LP: My judgement is that from the turn of the century there was a very small market (in India); the artists and the gallerists had a great camaraderie, and they were all friends. But the market was small then; a small market with a small number of collections all with manageable prices. And then if we move forward fifty, sixty, seventy years; post two thousand, especially post two thousand and four, the boom came. And I don’t know if the gallerists even realised how to negotiate that whole thing. Everybody was so happy selling, and the artists were so happy selling, but nobody; possibly one or two did, but by-and-large nobody got into that stage of conversation between the two, (the gallerists and the market), of what to present to the market.

HBA: Are you suggesting at the time gallerists were collectively unable to discuss what was happening among themselves, in order to seek a more sustainable infrastructure for the arts thereafter? And can that be blamed on a climate of cultural selfishness in India that is more damaging to the arts than anything else?

LP: I think in India that is a problem, a huge problem, everybody wants to do their own little thing. And it is something to do with our DNA possibly, I don’t know if it is the same with the Chinese, the Malaysians or Indonesians, but I think that is an Indian characteristic across the board, and across any field. Unfortunately it is in our DNA.

HBA: Has this kind of cultural selfishness acted as an achilles’ heel for the contemporary art scene in India?

LP: I am saying that I imagine all of this is a western import. All of this, the idea of the ‘museums’, and ‘gallerists’. So I feel that over post-colonial India that that legacy carried on, and as I was saying the original market was very small to begin with. Those few galleries and artists interacted, because there were about ten collectors. There were really not that many, and the artists’ base was also small, there might have been between fifty and seventy artists all over India. Others were preoccupied with small things that were not particularly relevant. And then this explosion of contemporary art happened in a period when India was opening up economically; and they (western collectors and gallerists) created a market driven economy, and obviously the art was simultaneously market driven. So I don’t know if everyone has even had the chance to sit back and even think. And also more significantly because we have no critics, (which we touched upon earlier), we have no critical writing. So unfortunately it became a free for all. Because there is nobody to give a decent review of any exhibition, or there is no one who knows enough to even criticise it. So until someone gets into that whole thing, and brings it out into the open, we will continue to suffer for it.

HBA: Does that not require a great deal of honesty on the part of gallerists, dealers, collectors, and artists alike in India? 

LP: Beyond honesty you need to know, you yourself need to know. Otherwise everyone is living in a vacuum because of there being a lack of everything to sufficiently support the arts in India. I think in India because gallerists don’t take the initiative to guide their artists enough, the artists themselves in their mid-twenties, and early thirties begin to think they know it all. ‘I don’t wish to listen to the nonsense that these external people are saying’. But fundamentally if there were people who knew their art, and the art scene well enough, in order to make it clear that this is what is happening around you, and if this is your kind of art then this is the kind of direction you should take; then they would possibly listen. Somebody has to be authoritative enough to do that, and it depends as you said on art schools, and art education taking a lead.

HBA: I remember the damning statement you made in Art Newspaper this year, aimed at those responsible for Indian art internationally; after it was confirmed there would not be an Indian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year. And I quote ‘Before we think of going onto global platforms, we need to get our house in order in India. To have a dialogue on public/private partnerships, we first have to strengthen our (art) academia, curatorships, critical writing, cataloguing, displays and so forth. How are we going to sustain the top of the pyramid when there is no base?’ Do you still believe that to be the case? 

LP: I still maintain that. Why start at the top of a pyramid when we don’t have a base. Obviously the Venice biennial is very important, and of course we should push ourselves to be on an international platform. But I also feel that there has to be good curating for that to happen, that there has to be good backing. Artists have to be chosen very carefully, and it should not only be about artists who are market led. You know you really do need to have a whole critical appraisal of the art scene, and I agree in India it is happening slowly. We have the Kochi-Muziris Biennale which has been hugely successful, and I am pretty sure the next one in December 2014 will be a shade better. So a very small base is being created. The (India) art fair is serving a purpose I suppose in a very small way, yes they have huge footfall because the population numbers are so big. But very definitely until we get educational institutions correct, until we get people who become slightly more professional; and I refer to the gallerists and the artists, and until we have proper reviews and sound criticism for the arts in India, we are always going to be in this state of flux.

HBA: Therefore it becomes even more imperative for everyone to empowerment themselves, in order those involved in the arts can have a more informed debate. Clearly that’s not happening fast enough.

LP: In today’s world it is so easy via the net to see what is happening in the world. Even the generation of artists who started in the mid 1990’s, possibly for ten years of their lives, they had access (to the internet), but not such abundant access. Today everything is a click of a button away, so whether you are there or not there, if you are really interested in learning and knowing, you can actually just do it from your room. You have to want to be curious, and you also need that kind of inquisitive mind to say I want to know more.

HBA: So in terms of the Devi Arts Foundation, located just outside Delhi; what was the catalyst that lead to you acquiring works of art, and that then becoming something more substantial?

LP: Well as far as buying art was concerned in the mid-eighties, matching up with friends, I used to buy, but never thinking it was ever going to become a collection. And we then made a new home in 1998, and my son Anupam who had just returned from university met Bharti Kher, and he initially kept saying do you mind if I buy art of my generation. He ventured on, and basically started the collection, and then would nudge me after a year or so and suggested why don’t we do this together. And it involved art which to be honest I didn’t understand initially and I was not familiar with; and my generation were not familiar with installation art and video art. So this was all very new material for me. It took me a little while and I got into the swing of things, and we started buying a lot of works together. Affordable works, because these were young artists, who were trying and experimenting, and there were conversations and dialogues. But of course with the boom in 2004 and so on all of that slowed a little. I am not sure if we have ever stopped buying but everything changed.

Choreographed Culture – Danjuma Collection

Amid the melee of commotion that proliferates during the art world’s most significant calendar event, Frieze; there are other shows that more regularly would be considered critically necessary. Ceased upon they are choreographed into the autumn art curriculum as a consequence of the art fair, and serve to amplify the energy of international contemporary art. These are exhibitions that might well be lost on the cultural periphery, or serve as engaging counterpoints to the main event; for the inventiveness of artists and institutions alike. On the edge of London’s Fitzroy Square, inside a period house that appears as significant as any interlocked into the square, is an exhibition of works of the young collector Theo Danjuma. Having acquired a wealth of works that focus for the majority on the contemporary African art scene; Danjuma has audaciously drawn together a calibre of artists the like of which have been a long time coming. Among them Berlin based Vietnamese artist Danho Vo, Norwegian Matias Faldbakken, Los Angeles based artist Oscar Tuazon, British YBA veteran Sarah Lucas. European and American works that have been drawn into the Danjuma Collection alongside pieces by Nigerian Emekha Ogboh, Ethiopian born, New York based artist Julie Mehretu, South African Nicholas Hlobo; and Ghanaian born, London based artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. In a temporary exhibition of two and three dimensional works that are collectively and critically of the moment, it is impossible not to be thoroughly engaged by these virtuoso artworks. That are a measure of the graffitied styled and unpoliced actions of a new generation of international artist reaching for materials as the source of their ideas. And the verve and vigour with which the majority of the artist’s collected by Danjuma work is quite inspired.

Danjuma Collection. 1. Dineo Seshee Bopape, Exit, 2013.jpg
Dineo Seshee Bopape, Exist 2013, courtesy The Danjuma Collection

Rooted to the basement is Matias Faldbakken Untitled work (Golf Bag) 2011, which is in close proximity to South African Dineo Seshee Bopape’s Exit 2103. A work that is comprised of three television sets and two speakers that appear to have been high-jacked by an extra-terrestrial energy transmitted on the screen. Whereby the routine of figures and television dialogue are replaced, exterminated even, by these altering landscapes of fluctuating colours that have turned these containers of entertainment into messengers for other wordly acts. Bopape’s relic televisions reflect the hyper modernity we have become accustomed to in the west, from the more cumbersome recycled objects that have become the steadfast instruments of every other home in the world.

The televised alien invasion leads one in the direction of a flurry of synthesised sounds that accompany a series of short film pieces entitled (dis)connect I,II, III, IV by Nigerian Emekha Ogboh. Which for the most part are some of the most impressive collaged film pieces to have come onto the art scene for a long time. Against this absorbing yet abrasive soundtrack from the city, these interconnected films appear as technically crafted mirror images of bold technicoloured pedestrians and motor vehicles that inter-collide into the subdivided lines of the elongated screen. And as remarkable acts of visual alchemy, the generated scenes of figures emerging in the foreground, melting into their symmetrical other half, before impressively dissolving in on themselves, becomes positively hypnotic. As these generative and progressively sequenced events become the sophisticated narrative for what would otherwise be a more original street scene in Nigeria. The disconnect series appears as a synthetic rereading of the very ordinary, as Ogboh’s interlaced patterns of architectonic shapes and human anatomy make for a thoroughly arresting work.

Danjuma Collection. 1. Glenn Ligon, Just Us #6, 2008
Glenn Logan, Just Us #6 2008, courtesy of the Danjuma Collection

In an adjoining room in more of a domestic setting is a work by German artist Yngve Holen, beside a striking canvas by Black American artist Glenn Ligon. Whose edgy and unapologetic repertoire proves utterly of the moment. In a work that rests on the wall as untidy graffiti, Ligon’s Just Us #6, 2008 reads as a prophecy for modern times. As eloquent as anything by (Jack) Kerouac or (Allen) Ginsberg, from whom this typography appears to have been borrowed; Ligon reads the riot act on being black in America. In a disjoined and partly illegible text, as black on a silver skinned canvas, the paragraph of words reads ‘I went to jail for income tax evasion’, and goes on ‘You go down there looking for justice: that’s what you find: just us’. Ligon’s diction is remarkably dynamic, and the work appears to be a throwback to the era of American counter-culture of the 1950’s; of which Kerouac and Ginsberg were a part.

Zimbabwean Kudzanai Chiurai’s oil on canvas work White Picket 2011, is purposefully lodged into a corner of the stylish upper studio space. The work reads like a contemporary take on much of the signature style of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, yet with greater menace. The painting has a central figure gripping a blade in one hand and a blunt instrument in the other. The apparatus of violence that has since become synonymous with the barbarism of the prolonged civil wars across central Africa. With a charcoaled outline of a picket fence differentiating the foreground, that Chiurai’s masked protagonist occupies, from the coloured background; Chiurai’s has loosely painted in lettering that begins to explain the works canon. Of which you can initially make out the words ‘In 1865 there was nothing more dangerous’, which provides a loose narrative for the menacing interplay between symbols of brutality, and the decorative ease with which Chiurai applies colour to canvas. The artists brilliantly engendered work is placed opposite the more distinctive painterly style of London based artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. In which a whole cast of black characters take to the canvas’ stage, in what appears to be a more convincing version of modern history.

Ernest Mancoba, Untitled 1989-90, courtesy of the Danjuma Collection
Ernest Mancoba, Untitled 1989-90, courtesy of the Danjuma Collection

South African Ernest Mancoba’s Untitled 1989- 1990, ink and oil pastel on paper reads like a series of conformations, of ink and pastel drawing swords on a beige coloured battlefield. As Mancoba’s haphazard marks have the same intensity and energy as anything by Russian colourist Wassily Kandinsky. Here there is the minimum of commotion, as the background dominates these hurried marks that the artist comes to settle upon. The work is the measure of quite remarkable man, who was born in South Africa, moved to Paris to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. Before moving to Denmark to become a founding member of the CoBrA group. Before returning to Paris, where Mancoba eventually died in 2002.

Addis Ababa, New York based artist Julie Mehretu’s Mind Breath Drawings 2010, of which there are two works in the collection, read as remarkable graphite on paper compositional curiosities that resemble something of the ideals of early Italian Futurism gone awry. Much looser in trajectory and tone, Ababa appears to allow her mind to determine the direction of travel. And as acts of the unconscious these carpets of tangled marks appear as the register for the almost schizophrenic mind of the artist, as she challenges the condition of existing in a city. And as a consequence Ababa’s unfathomable marks read like the unguarded collision of industries of people climbing over another to penetrate the institutions they serve. For Ababa the evidential fallout becomes the “story maps of no location”.

Julie Mehretu, Mind Breath Drawings 2010, courtesy of the Danjuma Collection
Julie Mehretu, Mind Breath Drawings 2010, courtesy of the Danjuma Collection

On the first floor South Africa Nicholas Hlobo’s work Amaqabaza 2012, and a second Condoba Upsheka 2012, with a third work Izichenene 2012, not on display, resemble the unidentified moving organisms that settle inside the eyelid. Hlobo applies a combination of ribbon, watercolours, and aluminum to a neutrally coloured canvas, in a haphazardly decorative attempt to create something otherworldly. That in the less coloured Izichenene appears like the trail pattern of a cumbersome microsopic creature. Applying bullet holes into the canvas from top to bottom, Hlobo threads coloured ribbon into and over the canvas, in order to create these disseminating patterns that climb up like unraveled intestine. In Amaqabaza Hlobo appears to have shaped the organic proliferation of forms with a looser combination of colours and residual tea stains, and the decorative combinations make for a series of intensely beautiful work.

Neil Beloufa, Spaceship Door 2013, courtesy of the Danjuma Collection
Neil Beloufa, Spaceship Door 2013, courtesy of the Danjuma Collection

Alongside works by French Algerian Neil Beloufa’s work Sad Strawberries 2013, from the vintage series, that read like fashionable panelling for a newly designed interior. With these incongruous domestic switch and sockets applied to a steel framed MDF board that has been pummeled with a heavy duty grinder. To create these undulating gradations that appear more sand dunes than sand coloured board. And any attempt to understand this work upon closer inspection is unrewarded. Blowing 2013 is another work that is socketed up, with a wire leading to the floor, as if the induced energy that might illuminate its register somewhat further.

With the unexhibited synthetics of Spaceship Door 2012, for which Beloufa has stretched printed vinyl over steel with bolts; Beloufa’s preoccupation with materiality demonstrates the artists accomplished ability for juxtaposing material over matter. Rooting through this elegant house top to toe, Theo Danjuma’s collection confirms the spirit of a new kind of contemporary compositional art from all corners of the earth; that makes for a more inclusive display of works.

Technocrat – Eric Schockmel interview

Eric Schockmel, courtesy of

Attending the Ecole de Recherche Graphique in Brussels in 2002, before moving to London in 2006 to read an MA in Communication Design at Central Saint Martins. Adopting the city as his own, Eric Schockmel initially exhibited between London and Luxembourg. Thereafter developing an incredibly sophisticated platform for his animated artworks internationally. With his technological masterpieces at the cusp of the creative industries, science and technology, Schockmel’s work recalls something of the collaborative ideals of 1967 group Experiments in Art and Technology, which included Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman. As his animated entities appear as equalled measured as music videos, multi-screen installations, high-tech commercials and wannabe video games. Describing “motion graphics as an opportunity for storytelling”, Schockmel is interested in the collaborative qualities of working with other designers, animators, scientists and software developers, and the potential of sampling sound, in order he can arrive at something original.

Conscious of the spread of new technologies upon the lives of the individual, Schockmel’s advanced visual prophecies come as a consequence of a culture of excess. Whereby our want of American science fiction and Gucci-can only be temporarily unbalanced by an online assassination attempt in Nigeria; that comes from a proliferating war in the Middle East. And this kind of variable intensity of remote experience, by which we are entertained as much by staged comedy as we are by the relentless sound of gunfire; suggests something of a new kind of ungovernable reality. And such variable circumstances become the platform from which Schockmel’s work appears to address our greater subservience for a more mechanised experience. Which have us exchanging reality for make-belief and vice-versa. As Schockmel explains something of the fallout of believing entirely in the future; “the animations, are dealing with the possible outcome of technology we are using and developing. And most of these consequences are probably unanticipated at this point.”

Eric Schockmel, The Shrine 2014, digital limited edition © Eric Schockmel, courtesy of

Currently exhibiting at the Casino-Forum d’Art Contemporain, Luxembourg, with a jarring juxtaposition of carefully crafted projections set against concrete. Schockmel’s animated sequences are sited in the underbelly of the gallery, where Macrostructure’s light deprived graphics glow with a technological charge that proves almost mesmerising. From within the basement of the gallery, in which walls and pillars fashion a bunker styled space, Schockmel’s individual films read like commercials for future technologies, in which all human presence is jettisoned entirely. And tellingly when discussing the installation, what becomes interesting for Schockmel, was the opportunity to introduce a number of works in close proximity to one another. Allowing for sound spill, and as the artist intended, for an accumulative aura to penetrate the audience’s sub-conscious, in order that they are positively disturbed by the machinery of the works.

Schockmel explains how his work profited from the very elemental spaces. Suggesting “what is really interesting about the Casino is that down here we have a very industrial structure, and we have very interesting conditions for sound; because the sound between these rooms, and the (projected) machines overlap.”

Works of significance include The Shrine 2014, which is elegantly esoteric in appearance. Emerging from the tonal darkness like a biblical landscape, where upon technology delivers its vision. The Shrine which is part of the What If You Created Artificial Life And it Started Worshipping You series, with its emotive sound track and idyllic natural rhythms appears to pay homage to the tranquillity of an alternative dreamlike setting. In which the animated wildlife, the rippling turn of translucent water unsettled by a rolling waterfall, the Japanese styled carpeted islands and protruding rocks, are all backdrop to a series of illuminated lanterns that twist and turn on their elevated axis, like alien figures looking to mate. Resembling something of John Wyndham’s mobile triffid plants, the more intriguing these elongated nucleuses appear as they hover over the serene landscape, the more encompassing their appeal. Schockmel’s earth coloured palette and the depth with which he manages to extend the landscape out across the screen, makes for a remarkable piece of story-telling. In which the constructed world becomes entirely plausible by the time it arrives at its closing sequence.

The Feathered Serpent 2014, digital limited edition © Eric Schockmel, courtesy of
The Feathered Serpent 2014, digital limited edition © Eric Schockmel, courtesy of

Feathered Serpent 2014 is another part of the What If You Created Artificial Life And It Started Worshipping You series, which appears as a sophisticated take on an alternative life source. Entirely forensic in appearance, set against a skin of brilliant white, cushioned by the rhythmic hum of a technological heartbeat; Schockmel’s animated entity reads like the closing moments of a new science fiction film. In which the anatomical arm elevates this precise symmetrical hub of automated petals that collectively protract, revealing a penetrating eye. All of which is elegantly encircled by a series of rotational rings that resemble Saturn’s planetary system in orbit. Spreading out to touch the edges of the screen, these dot and dash circles run in opposition to one another like helicopter blades, as they effectively animate the central axis. Giving the encircled merry-go-round an arresting appeal. And as the central narrative, when a precise number of rotations are complete the outer rings disappear from view as proficiently and very effectively as they originally appeared. In order the automated arm can draw the central hub back in on itself and balance is restored.

Equally spell-binding is The Vision 2014, for its animated complexity. Resembling the rotational charm of a child’s kaleidoscope tube, in which the patterns positively expand and rotate beyond all recognition. Schockmel’s work is centred by an ornate alter piece from which everything else emerges. At its tip is a revolving ruby coloured stone that turns in its axis, in front of a cushion of bird features. And at its base are a series of steps that leads to an eternal flame, from where the works generative energy appears to come.

Eric Schockmel, The Vision 2014, digital limited edition © Eric Schockmel, courtesy of
Eric Schockmel, The Vision 2014, digital limited edition © Eric Schockmel, courtesy of

As the tonal vibrations of sound resonate like distress signals, so the atmosphere metamorphoses into an impenetrable layer, from within which a crystallised collection of circles emerge from behind this central deity. The warmth of which is all-encompassing. Equally the complexity of these expanding circles and the mirrored patterns that are generated in this work, are as attractive as they are inspired. And it becomes almost impossible to qualify from where one circle of shapes begins and another ends; as these highly stylised tessellations indulge upon one another like an orgy of animated beauty.

Darker Lost Holon In A Portal Loop 2014 is a work that generates a certain level of unease, as these mutant incarnations appear to drop from one illuminated portal into another. Set against a dense layer of black, it becomes impossible to reference anything of the world outside, artificial or otherwise. Thus what centres your imagination are these episodes of animation, in which a blue sphere of light appears and disappears, creating a point of entry and beneath it a point of exist, into and out of this transitory space. That has the audience transfixed for a moment. Deliberating over whether these clandestine creatures are falling into or out of a lesser predicament. The slick technological edge of this work comes with Schockmel’s signature use of an automated soundtrack that suggests that what might appear as one-dimensional, is fact a work of incredible depth and tonal atmosphere. The repetitive sequence of one mutation falling into this sliver of space and out of it, followed by another; returning between the two, becomes almost hypnotic. As the illusion of unqualified space and unfathomable depth serves to illustrate just how well Schockmel creates these futuristic animations. Works that we as spectators are as much attached to, as we are detached from.

Eric Schockmel, The Vision 2014, digital limited edition © Eric Schockmel, courtesy of

Eric Schockmel’s three dimensional works for the What If You Created Artificial Life And It Started Worshipping You, shown at Casino Luxembourg appear as detailed universes in which he creates enclaves of animation that lead to these technical but very tender sequences. Life-affirming in their atmospheric tension, Schockmel’s short animations serve to demonstrate that he seeks to address a whole series of very complex and equally compelling ideas via the compass of animation. Not least the technological singularity’s effect from artificial intelligence, first discussed by Historian Henry Adams in the early 1990’s. The controversial advances of bioethics, and the sustained interest for primal worship; addressing the balance between man and nature. Delivering art as science fiction Schockmel’s work appears to demonstrate that there is a central life source at the root of everything. And that however sophisticated such mechanised scenarios become, that there is an elemental energy that furnishes all life. Significantly Schockmel’s video-game aesthetic references a future in which technology can potentially become sophisticated enough to allow for the birth of automated organisms, that themselves evolve the sentience of their own self-awareness, and subsequently start to worship their creators. Schockmel’s visionary work takes us on a profound journey that is as technologically trusting as it is aesthetically attractive.

Major festival participation includes transmediale.09, Deep North, Berlin (2009), VIMEO Festival, New York, (2010), onedotzeo_adventures in motion festival, BFI Southbank, London, (2011), Ars Electronia Animation Festival, Ars Electronica Linz, AT, (2012), The British Animation Film Festival, London (2014), FILE ANIMA+, Sao Paulo, (2014); and exhibitions include, Japan Media Arts Exhibition, National Arts Centre, Tokyo (2009), REMASTERED: An Intel Visibly Smart Production, London/Manchester (2011), Fail, Galerie Nosbaum Reding, Luxemburg, (2011). I’ve dreamt about, MUDAM, Luxembourg, (2014), VESTIBULE, Bergman Berglind Contemporary, Luxembourg, and MACROSTRUCTURE, Casino- Forum d’Art Contemporain, Luxembourg. (2014), FILE Media Art Exhibition, Galeria de Arte do Sesi, Sao Paulo, (2014).

Arrangement of Skin – Polly Morgan interview

Polly Morgan May 2012
Polly Morgan

With childhood ambitions to act; Polly Morgan, born and bought up in the Cotswolds; completed school and studiously decided to attend Queen Mary’s, University of London instead. Pedestrianly graduating in 2002 with an English Literature degree. It was her extra curricula activities, including working at the Shoreditch Electrical Stores, London; that proved significant for her foray into the art world. A popular bar for artists and graduates alike, it was where she met her then boyfriend, British Sculptor Paul Fryer and started to attend East End openings. Influenced by Fryer, and the bar’s clientele quite possibly, Morgan took up ink drawing and clay sculptor, whilst attempting to decorate their apartment above the bar. Experimenting with mediums, she finally took an interest in taxidermy; as a consequence of attempting to buy ornamental creatures, and being frustrated by how alive the encased animals looked; wanting them to play dead. It was suggested to her she learn the technique herself, and she subsequently contacted the most qualified taxidermist in the country, George Jamieson, of Cramond, Edinburgh. With who she learned, within less than a few hours, the initial practice of stuffing a dead animal with a frozen pigeon.

An almost revelatory experience for the literature graduate, Morgan immediately took to taxidermy as a preoccupation for her engrained love of nature and its regenerative energies. Hastily (as she describes it), producing four works in those first few months, that for their daring caught the eye of the celebrated British graffiti artist Banksy. Morgan had by then determined her own artistic enterprise; that would draw this self-taught artist to the attention of collectors Anita Zabludowicz, and David Roberts. And gallerists Jay Jopling and Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst among them. Banksy invited her to exhibit at his temporary gallery, Santa’s Ghetto, and from there she exhibited at White Cube, London (2008), the Haunch of Venison, Burlington Gardens, London (2009), Gimpel Fils, London (2010), Kunstmuseum Thurgau, Switzerland (2010), and the ACC Galerie, Weimar, Germany (2013), among others. With a solo show about to open in New York, at Other Criteria, 11 September – 22 October 2014.

Sometimes Something Happens 2014, courtesy of the artist  

Rajesh Punj: Can you possibly begin in the moment, and explain your work now and your forth-coming solo show in New York?

Polly Morgan: The last couple of years I haven’t really been particularly happy with anything I have been making. I have been struggling to enjoy it. Not ‘enjoy it’. I do enjoy it. I enjoy the making, but the process of coming up with something that I felt was satisfactory, has been quite tricky, for the last few years. And I have finally pinned it down, or pinpointed that maybe my aesthetics have changed really, over the years as I have grown older.

And also as my knowledge of historical and contemporary art has improved. Because it was terrible to start with. I didn’t go to art college. I just started making work, incredibly naiively really.

RP: Can you explain a little of your background?

PM: I read English Literature at college, not that I was especially driven by that; but although I did for a while think I would write, and I did do a little bit of freelance journalism. It just didn’t occur to me that I could do art, for some reason. I used to make things constantly, and I was really into the subject at school. (At the time) I didn’t know any artists, I didn’t know anyone at art college. It was just never suggested to me, and English seemed like the inevitable thing to do. So in a way that really helped me to start with (making work), because I was naïve enough not to question every little thing that I did. And also I didn’t have these high hopes or ambitions to be an artist. I just started making stuff. And I was living in East London, and had friends who were on the periphery of the art world, or some of them were quite successful artists. And it got seen by the right people, and picked up quite quickly. And that all snowballed the interest in it, and I felt like I have been catch up for years really. Trying to make works that justified the attention I was getting, and never really feeling I was.

RP: Art writers and critics can be a little over jealous on occasion, labelling and categorising everything pretty quickly. Leaving the artist unassailably attached to one camp or another. Is that what happened to you then?

PM: I think that’s probably what happened. And I think it was partly that I put some work in a show that he (Banksy), used to put on at Christmas. I would say yes to a show, if someone would offer me a show, and I didn’t think about the repercussions, or any idea. And I really didn’t think it would last longer than two or three years, so I did whatever happened. And it was only in hindsight that I realised that that set me off in a direction that I possibly didn’t want to go in. Anyway for the first time, these works that I am making are devoid of narrative, and they are much more about the animal as a sculptural form; as a kind of… I have chosen snakes because they are long thin tubes really, and they are malleable and you can do so much with them. And I am trying to get away from the symbolism behind snakes, which is irrelevant to the works I am making. And they are kind of modernist in influence. With these loops and curves sitting on these blocks of marble or granite, and hard wood.

RP: So this appears to be a major departure for you, from your original idea of animals encased and almost macabre in appearance?

PM: it’s a sort of bridge I think, because it’s still taxidermy. But it feels like it is taking me away from the associations of the gothic, which I always had attached to my work. Which I can understand, but at the same time I think a lot of it came from my working with material that happened to be a dead animal. But someone who draws in charcoal, their material is brunt wood, but you don’t think of it in the same way. For me it really was a material I was using as opposed to… death had to happen in order for me to use the skin, but it wasn’t about death. (Referring to her new works for her forth-coming New York show), so they are not meant to look natural in any way, they are just coiled up in positions I found attractive really. There are about thirteen of them downstairs, (in my studio), none of them actually fixed on yet. And nine of them are going out to New York.

RP: So there is a sense that these works are moving more towards abstraction of the ‘form in space’. Is that an important departure for you?

PM: It is yes; and they are works that I just like more, and they are in keeping with my aesthetic. I suddenly realised that there was this quite big chasm between the work that I was making, and the work that I like. And I would have conversations with friends about it, and they would say it’s not really relevant whether you like your own work. You make what you make and that’s what you do. You continue along that path. And I have heard that from quite a few people. And I was going along with it a little bit, but at the same time I was convinced it can’t be right to work all day, and sleep at night and think that you are producing ‘bad’ work that is pointless, and that you are embarrassed standing next to it at your own private view. Which didn’t feel right. So I think for me, certainly with these snakes, I have found a way to make something I would like to own. And get away from people telling stories about my work that weren’t in my head when I made it.

I don’t like to be didactic about the work, and suggest that this is what it means, and this is what you will take away from it. I do like the idea that it exists outside of you once you have made it, and it has its own life, because everyone looks at it very differently. I did feel that there was a real disconnect between what I saw myself and what I was making; and how other people were receiving it.

RP: How do you feel about terms like ‘decorative’ or ‘attractive’ in association with your early works?And are you consciously attempting to move away from that now?

PM: Yes quite ambivalent I suppose (about such descriptions); that is something that has always worried me about my work. To start with it was very ornamental. And actually I think it was fine, and it was okay to be doing that, but suddenly I found myself as an artist, showing in art galleries, and it was not really what I intended. And that’s when I become incredibly critical of my own work.

If I had seen my own work in a gift shop, or even in someone’s house, I would have thought ‘that is really pretty’. But soon as it was in a gallery, I would look at it as a viewer in a gallery, and think that’s not really good enough. And I think my problem is that I always try to pre-empt criticism before it happens.

RP: I interviewed (British Sculptor) Richard Wilson some months ago now, and he and I were talking about another artist who has done just that. Of negotiating their way out of control. And someone who is now clearly producing far too many works for a gallerist demanding that of them. There is a danger of submitting to that kind of prescribed pressure, whereby that is the ‘deal’, and that is what you go with.

PM: I realise I just want to enjoy my job, that’s the thing. And when it is on my terms and I can take it at my pace, I really love what I am doing. But as soon as I am working with someone who wants to work at a slightly different pace to me, I can really feel myself resisting it with every fibre of my being. And I really don’t enjoy it, and the work is no longer pleasurable, and I don’t sleep aswell. And my ideas aren’t as good. And I have learned now.

Killer Beasts – Fiona Banner Interview

Killer Beasts



From the North of England, Fiona Banner was born in 1966, and attended Kingston University in the late 1980’s, before going onto Goldsmiths College, London in 1990. She had her first solo show at City Racing; (1994), an artist run space in South London. And in 1995 was included in General Release: Young British Artists, at the XLVI Venice Biennale. Following solo shows at Neuer Aachener Kunstverein, Germany, (2002) and Dundee Contemporary Arts, Scotland, (2002) Banner was nominated for the Turner Prize in the same year. Renowned for her visual fascination with military aircraft, her rendering of macho American war films in text based installations; she is intentionally engaged to a milieu of cultural contradictions. And as a publisher and artist Banner explains of her ‘interest in the voice of language, and the mistakes of language. Yes the high points of it, but also in the hopelessness of it; and how we always come back to it.’ Banner has exhibited extensively internationally, and has a forth-coming solo show WP WP WP, at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, UK, (2014).

Fiona Banner, tête-à-tête (still), 2014, high definition digital film 553 minutes © Fiona Banner, courtesy of the artist, YSP, and Frith Street Gallery, London
Fiona Banner, tête-à-tête (still), 2014, high definition digital film 553 minutes © Fiona Banner, courtesy of the artist, YSP, and Frith Street Gallery, London

Rajesh Punj: Is the Chinook helicopter still operational?

Fiona Banner: Yes it is hyper active, they came out in the 1960’s, and is the longest serving helicopter. When you talk to people in the military, they talk about this helicopter with some kind of mythological status. And for me it’s the way the blades always look like they are going to crash into each other. Because they actually go in opposite directions and cross over.

RP: So is that relative to the installation you have planned for Yorkshire Sculpture Park this year?

FB: It is yes, so the installation at YSP is something I have wanted to make for a long time. It is sort of a sculpture without a centre, because there is no body of the aircraft on display, it is just the helicopter blades rotating in the space between zero and 45 rpm; so at times quite fast. And they will be choreographed; so there will be a structure to the pace.

RP: And is that comfortable for an audience, entering into the space for the first time?

FB: ‘Comfortable’ is an interesting term. I don’t think it will be comfortable, but I don’t think it will be totally intimidating either – disquieting perhaps. It will have a strong performative element. For me I am used to relating to these aircrafts from a distance; and often through some mediated form, in movies, newspapers, you tube, images generally; or way off in the distance flying over London. So just to be there up against the functionality of the aircraft – the blades in action presents a weird proximity, it’s a strangely emotional encounter

Chinook helicopters are not available, there are not very many of them in the world, and when they are, they are stripped of all their high value assets and cannibalised. So maybe to focus on the function of the blades comes out of that, as a sort of sculpture in absentia – also for me it is the part of the helicopter that speaks most eloquently of contradiction. In the way that they work; the way that they go against each other in opposite directions, it’s ‘a push me, pull you’. The blades appear to collide, because they cross over, so there is an incredible power in how they work, and how they appear but there is also great vulnerability. And I am interested in the image of the helicopter as well, because it is so animal like, it is so inelegant, dinosaur like, and yet it performs an incredible dynamic function, and is technically very advanced.  Something primitive, something sophisticated – something that pulls you in opposite directions, it is associated with super serious stuff, but is almost comic.

Fiona Banner, Jaguar, 2010. Polished Sepecat Jaguar aircraft 869cm x 492cm x 168cm © Tate Photography, Andrew Dunkley & Sam Drake
Jaguar 2010, (polished sepecat Jaguar), courtesy of the artist and Tate Britain, London

RP: The Chinook recalls the other modern aircraft you have used as artworks, including the ‘Harrier’ and the ‘Jaguar’; why have you selected those particular combat aircraft?

FB: With the Harrier and the Jaguar (Tate Britain, 2010), I really wanted to work with aircraft that were still in service; so both those models when I displayed them were still functioning in the military, and were of a type and still had a currency in their field of conflict. It was important for me that as viewers we were implicated or inevitably part of these objects, if only through the fact of being contemporary, or of having contributed to them as tax payers… So an old aircraft, a retro imperial war museum type thing is of no interest to me. Somehow that would seem romantic, and I am not really interested in being romantic. Though I am interested in the seductive qualities of these airplanes. 

RP: How did you determine the compositional layout for works of such magnitude? 

Fiona Banner, Harrier, 2010. BAe Sea Harrier aircraft, paint 760cm x 1420cm x 371cm © Tate Photography, Andrew Dunkley & Sam Drake
Harrier 2010, (BAe Sea Harrier aircraft), courtesy of the artist and Tate Britian, London

FB: Those pieces were quite specific to that neo-classical end of empire space of display at Tate Britain. The museum was never designed to accommodate major industrial scale military hardware; it was designed for sculpture and painting. Specifically sculpture I think for those outer spaces, but of a very different scale. The planes only just fitted the space. Someone describes them as looking ‘exactly wrong’. The Harrier looked captured, it had the sense of it being a trophy. Like a hunter might hang a dead bird. Again they were anthropomorphic and had association with the primitive and nature, through their names for one. But I was also really interested in pushing our voyeuristic tendency to those aircraft.

RP: How did your large scale text pieces come about, referencing films like Top Gun, and Apocalypse Now?

FB: Well Top Gun (an intricate blow by blow account of that film in words) (1994), and Nam (1997), (which is a book encompassing six well known Nam movies, written in my own language); those early verbal works did come out of a particular engagement with main stream movies, and how they try to, and often do, reflect, and in turn affect how we see things. So to take Top Gun, I got really into that film, and I was intrigued by it being such a basic film. It comes across if you like as a trite piece of fiction, mainstream Hollywood, and as an unreflective bit of entertainment. But what interested me in it, was the really euphoric, almost splendid display of flying, how they displayed the kudos and muscle of the fighter planes. And how it came out right at the end of the Cold War, so it was a way of displaying these aircraft that hadn’t had a run for their money, using them as active elements of ideological conquest but imbedded in this dump text, which is in many ways just a courier for displaying the military hardware – but one that pulled certain emotional triggers.

Fiona Banner, wp wp wp (detail) 2014, indian ink on wall dimensions variable © Fiona Banner, courtesy of the artist, YSP, and Frith Street Gallery, London; photo Jonty Wilde

I was making paintings of the film, and of the aircraft in it – they weren’t terribly good paintings, because I was very messed up about what to keep in, and where the frame was – so I ended up in an editorial malaise, and finally ended up making these paintings where the aircraft left the frame, they were virtually monochromes. And at that point I thought I have just edited everything out of this painting. And at the same time I recall I was reading a lot about photography, and the stories about how photography is manipulated. I suppose it was (Susan) Sontag, (Paul) Virilio and all that sort of thing, which questioned the validity of the visual as we known it.

RP: Which brings us back to the intended contradiction in your work; because these works are so labour intensive. You are scrutinising a film that the majority of us have seen as teenagers and handsomely forgotten about. Why labour over such ‘low level’ culture?

FB: For one low culture is the dominant culture. Also I wouldn’t say ‘intended contradiction’, but ‘active’, yes – because I’m working with a personal contradiction too – I was seduced by those films. Using words was a way of working with them without using the image directly. As for the process, there is something immersive about making that work and that went also with the process of looking and reading, of duration. As a practitioner that engagement is a positive thing, as an artist you have to somehow engage with a medium, in this case it is written language, you have to hinge your thought to something tangible, however ephemeral, or physical.

RP: Your works appear ‘wonderfully complex’; is that your intention?

FB: No. But I don’t want to simplify complex things either, and finding a way to do that is often what directs things.

RP: Should there be an introduction to the work Mirror; it is one of several other films works at Yorkshire Sculpture Park that kind of comes out of the blue?

Fiona Banner, Mirror, 2007. Video, monitor, plinth. 3.02 minutes. © Fiona Banner and courtesy the artist, YSP and Frith Street Gallery, London
Mirror 2007, courtesy of the artist

FB: The film (Mirror, 2007 (in which the actress Samantha Morton performs a description I made of her naked) could be a traditional life-drawing turned on its head, and it’s incredibly simple in many ways. Though it is odd because she had not read the description before you can see her encountering her own image as she reads it, and it becomes kind of overwhelming for her – you can see a struggle there. But through a series of situations I ended up with a work that said something about the absurd, unrequited sometimes desperate need we have to understand our own image, whether it is looking at images of other people or trying to make images of other people – and how we are somehow held to that. And the nude is perhaps looking at the human in a raw state, our obsession with the nude also reveals vulnerability in how the sexes relate to each other, and how we pre-empt how we will be related to, therefore it motivates a reaction that may create a further reaction. I don’t want to end up trying to satisfy your original question, and say something I don’t really think, but I suppose there is a narrative of complexity and contradiction around the work. Is it leading to any conclusion?

No. Is it asking some questions and then looking at those questions in another way? Peeling down the layers of expectations, so maybe you end up at a point where you are down to the bone. So something is sort of raw, and laid oddly vulnerable, or bare. But it’s not like I am formulating a position, as a practitioner, and intellectually nothing is conclusive. An idea develops, and it can take a very long time to turn into something – sometimes too long, and it never materializes. But I do often come back to things that I thought maybe had gone, I mean the themes do circulate.

Out of Nothing – Berndnaut Smilde interview

Having studied fine art at the Hanzehogeschool, Groningen, (one of the northern provinces of the Netherlands), Smilde settled in the capital Amsterdam. Establishing his practice and conceiving of artworks that have a delicate demeanour about them. Almost transparent in their simplicity, the artist’s calculated cloud photographs and inventive sculptures appear determined by more ephemeral belief systems; that settle upon society like intangible nuances that shape the weather. Likened to a magician conjuring ideas out of the sky, Smilde is enchanted by the elemental atmosphere that shapes everything, and the allure of the ideal delivers the basis for what he attempts to capture in his work. As an artist Smilde has expressed an interest in the ‘construction and deconstruction – of materials and architectural elements’; as an examination of the permanence and impermanence of the uncertain states of being. And also eludes to what is behind the curtain with his work, with the idea that ‘the prospect is often just a facade in my work dealing with questions about perfection and the ideal’. Exhibiting at Ronchini Gallery, (2014), previously at the Process Room, Irish Museum of Modern Art, (2008), and Bunker Project, Galerie West, The Hague, (2010). And with group shows at Galerie Boven de Bank, Groningen, (2001), Nofound Photo Fair, Paris, (2012), Art 13, London, (2013), Saatchi Gallery, London, (2012), and Somarts, San Francisco, (2013); Smilde has successfully turned ideas into inventive works for an international audience.




Rajesh Punj: For an audience less familiar with your work can you initially introduce us to your approach and practice?

Berndnaut Smilde: My work consists of installations, sculptures and photographs. I often work corresponding to the site; reacting to the architecture or history of a given location. A lot of my work centers on aspects of duality, the landscape, and one’s position as a viewer. Just as my cloud works (Nimbus) build up and fall apart at the same time, my installations and sculptures question construction and deconstruction, size, temporality, function of materials and architectural elements.
RP: Your artificial cloud images have become your signature works; what are you intending by these works?

BS: I see them as temporary sculptures, made of almost nothing, balancing on the edge of materiality, an image of prospect in an empty (exhibition) space. For me the work is about the idea of a cloud inside a space and what people project onto it. You can see them as a sign of misfortune or an element from a classical painting. There is something ungraspable about clouds: it might explain why people have been projecting so many meanings and myths upon clouds for centuries.

RP: And how important are the locations, or ‘the siting’ of your artificial clouds for you?

BS: The spaces you could say function as a plinth for the work and provide a scenario. They are all used as exhibition spaces in some way and therefore relate to the artwork, and to the history and tradition of that location. I am chasing representations of an ‘ideal’ space, and the cloud works are also a way for me of questioning this. You could ask yourself which one is more important; is the work about the cloud or the space it inhabits? And which is more significant? I like to ask myself whether the works are able to change a space, or the way we look at that space after the cloud has evaporated. And there is only the document of something that happened.

RP: There is something almost metaphysically about your conjuring clouds in interior spaces? Are you intentionally wanting to address notions of the abstracted coming into contact with the real?

BS: It is an image of the seemingly impossible. Placing a natural phenomenon in an unnatural context can appear threatening in itself; as an unknown message. I was curious to find out what it would be like to encounter a cloud inside a space. I imagined walking in an empty museum hall and there was nothing to see except for a cloud hovering in the corner of the room. Initially I wanted to create an image of ultimate disappointment as a counterbalance to what we would expect to find in a classic museum hall.

RP: Why do you think the images become so appealing to an audience?

BS: Maybe there is something universal and timeless about the works which is perhaps why so many different viewers have engaged with them.

RP: The version of the work that proves so successful, are Nimbus 2010, Cloud in Room, Nimbus II 2012, and Nimbus Dumont, 2014; essentially because of the weight and density of the ephemeral object. Are you conscious of such details, in relation to your placing them in interior spaces?

BS: Sure, the density, size, shape and height is something I carefully consider and adjust. They have to have a certain weight and dominance. In order to be able to relate to the work (mentally and physically), and the proportions between the cloud, and the space have to be right. In a way it is like how classic landscape painters used their clouds as a tool for creating the right atmosphere. The light, reflections and shadows are all part of it.

RP: And what of last year’s commissioned Iconoclouds 2013 works for Harper’s Bazaar. In which you picture Karl Lagerfeld and Donatella Versace beside your cloud works; were you entirely happy with the introduction of figures into those spaces; challenging the existing aesthetic?

BS: It was a successful experiment and a challenge to incorporate another (iconic) character into the work. I was curious to see if the work could function as a portrait.

RP: You have expressed your interest in capturing ‘hope’ and ‘fragility’ in your work; what draws you to such evanescent conditions; especially in relation to the permanence of some of your other works?

BS: Many of my works seem to be functioning but are often determined to fail. Just as that cloud is building up and falling apart at the same time. Whether it is material based, physics, or based on our perspective as a viewer. The prospect is often just a facade in my work dealing with questions about perfection and the ideal. It is either denying itself (as the ‘Kammerspiele’ works) or is so delicate that it will break. It falls short and shows its impermanence. There is always a limit to the work and then it falls apart. The ideal and transience are connected in that sense.

RP: You appear to apply such a considered sensitivity to everything you do; are you conscious of that?

BS: An in between state appeals to me as it doesn’t have a function yet, and is therefore open for interpretation. There is not yet a finished outcome we can relate to. Transition shows traces of history and a future vision.

RP: Can you explain some of your other key works?

BS: In 2009, I participated in a residency in Askeaton, one of Ireland’s oldest communities, and discovered that in the 1840’s many of the town’s residents immigrated to Wisconsin and set up a new town Askeaton. The first image of Askeaton, WI, on Google Street View was of a lone red barn by the side of a road, while Askeaton, Ireland had not been captured by Google for Street View yet. I constructed a copy of the façade of the red barn in Askeaton, WI and placed this ‘prop’ along the main road in Askeaton, Ireland. I was hoping that if the Google photocar would come by to capture the original town, this image would be picked up and the street view of both towns would then depict the same barn. In 2012 Google completed this work by depicting the barn facade in Askeaton, Ireland on Street View. I like the idea of transition by taking an object from online and placing this in the ‘real world’ where it would be captured and eventually placed back on the web. It questions reality.

RP: You have talked previously and very eloquently of the origins of works like Gamut 2014, in which you exaggerate the visual significance of passé postcards. What are those images alluding to for you?

BS: With the permission of the US in the early 1900’s to print the word ‘Postcard’ on the backside of the card, it was allowed that we could write on this side, leaving the front just for the image. This image started to function as a souvenir from a ‘different world’ the exotic, the ideal. It became a projection of our cultural way of looking at the landscape. A cut-out perfect landscape without disorders. I like this idea of desire in a postcard even though they are almost extinct in this age. They are a mediator between our expectations and reality. 

RP: What is the relationship of the Gamut works to the Kammerspiele 2013 installation?

BS: Both are based on the imagery of postcards which represent landscapes, but used in a way as panoramic images or wall murals functioned in old houses. Kammerspiele deals with the suggestion of an interior or the parts of it. White tiles are blocking the idealistic views represented, creating a friction between the ideal and the functional. Gamut consist of printed wooden pillars. The prints of landscapes seem to dissolve almost into the wood leaving the grains visible. The pillars are carrier and referring to construction.

RP: You appear to have a ‘mastery of scale’ about your works aswell; as you efficiently go from works like Sarcophagus Americanus 2006, to the miniatured precision of When the world is green 2007. How do you determine the visual weight of a work?

BS: A model is straight forward and represents a larger idea we could mentally relate to. Other works require an almost human size to be able to relate to the work, as with the clouds for instance. It’s all about proportions.

RP: Are the majority of your works ideas lead, or is what you do determined more by ‘scale’ and ‘materials’?

BS: Both I guess. A location often determines the scale already. I am also a material freak and I love to build things.

RP: Is there such thing as a ‘coded’ nostalgia about your works; with your use of postcards and large scale photographic prints? 

BS: Definitely. You could even say there is something picturesque about them. I am interested in how we perceive and represent the ideal and give meaning to this.

RP: With your conjuring of clouds and your constructing of illusionistic landmarks, are you more magician than artist? 

BS: I don’t have any magic to give I just put things in a different order, I think that is what artists do.

RP: Are your influences entirely visual?

BS: Associations start visually most of the time. I also like what Bruno Latour described as an Iconoclash. It’s about the duality that occurs, interpreting a certain situation or image. In these circumstances it is impossible to determine what exactly is going on. There is a moment of friction, a clash between different value and truths that brings uncertainty. You cannot really tell if you should interpret the situation as negative or positive.

RP: What are you working on now?

BS: I am working on a proposal for public artwork and I want to make a book.

The Tiger in the Forest – Liu Xiaodong Profile Piece

Invited to the Lisson gallery, artist Liu Xiaodong and his young prodigy and translator arrive after me, and purposefully settle into chairs around a meetings table in order we can commence our choreographed conversation for print. At first glance Xiaodong appears more academic than artist, with his turtle shaped glasses rolling over his nose, and an inquisitive squint. As I look to his translator for appreciative communications, it all proves a little more subdued than I had anticipated as the artist stays well within himself. Diligently replying and providing answers to a series of questions I pose with reassuring ease. And while Xiaodong and his translator engage in moments of discursive conversation, I almost feel short changed with a dozen words in summary. Which leads to an awkwardness on my part; wanting to know so much more about this accomplished painter of ‘international stature’, (as he has been described), than he is willing to give.

2013, courtesy of the Lisson Gallery, London

Tellingly it always proves more difficult to interview someone who has already been probed by the press several times already. Between us we agree that for the here and now our translated conversation be all together less difficult, in order we can arrive at something mutually engaging and less exhaustive. In context Xiaodong’s lorded reputation comes as a consequence of his enveloping himself in his individual projects. Having large scale canvases delivered in a truck to a location, where once erect, they are likely to encroach upon his entire field of vision, in order he is able to create vast panoramic paintings that appear as homages to the sites of devastation and damage that he occupies for weeks and months at a time. Xiaodong’s laboured approach has him described as a ‘modern painter of the emerging world’, as he engages very directly with some of the most damning issues of our time. Xiaodong seeks to visually diagnose his subject’s experiences of ‘displacement’, ‘environmental crisis’ and ‘economic upheaval’ in China. And it is as if Xiaodong’s humanitarian methodology proves ever more relevant today, with the sizable shifts of people across the planet. Induced by man-made conflicts and natural disasters alike.

Coined as one of a new breed of ‘neo-realist’ painter, and belonging to a brand of ‘new-realism’ that emerged from the 1990’s in China; Xiaodong has always had great faith in figurative painting capturing the modern experience, as it presents itself. Tellingly in conversation Xiaodong would want it known that he is as much a neo-realist as he is a documentary film-maker, or a diarist. Because for him everything is determined by what he is able to do and the circumstances that allow for that to happen; and much less by linguistic jargon. And what he does when painting these vast panoramic canvases is akin to generating a visual symbol of optimism in the most unlikely of places.

Tellingly Xiaodong’s work proves hugely engaging, as the locations that he is invited to and decides upon, read like recent disaster zones the world over.

Yet unlike the original visionaries of ‘plein air’ painting, (the French impressionists), who sought to capture the elemental atmosphere of a more beautiful moment; as a realist Xiaodong is interested in painting ‘en plein air’ in order to draw attention to more decisive moments of change in places outside of our reach. As the artist’s work visualises the acres of time that proceed that moment, as his people filled landscapes appear to want to sink from beneath his feet. Principally in Xiaodong’s paintings and pencil drawings beauty is reshaped by the ills of cataclysmic catastrophe, as he seeks to capture the visceral unease of people recovering from earthquakes and corrosive pollutants. Initially entering hamlets as a stranger, Xiaodong befriends individuals, shares their daily routine, and determinedly begins to record the lives of the people rooted to these troubled epicentres well after the world has collapsed around them. And unlike the media that arrives and leaves as tourists after a disaster is sufficiently covered for newspaper and television alike; Xiaodong appropriates himself as one of them, in order he can capture something of the upheaval that such ruin brings to bear on people disconnected from the major cities of the extended world. And as a consequence what Xiaodong conceives of is much more ethnographic styled documentation of individual lives; as they are either invited to dutifully sit for him at these points of catastrophe, or otherwise become one of his many new acquaintances that he chooses to indirectly immortalise in one of his make-shift diaries.

Using film, his camera, sketching and scribbling paragraphs of initial information down; Xiaodong employs very playful possibilities as points of entry into the lives of the people reconditioned by their geography. Notably Xiaodong has in the past used film as a medium; working with Wang Xiaoshuai in the highly acclaimed The Days, 1993, and Xiaodong readily refers to major independent films that have been recognised in previous years at the Venice film festival.

Located as he is at the epicentres of both ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’ disasters, Xiaodong begins such substantial projects by employing a procedure and practice that is as practical as it might appear if he were entering a studio to paint a small canvas of a seated figure; though the scale and materials differ greatly. As firstly the size of the canvas and the accompanying crate are considered; measured and constructed in Beijing. Delivered by a large truck to the site, where a make-shift shelter has to be constructed, temporary easels built, containers of oil paints, diaries, drawings delivered, and where reams of photographs and video recording give the project a documentary styled narrative.

As they have all become part of the required apparatus for an artist who will encamp himself on a site for many weeks and months in order to source a complicated diary’s worth of visual information as the beginning of a painting. And once the composition is dutifully decided upon, the project and painting completed; everything is very efficiently deconstructed and packed away for a truck to make the return journey. The canvas is then rehoused into its original wooden crate to be returned to his studio for exhibition.

Xiaodong’s translator describes how “Xiaodong likes to paint a place that has a troubled background, and this kind of background will give him the inspiration to paint.” For Xiaodong his temporary relationships with the inhabitants begin as “strangers in discussion, and then they become good friends, and it is always like this”, in order he can arrive at a work that serves everyone well. And when asked if he ever seeks to return to a location he has earmarked for an artwork, he confirms he will, “if the opportunity presents itself”. Xiaodong is as much preoccupied with new locations and their prevailing circumstances, as he is interested in nostalgia, and his feelings for the familiar. In 2010 Xiaodong returned home to Jincheng, in the north-eastern province of Liaoning. Settling there for over four months, whilst adopting something of his signature ethnographic approach, in order to cultivate the necessary visual and visceral information for a new body of works. Employing a scribbled diary in the first instance, as a method narrative for what he wanted to record and go on to depict.

Xiaodong declares something of a self-interest in what had drawn him back to his place of birth. Saying, “as soon as you begin to talk about your homeland, something starts to happen inside you, something like homesickness. I think in my innermost self, I do not want anything to change in my hometown. You just want your old home to stay as it always used to be. Only if it stays that way can it remain a refuse for us, however much reality is different.” Adding “Urbanisation is spreading much too quickly, destroying everything that we loved or did not love; forming a new city out of everything.” Xiaodong’s scepticism of the indiscriminatory upheaval of modernity goes some way to explain why he is less inclined to engage with any of China’s modern cities, and more interested in the wider agricultural landscape. In Taihu, on the boarder of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces in Eastern China, and Beichuan in Central China, as seen through the eyes of its workers and peasant farmers. For Xiaodong then there is much more of China’s history, imbued in people and in the intertwining tapestry of regional provinces, than there is in the industrial cities determined by modern interests.

When asked to divulge something of the strategy for his selecting certain locations over others, having since encamped in cities on sites outside of China. Xiaodong is as reticent to explain what leads him to travel to a new part of the world, as he is to explain the necessity of settling there for such long periods of time. Likened to a peace negotiator on marked earth, the artist absorbs all of the circumstantial evidence as it is laid bare.

Resigned to not knowing, Xiaodong eventually throws anecdotal sound bites my way, before returning to being tight lipped. Explaining that ‘he’ selects his locations, and that he has no predetermined plan for where he will go next; as his pervasive approach to painting translates onto the global stage. For the artist ‘projects’, as he describes them, come one after the other, the specifics of which he is reluctant to explain fully, and the next location outside of China is a tightly guided ‘secret.’ There is a sense then in conversation with Xiaodong, that for the artist the remit for what he does and the manner in which he goes about it, is so incredibly meticulous that he should be allowed to offer very little to a conversation, returning to very simple answers that are like teaspoons of still water, when you feel you deserve a glass. But it still makes for an engaging exchange, in which Xiaodong divulges as much by what he omits from the conversation, as what he carefully chooses to divulge through his more animated translator.

Surprisingly as much as a masterly approach appears to facilitate Xiaodong’s will for making new work; he equally professes to profiting from the ungovernable elements of a project; of which engaging with new communities, eating, drinking, and becoming immersed in their lives, becomes his artistic sustenance and the substance for his work. For the artist when given to considering the properties of location painting, it can be initially about physically building as big a canvas as possible. Discussing scale, he declares an interest in “life-size”; but if the space proves insufficient, he will reduce the scale of the work to fit the revised dimensions. Xiaodong amusingly and very tellingly concludes our time together by saying that when painting, he is little interrupted by any kind of potential audience watching over him paint, because he sees himself “as the tiger scrutinising the rabbit, and able to ignore the trees”.

To The End – Sahej Rahal interview

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Tandav III 2012, courtesy of the artist and Chatterjee and Lal, Mumbai

Clever, capable and spirited, Sahej Rahal belongs to a new generation of Indian artists who have seen the potential success available to them, as it has been attributed to their contemporaries and wish for more of the same. In context Rahal is as articulate as he is well-informed, for his kaleidoscopic knowledge and ability to acquire ideas from recent history with intellectual ease; and for his audience his works are intended to be as complex and uncomfortable as they might first appear. Blemishing one’s imagination as much as they infiltrate our psyche. Therefore it proves positively gratifying to make contact with Rahal now at this point in his career, as it might well have been to have first met Indian art’s contemporary father figure, Subodh Gupta in the early 1990’s; and as much as Gupta developed his reputation with due-diligence, you can appreciate the maturity and like-minded temperament with which Rahal applies himself to his works, and of the direction he is favourably taking. Engagingly the artist’s ideas come as much from the wider world; film, the internet, the international media, literature, and social history, as they do from the immediate detritus of his place of birth, Mumbai. A Sprawling metropolis of slum-dwellers and the very successful, the city reflects Rahal’s intrinsic affirmation for influences and ideas that are bound by religion, science, mythology, story-telling, and history. And as the city’s blueprint continues to absorb its multiple narratives, so Rahal’s works are born of his interest in re-reading and re-interpreting history, whilst investing his own.

Like a societal thread that draws his audience in, in order they are better conditioned to inhale the morose melancholia in his works. Rahal’s practice can be regarded as other-worldly; borrowing from science-fiction, spirituality and the sizable history of modern religion, as his absorbing performative works and unsettling sculptures positively infect their neutral spaces, introducing a darkened atmosphere that overshadows the gallery space. Describing himself as self-confessed ‘Star Wars Nerd’, there is a darker literature that could well serve a new audience scrutinising Rahal’s work. Homer’s Odyssey, the sequel to the Iliad, an extraordinary fable of gods and monsters engaging in ‘the giving and receiving of trouble’. J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels, The Lord of the Rings series, where giant spiders, violent orcs, wild wolves, and the dungeons of the wood elves, are the odious characters that plague middle-earth; and of a more modern era, American Evangeline Walton with her fantasy fiction, in which she was ‘able to humanise historical and mythological subjects with eloquence, humour and compassion’; all epitomise something of the attractive and traumatic beauty of Rahal’s works.

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Bhramana 2013, courtesy of the artist, Gasworks, London, and Chatterjee and Lal, Mumbai

He himself focuses on specific influences, choosing ‘one book and one film, I’d go with Gravity’s Rainbow and Blade Runner, I think both allow themselves to be read and viewed over and over again, every time throwing out something new.’ Gravity’s Rainbow, written in 1973 by American writer Thomas Pynchon, is a dreadfully difficult book that deals with a whole cast of tormented characters in Europe at the end of the Second World War preoccupied by the Schwarzgerӓt or a ‘black device’ being installed into a rocket marked serial number ‘0000’. And more famously Ridley Scott’s 1982 dystopian science fiction thriller, Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 American novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in which organic robots or ‘replicants’ occupy Los Angeles in November 2019. There is also in Rahal’s works a devilish sensibility that is equally recalled in early film works that include John Barrymore’s, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, and William Cameron’s adaptation of H. G. Wells, Things to Come, that for all their gratifying charm embody a dizzying spirit that hypnotised the cinematic atmosphere as it infects reality. As a modern dictum good and evil have become a by-word for ‘life’, ‘love’ and ‘justice’, as a struggle over deliberate ‘wrong-doing’, ‘torment’ and intended ‘violence’. Yet such polarities are never stable, never regarded as fixed points of reference; as rooted in the ambiguity, between the corruption of good and the prevalence of evil, that Sahej Rahal’s works appear to manifest themselves.

Clarion II 2013, courtesy of the artist and Chatterjee and Lal, Mumbai
Clarion II 2013, courtesy of the artist and Chatterjee and Lal, Mumbai

As interested in mythology and religious rites, as he appears to be in history and social circumstance, Rahal’s work appears to hover very effectively between our stable sense of reality and its underlying metamorphosis; as modernity and history effectively become one and the same.

The inventiveness of works like Forerunner, 2013, is palpable, as Rahal’s narrator Rehaan Engineer diligently orchestrates a complex fable of the keeper, who remains unidentified throughout, and his interest in a by-gone age of ‘geometry’, ’symmetry’, and calculated precision. Comprising of a twelve and a half minute video work that begins by spanning the outer atmosphere of earth from space, and then becomes equally as rooted to a depilated building that has succumbed to the forces of natures; and as the visual imagery for Forerunner develops, Engineer becomes more specific in his choreographed narrative, referring to ‘a man’, ‘who vanishes from the apartment room of the first floor’. Whilst the camera pans the enclosed space of the derelict building that appears to have had all of its concrete floors punctured out. And in a moment of rest-bite, as a substantial bolder swings precariously from the floor above, Engineer breaks into more well versed dialogue. Referring to ‘cartographical veracity’, and ‘how the map falls into disrepair’, as a mythical ‘empire’ and dystopian ‘universe’ have dissolved to dust. And further, under the rudimentary lighting of the exhibition space, Engineer hypnotically reels off a whole series of causal effects for the downfall of man. Both man-made and natural, they are seen as the collected evils of history; as word for word, ‘the electric chair’, ‘the gallows’, ‘the guillotine’, ‘the gas chamber’, and ‘stoning’, heighten the ruinous rotation of earth. It proves to be a challenging work, on several levels, though it does require of the audience an intellectual resourcefulness to keep up with such a number of accumulated ideas. Where Forerunner is possibly most dynamic, and visually gratifying (for the residual photographic prints that are available), is Rahal’s choreographed impersonation of Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker grasping a two pronged lightsaber. Which when turned and twisted vigiously in the night sky, reveals an intense creature of light. The immediacy of what the artist attempts to do, in an otherwise stage managed and calculated film, is invigorating in and of itself.

Sculptural works include Helmet, 2013, (wood, coated iron, condensed PVC, and acrylic paint), that Rahal uses as part of the performative piece Bhramana III, 2013. In detail the magnificent coated iron head mask draws attention to itself, as its textural unease is magnified by the theatrical gallery setting. Another is Knuckle, 2013, (brass, condensed PVC, and acrylic paint), which is a discarded knuckle duster, with its characteristic elongated ‘eight’ shaped handle, from which gold coloured biomorphic forms sprout from the handle irregularly. For Rahal ‘Knuckle was actually made using a real knuckle duster that (he) found’, and as he explains he was ‘trying to play with these violent things, make toys of them in some sense.’ There is, as with so many of Rahal’s works, an endearing beauty to the physical form that manifests itself as sculpture. Another Hammer 2012, (Found wooden furniture, plastic, coated iron, condensed PVC, acrylic paint), could well be miscast as a religious ‘implement’ for its biblical appearance. Most engaging of all are the triptych floor sculptures, Walker I, Walker II and Walker III, 2013, (wood, plastic, coated iron, polyester fur, condensed PVC, acrylic paint), that recall something of the apocalyptic premonitions of the Italian 15th century Fresco, The Triumph of Death. For Rahul ‘The Walkers are definitely (his) love letter to sci-fi. They were made using found objects like coat hangers, a broken ab roller, polyester fur, and polyurethane. They are almost like these little mutations trotting out on this absurd exodus from under the city’s debris.’

As a forerunner for new works, with reality daily compromised by the conditions of ‘rape’, ‘suicide’, ‘torture’, ‘terrorism’, and ‘mass killing’, Rahal clearly has a long way to go before he runs the risk of creative block.


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Walker 2013, courtesy of the artist and Chatterjee and Lal, Mumbai


Rajesh Punj: For an audience unfamiliar with your work can you introduce us to your practice?

Sahej Rahal: I see my work as an expanding metanarrative of that draws from history, myth and pop-culture; and plays out in the context of the city. It’s almost like trying to trace this fictional civilization of absurd beings performing indecipherable rituals in our everyday, and leaving behind this fragmented residues of their tools and toys, before they flee into the cracks in the concrete.

RP: Do you define yourself as a sculptor, video artist, photographer or performance artist?

SR: Star Wars Nerd

RP: You graduated from a fine arts academy in 2011 and then had a solo exhibition at the Kunst Haus, Rapperswil-Jona, Switzerland in 2011, how did that come about?

SR: I was selected by Heidi Ernst from the FUTUR Foundation based on my work in art school.

RP: You were then was included in a group show at Chatterjee & Lal; had you already signed to the gallery by then?

SR: I was actually part of two group shows with Chatterjee & Lal in late 2012 which was a year after the FUTUR residency.

RP: Do you think you are an exception to the rule or were many of your contemporaries able to exhibit straight out of art college?

SR: There’s a lot of really interesting work coming from not just art school graduates but people from other art historical and theory based backgrounds as well, right now, a really good example of this is the Sarai Reader 9 exhibition.

RP: Everything appears to have come very quickly for you, do you consider that so? Or do you consider art college good preparation for where you are now?

SR: The art school I went to, Rachana Sansad, was a really great place to learn, especially because we had some really cool people in the faculty who were really pushing for a lot of experimentation, and there were a lot of artists coming in to conduct workshops on new media practices. That said, did feel that there were a lot of gaps in my education in terms of engaging with art history, I’d taken up courses at Jnanapravah and the Bhau Daji Lad Museum which really helped bridge those gaps, and also gave me a chance to engage with people who were engaging with art practice with a lot more critical rigor.

RP: How was your residency in March of this year at Gasworks? Were you performing there?

SR: It was a huge honour to be selected for the Creative India Gasworks Residency, and London itself was an amazing place to work in. I performed the third leg of the Bhramana performances there, at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a Cultural Bastion of the Rococo Period. I found a wooden Didgeridoo in a dumpster in Brixton and made this crusted metallic object out of it that looked like an alien telescope. I was playing the instrument at the gardens during the performance.

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Knuckle 2013, courtesy of the artist and Chatterjee and Lal, Mumbai

RP: Your Bhramana II performance at Chatterjee & Lal, in which you appear to bandage yourself head to toe in cotton, exaggerating your head entirely. What is the purpose of the costume, and what of the instrument or pipe you have propped up and protruding from you horizontally, what should we make of that?

SR: While putting the costume together I had this ethereal warrior-bard figure in my head, bellowing on his otherworldly instrument as he wandered the innards of the Dhobi Talao subway, that said I think of these characters embodying vectors that point towards a range of references across pop-culture, myth and history, they become patchworks that are being pieced together by bits of subjective experience, and the spaces they fleetingly occupy, become sites for a ritual of meaning making.

RP: Are you mocking spirituality or suggesting we have greater need for it?

SR: I’m constantly looking for opposing ways of understanding our everyday, and getting them to collide against each other, but I’m definitely sure I don’t know enough to mock or preach.

RP: Your gallerist describes that your work ‘can be viewed as a growing narrative that draws upon mythical beings from different cultures, and brings them into a dialogue with the present’. How do you envisage our audience to understand these multiple references? And are they likely to lose sight of what you are setting out to do?

SR: I’m not interested in getting an audience to catch every reference, firstly because, that is two steps away from taking on a kind of didactic approach, which I’m uncomfortable with. I’m more interested in setting up these arenas of probability where the past and present can come into flux and can be played with and built upon by the viewer. In effect this narrative is made manifest by everyone engaging with it.

RP: Once you had fully taken on your persona, (as it is referred to), walking through a designated area of the city, in that time were you inviting audience interaction? And were you performing a pre-determined routine or responding to a situation?

SR: Though I go through a rigorous preparation cycle before performing my instinct is to go against it, this allows for the performance to take on its own ephemeral contours.

RP: How many times have you performed Bhramana II?

SR: Bhramana is a series of on-going performances, and each performance is different from the previous one, and performed in different spaces. Bhramana II was the second performance of the series.

RP: It is impossible not to think of Nikhil Chopra and his practice when considering your performative work, what is different about what you do? And was he a major influence?

SR: I learnt a lot from Nikhil, especially while studying under him in art school, what particularly drew me to Nikhil’s practice initially was how he is able to conjure up this vivid and cohesive sense of history almost alchemically. I think of my furry beasts and turbaned bards inhabiting a more shifting and entropic space. 

RP: Did you also have a residency at KHOJ this year, as part of ‘The Arena, the Imagination and the Body’ exhibition?

SR: Yes, I was invited by KHOJ for a month long residency this year. I was working on a film; Forerunner, based on Pir Ghaib, an observatory-slash-hunting lodge, built by Feroz Shah Tughlaq and named after a saint who vanished there.

RP: Can you explain more about the FORERUNNER exhibition that has just opened at Chatterjee & Lal? Besides a new performance for that you have included photographs and sculpture, are these all new works?

SR: Forerunner brings together a lot of the things I have been working on for the last three years, documentation from the Bhramana performances, sculptures that I’ve been working on in my studio in Bombay, and from Gasworks in London, and a film I made at Khoj this year which shares its title with the show.

RP: There appears to be something utterly morose, grotesque even about your work, is beauty something you fear or have much less interest in?

SR: I’m interested in things that fit into the idea of beauty with a measure of awkwardness.

RP: The Groom (2011), what is that work about? And was it part of a performance or entirely a photo-work?

SR: The Groom is a photo-work; I was thinking of this man in waiting, whose grassy mane has grown thick with ennui.

RP: Bhramana I (2012), is another work that is almost impossible to look at for your personas brutish qualities? Are you making reference to the city’s destitute as well as to notions of mythology? How do you understand mythology in a modern setting?

SR: The idea behind taking on the series of Bhramana performances was exactly this, to test the potential for mythmaking within the city, especially in its spaces of commute where narrative of the city, rife with its tensions, plays itself out in real-time.

RP: Included in the FORERUNNER exhibition are Walker I & II (2013), again hideous sculptural monsters that appear to have come from a science fiction film than an art studio, what are they representative for you?

SR: The walkers are definitely my love letter to sci-fi. They were made using found objects like coat hangers, a broken ab roller, polyester fur, and polyurethane. They are almost like these little mutations trotting out on this absurd exodus from under the city’s debris. 

RP: Knuckle (2013), is another that is as troubling as Walker I & II, because there appears to be nothing amiable about the piece, it is utterly damning. Do you see it like that? Do you think we are troubled with ideas and images of the morose and the grotesque, because we are so used to notions of beauty?

SR: Knuckle was actually made using a real knuckle duster that I found, I’m trying to play with these violent things, make toys of them in some sense.

RP: There is something incredibly powerful about the image and the work Tandav III (2012), how did that come about? And is this the closest thing you have to something ‘beautiful’?

SR: Tandav was a video work I made where a figure shrouded in ornate table mats is swinging a pair of tube-lights, the photograph was achieved through a slow shutter shot of the entire ‘blade dance’

RP: What are you working on currently? When do you plan to perform again?

SR: I’m getting ready for my residency in Rome, which begins on August 30th of this year, and I have been toying around with a little helicopter drone that I’ve got a hold of recently.

RP: Finally can I ask what you are reading right now? And what in Mumbai of many things is a source of inspiration for you? 

SR: I’m reading Wobblies and Zapatistas, a dialogue between Andrej Grubacic and Staughton Lynd on Anarchist and Marxist traditions. Bombay has a weird sense of being able to hold itself together even though it’s always two seconds from bedlam, I think a bit of that bleeds into what I do.