The Centre That Holds
The artist in her studio

Photography: Rohit Chawla

The Centre That Holds Bharti Kher

She walks in, with the gait of daily discipline, and perches herself on the blue sofa in the corner of a large double- heighted room that surveys a mise en scene of objects, sculptures and bric-a-brac. This lone spot could be the only ‘space-place’, the British-Indian artist will later tell us, where all of her is revealed. For someone whose sculptures and bindi panels are almost self-effacingly large, that hallowed haven could also be, perhaps is, a singular page amongst the several kinds of mole- skines arranged neatly on the bookshelf beside. The morning meetings have wrapped up, pencil marks have been etched into reams of binders, task-lists checked off, the quotidian walk through the three sprawling floors of a building that you could easily mistake for being Brussels, all conducted. We are in the studio, the centre that holds. Kinetic work rarely ever emerges from here, and yet everything that the eye meets, is as though it were seconds away from tipping over. One suspects even the light waltzing in from the two windows behind her knows this, for it falls so co-conspiratorially on a state of curated balance that it dare not disturb. Kher is quick to remind us that this is also the state of imminent collapse—the point of unabashed vulnerability from where her art begins.

A film crew has been setting up all day for the purpose of recording this conversation. Kher is working on a film to accompany her forthcoming show, The Trick is Living—the first of that scale for her, in India. In the midst of putting together the many links of that chain, most of her today has been spent in slyly ensuring the hands of all the camerapersons don’t graze the surface of the wax sculptures that lie strewn across the space. They inevitably do, and even she realises the blame is not entirely theirs, but shared at least in part by the deceptively candy like visuality of the smoothened wax before them. In a career spanning over twenty-five years and many exhibitions in museums across the world, the one thing Kher is used to is the desire people have to touch her works. She is not unfamiliar with this because it is a desire she herself shares, most viscerally. To touch materials, and to tease out from them “the third thing” that is neither the material, nor what you expect it to be, is the endurance of her art making. In an industry then where exhibiting is designed to disallow any contact, Kher then is the true trickster extraordinaire. Nearly all the works that lie in the studio, ready to be crated and shipped to Bikaner House for the opening, seem like invitations to lick and scratch and break, as though they were at the same time the meringue you ate a tea party, the itch that softened under your fingernails, and also the inveterate habit that birthed. For her opening this year, Kher is gearing to play many such tricks—of scale, of language, of contradiction. But what is most alluring is that she is constantly playing.

The Centre That Holds R: 3 decimal points

L: I can't give you my essence

R: 3 decimal points

It is interesting that you do not enjoy being filmed or photographed, and yet the body is at the heart of your work and your work involves a lot of casting, taking something from somebody else’s body. You even have a sculpture called I can’t give you my essence.
I don’t like to be either photographed or filmed particularly, and I think there is a part of me that wants to keep a strong feeling of the self and to protect it in some way. Yet, what I am asking from other people is that contradictory because I ask them to reveal themselves to me and also leave a part of themselves in the studio. What I say to people when I am casting, is that this is the place you could leave everything that you don’t want about yourself in the cast or in the studio, and when you leave it’s a kind of rebirth or a catharsis that you can perform.

You also use so many kinds of material in your work. Do you think each material aligns itself to essence in different ways—there’s wax, there’s plaster, and there are the bindis.
I set up for myself a series of propositions and questions around and about each material. It is a leap of faith that you have to take when you make art. Do you allow materiality to lead the way you make and the way you read a finished artwork, and if so, what are the possibilities of that material? How could you push a material to do something that it doesn’t do on its own? What is it that I am able to do with the material that perhaps nobody else is doing? How can I add strength to a material that’s quite fragile? How can I stop something that looks like it’s going to fall over from falling over? How can you play these tricks with material? And yet material is not the message.

The Centre That Holds

Links in a chain (1 of 12 parts)

Do you see yourself as a solitary person or do you like working with people? Do you think solitude and art making are inextricable from each other?
At certain moments, yes. I was trained as a painter, and as a painter you spend a lot of time alone. I think when I came to India, one of the reasons I stopped painting was because I couldn’t connect to the new place, the space where I was, to connect with the outside world or where I was right then. Also, I was a bit bored of painting, to be honest! So, sculpture is maybe my calling. I think around things, and I like the collaboration with materials and to bring things together. Sculpture is a very different kind of practice as a maker. For me, the joy is in the making. I like doing things with my hands. I like to touch things to know them and I break them to know them.

“I think women can be many people; it’s the nature of us, and of our bodies. We are constantly in states of transformation all our lives, and it’s unique to the female body. Movement, transformation, becoming, being, unbecoming, unbeing—they move between these liminal states.”

I’m also interested in the way you deal with readymade objects. Do you go out looking for objects or do objects find you? Do they become conduits for the working of chance in your life, and how much do you allow that to enter your work?
Both, absolutely. It’s just the way that my eyes see things. I am always looking for something. And I look all the time, when I go out, when I’m in the car, when I’m in traffic. The ambulance arrived because I saw it outside my studio at insurance reclaim. Marble objects or granite things, I see them on the side of the road, I stop and pick them up and bring them into my studio. I think I collect because I’m prone to accumulation both physically and psychologically; it is my nature, part of my being. Sometimes when I’m bored I go out and shop for things I will need in three years.

The Centre That Holds

A page from the artist's diary

So, the studio is the interior space where work happens, where it begins and ends?
It’s my centre. The studio is the place where I come every day. It’s the place from where everything starts; all ideas begin and germinate here. You’ll notice I never go anywhere! Anyone who wants to see me is invited here. It’s the lab.

And what about you as a person? Is there a transformation that happens when you enter here?
Yes, I think women can be many people; it’s the nature of us, and of our bodies. We are constantly in states of transformation all our lives, and it’s unique to the female body. Even my sculptures are constantly in states of flux. Movement, transformation, becoming, being, unbecoming, unbeing—they move between these liminal states.

The Centre That Holds

Bharti Kher

Your forthcoming exhibition is The Trick is Living. In what way is it a unique exhibition for India? Is it the scale of it, the different kinds of work that you have brought together and put in relation to one another?
I’ve worked in India for 27 years now and I haven’t made many exhibitions, and I thought it was time to bring back and show some of the works that I’ve been making, but, more importantly, to try and create more of an openness in the way that you can go through the work. I think what I want to do here is to really show the flux of the practice in terms of how and why it moves around so much, Not just the bindi paintings, but the sculpture, and the work that I’ve been doing recently, the casts especially. The exhibition is about the physicality and my relationship with the body, with casting, with the idea of using the body to open up a truth. But also that none of my work is about “Truth”.

There is another kind of possibility you create and open up in this exhibition, which is with the sketchbooks. In fact, we have an entire room of that kind of material. How did that happen? What are you giving us by letting us have access to that kind of material?
My blood! [laughs] I think I write much better than I speak, I find it quite difficult to talk about something when I could write it. I think a lot of the very fundamental ideas of the works, or their genesis, come from the sketchbooks. In the past I’ve been deeply protective of them, as if they were my little babies, but now I’m a grown up and I think it’s okay to share parts of them.

 

[Excerpts from forthcoming publication, Sketchbooks, Diaries and Works on Paper]

Text Phalguni Guliani