Art
Sudarshan was the curator for this year's Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
AJ Joji

One of the most memorable milestones in his long and illustrious journey as an artist, says Sudarshan Shetty, was going to an art school.

“From the time I was good at imitating portraits of Amitabh Bachchan, going to an art school opened up a whole world for me, in helping me understand that there could be a gap between skill and expression,” says Sudarshan, who was recently awarded the India Today Artist of the Year 2017.

Sudarshan’s work across mediums, notably installations, has been exhibited around the world from Tate Modern, London to Fukuoka Asian Art Museum; Centre Pompidou, Paris and Guggenheim Museum, New York.

His latest exhibition ‘Shoonya Ghar’ was recently on display at New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art. The multimedia exhibition comprises large-scale sculptural installations, found objects and film. The installations are architectural in nature, exploring living spaces, showcasing fragments of life through everyday objects and are juxtaposed with video installations.

The curator of this year’s Kochi Biennale speaks to The News Minute about the ideas and influences that drive his work.

How was your experience of leading the Kochi Biennale?

It has been very exciting, at the same time, it is a lot of work. I have never worked so hard in my life. But the fact is that we made it harder for ourselves because we didn't follow the norm of first coming up with a curatorial statement and then finding artists to fit that narrative.

I wanted to be able to start conversations which are outside the expectations of the biennale space to see if I could become a kind of host who could trace its trajectories. This came from the fact that I was inclined to bring in the idea of multiplicity into the biennale because the world is multitudinal in nature… that multiplicity is not seen in separation, it is seen as part of a whole stream without opposition.

Every work talks about multiplicity in various ways and multiplicity is also represented in the fact that there are various world views that create conversations between each other. The idea of multiplicity is layered and structured in a way that you can read it in its unfolding through your experience of it.

Could you tell us about your most recent exhibition, Shoonya Ghar?

I listened to Kumar Gandharva (the Hindustani Classical exponent) and it opened up a whole world of Nirgun poetry. This form of poetry comes with an abundance of images and more often than not, it points at a certain emptiness or minimalism. Finding a way of achieving minimalism through an abundance of images interested me because they are seemingly opposite but the poetry shows you that they are one and the same.

One specific poem I worked with was Gorakhnath’s poem ‘Shoonya Ghar’, which describes the world as being empty and then asks what it means to be asleep or awake when there is emptiness everywhere. And so I ask myself, when I build something, could I also build its imminent collapse in the world? It is playing with seemingly opposite notions but there’s also an effort to look at whether you can give both these positions in the same sphere of experience, if they are not two different things.

Image courtesy: GallerySke; No Title, (from "every broken moment, piece by piece"), 

recycled wood, electric wire with glass shade, 300 x 210 x 210 cm, 2013

Death and transience feature as recurring themes in your works that are often revolutionary installations.

My intention is not to come up with a revolutionary idea. ‘Shoonya Ghar’ is not revolutionary, it is poetry written in the 12th century AD. A lot of things are natural to us in how we look at the world, to be able to find where it comes from, those points of reference become important.

How we look at things as naturally as we do comes from a certain kind of precedence. I constantly look for this precedence, so when I talk about Nirgun poetry, it’s about finding resonance within my daily life, a rationale for why I look at the world in a certain way.

Many art forms that have survived unbroken through the colonial times, from Nirgun poetry to Yakshagana or Kathakali, are among these common references. It leads me to wonder what makes them melodramatic. There are reasons for it, and artists who spent lifetimes on these forms have the answers. We need to find those ideas for ourselves, to be able to make sense of the world around us in some way or even the world within us.

You have said before that ‘the ploy is to attract the viewer and then to disenchant them with the mechanical movement’…

I am not bringing any meaning to the object, I don't have that intention. I am interested in what it evokes in term of meaning. A singular object can evoke multiple meanings…that is something I am looking at constantly. It also has to do with your perception of things, to understand that your perception of things can be limited in itself, by nature.

So how do you understand a single object much better by typesetting your own limitations or perceptions for that period of time? When I say object, it doesn’t have to be a physical object, an idea or poetry can also be an object.

I think there is a futility involved in every negotiation with that world that we have. There is always a gap between the promise an object gives and the function it needs to deliver. For instance, when you buy a bar of soap you know it’s not going to make you younger but you fall into that promise of youth. All advertising seems to point at your own mortality.

Image courtesy: AJ Joji

Why is mortality such a recurring theme in your work?

It is something people have talked about forever, the relationship to one’s own body. It is not something new. I also look at mortality as a condition or regeneration, it is not something morose. It is not about dying tomorrow.

Mortality is a necessary condition for regeneration and I am interested in that process. What does dying mean, in that sense, how do things die? Marble structures or objects in museums last for centuries but their meaning changes over time, it has to do with perception.

How do your roots in the Yakshagana tradition influence your work?

I grew up with this tradition of storytelling and performance that has left an impression on me as an individual. I want to consciously access it all the time, in some ways.

What is your vision? You are now among the most recognised artists in India today?

It allows me to do more than I did before, I can do a lot more now. But I don't know what fame and recognition mean in their essential terms. It comes and goes and if I stop working, it may go away. After you die, you may gain more of it.

There are all kinds of recognitions from winning awards to getting reviews of your exhibition published. But to have a certain audience for your work, even if it is countable on your fingertips, that is also recognition at a certain level. One might even be more happy with that, than with fame. Who knows? I don’t know.