In the studio of...
Meeting Bharti Kher, the major figure on the Indian art scene
A major figure on the Indian art scene, Bharti Kher produces spectacular works inspired by local traditions and her passion for human and animal bodies. Numéro went to see her in her New Delhi studio, which is home to a colourful menagerie of half-human half-animal figures.
How did your background, your family and the culture you were raised in shape your identity, your taste and your work?
I believe people are pretty much shaped in personality by the time they are eight or nine years old. Then everything they do or attempt is a riff or dance around the person they are that day. Taste and identity are fluid, culture is such a bigword and it means everything and nothing. So who am I? I’m this person who likes to make things with my hands, I like looking at paintings, I like talking, I like music, and I have always wanted to speak with animals, and to move objects with my mind.
Who inspired you? Can you tell us about your references in art? Are they international or would you say they’re more local?
Goya, Titian, Velázquez, Van Eyck, Chardin, Morandi, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Blake, Flavin, Lewitt, Martin, Bourgeois, all the poets
in the world, musicians, writers and alchemists. Basically, the creators of magic.
You are known for your sculptural bestiarium, representations of hybrid creatures with human and animal bodies. How did this line of work start? And can you tell us something about what these creatures represent for you?
The monster is a portent for the future. He/she opens the doors of your mind and stretches the possibilities of the body. To be more than human isn’t a new idea. Myth and folklore, religion and sci-fi have all created stories of wonder that allow the body to take on the powers of another. Shamans believed that if you wore the skin of another then you obtained their powers for yourself. I’ve used that principle of faith and belief in my work a lot. Art can function in the system of both these abstracts.
You are producing a new sculpture for the next Kochi Bienniale, which is more minimal than many of your previous sculptures. What is the reason behind this?
I’ve gone back to shape as a guiding principle for meaning. Last year I made a series of objects that I called “single points of contact.” Triangles on which balanced a single pendulum point, a made-up instrument of precision or another of my folly objects perhaps. A mobile that looked at balance, or a point that marks the place and time and coordinates of where the world can stand still for a degree of a second. Defying gravitational forces, all objects can find their perfect equilibrium. A triangle is the object that truly embodies contradiction. If you look at most shapes, you will clearly see a positive and a negative space, an inside and an outside. It’s intrinsic to how we understand the world, specifically the space we occupy with our bodies. Circles make us feel enclosed, squares are rudimentary and structured, cylinders suggest a connection from top to bottom. Triangles, however, have no inside or outside, they are the awkward contradiction, like a sum that has no parts.
What about the themes you’re looking at today – are they different from when you started?
No, they’re the same really. The body is the core of my work. The body hybridized, defied, glorified, questioned and often even completely absent. But, like the snake, to see art and to make art you mustn’t be human, you have to leave the body you know and smell with your tongue, hear with your flesh, taste with your eyes, try to touch what you can’t hear, and see with your nose. This is the great contradiction that I deal with when making art !
Change is in the air. It’s everywhere. I’m both nervous and excited by the new kinds of order that change hegemony and power. Maybe I’m getting boring, or tired and older, because it also makes me want to hide in the studio with my head in a warm comfortable space and switch off the noise.