Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Transforming State Catalog


By Sumakshi Singh, July 2010
“If we represent knowledge as a tree, we know that things that are divided are yet connected. We know that to observe the divisions and ignore the connections is to destroy the tree.”

Wendell Berry (1934)

Change is inevitable. We know that space transforms as we move forward in time. With this altering space, come changes in things we own, places we live, ways in which we move through the city, the pace of our lives, the re-location of our neighbours and friends, our shifting jobs and finances. Some of us experience drastic cultural, political, architectural, and environmental transformations, we never thought we would see. Sometimes economies boom and collapse.

The city saves all these uneven stories (large and small) side-by-side, layer over layer: a growing container, taking on new shapes as more stories get added on, each one affecting the other.

Delhi’s frantic frenzy of construction and Connaught Place’s “rapid and sporadic face lift” find voice in Kavita Singh Kale’s sculpture “Fragile, Strings Attached” and accompanying animation “Arrested>>Fast Forward>>”. An uneven, three-dimensional grid of raw wood, framing clear acrylic boxes, is suspended from tall vertical poles of different heights, reminiscent of the scaffolding and construction one has left just outside the gallery. About five feet tall, the sculpture seems to burst unexpectedly out of the ground, in the process of building upon itself, cube by cube. Tangles of thread and wire housed in each five by five inch clear acrylic cube, crisscross violently, trapping the forms within and challenging the stability of the grid outside.

Strange anthropomorphic forms are seen in this chaos: part human, part machine. The endearing nature of their doll-like scales, is subverted almost instantly by their strangely mutated bodies created by cutting, reforming and adhering found and purchased objects. These are altered further by tiny, hand formed sculptural appendages and painted surfaces.

The materials in Kavita’s project (varying from cheap plastic toys to gravel and brick from construction sites) have a satisfying cohesiveness with the concept: both come from the streets outside, re-enforcing each other. Individual narratives in each cube elicit reads from the viewer that range between violence, distortion, exhilaration, humour, silliness and claustrophobia through the sheer inventiveness of the visual language. Just as we think we are starting to observe a formulaic logic in the fusion of the human with the mechanical, Kavita surprises us, and we keep looking into this mad, topsy-turvy universe. One character is located in a curious space between being a rendition of a contemporary Hindu god with eight arms wielding weapons of construction (in place of destruction) and being a vulnerable handicapped entity with screws, grommets, washers, ball-bearings and bolts growing out in place of limbs. The clever audacity of the language lies in the transformation of these small construction tools without an attempt to disguise their functional identities in any way. The real screws then represent limbs without masquerade. A bright yellow, truck-shaped shell appears like a fused bag-pack engulfing another being, perched on her tip-toes, looking as if she were about to take off into space, but held down by the wires. Evolved avatars of modern man appear, designed to construct efficiently while other characters seem caught up in goofy, celebratory feats of gymnastics, rolling about on their tyre-shaped heads with their legs up in the air.

Each of these personalities interact with tiny hand-made and manipulated found objects, meticulously painted to represent birds, cellular phones, construction cranes, cricket balls, jewelry and wrenches that generate specific micro-environments for them. Seen one through another, the individual narratives piled up and filed in this “building” create an overwhelmingly complex meta-narrative. Kavita’s sense of humour reveals itself as one sees the miniature version of the wannabe “Nike” bags, printed as “Bike” by our street markets (complete with the Nike logo), proudly sported by members of public, unconcerned with the distinction.

Kavita Singh Kale is mostly a painter, who has also worked on animation projects. She submitted a wonderful acrylic on canvas rendition of her “Wedding Album” in her portfolio. The guests stand stacked adjacent and over each other, located in flat rectangular patches of color that barely have depth enough to contain the contour drawings of gifts and other biographical objects specific to each.

It is precisely this attention to detail, (ranging from postures, understated expressions, objects, outfits and their patterns) that allow the rigid, puppet-like characters to transform from a “ symbolic type” to a particular person. The naïve language of a drawing filled in with flat color seems to be a decoy to invite the viewer in, un-intimidated, then revealing bit by bit a real sophistication and earnestness in the construction and detailing of the imagery. (The employment of an entry point into her work through an accessible, almost street-level language can be seen meandering into her sculptural practice). Imbued with an otherwise unforgiving humour of an acute and relentless observation of people and their characteristics, the painting employs a charming awkwardness of language to take the sting away. Prolific drawing activity fills her sketchbooks with these quirky, insightful observations of the people that we pass by everyday, but fail to stop and consider. In this extraction of the specific character from the general public relegated to peripheral consideration, Kavita feels like “I somehow know these people.”

Before arriving at “The WhyNot Place” Kavita wrote about the changing urban landscape, “…Inhabitants patiently wait for benefits, and in the meantime are forced to overcome obstacles caused by a constantly changing environment. I want to portray the urban growth that is happening on top of and inside each entity, benefiting some, while adversely affecting the others- causing a domino effect.” She talked about “personifying the urban environment” as body accessories by painting people from Delhi with appendages of concrete structures and heavy machinery and then finally translating the idea into a video of herself transforming via body extensions referencing urban development.

Paola Cabal, co-mentor noticed “…I see some rich possibilities from even the words you’ve chosen, “Domino Effect”, “on top”, “inside of”. These are structural words. You’ve indicated your interest in extending your inquiry into structural terrain by using “body extensions”…your words here speak to me of the possibility of extending your two-dimensional painting practice further into three dimensions…little people that sit under, on top of or around existing structures, and derive much of their meaning from placement. Or, what if you make architectures of your own, by creating “bricks”, wooden “supports” and “tiles”?”

I responded “ I like the concept of exploring the relationship between the inner and the external landscape i.e. how this physical change is affecting the aspirations and psychological natures of these now-mutated entities. What prompted this idea? Was it particular stories you heard from people or perhaps things you observed in yourself?” I encouraged her to jot down narratives that related to the human negotiation of flux in specific situations so that “the work created will have a richer archive of source material to draw from.”

Regarding the body extensions for the video I asked “Could you build sculptural props to put on yourself for the shoots or do you just plan to do this digitally? This is a great opportunity to make life-size "real" urban accessories!” Paola recommended research on Rebecca Horn, who first came to prominence in the seventies for her performances with body extensions.

Kavita responded enthusiastically “I would love to explore different media!” elaborating that she had indeed wanted to extend her practice into three dimensions, but was simply intimidated by the short time frame of the residency. She did some further soul searching over the weekend and proposed five projects! These included the afore mentioned painting and a preliminary idea that manifested itself into the final sculpture “... All the cubes (containing people) assemble together to form one bigger cube. The individual spaces will reflect and refract via the acrylic sheets and create multiple layers of images, creating a metaphor for their lives linked together.”

Over the course of our twenty-five days together “Fragile, Strings Attached” went through several formal changes. I suggested that the smaller cubes build themselves into an uneven, undulating structure like an in-process construction site as opposed to the proposed larger cube: “It’s too stable a form to highlight the precariousness of the “domino effect, flux, change and ongoing activity” that you are interested in”.

A field trip to old Delhi stimulated the idea of the crisscrossing wires and people trapped within them.

In a group critique with the co-mentor and other artists we discussed the kinetic potentials in Kavita’s sculpture. The wood frame barely seemed able to contain the buzzing activity. Fellow resident artist Greg Jones recommended filling some of the cubes with gravel or other construction material and letting gentle vibration create a sound component. Paola Cabal picked up clues from Kavita’s photographs of the created characters with their strangely cast shadows. She suggested placing the piece outdoor, recording the trajectory of shadows created over an entire day and projecting it onto a tiny screen within the sculpture.

I talked to Kavita about creating a simple animation of the cubes building and collapsing upon themselves, lending a time component to the work.

Kavita’s walls began to get covered with photographs of the agents, enablers and suffers of the upheaval she observed during a walk through Connaught Place led by Gagandeep Singh: action shots of digging, filling, breaking floors, re-making floors, smashing walls, workers precariously balanced on scaffolding, ‘earth movers’ along with static images of blocked roads, fallen trees, collapsed portions of the Metro track, steel girders, rolls of cables and buildings seen through a chaotic network of wires. Bricks, gravel, wires, cubes, wood, plaster, thread, nails, toys, paints, paper and Emseel, collected during her daily sojourns proliferated over her floor, desk and windows. Her studio was the experimental laboratory of a mad scientist, spilling out miniature Frankenstein.

In a slide presentation I designed for her, Kavita was introduced to the tiny constructed cities and overlapping mountain-like wire interventions of Gisela Insuaste, the whirlwind three-dimensional landscapes of transformed found objects by Sara Sze and the fantastical mutations in Matthew Barney’s Cremmaster 3. I reffered her to Gigi Scaria’s video “Panic city” of the animated rise and collapse of various buildings in the skyline and discussed the nuances of the conscious employment of “outsider art” language in the forms and figures of Claire Rojas, Chris Johansen and Eric Lebofsky. Finally we looked at issues of scale varying from Charles Simmonds miniature hand-constructed cities to Richard Sera’s massive “earth works”.

Meanwhile Kavita was shooting videos in Connaught Place of the breakneck speed of construction activity racing toward its deadline: the opening of the Commonwealth Games. She says “While shooting videos …I felt that, we as citizens have to put-up with serious hurdles in our daily activities, not necessarily for the betterment of our lives but rather to give a face-lift to the city.” This is an important question. Are these changes in Connaught Place simply cosmetic: a shiny new façade to present to the visiting world? The video finally resolved into “Arrested>> Fast Forward>>”: a combination of live footage with 3d animation derived from her sculpture where construction workers seem trapped in a frozen moment or sped into a fast forward frenzy of activity.

“FRAGILE, Strings Attached” asks who are the beneficiaries of this change? Almost afraid to know, one nervously frames the next question “Who are these Urban Mutants?” Using a language as playful as it is disturbing, Kavita puts forth questions concerning relationships between the psychological and the physical landscape, the discreet and the inter-connected narrative, the human and mechanical nature of activity, the familiar and the bizarre semblance of things and the inviting and the repulsive nature of transformation. The found, the hand made, the painted, the sculpted and the documented, all come together to substantiate this massive inquiry.

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