Your art primarily focuses on the effects of rapid urbanisation. Can you elaborate on this theme?
A. This sprawling urbanisation problem was nowhere to be seen about 10 years ago. We are witnessing certain changes in urban spaces and social spaces also. Many of these are inter-connected. Social space, you could say, is a new kind of urban development. These are complementary. One is that you create the space and the people will accommodate there and actually behave in a certain way, and other is vice versa. It’s a behavioural change and the connection between people changes with all kinds of other changes happening simultaneously. It happens in architectural and social spaces in the same way. For me, it’s more like an observation rather than a suggestion on what’s happening in the social spaces because of the kind of expanded urbanisation that is taking place all over India. Lots of migration is happening, and in Delhi and Mumbai, you will find different communities with different ethnicities, language groups, complex caste groups, religion and class divisions. All these operate in that space only. These are the interesting facts and systems that I want to understand and that reflect in my work. I want to create a new kind of meaning while working on them.
Q. You have worked with multiple forms, such as installations, screen prints, photography, painting and sculpture. How difficult is it to deal with so many different mediums?
A. I was trained as a painter. Making sculptures is also my passion. Movie making or video-making came along the way. For an artist, it is important to know many different mediums, and certain ideas can’t be communicated by using just one medium. In that situation, you get into different mediums to explore. That is why I actually dabble with so many. I did not have any formal education in any of these mediums. The fact is how you approach and in a certain time the work comes to you in a certain medium. This work demands different mediums. Each one has its own strategy to express. Whatever I do, my larger concern is to communicate through these mediums.
Q. Do you think one can participate in social activism through art? You have yourself been involved in many welfare projects.
A. We actually don’t call it welfare but it is more of a social project because when we are extending our own aesthetics and understanding about an art work, it becomes a larger concern in a social arena. Not necessarily will all artists be involved but the whole point is, art has always that extension. So some of them are interested in that and some hold themselves back but ultimately when a work of art functions it functions in a social space. When looking at the idea or concept, it expands into your own intellectual space and influences you. This is how I look at any of the art forms. What I can do through my medium is, probably, expand the peripheries of my own practice and corporate much larger concerns in the social space. It’s more like your own expansion of ideas and concerns which also has political implications.
“City Unclaimed had two elements. One is a large-scale collage, which is almost 20 feet high 60 feet in length. I almost took a month to consider that length-based cityscapes and photographs would work, and this is what I have been doing for a while now.”
Q. Your work “City Unclaimed” in 2013 for a US museum dealt with architectural spaces, class and social disparities, and the issue of water pollution in Delhi. What made you want to take up such a project?
A. City Unclaimed had two elements. One is a large-scale collage pinned, which is almost 20 feet high 60 feet in length. I almost took a month to consider that length-based cityscapes and photographs would work, and this is what I have been doing for a while now. What I was doing in that is taking particular images of places like slums, very under-privileged spaces in the centre of the city, and then the other areas around them. The other element which was a part of it was the Yamuna Elbe river project. The artists were invited to respond to the respective rivers of Germany and India. Here, I was invited for the part of Yamuna project. The idea was to bring people’s attention to the existing condition of the Yamuna river. City Unclaimed, in this sense meant that the moment you claim it, you actually are in the centre but as long as you are not claiming you will always be pushed to the peripheries. This is how it operates.
Q. You are among the regulars at Kochi-Muziris Biennale. How do you look at Kerala from an artist’s point of view? And how will you compare its cityscape with Delhi’s?
A. Kerala is completely different in terms of culture and people. Everything is different but at the same time, when you have a kind of living experience in any of the urban spaces in India, then coming from a rural background you obviously get the glimpse of the whole pan-Indian life and situations. Many things are distinctly different but human conditions at many levels are similar. Largely it is the issue of urbanisation and the issue of accommodating people from other communities: people who are marginalised, who cannot be accommodated in mainstream activities.Otherwise, everything else is similar. So, with Kerala, I have a regular connection with the place. The work I did for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale was also directly inspired by this land and by other things about it which are connected to my memory: they are all there in that bell installation I did [see cover image].
Q. Your work is now internationally recognised. How is it different working abroad as compared to working at home?
A. Only one thing matters and that is the kind of experience you gain from the time you travel and connect with different lands, trying to create something which also connects with the place where you go and work. It’s not only about your ideas always, it’s about connecting with other cultures and issues and how that reflects in your practice. Such experiences can contribute a lot. We may not notice the change immediately in our own work but over a period you understand and perceive those changes in your work. On the one hand, it is very psychological and on the other hand, very practical. There may be limitations like language and you may not get the right people to connect with. All these add to your experience in later works. But the same can be applied in different parts of India.
Q. Can you elaborate on your recent installation “Who Directs Whom?” which you did for Publica 2016? And what are your views on public art festivals?
A. Who Directs Whom? is actually a large-scale work. It is a kinetic work. It is an apartment structured with a pendulum at the bottom. When the pendulum moves, the whole structure moves. It is in reverse motion as the pendulum makes the whole structure move. The intention was to keep it at a public area or in a park to reflect on our understanding of the use of time. Time makes us move, we don’t actually have any control on time. We had control on time 50 years ago, with leisure, boredom and the idea of waiting for something to happen. There was such a time back then. Now, everything is clocked and you have to work according to time.
As far as public art is concerned, more initiatives promoting public art should be undertaken in our city because people are generally interested. People do come and visit out of curiosity and then they engage with the artworks also sometimes. With such art, you are elaborating on something which is very deep and you insist that people should understand this art, which is why you are putting it out in public. That, however, may not be an ideal way of connecting people with an artwork. That is why we have museums and professionally established spaces to engage with the work of art. In public places no one stays put for more than five minutes. So, there should be some connect with the rush of people around.
Q. Artists also bear the responsibility of speaking out on social and political issues. Do you think enough artists are doing that in India?
A. This is probably a debate. There are artists who are doing it but whether there are enough artists doing it actually depends on what art education they have received and from which art college they come. In my opinion, artists should socially and politically engage with whatever we are doing because art does not happen in isolation. Art might need some isolated spaces when actually created but that doesn’t mean that it only comes from isolation. It needs other areas of anthropology and social sciences. These are integral to art because art is the cream layer of many elements put together. Social understanding will enable more people to get involved in art. In fact, the perception of art will also change as art is always seen as an elite practice: only those who can afford it can enjoy it. I think social involvement as an artist is a factor that helps in engaging all kinds of people with art.