Several years ago, Bharti Kher became fascinated by a four-by three-inch newspaper photograph of a collapsed elephant being loaded into a truck, and a sculpture was born – albeit slowly. The image was a rear view: to make the front, the artist needed a model. Kher’s studio is in Gurgaon, a thriving satellite city of New Delhi, and she knew where the latter’s colony of elephants is kept. She discovered that she could get one walked to her studio – it’d take a day – but the logistics were forbidding (and involved lots of bananas). Next, she went out alone and came across a beautiful female elephant en route to a wedding, but photographing it meant getting the animal into an untenably painful position. So Kher backed off, consulted, photographed surrogates (cows, for example), calculated how body weight would fall, improvised and – don’t tell – made the rest up. And, lengthily, after three attempts at realisation, voilà: The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own (2006), a 1:1 fibreglass replica cum imagining. Or nearly voilà, because at this point the artwork still wasn’t finished.
An Absence of Assignable Cause, 2007. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, London, Zurich and New York
An Indian elephant that might be expiring (or only sleeping) would be allusive in its own right, a female one perhaps more so, but Kher isn’t a straightforwardly narrative artist. She deals in amassed oppositions and narrative delays, which is why her counterfeit elephant is covered from trunk to tail with whirling arrays of spermatozoa-shaped bindis: a distinctly masculine example of the female forehead decoration widely worn in South Asia, and associated (albeit diminishingly) with marital status and religion. Kher has repeatedly used this particular ‘serpent’ bindi, an almost oxymoronic glyph condensing sexuality and morality, to animate and unbalance sculptures. Since the 1990s she’s also deployed it, alongside other examples of the form, to make stingingly chromatic and structurally diverse abstract ‘paintings’ that swallow the languages of twentieth-century Western art and mingle them freely with tantric aesthetics: The Nemesis of Nations (2008), her popgun spray of oversize overlapping circular bindis shown in the Serpentine’s 2008 exhibition Indian Highway, in London, is effervescently Op-via-Pop; the foreboding red and blue Peacock (2009) looks like a cross between a depressive Polke and a colourblindness test. Polychrome nebulae and dancing grids proliferate elsewhere.
If Kher’s two-dimensional work doesn’t harmonise comfortably with her sculptures (of animals, modified humans and sometimes abject arrangements of genteel furniture and crockery), in a sense that’s apt. Her art as a whole articulates its angular cultural commentaries through parts not fitting together. Arione (2004), for example, is a case study in the unbalancing power of simultaneously percolating binary oppositions. A six-foot-one-inch-tall fibreglass sculpture, she’s an Amazonian black female figure in hotpants who might be serving the plate of muffins she holds, or just as easily be claiming them. Her bared chest might appear demeaning, yet she wears a shoulder holster and her left hand assertively rests on her hip. Her left leg turns equine and culminates in a hoof, which in turn stands on a silver circle, rooting her to the ground. She’s beautiful from some angles, ugly from others, ancient and futuristic. Black sperm-bindis writhe over her skull in place of hair.
Arione emblematises the act of being at once forced into a role and of escaping from that role, in miscellaneous ways. Stacking contradictions related to gender, race, species, role, even temporality, the sculpture is vitalised by a constant crisscross of assumptions. Some kind of stochastic theory underlies it. (This is also evidently the work of a sculptor who trained as a painter, being a buildup of intensities – the hoof a sealing detail analogous to a final spot of colour on a canvas, though Kher herself clarifies that the holster played that role.) Not surprisingly, commentators have taken polymorphous works like this and, perhaps simply in order to accommodate them, unpacked them using Kher’s biography. Born in London in 1969 of Indian descent, she moved to Delhi in 1993; formerly an Indian in Britain and now a Briton in India, she’s assumedly a connoisseur of displacement, disconnection. QED, case closed.
Arione’s Sister, 2006 (installation view, Project 88 / Gallery Ske, Mumbai, 2006)
Sipping tea in the three-storey building she uses as a studio, where work is in preparation for her first London solo show, at Hauser & Wirth, the loquacious Kher isn’t having it. “It’s easy to say that the displacement in my work reflects my personal life, that the misunderstanding is about myself – but everybody has it, even the people who live here. People ask where these women [like Arione] come from. They say, ‘They’re you’; I say, ‘No, they’re you’. Those feelings of neither being from here or there don’t just apply to those who move from different countries.”
In some of Kher’s latest works, such as a sizeable Christian confessional box bedizened with bindis, the sense of disjunction operates on a mystifying level: the parts won’t meld in the mind. In Solarum Series (2007, a counterfeit tree festooned with what at first appear to be fruits, then tiny waxen animal heads) and its tipped-over sequel, The Waq Tree (2009), the emphasis morphs and slides. “You’re not sure if the heads are funny or macabre”, says Kher, “and the material has this very human feeling: it’s like skin and flesh, the faux wax, so you get this sense of it being of us but not necessarily from us; it’s almost immediately something alien”. There’s a mythological undertow here – the tree of life – but also a legendary narrative invoked, wherein Alexander the Great was warned not to go to Iran (“I suppose I see this piece as a shaman, but for contemporary times”, Kher has previously said.) At the same time, works like this are spacious enough to allow for plenty of projection, suggesting that the artist – having established a comprehensible dynamic using the bindis – is moving towards a polyvalence that can’t be dismantled in formal terms, yet furthers her thematic purposes.
An Absence of Assignable Cause (2007), a lifesize bindiflecked sculptural envisioning of a sperm whale’s heart, began with an image and became a quest: “The whale’s heart is the size of a small car, and that’s such an amazing visual connection. I started to research, I got my stepmother and kids involved – ‘who can find me a picture of the blue sperm whale’s heart?’ I was reading strange maritime journals, obscure webpages; I got very excited when I heard there was a picture, from 1956; you pay $9 to see it, and it’s Professor Friedman or someone with their hands in grey slush. Back to square one. Eventually, after calling museums in Australia and posing as a student, I got a drawing of what they think it looks like, comparative to human and animal hearts. So, based on the drawing, the fact that I knew it’s a two-chamber heart… but the whole thing’s speculative, a hunt for a chimera.” The relevant allegory here is, assumedly, with the unknowable, quixotic human heart. And yet the slipperiness of this project chimes, in an oddly rational way, with Kher’s overarching sense of what she’s doing in stacking up episodes of incommensurability.
The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own, 2006. © Bartholomew / Netphotograph.com. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, London, Zurich and New York
“If there’s a more appropriate way of looking at my work than saying I’m from one place and in another, it’s through the idea of the self as multiple”, she says. “We play many roles. In my studio I’m the artist. When I go home, I’m someone else. When I go somewhere else, I’m somebody else again. Some of those roles are contradictory. Some of them are chosen, others put upon us. The figures I make always resist all classifications of class, race, time – they could be anybody, at any time. But what they do implies, in most cases, an internal wish to do something other than what they’re doing. I made Arione’s Sister ” – a pale green nude figure from 2006, again with one hoof, a fan of upscale shopping bags fanning around her like the conch behind Botticelli’s Venus – “and it was almost like she was an angel. The bags weigh her down, but they’re wings, and she’s going to fly.”
This is, then, another portrait of the heart, or of the inner self and its potentials for otherness: one that glidingly encompasses the politics of race, gender, cultural difference; indeed, any external pressure. Yet it is a cubist portrait, compressing linear time. While we may all contain multitudes, our various selves reveal in rotational sequence. Kher’s animals, women, even furniture – stand-ins for people, for her, for us – tend to fan out and overlay their sundry selves in simultaneity, displaying what they might want to be alongside what they have to be, each appearing to counterweight the other. The glass isn’t half-empty, or half-full: it’s both at once.
This article was first published in the March 2010 issue.