Contemporary artist Bharti Kher and the tale of two cities

A woman standing in front of a white artwork.

With nods to both her Indian and UK bases, Kher's work is celebrated for her commitment to deconstructing cultural heritage

By Osman Can Yerebakan   Above image: Bharti Kher (courtesy of the artist and Perrotin)   Tuesday 21 July, 2020   Long read

Artist and London member Bharti Kher often breaks things at her Gurgaon studio, located just outside New Delhi, where she is usually based. She cuts and slits them in halves, putting the matter’s solidness to test from the inside out. ‘I do this to know things better – and push the possibility of the object further, to exhaust it,’ she says from London, where she was born and has been quarantining since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Look no further than her mud and clay sculpture, ‘Intermediaries’ (2019-20), to trace her belief in poetry happening when the material is ‘pushed to become something beyond its inherent property and life.’ Composed of two vertically sliced and adjoint colourful female goddesses, the larger-than-life sculpture was installed in public, under the scorching Bangladeshi sun, earlier this year in Dhaka Art Summit. Kher wanted the sculpture to look weathered, as if unearthed from the land, where it would eventually return through erosion. Pointing to the sky with one arm and the earth with the other, the hybrid deity embodies a circular rhythm, a balance reflected in Kher’s personal journey through her return to places and materials. 
A sculpture of a pink person stood next to a smaller person.

Mr and Mrs from Model Town, 2019 (Photographer: Alex Austin. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin)

A colourful sculpture of people.

An Indian queue of sorts, 2019 (Photographer: Alex Austin. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin)

The grandest of circularities in the 51-year-old’s life, however, was her move to New Delhi in 1993. Born and raised in the suburbs of London, in Surrey, she had the option to relocate to New York or India at the start of her career, after receiving a bachelor’s degree in painting from Newcastle Polytechnic. She chose the motherland. ‘Which Bharti would I have been in America?’ is a question she ponders today, yet content with the unattainability of an answer. 

She considers going to where her roots are a calling, which has eventually shaped her personal and artistic formation. ‘My tree grew longer branches in India,’ she says. 

Hearing a tree analogy from an artist whose work is immensely entrenched by nature’s harmonies and wonders is far less than surprising. Spectral plaster human sculptures, mirrors dotted with countless bindis, or totems conjoined from their hearts – Kher’s three-decade practice thrives on contemplation, stepping back to observe and absorb the universe running its course. ‘It’s the spirit of the person I am interested in capturing; the thing they leave behind, which could be a soft caress of their breath or a pocket of secrets in the bend of a knee,’ she explains, in relation to her life-size cast sculptures of nudes. 

The balance between the minuscule and the grand fascinates the artist, inspiring her to process the workings of a complex order. An equally mathematical and intuitive thinking rests in the ways she articulates her thoughts – think of a stream of consciousness, but meticulously controlled. How else could you explain her admiration for the tiniest particles of a human: ‘We hold 125 billion miles of DNA in the human body, and that is long enough to wrap around Earth five million times.’ The answer might hide in her signature material, bindi, which she wraps, not the Earth, but materials with historic and aesthetic resonance. One or a million, bindi, for Kher, is ‘a metaphor for the body as a unit within which thousands of bodies collectively exist’. Placing each bindi on a surface in a harmonious order manifests a record of the present, hidden in the action’s ‘poetic gesture’. She is an artist who doesn’t consider art that different from life, ‘but it’s just subtler’. And a dot, the tiniest of objects, can convey that subtly, yet with explosion of meanings behind it. 
A broken mirror with many blue bindis stuck on it.
A mirror with a black pattern on it made of many bindis.

Bindis, for Kher, are ‘a metaphor for the body as a unit within which thousands of bodies collectively exist’

A gallery space with sculptures on plinths and artworks on the walls.
A broken mirror with many multicoloured bindis stuck on it.

A casual system refusing impulse (detail), 2019 (Photographer: Guillaume Ziccarelli. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin)

A broken mirror on a gallery wall with many blue bindis stuck on it.

Gentle Bitch, 2019 (Photographer: Guillaume Ziccarelli. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin)

Her relationship with bindi echoes a painter with a brush or a sculptor with clay; however, the sentimentality of the material is primary for Kher. ‘Think about a ready-made bindi picked off a sheet of paper by scores of South Asian women every day and stuck on the forehead between the eyes,’ she ruminates. She dreams of a scenario where a bindi is left stuck on a mirror at the end of a day, catching the forehead of another person looking into that mirror. ‘Mysterious and banal, these repetitive gestures and encounters are in a narrative continuum, transfigured into an irreducible alchemy of art-making.’

Her ongoing exhibition, The Unexpected Freedom Of Chaos, at New York’s Perrotin gallery, includes small-scale versions of ‘Intermediaries’ and a group of shattered mirror sculptures, adorned with countless purple and dark blue bindis. Reflection on cracked surface is still possible, the bindis permitting. When broken, mirrors – or ‘truth-telling devices’, as she calls them – intrigue her for their visual and sentimental potentials. If ‘breaking’ is Kher’s journey into materials, repair is her destination. She strives for the process of healing, ‘revealing the scars and allow vulnerability to be the work’s cornerstone’. 

The mountainous bindi-washed mirror sculptures measure at six by eight feet, sized to immerse and dwarf their maker and the viewer. Her intuitive, bodily measuring habits come from her mother, who also relies on the distance between thumb and little finger outstretched. Hands, in fact, are all over her work. She familiarises herself with her materials through touching, categorising, sketching, and cutting. During her month-long residency at Boston’s historic Isabel Stewart Gardner Museum in 2015, Kher immersed herself with the museum’s collection of eastern and western archives, and wandered around the connections between what is preserved and overlooked. The result was ‘Not All Who Wander Are Lost’, a bindi-covered enlarged version of a 1960s Larousse map over the museum’s façade, facing the street. The route of orange and black bindis challenged the contours of a European map, drawn to help navigate between Africa, Europe and Asia. 

Migration has cast a long influence on the artist’s work, not simply with her move from London to New Delhi, but with her recurrent themes of colonialism, migration and memory. In this aspect, two cities have remained intertwined in art and personal life. The ‘incredibly complex but rewarding’ life in India has provided the open-ended nature of her sculptures, teaching her to focus on ‘the liminal stages between something forming and the slip, or the silence before the scream’. The UK, on the other hand, has been a school where she apprenticed ‘art, music, humour and the acceptance of being “the other”’, while growing up in the 1970s. She thinks it was going back to India that made her career and return to Europe to show her work at the Pompidou or the Saatchi Gallery. ‘That’s a full circle for you.’
A gallery space with sculptures on plinths.
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