With her sculpture “The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own” fetching a record $1.5 million at the Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction last week, artist Bharti Kher opens up about the ideas that went into the making of that iconic piece.

It is indeed a woman's world now. A sculpture by Delhi-based artist Bharti Kher, “The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own”, fetched a record $1.5 million (Rs 6.9 crore) at the Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction last week. It is an almost-life-sized figure of a prone female elephant, its contours covered with bindis. Created in 2006, critics have called it ‘iconic', ‘awe-inspiring' and ‘deeply moving'.

Born and educated in the U.K., Kher favours the use of the bindi; more often seen on the female forehead than inanimate works of art. “I use them as markers that are both conceptual and banal. Bindis have a transformative quality both aesthetically and conceptually, and can lend themselves to many forms.” These small stick-ons, glued on to the fibreglass behemoth, “have become a part of my language... By engaging with a material continually, it starts to take on its own life and the life that the artist assigns it.”

Conceptual underpinnings

Women use bindis as decoration and to cover, protect and enhance that invisible, omnipotent ‘third eye', Kher says, and “the conceptual underpinning of the work is as much about the act as it is about the narrative. Women put on this third eye, which suggests that today I can see more than I saw yesterday, or that I can see you, or myself, better. Sometimes they function like scars or markings.”

And there is a more complex implication: “You can also see them as a skin, a covering for a body that marks time; skin as a sign of who you are, where you're from.” The shapes themselves, round or snaky, are far less complex; “Keep it simple and the art speaks.”

All praise

James Sevier, Director and Specialist, Sotheby's Contemporary Art Department, is all praise: “Every fold and recess of the sunken form is meticulously contoured by the intricate patterns of bindis that organically swarm across the beast in a second skin. It is India's identity in all its glorious complexities that is the hero of this masterpiece.” He feels that Kher's “unique sculptural practice employs familiar motifs and presents them in unexpected combinations and contexts that engage the viewer physically and viscerally on various social, political and cultural issues. Her work is renowned for its distinctly allegorical approach as well as its capacity to draw upon and enhance the inherent symbolism of everyday objects. And whilst the vocabulary of her chosen motifs is typically Indian, her work also has far broader relevance to a global audience.”

The work itself was chosen as Kher's most important work to date, Sevier says. “It is an unequivocal icon of contemporary Indian sculpture, awe-inspiring in its scale, detail and beauty. It brilliantly combines two traditional symbols of Indian culture – the bindi and the elephant – but leaves us asking whether this is a vision of India on the rise or India exhausted by its own rapid modernisation.” The sculpture is as ambiguous, leaving the viewer wondering whether the elephant is sleeping, dying, trying to get up or peacefully comfortable. “It is an intensely emotive sculpture and a vision that engenders extreme pathos from the viewer,” Sevier feels and critics agree.

Kher clarifies that the beast is “not lying down, she is dying. An elephant would never lie down like this. She is at a cusp between life and death; a private space where no one else can go except you and you'll do it only once.” And the cliché about elephants holds true. “The work talks about the memory through the skin of an elephant who never forgets, so it carries the stories of life-like texts that run over the body. It's one of the most resolved pieces that I have made.”

Monumental work

The enormous work, almost five metres long, is “truly monumental; its physical presence is like that of a fully grown elephant,” Sevier says. A viewer needs to be able to walk around it, almost feel the animal and its emotion. “One would hope it went to a museum collection or a foundation where it can continue to excite and engage as broad an audience as possible.”

Kher makes it clear that “auctions don't have much to do with the artist's direct practice, because the works have left us long ago. But I'm happy if the work goes somewhere where people can access it and its significance is clear.” After all, she adds, “It wasn't made to be a gold bar in a vault!”

And how is a value put on that kind of experience? “One needs to take into account the object's iconic status, its rarity and its broader art historical significance, as well as prices being fetched for other iconic and important works of monumental contemporary sculpture by artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, etc,” Sevier explains. The big league, indeed!