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Through his lens, darkly

To discover the influence art had on him Harsha had to trace a long-winded path. Photo: M. Vedhan  

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Harsha Biswajit speaks to Apoorva Sripathi about how he discovered art through science and why our cameras capture life even before we experience it

Harsha Biswajit says that AlterVision, the exhibition of photographs he has curated for Forum Art Gallery, translates literally into “an alternate way of seeing. We are exploring the idea of images and how they offer us glimpses into reality. And we ended up with a group of four artists who were subconsciously looking into identity and privacy.” This idea of near-future dystopianism and how photographs have evolved over the years, best describes his series, ‘I Once Took A Walk Outside’.

The Chennai-born-and-raised boy, who studied in Sishya, went on to pursue degrees in Economics and Political Economy in the U.K. For someone who has grown up with art — his parents are city artists Shalini and Biswajit — Harsha went through school without taking a single art class.



What's on at AlterVision?
Today, small moments rarely go unnoticed, or rather undocumented by everyone. We all have cameras with our phones, and by extension, we’re all photographers. Something that Harsha believes. “Everyone’s a photographer — that’s what’s exciting. I’m doing an installation {at Forum} for that as well: getting viewers to share pictures from their phone; the only criteria is that it has to have a face in it somewhere. I’m going to have them printed immediately and put up on the wall. This will happen throughout the Biennale; it will build itself.” But while recording every second moment on our phones, do we actually face the prospect of living through it and enjoying it? “We see something and we take out cameras to record it before we actually experience it; it has become an extension and an instinct of our generation to experience something in front of us through another lens versus our own. Maybe that’s part of living.”


“It’s a long story actually. I wanted to study the way the world works, and during my Masters, I became disillusioned and lost all hope in humanity. I did art on the side, but it was for me, and it got to a point where I wanted to be an artist and get into that world because I felt like it’s a more democratic and open platform to use those ideas and express them.”

He then came back to India for a year-and-a-half to work on his portfolio and applied to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York, took a class on documentary photography and got into the idea of documenting life through a photograph. “That’s where my inspiration comes through — this romantic idea of capturing the way something is today and being able to look at it in the future — and at the end of the day, it’s a document for someone else. I’ve been in NYC for three years, and this became a way for me to document what I’m seeing and where I’m going every day. This is a culmination {the series} of a year-and-a-half’s worth of work.”

In that way, the 27-year-old is equally aware of the privilege he brings to the table. “I was here almost every other day. My parents understood the creative urge I had at one point, so they weren’t telling me not to pursue it. They’ve definitely influenced me in many ways — in terms of the actual art probably not as much, but definitely in terms of ideas, finding myself and getting here; it wouldn’t have been as easy for me. I was always lucky in a way. Art was always present in my life and it was just a matter of time, but I guess I had to realise that for myself.”

To discover the influence art had on him — “I took it for granted because it was part of my life; I didn’t need to take an art class to validate myself” — Harsha had to trace a long-winded path. “Because what I studied was about how the world works in terms of economics and politics, I felt like those ideas shaped the way I approached issues and topics and the work that I do. Economics and politics, together, influence the way I think. But I won’t do it any other way. It gave me another perspective, which I wouldn’t have got if I went to art school. Art is a medium to express an opinion; you don’t want your art to break down into another form of propaganda — it just brings you back into the system. It’s a fine line between that and invoking a thought in a person who’s looking at your work.” 

But what really made him take art as a serious profession was, funnily enough, science. Ecology, to be precise. Working on his thesis, about the dialogue centering on climate change and India and China’s position in it, at SVA, it expanded to a general idea of how people view Nature and ecology and how the issues were at the core of problems we find difficulty in addressing. “There are all these layers of free-riding issues, where one country takes action and the other benefits and the fact that the industrialised countries are the ones who created these problems and the onus is on the developing countries... lead to political arguments: why should we pay for something that you’ve caused?” His professor, much like all professors wanted Harsha to focus on one topic, which made him realise that art was all-encompassing and that “I can’t get someone to tell me what my inspiration should be focussed on.”

This resulted in a multimedia project of a 10-feet fibreglass sculpture of an elephant lying down with a projection map of his drawings acting like the skin of the elephant where the conventional narrative of time is distorted. “It was about how we perceive time: human versus ecological. About how we’re not able to see the change physically happening, so we’re not reacting to it. It’s such a hard topic to tackle as an artist because you don’t want to be telling someone what to do and think; you’d rather invoke something in them to question themselves and that’s what I was trying to achieve with this. It’s not all truth; it’s just an impression of what someone sees. And why can’t that impression be extended beyond just a photograph, is again what this series is all about.”

His series of photographs at AlterVision interprets the scenes of every day mundane life, something that Harsha prefers to capture rather than events that are routinely photographed. We see faces yawning in the New York City subway, a hand emerging from nowhere, ‘faceless faces’ walking on Wall Street, a woman asleep in a park, and another who looks into the distance as the train moves on… Is that to convey a society constantly under surveillance or perhaps, peel back the layers of life that is usually captured using a straight camera? “My series looks at society from a very traditional standpoint — documentary photography. It takes that as a premise and then leaps into its own crazy space. But it was also a way to break the mould of straight photography and bring in other layers of meta-reality into the way images are made and relay it closer to how we experience life. Life is not straightforward.”

Does he mean to say that a straight camera capture isn’t enough? Harsha explains it with an example of a dog walking on the street. “You see the dog and you’re thinking about the same dog your friend has and then you’re relating it and going through all these different layers of thoughts and you’re suddenly back in a split second. But the point is life isn’t just a picture of the dog; it’s about these interconnections that you make with this and that, and it exists in all these layers.”

AlterVision is on display at Forum Art Gallery till March 10.

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Printable version | Apr 25, 2017 2:55:30 AM | http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/harsha-biswajit-on-how-he-discovered-art/article8296015.ece