For the love of the everyday

Hemali Bhuta’s ongoing show continues her tradition of challenging how we look at art

Published - April 10, 2016 11:55 am IST

When the invites for Hemali Bhuta’s ongoing solo Measure of a Foot went out, the country was up in arms. Debates of nationalism were all over social media, friendships were broken, hysterical name-calling was normalised, daily soap dialogue taking over Parliament meetings. The noise was deafening, and a rejoinder in lawyer and copyleft activist Lawrence Liang’s e-flux essay titled ‘Ultranationalism: A Proposal for a Quiet Withdrawal’ intriguing enough to warrant repeated reads. In the essay, Liang speaks of his school years as a Chinese-origin resident of India: his frequently questioned loyalty to India, the constant ugly noise that is the burden of proof on our histories, and submits a proposal for withdrawal.

Liang’s text comes to mind, as it is something that Bhuta has been recalling as well. In a contemporary art gallery, Measure of a Foot is an artist’s love note to the material we live with every day: latex, graphite, coal, tar, paper and more, and their inherent natures. In the accompanying essay, writer/curator Nida Ghouse refers to this process of abundant love of material to entering a quarry. There’s a fair amount of danger involved in procuring rock from inside the earth; almost as if stealing secrets of time from within the earth like a khaki-covered adventurer. But there’s something hallowed entering Project 88, which reminds one of the old stone temples of Maharashtra, where major gods and their idols are almost hidden, camouflaged against stone walls, or lurking in dark corners. While this made the gods harder to find, it also rendered a sense of omnipresence and power, and you could almost believe this being had the wisdom and power accrued through millennia. Just like rocks in a quarry.

In working with multiple, and possibly degradable/degenerative material for this show, and using processes that border between obsession and love, the artist is also withdrawing from being in a space that is almost home. Like sculptor Eva Hesse before her, Bhuta is throwing the gauntlet, challenging peers, collectors, and other audiences to shift their gaze to the nature of the work rather than commercially cataloguing its various properties such as longevity, finishing, acceptability of material, and so much more. Viability is possibly a misguided way to look at art: increasingly, art is not product, sometimes it is process. It is not beautification, it is philosophical inquiry via varied media. When we met at Project 88, Bhuta recounted the ‘advice’ received upon using latex in her last show Point Shift and Quoted Objects (Project88, 2012). The general feedback referred to the (lack of) longevity of latex, and the commercial burden that might place on a buyer. But must all art suffer the responsibility of living longer than its creator, just so it can be objectified? And is the objectification of art not also the objectification of the artist, their desires and actions? Where do we get off asking that art be bound into something that can be processed in terms of product and saleability?

I want to say this is an homage: to materials, to the everyday, to the beauty in the mundane. But that falls several steps short of what is happening in the gallery laid out with Measure of a Foot. It’s more a quiet party. It’s Bhuta’s old friends in new clothes and new friends in old clothes. The latex we see in Fold is a remnant from that earlier show, cheekily folded up and tied with silicone rubber; like it’s Jules from Pulp Fiction asking you to say silicone one more time. Groove at Project 88, laid out diagonally across an existing groove on the gallery floor is just that, a lead cast of a groove at Project 88. Group A and Group B feature a series of graphite, paper and wax objects. Painted is a composition featuring coal tar sheet, coal tar, Black Japan (a solvent stain used for timber), blackboard paint and felt. It reminds me of The Kiss, but not as the original painted by Klimt, rather Syrian artist Tammam Azzam’s version, photoshopped onto a picture of an old, war-ravaged building from the country. While the original Klimt piece is painted in oil and gold leaf, Azzam’s version (while not real) also draws our attention to this ravaged building, it’s history, the things it’s walls have seen, and will continue to see even as it may be reduced to rubble (who is to say whether rubble has a life?).

Inanimate objects stand testimony to humanity the way no human historian ever could. So when Bhuta uses stone, graphite, wax and tar (and yes, even latex), like Azzam’s Kiss, she is inviting us to contemplate their inherent nature, recognise the years they’ve spent under the earth and over it. In doing so she creates space for their value. To say she creates value would be misleading, for all of these have value inherent to themselves, as well as when placed within the context of the contemporary art industry: most of these materials find multiple uses in the production, transport and display of art. This investigation of value is not simply philosophical, it’s something we can translate to our everyday not-particularly-artistic lives. Simply repurposing or restructuring our use of the everyday could lead us away from living a couple dozen kilometres away from an 18-storey garbage pile on fire. With Bhuta, it is poetry and practicality that creates space for what is usually overlooked. In her attempt to not (to paraphrase the spark of all the national hysteria) reduce the value of the object to its immediate identity, she shows us ways of looking we seem to have forgotten.

Measure of a foot by Hemali Bhuta is showing at Project 88 till April 16

Phalguni Desai is a freelance writer and editor

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