Bringing stillness to Paris | Bijoy Jain exhibits ‘Breath of an Architect’ at Fondation Cartier
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Bijoy Jain’s Breath of an Architect, a site specific response to Fondation Cartier, explores his love of space, materiality, silence and the handmade

November 23, 2023 05:43 pm | Updated November 25, 2023 04:32 pm IST

Stone works laid out in the courtyard in Bijoy Jain’s Studio Mumbai in south Byculla, which will travel 7,000 km to Paris. Jain works with materials drawn from the earth.

Stone works laid out in the courtyard in Bijoy Jain’s Studio Mumbai in south Byculla, which will travel 7,000 km to Paris. Jain works with materials drawn from the earth. | Photo Credit: Neville Sukhia

Hervé Chandès, the artistic managing director of Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, has talked about how he discovered Bijoy Jain’s Studio Mumbai about a decade ago, after he saw a photo of it in a magazine. As he recently told Wallpaper magazine, ‘I kept the picture next to me for years, it affected me so deeply. I thought: there is hope somewhere.’

When he met the Mumbai-based architect much later, he realised the Parisian art museum would be the perfect foil for Jain’s exploration of space. Next month, the Fondation Cartier will host Breath of an Architect, a site specific response to the iconic glass panelled building built by Jean Nouvel. With over 300 works, much of it crafted by hand in Mumbai, Jain will present a spatial immersion for the visitor — a wander through representations of architectural fragments in time and experienced in continuum. The sensory experience, in resonance with the materials, will include stone and terracotta sculptures, facades of regional dwellings, rendered panels, and bamboo structures inspired by tazias (funerary monuments carried on the shoulders in memory of a Saint during Shiite Muslim processions).

Bijoy Jain in the tree-lined path that leads to his studio and home, where he lives with his seven dogs.

Bijoy Jain in the tree-lined path that leads to his studio and home, where he lives with his seven dogs. | Photo Credit: Neville Sukhia

For Jain, 58, the works embody ideas that focus on the timeless, and the intention is not to point towards construction but rather towards liberation. The exhibition will also be a dialogue between him, Chinese artist Hu Liu and Turkish ceramist Alev Ebüzziya Siesbye. The collaborators share Jain’s ethos and cadence to the ritual of gesture and materiality in their work.

We caught up with the architect on the eve of his departure to Paris. Excerpts from the conversation.

How did you decide on the name ‘Breath of an Architect’?

In an early preparatory conversation with Hervé Chandès, I imagined inhabiting the ground of the exhibition space instead of creating it as a show. As I pondered on a title, the question, ‘What is my idea, the gesture of occupying space?’ was uppermost in my mind, and the idea of ‘drawn ground’ came up. Hervé proposed, ‘Bijoy, something with silence’; I acknowledged this with ‘stillness’ and ‘lingering’, and so it continued till we decided on ‘Breath of an Architect.’

Across continents, when you engage with someone who works with materials like stone for example, their language of communication is the material itself and they can understand each other through how they interact with it. It’s the language of haptic transmission, of sound. The expression might be varied, but the core relationship remains the same. This for me is the breath I try to explore.

Workmen putting together scale models for a project. At the back are Studio Mumbai’s vast collection of natural pigments with which Bijoy Jain works across his projects.

Workmen putting together scale models for a project. At the back are Studio Mumbai’s vast collection of natural pigments with which Bijoy Jain works across his projects.

A workman meticulously puts together a panel made of karvi wood and bamboo. All the pieces for the show were fabricated in the studio.

A workman meticulously puts together a panel made of karvi wood and bamboo. All the pieces for the show were fabricated in the studio. | Photo Credit: Neville Sukhia

Tell us about Studio Mumbai.

I began Studio Mumbai in 1995 and it operates as an interdisciplinary group of architects, engineers, master builders, artisans, technicians and artists across continents. Research plays a major role in the development of projects we take on because process and time are important for me as integral expressions of architecture. I see water, air and light as the basis of the materials we work with and this informs the relationships between humankind and the spirit of the places we work in.

Bijoy Jain speaks to a pigment specialist with whom he is collaborating for the show.

Bijoy Jain speaks to a pigment specialist with whom he is collaborating for the show. | Photo Credit: Neville Sukhia

Were the works created intuitively? This is not your first foray into a museum, but you must have had to plan this meticulously.

Yes, I am very hopeful that the show will very much be an expression of what we do at the Studio every day. When you approach a space with the intent to inhabit or occupy, one treads thoughtfully. In my discipline of architecture today, some of the biggest waste is generated in the construction methods being used. However, architecture in my view has the capacity to heal and this is an important dialogue that I present through fragments in the show.

The works for the show were produced in a relatively short period of time, but it’s an extension of my lived experience. I would like the visitor to also experience the space; it’s an invitation to engage with what resonates with them. Even for a fleeting moment if they are able to have an insight or feel quietude or a stillness, I would be happy.

Bijoy Jain’s working space at Studio Mumbai. On the wall on the left are prototypes of furniture that have been developed at the studio and now retail around the world. In the foreground are to-scale models of Fondation Cartier, and at the far end is the Sun Tower, a drawing made with a peg and a line — the precise geometry that is the basis of traditional architecture in India. It is one of the key pieces at the exhibition.

Bijoy Jain’s working space at Studio Mumbai. On the wall on the left are prototypes of furniture that have been developed at the studio and now retail around the world. In the foreground are to-scale models of Fondation Cartier, and at the far end is the Sun Tower, a drawing made with a peg and a line — the precise geometry that is the basis of traditional architecture in India. It is one of the key pieces at the exhibition. | Photo Credit: Neville Sukhia

A preparatory study of a sculpture — with an orb balanced on a turtle — that will be displayed at Fondation Cartier. It’s from Bijoy Jain’s Landscape Study series made during the pandemic.

A preparatory study of a sculpture — with an orb balanced on a turtle — that will be displayed at Fondation Cartier. It’s from Bijoy Jain’s Landscape Study series made during the pandemic. | Photo Credit: Neville Sukhia

That’s a difficult task for anyone — to invoke stillness. Do you think the world needs it today?

The aborigines have this ritual. Every night before they sleep under the open sky, they drive a large wooden stick into the ground to make the Earth slow down while they are asleep. This perceptive phenomenon of the sleeping state resides in their idea of dream time. They experience life or the origins of life in their dream state, one that’s in contact with the universe at large, and so the waking state is a reflection of it. Imagine the stake as a device pierced into the ground to slow time down, not so different from the arrow shot into the ground to release water as a life source in our own mythic landscape. It is a powerful idea, and as humans we all have the capacity to turn inwards and pause, to be still, as the distance and time to travel to this vast space is close and intimate in the movement of our breath.

Seen here are two pieces made at Studio Mumbai. On the left is a bamboo and string structure, which explores one of the many ways of building in India. The ball is created from two of the bamboo structures, plastered with a coating of mud, lime and cow dung. The stairs lead to the archive and working library where a lot of the research is done.

Seen here are two pieces made at Studio Mumbai. On the left is a bamboo and string structure, which explores one of the many ways of building in India. The ball is created from two of the bamboo structures, plastered with a coating of mud, lime and cow dung. The stairs lead to the archive and working library where a lot of the research is done. | Photo Credit: Neville Sukhia

In preparation for Breath of an Architect, Bijoy Jain laid out the entire show in his warehouse near Mazagon Dock. In the foreground are animal figures in stone, coated in lime.

In preparation for Breath of an Architect,Bijoy Jain laid out the entire show in his warehouse near Mazagon Dock. In the foreground are animal figures in stone, coated in lime. | Photo Credit: Neville Sukhia

What is next?

I often say that the physical world we inhabit is a palimpsest of cultural evolution and I hope here is offered a glimpse, however fleeting, of the intuitive forces that bind each individuals’ relationship with space. This is something that I want to build on and explore through meaningful projects. I feel it is important for us to question and look at these aspects in spaces of inflection and interaction.

Breath of an Architect is on at Fondation Cartier from December 9 to April 21, 2024.

The interviewer is an independent curator and the founder-director of Eka Archiving Services.

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