A leisurely walk along one of the many beaches of Goa led to the birth of an idea in artist Alwar Balasubramaniam’s mind. It refused to leave his side for the next three years. Observing two empty seashells, washed up on the beach, sticking to each other as if attempting to be one, left the artist intrigued.
He instantly decided to create a cast aluminium installation Into One in charcoal black colour in the same shape, giving viewers an interplay of space. As they peak through the big holes created in the circular frame, a play of hide and seek ensues — it is just how one would look through the empty spaces inside a seashell.
Balasubramaniam, 43, is holding a solo “Layers of Wind, Lines of Time” at Talwar gallery in Delhi. With the show, he challenges, yet again, the viewers’ perception of space, time, gravity and perspective through 21 works. The best example of this is Grasp, a series of large stone-like sculptures that sit in one corner, as the artist tries to replicate the empty space created when we interlock our hands. Shaping it with mountainous curves on top, he brings out a telescopic view of this enclosed space, invisible to the eye.
Born in Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, the artist has come a long way from the time he was rejected thrice from the Government College of Arts in the late ’80s. In his TEDIndia talk, he recalls a childhood memory. After winning a radio transistor at a drawing competition, he was listening to songs on it during his train ride back home. A man sitting beside him began enquiring about the transistor. Later, he told Balasubramaniam that he was a teacher at the College of Arts. He says, “This man told me,‘I think you should quit school and study at the school of art’.” Balasubramaniam uses this incident to remind his audience that “maybe someone sitting next to you can change your life”, adding, “It is just that we need to be open and fine tuned. So that’s what made me keep trying till I made it to the college. Art was the only thing I enjoyed and the only thing I knew. When you follow what you are doing, you never land in the wrong place.”
Balasubramaniam went on to study printmaking at Edinburgh in 1998, and followed this up with a stint in Austria. Ever since, he has made pit stops at The Guggenheim Museum, New York, Singapore Biennale and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York. Toying around with the idea of appearance and disappearance, in 2001, he found his inspiration in a toilet, in a solid air freshner Odonil present there. He created a self portrait using the freshner in 2004 — and watched it slowly evaporate. This is similar to his Emerging Angel, a smooth white ball made from the freshner, which, as it disappeared into the air, would reveal a sculpture of an angel. His work becomes dynamic, transforming every minute until the hidden angel is finally revealed.
Balasubramaniam continues to play with the physical properties of air and gravity in his latest solo. He placed a rare earth magnet — strong enough to pull a weight of 70 kg — behind the wall and proceeded to created the magnetic field lines surrounding it using Plaster of Paris. “I like to use the energy to make my works, rather than duplicate it through drawings or paintings,” he says, “The energies are invisible but we take their presence for granted.”
Currently in the process of relocating from Bangalore to Nellai in Tamil Nadu, where he is building his home and studio, Balasubramaniam believes inspiration lies everywhere. “You never know if you might find my work based on construction in my next show,” he says, “Little things such as the movement of wind in trees, birds flying and a child looking at something curiously, come to my mind all the time and inspire me. I like the way a song is written, the way scientists look at their work and how poets interpret words in a completely new manner.”