The exhibition, ‘The Mirror Sees Best in the Dark’, at Emami Art gallery in Kolkata is your solo after nine years. A mirror is usually associated with reflection. What made you title the exhibition so?
I have always felt that extremities coexist. The ambivalence sometimes comes as conflict — in the language of art we call it maximalism and minimalism. I have observed these extremes in my life in Kerala and Mumbai. In recent years, I feel, there have emerged new extremes such as nationalism, racism and technology. These have drastically reshaped our lives. The lure that an obsession can wield is similar to that of a mirror. A mirror is not just a reflector, it is also a receiver that draws you in; entraps you. It accumulates your obsessions, and obsessions can be very dangerous. This set of works reflects my anxieties about the tensions in contemporary society.
There is also a set of Braille works in the exhibition. In your first solo in 1990, too, you had abstract black-on-black perforations, reminiscent of Braille. Are you revisiting that technique?
In the late ’80s and ’90s, my art language was associated with minimal, abstract works. If you look at Indian philosophy — Tamaso Maa jyotir-gamaya — tamaso means darkness. In Mumbai, I would see reflections on dark waters in the evenings and those rippled lights were music to me. If you sit in the dark, light creeps up slowly. That light is enlightenment, darkness visible. Similarly, the Braille works, embossed on surface, reflect negative and positive space.The 10 words written are like 10 commandments, reflecting what is happening in society (including religion, capitalism, god, casteism, regionalism, narcissism, nationalism). These words are beautiful but can be a dangerous obsession. For instance, it is great to talk about religion and god, but when you go deeper, you realise these could make the world worse. Similarly, our earlier understanding of nationalism has become quite different from our present understanding of it.
You once said ‘art liberates obsession’. Several of your works comment on contemporary socio-politics. How important is it for you to respond to what’s happening around you through your art?
In earlier days, artists were seen as studio painters in isolation but, in the present day, we find artist collectives. An artist works with musicians, writers, architects, designers, performers, scientists etc. As an artist, you process information, recognise what should be retained, what should be edited. It is important to touch upon issues in your work. Art liberates obsession because when you create an artwork, you are free to have your own voice.
Could you tell us about your Stretched Bodies series (abstracts in bold colours), which became your hallmark around a decade back?
Once, a gallerist friend asked me why I was doing so many stretched bodies. I said I want to make a million because I have been told it gives a certain happiness and a sense of optimism to so many people. I was reading an anecdote about (Dutch painter) Piet Mondrian. A visitor to Mondrian’s studio asked him why he was repeatedly painting the same line. Mondrian said he was trying to stretch the line. I really liked his idea of ‘stretching the line’. By overdrawing on a line, I felt one can stretch it to infinity. My abstractions are the extension of a line and a thought process. When I approach a canvas with an intention to make a ‘stretched body’, I am extending the possibilities of artistic freedom.
I believe you wanted to be a doctor when you were a child. How did art happen?
I believe in destiny. As a child, I would often make portraits of cousins, assist my father who used to design furniture. But I wanted to be a doctor. Then I fell ill and was in a coma between the age of 17-21. After coming out of it, in between those healthy-sick days, I began reading little magazines and books on art. Later, I joined Kerala Kala Peetom. A friend sent me a prospectus of Sir JJ School of Art and suggested that I move to Mumbai. I applied, but l was rejected in the interview. I was told that I was already an artist, had won the Kerala Lalit Kala Akademi Award (1985), so why come here? I continued to stay in Mumbai in a chawl in Sakinaka near Andheri. I re-applied for admission the following year and was accepted. Subsequently, I was a topper at the institute, because of which I was given an opportunity to teach. For additional income, I used to work at a restaurant called ‘Mela’ as a portrait artist. However, I was rusticated from JJ during my Master’s in 1992, when I was quoted in a news article as saying that the institute needed better infrastructure. It was ironical — in the same year, one of my most important solo exhibitions, ‘Amuseum’, was held in Mumbai.
You have often talked about how an artist needs to travel, visit other artists
As an artist, it is important to have conversations. Visiting studios gives an insight into how an artist works. Since college, I was friends with people from different fields. I still have fond memories of the cafeteria at JJ, where we interacted with interesting people such as Kapil Gupta (architect), Geetanjali Rao (animation filmmaker) and Sunil Padwal (artist). I would hang out with Sudarshan (Shetty), visit studios of Atul and Anju Dodiya, Akbar Padamsee, Laxman Shrestha, Mehlli Gobhai, Altaf and Navjot, Prabhakar Barve, Tyeb Mehta and several others.
In 1993, I won the British Council travel award. This is when I visited Anish Kapoor’s studio in London and was surprised to see the scale of the space. In 1996, I won the Mid America Arts Alliance Award, after which I travelled across the US. I visited conceptual artist Tom Marioni’s studio. He famously stated that, ‘The act of drinking beer with friends is the highest form of art’ and I am a strong believer in that. We should have places to get together. When I visited Frank Stella in New York, he had, at least, 20 youngsters working with him. I still visit studios of artists, architects, filmmakers, musicians and go to fine art, design, architecture, engineering and science colleges for presentations on contemporary visual culture.
Over the years, you have also curated several exhibitions.
Akbar Padamsee had suggested that I should curate. He must have seen the potential in me as I was constantly following the work of several students and artists. I was quite disappointed with the Indian art world then. The usual names featured in every curatorial project and there was no attempt to search for contemporary practices by younger artists. I sensed that I was good at finding young talent. My first exhibition as curator was ‘Bombay x 17’ in 2004. ‘Bombay Boys’ ( 2004), and ‘Double-Enders’ (2005) had 69 Keralite artists from around the world; ‘Her Work is Never Done’ (2010) focused on the works of 36 young and emerging women artists. In 2016, I curated the inaugural Yinchuan Biennale in China.
You also have a substantial collection of art. You were planning a museum in Kerala. What happened to that?
I used to buy works of artists that I liked. It was not out of sympathy towards edgy artists or as investment. I have a collection that includes works of Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Praneet Soi, Gargi Raina, Anup Mathew Thomas, Ed Ruscha, Sudarshan and Tejal Shah, among others. I was planning to build a museum in Kerala but that is when the idea of Kochi-Muziris Biennale happened in 2010. It was conceived when Sri MA Baby, the then culture minister of Kerala, visited my home in Borivali. He asked what we could do to enrich contemporary art in Kerala. I called artists like Riyas Komu and Jyoti Basu, who lived close by, to meet with the minister and we suggested that it would be great to start a biennale in Kochi. It was planned as a people’s biennale, where artists were at the helm. I give my 100 per cent to the Biennale — it’s continuous cyclical work — so the museum plan is stalled.