On two giant canvases, artist Raju Sutar has tried to capture the absence of thought. Titled ‘Entire Existence Is A Thought Except Now’, the works emerged from spontaneous action rather than a premeditated plan. “I am trying to look at the possibility of mutation to happen in the moment of ‘now’,” says Sutar. In his collateral project from Kochi Biennale , the exploration of the nature of thought is reflected in the works of the other artists as well. Sandip Sonawane has treated thought the way an artist would a subject — breaking it down into fundamental shapes. “The thoughts are complex in nature and we try to break them down to see whether it makes sense or not,” he writes in his conceptual note. Vaishali Oak has likened thought to a seed that grows into our tomorrows. The Kochi Biennale is one of India’s most prestigious art events and Sutar has brought a part of the project to Kalagram in Pune. Excerpts from a conversation:
How is thought also a matter?
American neuroscientist Candace Beebe Pert proved that thought, within the mind, actually creates neuro-peptides in the brain. Neuro-peptides are chemical messengers created by cells in our body in an ongoing process. Neuro-peptides are, in effect, a type of protein. Imagine, here is a piece of matter, a new little piece of the universe, which did not exist before. This was an important thought for me as an artist as well as a curator. I came across Pert’s work at a time when I was thinking about conceptual art. There is a lot of emphasis on conceptual art, and a group of artists is saying painting is passe. I have a strong point of view that painting will never die because we have a known history of 35,000 years, ever since we saw them in caves. I was thinking, ‘What is concept?’ I came up with the idea that ‘Concept is thought’. What is thought? While I was thinking this, I found this article on the internet about Pert, who had said, ‘Thought is matter.’ My obvious question was, ‘If concept is thought and thought is matter, then what is conceptual art?’
How did this initial exploration evolve into a full-fledged exhibition?
I presented the idea to my artist friends and everybody thought about it in their own way. We did some workshops. We challenged each other and came up with thoughts about emotions, brains and the physicality of the mind. Sonawane came up with the idea that, in the first stages of drawing, artists will often break their subjects down to geometric shapes. Isn’t it similar to breaking down thoughts to make it more comprehensible? Oak came up with the idea that thought is like a seed that travels and propagates in the mind, and she started working with that. Rajesh Kulkarni represented neurons and their connections with the brain.
How did the idea of thought lead to your own painting?
While talking to the artists, I was thinking, ‘If thought is a matter, what is not a thought?’ I have always had existential questions, such as, ‘I am…existing or not?’ While thinking about what is not a thought, I came up with this idea, which has been said by many Eastern philosophers, that ‘now’ is not a thought. Even Einstein could not write ‘now’ mathematically because the moment you write it, it becomes past. Only spontaneity can do justice to this idea.
What is the state of ‘no thought’?
‘No thought’ is when there is spontaneity. The past is in your memory and the future in your imagination. The conjoining part is ‘now’. Everybody is born with that idea but somehow we have conditioned ourselves so that every action we take is based on the past. In the process, we are losing the ‘now’. This, in my opinion, is why problems are created. We are not working with intelligence but intellectual motivation. Intelligence makes you do things in harmony with nature. You have to be in the moment of ‘now’. Animals, for instance, are present in the moment. We, as trained people, think a lot. You do need it for the basics but we have complicated it and this has led to people becoming insecure. If somebody has not behaved well in the past, we carry it with us very, very far. Global warming is a problem of thought. We are greedy and using resources because we are motivated by what will happen in future.
This is not the first time that science has informed your art. What are the other scientific phenomena that have fascinated you?
I am always interested in science. My last exhibition ‘SELF’, which I curated, had a triptych in which I used the quantum mechanic experiment that says light is a particle and a wave. When I use acrylics or oil, there is a lot of chemistry involved. I feel that art stands exactly midway between science and philosophy.
You did ‘Routes/Roots’ in 2016 for the Kochi Biennale and followed it with ‘SELF’. Now, with an exhibition on thought, you have travelled from the question of identity to the workings of the mind. Has this been a planned trajectory of your oeuvre?
‘Routes/Roots’ began because Bose Krishnamachari came to Pune and asked me to curate a project for the Kochi Biennale. If I take Pune artists, we should think of our roots. ‘Routes/Roots’ emerged spontaneously from that. After ‘Routes/Roots’, it was obvious that we would want to think about the self. I am going progressively inwards because we all have problems inside and all solutions inside as well. External solutions are temporary.
You did not bring the entire exhibition to Pune. Is the truncated show enough?
It was not possible to bring the whole show here as the place, where we showed in Kochi, was at least four times the size of this gallery. Only a part of Sonawane’s work is here. Kulkarni had an entire installation that was the size of this gallery. We could not bring it. My animation is not playing and a suspended seed installation by Oak is not here. Nonetheless, this show here has a possibility to initiate dialogue, which is what I am interested in. In Kochi, the show was on for 108 days and I tried to be present most of the time as I love to interact with visitors.
The Kochi Biennale is mired in financial controversy.
I have always said the Kochi Biennale is one of the biggest art movements that has happened post Independence. I think we should all stand in solidarity with Kochi Biennale. India, as a country, was facing an identity crisis in art. Now, suddenly, India is on the map of the world because of the Kochi Biennale.