An email thread with Sheela Gowda
In And Tell Him of My Pain (1998, 2001 and 2007), the artist Sheela Gowda pulled around 250 metres of thread through the eyes of 100 sewing needles, soaking and binding them together with glue and blood red pigment. They became long, looping cords splayed across the white walls of a gallery, as alive and as charged and as crimson as veins. Tracing these gigantic, sinuous lines to their ends was slightly unnerving. They dissolved into clusters of silvered needles—carriers of rapture and of torment. And Tell Him of My Pain contains traces of the things present across Gowda’s entire installation practice (she began as a painter)—it is labour intensive, it is quietly suggestive, it is concerned with materials themselves, where they come from, how they might be manipulated.
Ahead of a new show later this year at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, we spoke with the South Indian artist via email.
LAURA BANNISTER I’m curious about the home offices of artists, or the corner desks in their studios—spaces relegated to administrative, mundane tasks like paperwork, emails, making orders, doing taxes. I wonder what that area is like for you in Bangalore, where you’re emailing me from now.
SHEELA GOWDA The administrative desk is on the first floor in the room adjacent to my ground floor studio within my home. I use this desk to work on detailed drawings, banking or for serious writing. The rest is done on the laptop elsewhere. I try to keep things pertaining to my studio separate, but when it comes to administration, files are not separated from work and personal life. I do not use standard filing systems and I try to recycle paper. So, even though everything is pretty much organised, the desk looks messy.
BANNISTER I was reading a piece on BOMB online today—an interview of artist and publisher Tobias Kaspar. He and the interviewer discuss the art school ‘trauma’ narrative: the notion that some generations of students cut loose and slander their art educational father figures, while others seek affiliation with their mentors at any price, seeing them as “self-chosen parents who are at the same time also pin-up idols and crushes.” It was some three decades ago, but I’m interested in your experience of London’s RCA in the 80s. What, in your experience, was the dynamic between students, teachers and syllabus?
GOWDA Leaving the country to live and study in a foreign land was in itself an education. I was very fortunate to have been in RCA in the 80s when Peter de Francia was professor at the painting department. He had a strong bias towards figurative painting and my work was very figurative at that stage. (He was not too happy seeing my later, more abstract works!) During those 2 years in London I worked with no distractions and studied each work of art intensely—in as many museums as I could—during my travels in Europe. Seeing European art in Europe was about reading the nature of art and art practice in its own cultural [and] political context. This had a big impact later on how I interpreted or asked questions of my own work in the Indian context. I have been lucky to have had so many great teachers in India and elsewhere. Their inputs are still vibrant for me in what I do today. This does not mean that I am uncritical, or that I do not filter what I have received.
BANNISTER What initially attracted you to RCA? How common was it, back then, for students to come from outside Europe to study?
GOWDA Until the economic opening in the early 90s, studying outside the country was a matter of privilege or competitive merit. Artist residencies were not common. England, alongside France, was the preferred destination because of scholarships such as the British Council scholarship, the Commonwealth scholarship, Charles Wallace [and others]. The Inlaks scholarship awarded by the Shivdasani family was much sought after. I was fortunate to be selected. The RCA was their preferred college and had precedents of earlier scholars having studied there.
BANNISTER I’d like to talk about materials. You’ve noted that you always source art materials yourself, that it’s difficult to delegate as handling materials enables you to understand both their potential and their limitations. I wonder, are there [other] unseen parts of your practice that are collaborative in some way, that rely on other people?
GOWDA Of course there are other people helping me—sometimes officially acknowledged if their input is specific or very substantial. My artist husband Christoph Storz has collaborated on one or two projects but never as the initial idea giver. To my understanding, collaboration does not mean mere assistance, paid or unpaid. A welder’s work— even when they bring in skills and experience that I don’t possess—is not collaborative. Collaboration is when the other person brings in a thinking that influences the direction and nature of your work, and here too opinions and feedback cannot be called collaboration. Most often, I use materials or ready products in the market where the skill of the person who has made it by hand is evident—the acknowledgement comes in my recognition of this process and the very reason that I pick it up and use it. The small wooden figurines that I used in Of All People [and] the hair ropes used in Behold are some examples of unseen hands.
BANNISTER In sourcing very specific pre-industrial materials, many common to India—such as thread and tar drums and kumkum—you’ve said you’re often met with resistance to buying in large numbers:
“You do not fit into their idea of a conventional client, with conventional usage of what you are buying … The simple question ‘what do you want it for?’ is the hardest to answer, for myself as well when I am at that stage of artmaking. So it is always a social encounter of sorts.”
I have only visited India once, and my knowledge of what I presume you’re speaking about is limited to small purchases. I’m interested in the personal relationship with the people you source materials from, the fact they’re so inquisitive about a product’s eventual use. Why do you think that is?
GOWDA Tar drums are definitely industrial products. Using the term pre- industrial materials seems to imply that they are from some obscure past … Kumkum is a big industry, even mechanised in part, but most likely requiring manual labour at many levels. Thread is definitely industrial if one excludes Khadi thread. Kumkum, incense-making raw materials, hair ropes [and the like] are sold and bought in big quantities for the purpose that they are meant for. The buyers know what to ask for and do not ask questions that are outside of their specific need. They speak a certain ‘language’ and their customer profile is ‘normal.’ I don’t fit into this standard. When I am interested in a specific material I ask them where it is made, who makes it, who uses it [and] why. Being hectic wholesale shops, most are too busy to answer with any focus. Often they do not know the source, let alone the socioeconomic backgrounds of the makers or their geographical location. Questions could lead to suspicion—I could be a tax snooper! But a few are gracious enough to not only answer, but also give me information that leads to the realisation of a new work. They are curious about me too, and have every right to be. What will I do with it? What kind of art do I make with it? Generally art is something so outside of their daily life. For some, there is a certain romanticism attached to it; others couldn’t care less when I tell them I am an artist. A lot of the time my own ideas are still at a nascent stage so I try to explain what I do. Painting— making pictures—is the starting point. Buying large quantities ensures that they are more open on my next visit! A certain familiarity develops: I can rest and watch the movement of people, I get offered tea, I get help in transporting [goods] and so on.
BANNISTER Do you enjoy these protracted interpersonal exchanges? Or would you prefer to work quickly, with relative anonymity? (When I ask this, I am not thinking of works like Darkroom where the relationship with roadworkers was crucial to the preparation of materials, their labour a fundamental element of the final work.)
GOWDA The wholesale market world as a daily routine is so different from mine. I enjoy watching how they work, their own sense of order or seeming disorder—usually there are very good reasons for the way they do things—I enjoy the sensuality of a shop overflowing with varied things, each item seen in multiplicity creating amazing configurations. It is so enriching for the eyes, nose, ears, touch. I find shopping in Europe or the US quite uninspiring compared to this. You need to know what you want and then you find it in its rightful place. There are no surprises. Having said this, ‘finding’ is not incidental; it is not the beginning. Finding is about recognising something. You recognise it because you are looking for something that is relevant to the constant dialogue you are having within yourself about concepts and things around you. These encounters are catalyst moments, when the world out there presents you something that finds a resonance within you. Sometimes the encounter happens first and you go back to it later when a conceptual framework has been formulated.
BANNISTER Behold (2009) was produced the better part of a decade ago. It is ambitious and arresting and hard to look away from, with its 4000 meters of undulating rope hand-woven from human hair, its knots interspersed with car bumpers. The hair came from temples. It was shaven by pilgrims as a ritual sacrifice. I want to know first about the logistics: how hard was it to secure this much hair? How long did it take to amass—and was there any resistance to your using it?
GOWDA The ropes are available in particular kinds of shops. They are handmade, assisted by twisting mechanical devices, and are sourced from varied small manufacturing units. They are therefore not of standard quality or type. So I had to do some searching and sourcing for the right kind. There is never a resistance to buying anything at all, especially in bulk, if I am paying for it and it means profit!
BANNISTER What attracted you to it as a material? And further, what was it like to work with en masse?
GOWDA The material itself is not attractive, being the dead matter of so many different people. But the fact that it is made—from small bits of left over hair—into such a strong rope was fascinating to me. The lives/bodies of so many people are entwined into one. This creates a potency that is inherent. It is recognition of this meaning that inspired me to use it. Behold meant putting together by hand, seamlessly, the available three-metre length ropes into a 4000-metre-long one in the final installation. I worked on it daily and entirely on my own. I like the meditative aspect of doing.
BANNISTER Hair is intensely personal. My own is long and rather dead, but I’m so attached and reluctant to cut it. The connection is intense, psychological … As an antithesis to this, in high school I had a friend who was terrified of the hair of other people. I think the condition is called chaetophobia. He found it physically repulsive, full of germs. He’d gag when he’d see his girlfriend’s hair in bathroom drains, at school people would sticky-tape strands from strangers to his back in a place he couldn’t reach.
I wonder how you perceive the passage of hair between communities—realised in a work like Behold—and the physical and spiritual way it connects strangers? It’s weird; the hair in the work feels so intimate, especially the coils on the floor, even though it’s divorced entirely (in a physical sense at least) from bodies and the temple ritual. There’s this intense physical labour that has taken place on your part, and presumably thousands of quiet shearings.
GOWDA The prospect of working with hair for its own sake is not exactly exciting! When I started working with materials that were inherently meaningful such as cow dung—in the Indian context, for example—its visceral quality was not always a sensual experience. I had attempted to work with the ropes in the early 90s. At that point I presumed them to be made of sheep wool. But it was only much later, somewhere around 2009, that I realised it was human hair. Its potential then became exciting, especially in their use as talismans on vehicles.
BANNISTER Something that seems obvious—but is worth discussing—is your interest in cottage industries, both the labour and output. Works like Collateral, which is dark and immensely fragile, investigate this with real nuance: it is not didactic or preachy, there’s no condescension. There seems to be a real admiration for labour, however modest.
GOWDA I am interested in processes—in the idea of the handmade in particular, but industrial, mass-produced cheap things interest me too. They straddle the handmade world and a tentative industrial world—an entrepreneurship of a modest business minded person trying to make a living. For example, the plastic dolls that are ubiquitous in small town markets, toys for children that are cheap, plastic versions of a folk toy. These translations reveal cultural nuances and aspirations. I like watching people use their skills even if it is just a utilitarian object. In India, the making of raw materials is usually a visible, fascinating process—but it can be horrific in its health implications for the maker. The process of burning limestone is one such example. On one hand, there are the corrosive fumes, and on the other the beauty of mud- plastered kilns that appear like termite hills with white streaks.
BANNISTER Do you remember when you first became attracted to rural traditions? I have read that your father was an archivist of folk music and artefacts, and wonder if these objects—at his work, in your home—led to other associations: the labourers behind these objects, for example.
GOWDA I am urban but have links to rural culture through my parents. I have assimilated it in a tangential way all through my life. Despite this proximity I have been careful not to use craftspeople for my own ends. I don’t feel the need to draw attention to the labour (or labourers as you term it). There are many other complexities in these traditions. Despite the recent predilection for academia in the arts I believe that the artist’s expression cannot or should not be that of a research scholar alone.
BANNISTER In your 2015 installation Either Way, a six-meter-wide structure, reminiscent of a weaving loom, sits horizontally against a gallery wall. Between wooden beams are strung rows of black rope, all wool and human hair, in a state of apparent half-completeness, as though abandoned by a worker. These looms, of course, often sit vertically when used. How did you decide on the approach of flipping it?
GOWDA It is interesting that you read it as a loom but I did not read it as such, so its horizontality is not a flipping of the normal loom as you infer.
BANNISTER Something else I’m curious about in your work is the presence of flags. They appear now and then, strung between poles and as a heap of fabric in That is no lie and in If you saw desire. My experience with flags of this nature is rather secular and millennial: I know them as something coopted into the craft/Etsy sphere, used as bunting at parties, or given to winners at local sporting games. At risk of asking you to be unnecessarily obvious, I’d like you to elaborate on what they recall for you, on their significance.
GOWDA I have only recently used this motif in my work. If you saw desire had its roots in a Muslim prayer place oddly set up on a small street corner. It was a tall flag post made of shining steel, with many green triangular flags, tinsel and lights. Its vernacular/religious exuberance interested me, in contrast to the heavy shining steel structure (an over- enthusiastic use of the industrial). This reemerged as an installation with jazzy, sequined flags made from an excessively wide range of Chinese-made fabrics sourced in Hong Kong markets. Ideas travel. The colourful fabric tent or shamiana/pandal that is commonly used in India is referenced in That is no lie. The red colour is potent. The center of the vast tent ceiling is cut away in a zigzag way, leaving behind celebratory triangular buntings in its periphery. The thrust of these two works using fabric and flags is very different.
BANNISTER You have an exhibition coming at Ikon in Birmingham this June—a non-hierarchical co-op that was initially founded as a gallery without walls, touring between non-art venues. On the website there is some sparse, teaser information: your show is heralded as a “considered response to the gallery’s architecture.” Can you expand on this?
GOWDA When I make new work—and if it is a sculptural installation—it makes sense to work with the space that this work will inhabit, and in turn be impacted on. This does not mean that the work is site specific. Its first iteration would definitely anticipate, counter or be inspired by the space. The Ikon galleries on the 2nd floor are particularly hard because they are not neutral white cube spaces and have strong architectural features that are quite in contrast to the language of my works.
BANNISTER Are you able to discuss some of the new works you are creating?
GOWDA I do not like talking about works in the process of being made because it fixes them too soon and I like to keep the process open till the end. Also my works are never stable ideas that are just awaiting execution. It is a process that goes back and forth—between sketching, conceptualising, testing materials and spatial presence. At this juncture I can only say that I am working with some building materials.
BANNISTER Increasingly, large art institutions are detached from artists: they function for patrons, for the affirmation of their own identity. What has your experience been, as someone who reacts intimately to the internal structures of the gallery and thus requires dialogue with staff?
GOWDA All art institutions I have worked with try to fulfill the needs of the artist, especially technical needs up to and during installing. Some strong relationships with the people you work with get established and sometimes not. The enduring ones are with the curators.
BANNISTER Has there been an ongoing dialogue with Ikon? How far before a show of this size does that conversation begin?
GOWDA The staff at Ikon gallery has been supportive. The conversation started a year ago and at this stage I do not make commitments of what I might show. There has to be an element of trust on both sides. The preparations at this stage involve getting a sense of the space, its dimensions, the volume, the feel of the rooms. Apart from this I need to know the practical aspects of display [and the] feasibility of what I want. In the case of Ikon I have to work from photographs and plans. Many times I do not get to see the space I will show in. I have experience enough to visualise and project the work in my mind.
BANNISTER Writing, like artmaking, can be solitary. I have a few writers I speak to regularly, discussing ideas, mulling over things. I wonder if it is the same for you—if you have any ongoing dialogues or relationships with other artists?
GOWDA The political and social are so volatile and changing here; there is a real threat, physical too, to our freedoms. It is as if we are undoing all the positive aspects of modernity we had built since independence, however incomplete and non-inclusive it may have been. As thinking individuals we have to confront, discuss, agonise, comfort and debate what is happening around us. I do have informal conversations not only with artist colleagues but also with friends who are sociologists, historians, writers [and] filmmakers. We initiate or join protests—there are so many issues to protest about. On the art front for example, over the past year the Bangalore artist community has resisted the private takeover of a public art space. Our methods and resilience became a talking point in the city for many months. Privacy is not a guaranteed right in India. Curious questions can startle you in an unexpected moment. I prefer this to polite silence and too-correct manners.
BANNISTER Over all these years of painting and sculpture and installation making, what kind of responses to your work have mattered most to you?
GOWDA I appreciate those responses that do not begin with preconceptions of where you come from. I feel satisfied when a viewer reads my work through the language and formal aspects within the work even as an image or form in it makes an emotional impact.
Sheela Gowda will present new works at Ikon, Birmingham, from 14 June until 3 September 2017.