by Sasha AltafMay 05, 2023
How many of us observe the forms in nature? Not merely see them, but intently examine the subtleties of texture of petals and fruit-skins, study the robustness of skeletal structures of pods and seeds? For artist Khageswar Rout it is this interest and curiosity of the natural world that informs his visual art practice. He uses the terracotta clay to create enlarged organic forms after carefully observing the “formal logic of objects and their innate characteristics”. He feels that symbols can be forced to have specific reference only if they are seen in a conventional way. “Signs can never have definite meanings, for these meaning must be qualified, continuously,” he says. His sculptures problematise this very act of reading and representing signs in nature through rational framework.
For Rout, there could be no other media suited for this body of work. “Clay has the ability to respond to the slightest of efforts, from light finger prints to the gentlest of scratches. As I negotiate with it, it records all of my temperaments, containing moments of joy, sadness, and other fixations,” he says, and being a ceramist myself, I can fully empathise with this feeling.
I speak to the artist on his preoccupation with forms from nature, his negotiation between reason and instinct, and his clay process, on the sidelines of his ongoing solo presentation at gallery Project 88 in Mumbai, titled Annex & Dissever Code.
Rahul Kumar (RK): When did you become interested in the study of objects from nature?
Khageswar Rout (KR): My interest is not entirely singular. Everyone tends to observe objects in nature with wonder, especially in their childhood. It is only upon becoming more involved with the material world that this allure generally recedes. Growing up in rural Orissa in an agricultural family, my exposure to land and vegetation certainly influenced my early curiosity towards the natural world, but I pursued my higher secondary education in commerce, but if I had continued in that field, I probably would not have retained this interest either.
My preoccupation with natural objects, as they manifest in my work, stems from my time spent in Kolkata, as an art student at Rabindra Bharati University. It was through nature-study assignments and exposure to art history that I was drawn to the subject. I spent long hours looking at images of Da Vinci’s sketches. They made me aware of how life-study can reveal the formal logic of objects and their innate characteristics. Imbibing this knowledge could then inspire more innovation. I became quite obsessed with understanding and responding to nature. While there is much that is imperceptible or completely out of grasp, smaller elements can reveal mechanisms that we frequently overlook. It was easy to find green areas and quieter spaces in Kolkata where I observed systems of birds and flowers. Even at places such as the Bagan Bari close to my University, I would collect objects and bring them home to study. In addition to all of this, my MFA dissertation focussed on William Roxburgh, who is recognised as the father of Indian botany. Visiting the Botanic Garden in Kolkata, as well as relevant archives as part of this project made me pay further attention to drawings of natural objects, and their documentation.
On a related note, I should mention, that in Kolkata I was cooking my own food for the first time, and engaging intimately with fruits and vegetables. This new routine also contributed to my captivation with their external beauty, patterns, and unique forms.
RK: Please elaborate on your stated intend to “problematise the act of reading or representing signs in nature through rational frameworks”.
KR: Every artwork is a manifestation of a number of factors that are specific to its production, from the conceptual intent of the work itself, to the socio-cultural and political system, it is a part of the more emotional and instinctive processes that guide its making. While my works stem from the impetus to understand the mechanics and structures of natural forms, as works of art they also shed light on the limitations of empirical ways of understanding the same objects. When it comes to patterns in nature, there is a great deal of randomness and spontaneity that is often either overlooked, understudied, or tabled as insufficiently understood by rational approaches. In a world governed by fixed ways of approaching knowledge, my works make a broader statement, to account for all that is generally inexplicable, or perhaps more comprehensible (despite its inexplicability) when looked at through a more sensitive lens.
RK: You are interested in the microscopic views of plants and other living forms. These structures have known to have evolved over thousands of years based on conditioned environment. In that context, please explain “…attempts to decipher fixed codes in organic objects may transport us into addictive annectant modes, reckoning with linkages and connectors that seem coherent, but are made up”.
KR: I am certainly interested in drawing attention to the minutiae of every object by magnifying details of the living forms I study, but there is much that remains imperceptible to the naked eye. In our data-driven world, there is an almost natural impulse to look for sense in patterns we see, which allow for conventionalised understandings of things that might seem more conclusive. While this method comes with its strengths and limitations, it is perhaps natural objects that most convincingly problematise this manner of study. A very generalised grasp of their structures disregards idiosyncrasies, curious exceptions, and extemporaneous minor developments that occur over millennia, which inform the configurations we look at. Through my own process that involves a great deal of improvisation (despite the hours spent on close observation), I attempt to understand and find a language to address these behaviours and nuances. Perhaps the fact that my works are static in their final forms also draws attention to their inherent uncanniness, since objects in nature never cease to transform as they grow or decay in the short-term, or evolve over centuries.
RK: Are there underlying inferences to be drawn to your chosen medium of clay, and within that the naturally available terracotta clay?
KR: As a sculptor, clay has been the most potent medium of expression for me. It is versatile and malleable, and can recognise one’s sensibilities as it demands a degree of physicality and tactility. From a practical point of view, it enables one to render interior and exterior formations of objects in ways that other materials don’t. This is important to me; usually when it comes to natural objects, we have a tendency to disassociate superficial exteriors from internal features but my sculptures contain both of these identities at once. Clay is conducive to holistic presentations of organic objects that have the ability to convey a greater sense of truth, in my opinion. Rather than working with a conventional mould, I work with clay in a layered approach, which gives me control over every surface of the sculpture and lets me work and rework structural as well as textural details to perfection. While there are so many intricacies that viewers may ultimately not even be able to see, if you break any of my works, you will always find them. Working so closely with my material, I build a very intimate relationship with my material. Clay has the ability to respond to the slightest of efforts, from light finger prints to the gentlest of scratches. As I negotiate with it, it records all of my temperaments, containing moments of joy, sadness, and other fixations.
From a conceptual standpoint, I am drawn to the fact that clay and specifically, terracotta clay, has an organic feel to it even when the work is finished. The material’s relationship to the soil, germination, and cycles of growth makes it inherently connected to objects in nature, reminding us of the fragility of life.
RK: What parts of your large-scale sculptures are your own interpretation/expression, and not documentation of what you have seen?
KR: To begin with, the large-scale format, or the decision to scale-up is itself a part of my own expression. For me, this is a mode of articulating the logic of objects I examine. My work is process-oriented – while studying a certain object, I begin by making detailed sketches of it from different perspectives, rendering its cross-sections. Drawing or working with watercolours makes me cognisant of the complexities of form, surfaces, textures, and even colour. While these sketches that bring me extremely close to the objects, can be classified as direct documentation, I treat them as memory-making exercises through which I understand external and internal structures. While I work on my sculptures, I don’t refer to any object directly at all; the act of making becomes a transference of the logic I have comprehended from observational studies. I constantly ask how something comes to look the way it does, and why; such exploratory questions guide my process entirely.
The building up of three-dimensional representations is a slow-paced process, and it can take up to a few months to finish one sculpture. I wouldn’t call the intricate designs, forms, and textures entirely naturalistic, although of course they are inspired and informed by nature. This is because plans evolve with time. There are so many elements of objects that are difficult and even impossible to render sculpturally – details like delicate fibres or dry husks or hulls that simply cannot be conveyed in clay, result in the need for quite a lot of improvisation to articulate their essence. Ultimately, there is also the overarching sense of tenderness, and the internal life of the object that can’t be expressed merely by direct imitation, but relies on more artistic choices. I make very measured as well as instinctive decisions, while rendering the minutest of details. Working directly with my hands to create every form and design, there is a definite transmission of feeling, which also lends to an extremely subjective interpretation.
In addition to my process of representation, my works contain many references, which emerge in a variety of ways, guided by my instinctive process. Although I render timeless natural forms such as pods, fruits, or flowers, their structures also recall the logic of architectural constructs. I’ve always been inspired by interior as well as exterior details seen on temple architecture. Dichotomies of interiority and exteriority that recall intimacy and quietness also inform the way I think about the logic of my own works. A rather literal reference to architecture that you might find in my Annex & Dissever Code series, is the use of lime to add a coat of white to my sculptures. This colour recalls the stucco used on stone structures, and is a reminder of building material. In addition, this paint adds another layer to my work, which in a physical sense represents the chromatic variation or pigments visible on the skin of organic objects. My works are also sometimes self-referential and often, one work may lead to the creation of another. Annex & Dissever Code IX, for example is a more skeletal study of the form I rendered in a work entitled, Ridge Gourd. Treating the objects, I create as bodies full of emotion, the more armature-like representations for me also relate to ideas of sadness and death. On a personal level, they connect with my own sense of loss, as my mother passed away in 2017. Her funerary rituals involved immersing her bones in water, making me engage closely with the skeletal remains of her body.
To a large extent my practice that does of course stem from an active interest and engagement with the natural world, becomes a way for me to reckon with broader questions that relate to my personal life, social structures, and cultural ideas.