by Sukanya GargNov 30, 2019
We often refer to the idea of ‘man vs. nature’, and I often wonder, isn’t man part of nature? Humanity is dealing with an unprecedented pandemic in COVID-19, but that is also being viewed as nature’s way to make corrections. Artists have often expressed through their art the concepts of ecology. One such artist is Vibha Galhotra who has engaged in researching on the impact of climate change. Her recent body of work uniquely employs material and processes with a deep layer of scientific understanding and references. And while doing so, Galhotra revolves around the ideas of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. She recreates images of Mars taken by NASA, using the ghungroo (Indian bell) with metaphorical inspiration of seed and germination with visual context of pixels. I met the artist after she launched her show at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, over a long and lazy afternoon.
Here is an excerpt from my conversation.
Rahul Kumar (RK): At a conceptual level, your practice deals with the idea of construction and deconstruction. In your recent body of works titled Beyond the Blue, how is this idea coming forth for the viewers?
Vibha Galhotra (VG): I like to deal with the idea of construction, [de]construction and [re]construction, processes that can be observed in nature too. Beyond the Blue is a body of work that I started researching and working on in 2016, continuing my work on the new-age problem of Anthropocene or human impacted climate and human behaviour, exploring literature by researchers, scientists, activists, eco-warriors and other practitioners about the rather dystopian capitalist and other compromising socio-political structures we operate in.
Building on this research, I started exploring the new-age ideas of inter-planetary migration to escape the ecological catastrophe on our own planet. The idea of migrating to Mars has, in fact, fuelled a space race between the so-called superpowers of the world. I started researching about agencies (NASA, spaceX, ESA, Roscosmos, ISRO and others), around those who trying to find water on Mars. I wondered, whether the country which found water first would then get to colonise the planet? The film The Martian came to mind where the protagonist migrates to Mars, but when unable to cope with the alien atmosphere, he returns to Earth. The film metaphorically deconstructs the idea of what migration looks like, the possibilities it presents and the anxiety of pursuing the same.
My practice, too, is inspired by Derrida’s concept of deconstruction wherein one needs to deconstruct the constructed structure of an idea to understand that the truth might lie in the opposite. This idea started informing my practice and I increasingly began deconstructing ideas. So, if you closely observe my work, you will realise that deconstructing the beautifully constructed form leads you to its true significance - concerns about the depleting environment. For me, the process of the work is really important from the stage of research to the execution and display. While researching about this body of work, I discovered information about the exorbitant amount of taxpayers’ money that is directed to space research. Further such missions are adversely affecting our own planet, apart from fuelling other economic disparities regarding who can even afford to escape the planet. The process of deconstructing research about inter-planetary missions and science helped me navigate through the maze of truth and fake news.
With regard to the aesthetic construction of the works, especially for the series of works Life on Mars, I have referred to NASA’s open resource bank of images taken by reconnaissance orbiter. I transform those images on my canvas with basic tools like pencils, pens and pastels. Once the drawing is finished, it is given to the women working in my studio (most of them are working with me from nine to10 years) to re-appropriate further on the image which was once created by camera in millions of pixels, which are then reconstructed by women who sow the new imagery with ghungroos.
RK: Why NASA?
VG: NASA claims to be doing major research on the planet Mars in collaboration with SpaceX. After SpaceX disclosed its construction plan of a colony on Mars, I was interested in these threads of information and have been closely studying it through accessing the open resources bank of images of Mars by NASA, which are not just aesthetic, but also seem authentic.
RK: Are there metaphors to be drawn from the very material you use and the process you employ to make your works? Readymade bells, paper-pulp? And what may be the reason for you to mute the bells?
VG: My work is both conceptually and physically about new or reconstructed meaning. I mostly use ghungroos in such a way that they are muted and function as pixels put together to create an image. The muted ghungroos are further symbolic of our voiceless state in the so called ‘democracies’ we occupy, our delusional battles between right and wrong, and our ignorant existence in the midst of the failing economic, social, political and ecological structures of our times. I use many materials to address the issues that concern me. However, in the process of deconstructing the meaning of my work, the viewer will observe that the process of object making is antithetical to the practice itself, the latter not just questioning our lifestyles, behaviors and choices, but also the consumerist art market.
In the formative years of my practice, I often used natural and ephemeral materials and usually did site-specific works, land art, leaving the works on site to exist or perish on their own. There is another series in the exhibition where I revisited a material – paper pulp – that I used during my Master’s degree at Shantiniketan. Paper pulp is a fantastic material to work with. It’s like water in some ways, whatever shape you pour it into, it takes that shape. The series of work that came from this material, Wounded, was performative in a sense. The process of making it was almost like wounding an object. Concrete, which has been used to create the works, is symbolic as it is one of the key agents contributing to the impending catastrophe on earth with its endless use in construction. Using it to make circular works that represent the Earth, I use other to create holes and scars on these circular concrete structures just as our Earth has been wounded and scarred. The final work is cast carefully in paper, its fragility representative of the fragility of our planet and our existence.
RK: From a process standpoint, while you use ‘urban’ media, the processes you employ seem fairly traditional. How do you straddle technology and traditions?
VG: If you are referring to the use of material and its execution for this particular body of work, then yes it could be said to inch towards a more traditional approach as compared to the rest of my work. However, the process of art is not just the making the artwork, but also in the processes that lead to the idea of the work itself. Therefore, the research with multi-disciplinary practitioners and scientists and the use of NASA’s image data resource involved a new kind of approach, re-defining the idea of material perhaps in ways that are different from the ones I have previously done.
RK: It is noteworthy that you attempt to make critical commentary on environment, yet consciously choose to have an increased carbon footprint yourself to produce the very work – imported paper, industrial production of metal components, etc. How does one place these two together?
VG: Yes, as I mentioned in our conversation earlier, it was a conscious choice of material and I purposely mentioned it to you. For making the paper work, the paper was ordered from Korea and I used cement to produce the moulds. Art production itself is rather heavy on carbon footprint in general, as the production, transportation, creation, and conservation of material and works in the contemporary art world leaves a high carbon footprint. I am too a part of that art world and I am uncomfortable of contributing to the same. It is, however, a pity that I don’t know any other means of making art yet and I shall leave it there...
The exhibition was on view from February 21 to March 28, 2020.