by Dilpreet BhullarMay 16, 2021
For New Delhi and London-based artist Himani Gupta, the physicality of the external environment – natural sounds, natural tactile forms such as soil, rock, pigment, and building materials – has a way of finding its place in her work as source materials. The artist talks of her creative process with a gypsy-like whimsy describing long extensive walks out in the world, a fascination with studying aerial views of spaces, recording sights, sounds and forms with the intensity of a social anthropologist who is busy mind-mapping real spaces and those imagined. Perhaps, in some way, her work can be viewed as an attempt to marry the ethereal plane of the imaginary with the concrete realness of the material, but this isn’t necessarily how Gupta herself views her work.
“I am interested in observing the movement of people through the eco-systems they create and inhabit, and further recording these experiences,” the artist explains. These experiences include not only one’s built environment but also the site as a physical space complete with body, line and organic form, as engaging with the people inhabiting it. Often, her work stems out of intensive research bringing elements of found materials into large-scale experiments with surfaces, pigments and colours. The multi-layered chaos of the work raises a variety of thought experiments waiting to be unraveled.
“Behind my finished works, there’ll be research papers, random found material, photographs, sound recordings, and notes,” explains the artist indicating towards a fascinatingly cerebral approach to creation. “My practice is essentially rooted in drawing and painting. I often arrive to the conclusion of a thought process by exploring it with the materiality offered by drawing.”
The dramatic and sudden shift from oil paintings and fine art to include video and sound in her recent work, To Navigate, can perhaps be explained as another thought experiment, one which has come to its conclusion through the restrictions imposed during the pandemic. The work which captures the impact of the lockdown in three separate cities around the world – Delhi, London and Chale Island, Kenya – is largely audio-visual. “While I have always made notes using video and sound, it was exciting bringing these to the fore in my latest body of work. The shift was exciting and challenging in equal parts,” Gupta explains. “Challenging mostly because I am technologically impaired, so it took time and external support to edit, finish and amplify the work.”
As an artistic language, the audio-visual does come with its fair share of a mercurial improbability. While it is quicker, more dynamic, and expansive to compose with, it also runs the risk of falling flat or coming across as too diffused or overly-amplified. For Gupta, this has been an effort towards achieving a fine balance and certainly she has done this, bringing an added layer of immersion in her work, evoking a sense of time and space slipping us by as we remain locked within – much of which is brought on with sound and video. Yet, one can’t help but wonder if To Navigate hasn’t set out to achieve too many things within the tight frame of a limited conceptual design, packing an intensely collective experience that we are still to overcome and process in its entirety. The effect remains ever so slightly diffused, fragmented, and incomplete just like the sense of collective dislocation brought on by the pandemic.
The project, which was a crossover of painting, drawings, video and sound collated from April 2020 to December 2020, skips through mediums begging to be defined. The work which runs like an audio-visual personal diary of the artist is broken into two phases. The first, a visual installation on the façade of the artist’s residence in New Delhi, projected for seven evenings straight brings recording – sounds, forms, and spaces – of distant lands (Chale Island, Kenya) to the density of New Delhi. Phase two provided a series of open studios and online viewing rooms where the physical work – paintings and drawings – which were part of the project were exhibited.
“Over most of 2020, I’d been working around themes of moving, packing and unpacking, occupying temporary and permanent homes between three continents – informed mainly by my personal story but also by the globally chaotic situation at large, which for me, has spun questions concerning the space between the private and the public, perception of time and understanding collective memory,” says the artist.
To Navigate, which is a response to this period, was developed over several months and involved (essential) travel between three continents – Asia, Europe and Africa. The work as it was conceptualised was increasingly site-specific, utilising material and form from these sites and spaces, that were playing the role of ‘home’ at the time. To Navigate in that sense matches up to art theorist and curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s proposed idea of ‘alter-modernity’. Bourriaud conceived contemporary culture as corresponding to a globalised world order, one that was derived from multiple discussions across different cultures in what were distinctively decentralised negotiations. This culture is truly ‘polyglot’ because it places together “the exiles, the urban wanderers, the immigrants as dominant figures of contemporary culture” (Potts, 2012). It also then places an importance on the site or the physical environment as a holding space for a ‘polyglot’ culture. Gupta has utilised this global network of exchange via the site as a universal medium to deliver diverse representations of the world surpassing any sense of borders and boundaries.
“Ultimately, experiencing national lockdowns in three countries – each with their distinct styles of governing and managing boundaries was deeply overwhelming,” says the artist. “A times when the world stood still, this experience was in a sense an exception to the (new) norm and almost impossible to articulate.”
To Navigate is reminiscent of a diffused anxiety, perhaps a reflection of the underlying emotional whirlpool of the period expressed all too well. As we continue to grapple with these surreal states, carving our way through the experience – both personally and as a community - Himani Gupta’s thought-provoking piece stands as a reminder of a universal connection, one that defies boundaries and transcend borders.