In conversation with graphic designer and artist Somnath Bhatt about his oeuvre

"Purism is death," says the New York-based artist, extending to questions of interdisciplinarity and material occupations, while speaking about his design and artistic practice.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Aug 04, 2022

Design is a medium of solutions, but can it also be a mode of cryptography? Graphic design language finds its intertextuality, tactility, moldability through their interaction with the medium of print, through a layering of material surfaces, whether paper, fabric, walls, diametrically apart from the creation of virtual environments. As designers seek interdisciplinarity in the hybrid contemporary art space, enquiries into materials take shape as well, to project tangibility as an experiential marker. When design becomes a problem of language that translates across mediums, it challenges the very notion of how art is preordained to be a generator of scarcity over plentifulness.

Somnath Bhatt, a graduate of RISD, New York, is a graphic designer and artist who weaves symbolism and an almost mystical quality of narration, obliquely creating references to a history of storytelling through forms. Taking into account independent as well as collaborative forms of making, the designer, born in Ahmedabad, India, has found his ground in projects with fashion designers, musicians, aside from publishing houses and artists. Bhatt finds semblance in an active voice that is seen through language, form and space - words and graphics that speak of his larger imagination through ritual, symbol and constructed image form.

Installation view of Heartbeats of a Cave, IS A Gallery, Shanghai | Heartbeats of a Cave | Somnath Bhatt | STIRworld
Installation view of Heartbeats of a Cave, IS A Gallery, Shanghai Image: Acid Finger 酸拇指, Courtesy of Somnath Bhatt

How can urgency and vitality be captured through design, language and symbolic form? How do they encapsulate human experience and the conditional qualities that attest themselves to the institutional form? There is a defiance in Bhatt’s practice that he speaks to in conversation with STIR, where there is a refusal of ordinary systems of appraising reality. Design becomes a way of expanding boundaries and cutting across disciplines, where there is an excess or spillage that becomes the language of reflection.

There is a repetition of symbolic forms in his practice, that Bhatt speaks to as well, that looks back to the visuality of manuscripts and pictographic formation through the language of pixels. The artist has a series of pixel drawings that reveal a method of draftsmanship gesturing to the idea of a designer as a craftsman in the digital present, that becomes an interesting touchstone in his practice. Simultaneously, through the expansion of his design practice into the material world, Bhatt challenges the idea of the former being a flat medium, and instead as interactive design capacity that takes from the idea of the ‘medieval’ in digital technology.

Installation view of Heartbeats of a Cave | Heartbeats of a Cave | Somnath Bhatt | STIRworld
Installation view of Heartbeats of a Cave Image: Acid Finger 酸拇指; Courtesy of Somnath Bhatt

In the following interview with STIR, Bhatt expands on his practice and interactions with interdisciplinarity, material practice and draftsmanship as well as the creation of a symbolic present that takes from the past, seeking to illuminate rather than obscure.

Sukanya Deb: Where do you find your practice and how do you view interdisciplinarity?

Somnath Bhatt: I don’t claim to design or make inquiries that search for a neutral point of origin. Purism is death! Hence, interdisciplinarity is inevitable. In my recent projects, everyone involved was trying to enact this polyamory of formats. We were interested in destabilising platforms, and bringing ideas like migration, nomadism, gardening, displacement, parasitism, and cyclical rebuilding into the collective process. All creation implicates ourselves, because everything we make involves self-making.

Arose, 2021, inkjet print on paper, Somnath Bhatt | Arose | Somnath Bhatt | STIRworld
Arose, 2021, inkjet print on paper Image: Courtesy of Somnath Bhatt

Sukanya: How does your practice interact with materiality?

Somnath: I claim no loyalty to a specific medium but I also don’t just want to make flat images (.pngs, .jpegs, .pdfs), and the only real alternative is for me to make objects myself. Because the image is no longer on the screen it is physically before the viewer. It’s also ironic and funny because I have no expertise in production or weaving or any manual skill, but being a “designer” affords me the opportunity to decide what form things can take.

Aflame, 2021, digital textile print on cotton | Aflame | Somnath Bhatt | STIRworld
Aflame, 2021, digital textile print on cotton Image: Courtesy of Somnath Bhatt

Sukanya: What is your relationship with iconography and symbols?

Somnath: I draft and redraft, change and alter without finalising any outcomes until my “eyes catch fire”. In other words, I try to interrogate the distance between fiction, memory, rituals, incantation and the fluid shift between the deeply sacred and the incongruous. I seek to build compositions — a constellatory work filled with incomplete dreams, defiant longing, fragmented narratives and secrets.

I usually begin with a dense scramble of metaphors and symbols. There were certain symbols I kept returning to in this body of the work: a hand, a spiral of a conch shell, an eye, a figure opening up its heart, sine waves. For me these do not represent what they are but what is quieter, softer, contemplative, complexed within them – unseen but yet very much felt. I enjoy cultivating the porosity and duality of metaphors and vitality in the power of repetition that a symbol can hold. It’s my quiet way of trying to interplay with the things I deeply admire from the past, things I find pleasures and love in, and to see how they might continue to exist. To use the history and past not as support but as illumination.

Attain, 2021, 43x66cm, digital textile print on cotton, Somnath Bhatt | Attain | Somnath Bhatt | STIRworld
Attain, 2021, digital textile print on cotton Image: Courtesy of Somnath Bhatt
Somnath Bhatt talks about his practice Video: Courtesy of Somnath Bhatt

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