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Martand Khosla and Sean Anderson 'On the brink' of art and architecture

At the Nature Morte gallery, the architect-turned-artist and the Cornell professor engage in a conversation, making incisive reflections on the cities and the socialities we inhabit.

by Beth CitronPublished on : Apr 24, 2023

Based in New Delhi, Martand Khosla’s artistic practice questions urban conditions, continuities, and disruptions, often reflecting on the rigour and structure of his work as a practising Indian architect, for over 20 years. Khosla’s sculptural installation works are grounded in expanded sculpture, while encompassing other media, bridging issues of space and society through forms that express and challenge conceptual and physical gravities. Formally exacting, his art echoes certain qualities and ambitions of architecture, while funnelling the discipline’s hallmark functionality into a running commentary on the political and social complexity of rampant development in India and beyond.

For the closing of his recent exhibition, On the Brink at Nature Morte in New Delhi, Khosla engaged in a conversation with Dr Sean Anderson, Associate Professor in Architecture and Director of the B.Arch Program at Cornell University. What follows is an edited excerpt of a rich and lively discussion that traversed broader concerns of Khosla’s work amidst incisive reflections on cities and socialities we inhabit.

Conversation between Martand Khosla and Dr Sean Anderson at Nature Morte Gallery, 2022, Video Video: Courtesy of Nature Morte
On the brink-II, 2022, Installation |Martand Khosla |On the Brink |STIRworld
On the brink-II, 2022, Installation Image: Courtesy of Nature Morte

Sean Anderson: This question of an architect who makes art, or an artist who makes architecture, is a relatively unique phenomenon. And I know that there have been questions posed to both architects and artists, around notions of what the difference [between the fields] might be. Because we are surrounded by your recent works, I am going to start this conversation by asking—what is art, for you? And how is art that you are making in relation to the architecture you make, think about, and produce?

Martand Khosla: This is a good place to start. The two distinct practices have their own journeys, their own searches and materials, their own formal languages, and their own inherent struggles. It's not that one is a refuge from the other; they exist parallelly. I think of them as constantly in an argumentative, friendly conversation, because both share a common ground, which is the city as a space for practising. Architecture allows me to engage with the city through a more traditional understanding of building buildings. Art allows for questions that perhaps architecture is limited to ask, in certain ways. Materially they very much borrow from each other; a lot of my art practice has used construction materials including brick, concrete, steel, and wood.

Moving from there, we were talking about the value of art and architecture within cities. There is, of course, the underlying economy of architecture. That’s the dominant conversation, but in its realisation, what you see are deliberate and accidental urbanisms; for example, you create an overbridge, which creates a shelter for smaller economic activity under it. That's an interesting value that architecture creates accidentally, or how perhaps infrastructure creates shelter. So in a city like Delhi, which is so much about boundaries, barriers, walls, fences, and even barbed wire, architecture almost very deliberately excludes the city. And art, unfortunately, retreats into rarefied white cube spaces, whereas you want the city and the art to almost do completely the opposite.

If you look at cities as systems and as conversations, then I would say that the architecture practice for me interacts with the city as an object very clearly, whereas that never completed a reading of the city for me. The art is very much talking to the city of systems. Maybe only once those two combine do I start to get a sense of the reading of where I live and the space I occupy and the other citizens I share it with.

Coda-XI, 2022 |Martand Khosla |On the Brink |STIRworld
Coda-XI, 2022 Image: Courtesy of Nature Morte

Sean: I like this idea that an artwork can be the articulation of systemic processes, but also the unplanned and the invisible. I find that your drawings speak to that. They are as much formal explorations as they are systemic explorations. All of this is to think about the idea of systemic devaluation, especially in your early work from 2010 to 2015. Can you talk especially about the brick dust works, and how those works inform your work today?

Martand: The short answer would be that the earlier works were looking more at labour, social justice, laws, and the individual. It’s the person working on a construction site, and their rights and their place within society, that was very much the starting point of my work. I was trying to make sense of what role I play within the city as a practising architect. The brick dust came from there, seeking a seamless movement between the object and the object maker. It was about layers of material that cumulatively began to cover areas, cities, and lives. The more recent works conceptually zoom out and start to look at cities as systems and the idea of collectives, but also the idea of balance. Now I am interested in looking at how this whole thing just holds together, and it always just about does, right?

Sean: Is that the brink?

Martand: That is the brink, in a sense. For the last three or four decades, there has been this idea of the collapse of the city, and then it re-emerges, with new ways of resurrecting itself and remaking itself. There’s a great deal of violence in that process, but also a great deal of support and community.

A City Hides its Secrets Well, 2022, Installation |Martand Khosla |On the Brink |STIRworld
A City Hides its Secrets Well, 2022, Installation Image: Courtesy of Nature Morte

Sean: The early work starts to articulate a way of representing systemic care. I am thinking of the city in that way [as] constantly imploding and exploding at the same time, and Delhi in particular, if not other cities on the subcontinent.

I would argue that the photographs you have taken or commissioned of your completed buildings always are foregrounded by the actual context. This speaks to what you are describing, it’s not necessarily about seeing your building, but about seeing the building in the context of the city and of people, especially the Volvo Factory (Khosla’s Volvo Eichler Headquarters in Gurgaon). To me, that’s astonishing because it also confronts the modernist legacy of who produces architecture, who lives in cities, and who occupies the space around these buildings, especially in South Asia but in the Global South generally. I think it has something to do with the idea of thresholds.

Martand: That was an important point at the beginning of my art practice. There was a moment where architecture and the way it’s been represented over the last 20 years via Instagram and cool websites with sexy images was just not making sense. What we were doing as architects was commissioning these images, becoming active participants in fetishizing the object without looking at where that object is situated, and what relationship it has to its surroundings. I started taking ‘real’ photos. It brought into question what went way beyond the form of the architecture and I think that’s the true value of what we are doing.

I see the site and its surroundings as a major threshold and that talks about the disparity that we see within our cities, which is so evident in the photographs. You picked up on the fact that several of the objects that repeat themselves within my sculptural design, negotiate thresholds. So the doors, windows, and ladders come up frequently because they talk about possibilities and transitions between inside and outside. Domesticity as a marker of the larger collective still remains, except that I have removed the form of the house. It is always about interiority, belonging, and a sense of security, but also the larger idea about the possibilities that lie beyond.

Down the rabbit hole, 2022, Installation | On the brink |Martand Khosla | STIRworld
Down the rabbit hole, 2022, Installation Image: Courtesy of Nature Morte

Sean: Architecture and art allow for different types of collectivity and for different types of occupying spaces. The city as you have described it, as a system of screens, or as a system of mediated objects, turns in on itself and becomes a U. That's what I find in the laser-cut drawings, that we are occupying that in-between space. And then the sculpture works tell us that there is a way to interact with or extend architecture.

Cloud, 2022, Installation | Martand Khosla |On the Brink |STIRworld
Detailed view of Cloud, 2022, Installation Image: Courtesy of Nature Morte

From those early works to these works, the sphere as a unique spatial condition has multiple centres. But when that sphere as a form is comprised of objects that speak to thresholds, they become something else. I wanted to reference the large work Cloud, in which there are collections of various scaled spheres; they are to me in process.

Martand: Cloud is a series of spheres, some closing up as others are slowly breaking away. We could also (talk) of the shell, which is at one level, a rigid and strong enclosure, and another level also very fragile. Cloud plays on the idea of shelter at three scales: the individual object, a singular sphere, and it grows from there. I think there is some attempt here to subconsciously reference architectural model-making. The works in this show are either microscale or macroscale, they almost skip the human scale deliberately. But if the body is absent from my works, it is – I hope – very central and present in its actions on the objects. That is something we didn't speak about: the presence and the absence of the human figure, which is so central to art and architecture.

Sean: We were referencing modernist paradigms from the middle of the 20th century. So much of what cities around the world are dealing with is a modernist ethos, in which humans had no part, except in this kind of top-down authorship. But what your work starts to bring forward is that it also happens from the ground up. Maybe your work as an artist is just about that.

Martand: What I think might be successful (for our cities) is if the planning were happening from under here, where the communities were actually empowered to be able to take decisions about neighbourhoods, and then you work from neighbourhoods to a slightly larger scale. Perhaps what we get is crazy or messy, what planners may call even an ugly city, but it would be a just city, and it would be a functioning city. It would be a city defined by the people for themselves.

Installation View - CODA Series, 2022, Installation| Martand Khosla |On the Brink |STIRworld
CODA Series, 2022, on view, Burnt Paint on MDF Image: Courtesy of Nature Morte

Sean: Like I introduced in our conversation, to question the ground is to not only question gravity, which your work does but also question the very nature of how we occupy that space, how buildings occupy that space, how the ground begins to generate and inflect value. But then I am thinking of your drawn works, they too have this metaphorical nature of a ground that's been built up, and been incised or carved away. And we are left with the afterlife of that carving away where potential lies. They have surface, but they don't. They embody space, but they don't. Can you reflect on the form on the drawings?

Martand: I'll just briefly talk about the process. I use several layers of fire retardant architectural paint to make these, and then it's engraved by laser. So there's this play of burning fire retardant paint, that has other potential readings also. They are talking to me literally of 'the brink,' of this idea that they pull you into a space where you get a sense of falling towards a nothingness or being sort of thrust out. I think that the sculptures may be singular in time, whereas I see these drawings more as moments within a slightly longer narrative. I had started to explore these first through a series of animations, as I was trying to grapple with this idea of what happens if you go over the brink, over the edge, or that point of equilibrium, but it's not a static equilibrium, it's a dynamic equilibrium. That's what I have been trying to explore with these paintings and they have spoken back in interesting ways.

Installation View: We Have Yet to Arrive at Our Origin, 2022, Installation | Martand Khosla |On the Brink |STIRworld
Installation view: L: We Have Yet to Arrive at Our Origin, C: A City Hides its Secrets Well, and R: Down the Rabbit Hole Image: Courtesy of Nature Morte

Sean: They become diagrammatic as they speak about the ways that these collective forms are in a kind of equilibrium, but they are also in friction with each other. And all of your work is about that friction, of, say, a city and a body, or a city and a collective, or a city even in a space? The density of the drawings as much as the density of the sculptures really plays on that, and on how we understand that we are all in a precarious balance. We are all in this tentative equilibrium on the brink. But that gets me to a question because the brink we realised is a landscape term.

Martand: Yes. It actually comes from there.

Sean: It's the horizon and in a landscape, so it's a visual space. You cross the line, and it's a changing condition of the ground. Where are we on the brink?

Martand: My understanding of the terminology was more about the threshold, the moment of the changing of a landscape from the plains to a hill, for instance. But my reading later was that it is a moment of the shifting from one landscape condition to another. So perhaps that could be a filter or lens that can be applied to where we constantly are in this city.

What do you think?

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