From 4 April 2019 to 15 September 2019 – Space: NAVATE
Sheela Gowda (Bhadravati, Karnataka, India, 1957; lives and works in Bangalore) is one of the leading names in contemporary art in India. After studying at Ken School of Art and Visva-Bharati University (India), Gowda deepened her research on painting at the Royal College of Art in London. Her work ranges from drawing, to sculpture, to large-scale installation, and involves the use of materials that often convey cultural values linked to the context they stem from. The artist’s works, characterized by a strong spatial dimension, assume elements of Modernism as a starting point, elaborated by the artist via production processes featuring strong ritualistic references. The emphasis on process can also be linked to local traditions of craft and the implicit role of labor in making art.
This exhibition is Sheela Gowda’s first solo show in Italy and, in addition to two new productions, it presents a wide selection of works she has made from 1992 to the present time, including watercolors, prints, and site-specific installations. The latters are distinguished by a large variety of materials—such as hair, organic substances, cow dung, incense, and natural pigments—and are displayed in connection with the iconic architecture of the Navate at Pirelli HangarBicocca.
In the Fall of 2019 a version of the exhibition travels to Bombas Gens Centre d’Art, Valencia.
The artist’s works have been exhibited in numerous solo shows in international venues and institutions, including Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2017); Pérez Art Museum, Miami, Para Site, Hong Kong (2015); Centre international d’art et du paysage, Vassivière (2014); Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Lunds Konsthall, Lund, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven [travelling exhibition] (2013-14); Iniva, London (2011), Office for Contemporary Art (OCA), Oslo (2010). Sheela Gowda has also taken part in major group shows, including 31st São Paulo Biennale (2014); 1st Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2012); 53rd Venice Biennale; 9th Sharjah Biennale (2009); 9th Lyon Biennale; documenta 12 (2007).
Location: Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano
Artist: Sheela Gowda
Allestiment: curated by Nuria Enguita e Lucia Aspesi
Engineering: MOSAE srl
Team: Michele Maddalo, Alice Brugnerotto, Maria Miranda, Enrico Carera
Photo: Agostino Osio
Courtesy: Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano
Pictures in slideshow: from the exhibition
And That Is No Lie, 2015
It Stands Fallen, 2015-16
The entrance to the show is shaped by the artist through a large-scale installation that merges two different works—And That Is No Lie and It Stands Fallen—both realized in 2015.
The installation consists of yards of rough red cotton fabric that has been stitched together to create a large canopy. The central section of the canopy has been cut out in a zigzag line, leaving behind an outer border that resembles triangular buntings and is hung from the ceiling by ropes. The central large area with the serrated cut edges is lying collapsed on the ground. Several dark iron poles are arranged across the space in different ways and some of them create a selfstanding skeletal frame. A shelter-like structure, the installation thus creates an articulated composition both on the floor and suspended from above.
The use of the canopy recalls the traditional Indian tent known as shamiana or pandal, a temporary structure still employed for social gatherings during secular, religious and political events. For the exhibition at Pirelli HangarBicocca, linear and tactile elements of this sculptural work dialogue with the architecture, evoking opposite dynamics—such as collapse and ascension—taking shape and inhabiting the space simultaneously as a whole volume.
In an open dialogue with the primary color red that pervades the work at the entrance of the exhibition, blue and yellow hanging tarpaulins are the primary colors that predominate in the work Kagebangara—an installation that resembles a modernist painting or a tableau. The tarpaulins play out as intense chromatic areas against the rusty darkness of metal sheets that are formally arranged as a jigsaw of rectangles around a small house structure. At the entrance to it are placed beaten lids of drums that serve as metal bowls, holding flat sheets of mica (a mineral used in constructions for its properties as an insulator) that fill it to the rim, like water collected from a leaking roof. Inside, a tar sheet covered with flakes of mica is arranged in folds to create an illusion of a sea by night. In the front are two columns made of stacked drums, one standing and the other fallen, besides which three tar drums lean on each other on the ground. A peep into one slanting drum shows a segment of mica sheet that looks like water collected after a rain.
A reflection on the basic shapes and colors, Kagebangara can be perceived as a three-dimensional abstract composition, using modular elements as a starting point. However the seeming incidental juxtaposition of the sheets and drums also references a construction site where manual labor and materials encounter each other in a relationship that is not given, one of adjustment and ingenuous use of available resources. Similarly, also in the case of the house the size and the modular use of the drum sheets dictates the extent to which the human body can stretch within it.
This site-specific installation was conceived by the artist for the first edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Kerala (India) in 2012. It is composed by around 200 spice grinding stones—once essential tools in the Indian tradition—that were extracted from the floor of old-fashioned kitchens and abandoned in the streets of Bangalore. Considered sacred, they were therefore left behind but not destroyed, laying in the streets as invisible presences between the clutter and flow of urban life, settled into a kind of non-space. Each stone is roughly chiseled on five sides, while the sixth side has a deep hole carved into it; the outer periphery of this side is ridged. The artist chose to present the blocks alone for their abstraction and raw form, and not to stress their phenomenological evidence. The movement of the stones from the inside of the houses to the outside was furthered by the artist when the 200-kg-heavy granite blocks were collected and placed outdoors and indoors on the floor of a disused warehouse in Fort Kochi, once a key historic spice-trading hub, where they were in dialogue with a grid traced on the walls. They thus became visible once again in another sphere of perception. In Milan, the stones are arranged in the Navate space over a rectangular white grid marked on the floor while a vast swathe of white cloth hung as a curtain acts as a backdrop on one side.
The installation is related to a previous work titled Ground Shift, presented at the Lyon Biennale (2007), that consisted of 17 stones placed in various outdoor locations. The blocks arrived in France from India after a long journey from Chennai through the Arabian Sea, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean. In Lyon the installation included hand-drawn maps that documented the streets of Bangalore from which the stones were collected. For the installation in Pirelli HangarBicocca, a map is drawn on the floor, distant from the mass of stones as a remnant of a past iteration. The 200 grinding stones that have been shipped in containers from Bangalore to Milan have made a new journey, crossing borders of “customs,” physical and contextual thresholds.
Mortar Line, 1996
An early work using cow dung as sculptural matter, Mortar Line is a floor-based work consisting of a curved double line of bricks made exclusively of cow dung that is held together by a mortar of cow dung paste. The cavity between the two rows of bricks is filled with kumkum, a red pigment tradition – ally used in rituals, making a red sculptural line.
As art historian Grant Watson affirms, «Sheela Gowda selects materials taken from her surroundings, often noticed first for their abstract qualities and utility rather than their conno – tations.» Far from being exotic, dung is a common element used in everyday life in India. Having been a painter, the art – ist initially saved and used cow dung in a diluted form as a painting medium. In this work Gowda uses it in its raw form as a sculptural material. Mortar Line, in which the curved line of bricks seems to connect with the minimalist experi – mentations of the 1960s, brings to mind one of the most fa – mous series of Carl Andre’s sculptures Equivalent, composed by assembling common industrial materials arranged into a simple geometric pattern. However, far from being indus – trial, these bricks are laboriously hand-constructed stacking layers of wet cow dung and drying them several times over. While speaking of the filling (mortar) between two bricks, the title of the work also alludes to “mortar attack” in warfare, creating a curved red line that looks like a trajectory, a red scratched line or a gash.
As seen in Mortar Line, the line as an element drawn from the pictorial dimension is transposed into the spatial one. And… is an installation of three cords made by threading a needle with 300 meters long red string and repeating this process for 108 needles and an equal number of lengths of thread. Doubling up the threads together, with the needles at one end, the resulting amassed threads are anointed with a paste of red pigment (kumkum), glue and neem oil. The blood red flexible cords are then installed site-specifically creating a network of serpentine sculptural lines. An artwork based on the dynamics between its simple and minimal components, it is made intense by the laborious process—a sort of private performance for the artist—of its making, that is to say the passage of the needles through the entire length of each cord. The blood red cords and its linear form at once bring to mind visceral body connotations, industrial cables and organic growths. The appearance of the cords arranged within the architectural context of Pirelli HangarBicocca is monumental and yet fragile. Conceived by the artist from the previous work And Tell Him of My Pain (1997), And… takes on and adapts to the massive scale of the Navate, and the particularity of the exhibition space.
If on the one hand the site-specific installation And… appears like a resting body of ropes anchored to the building’s structural beam, on the other hand Darkroom stands as a reflection on volume within and on its relation to the human body. This installation is a sculptural entity constructed as an architectural space itself. The work is made from recycled metal tar drums and sheets that have been cut open and flattened under road rolling machines. The sheets are then used as walls to bridge six columns—three on either side, each with three drums stacked one above the other. Visitors can access the inner space by crawling through a low doorway at the front. Once inside, they can stand upright in the dark interior—covered with a carpet of bitumen—and look upward, to see a starry sky simulated by punching holes in the metal sheets of the roof.
As for other artworks, for Darkroom Sheela Gowda employed materials and forms as she found them in the urban landscape of Bangalore. Having seen a colony of dwellings that had come up near her house, Gowda was fascinated by the use of residual materials of road making—the tar drums—flattened and used by road workers to make temporary dwellings. On top of these, they piled up their basic possessions of clothing and cooking vessels, while the inside was used to sleep in a curled up position. As stated by the artist: «The inside-outside nature of the shelter was an image, an impression which kept coming back to me. I was interested in the way the material defined the space and I wanted that to happen in my work as well.» The tar drums included in the piece, where bought directly from the road makers in Bangalore. The surface bears the marks of the entire process but projects a perfect symmetry of form and modular architecture.
What Yet Remains, 2017
This large installation consists of recycled metal drum sheets in various colors, some of which are hand-punched through individually with 8 disc-like holes. These sheets are the leftover of the handmade traditional production process of bandlis, the typical round bowls used in India to carry construction materials (such as sand, cement, concrete slurry) at construction sites. The bandlis are made from the discs cut out from the sheets, pressed into bowls and then handbeaten to fold in the edges. In the installation, the sheets, in vibrant red, green and blue, some whole and uncut and others with circular holes, play out an orchestrated sculptural arrangement on the floor. Overlapping or folded sheets change the circular forms into other geometries. The bandlis share the floor alongside the sheets, sometimes rising sculpturally from the flat disk cavities of their origin. The original colors on the metal sheets and bandlis have been mostly left untouched as traces of their previous usage. Some of them show subtle interventions by the artist, the most visible being a black square painted on a bandli, recalling through a discrete gesture in Kazimir Malevich’s (1879-1935) seminal artwork, Black Square (1915).
The bandlis allow the road workers to lift and carry manageable quantities of building material on their head or passing them by hand, and in their scale and proportion they bear a strong relationship to the body, the limits and extent of energy of the workers that carry them. Though concrete and physical elements, the bandlis acquire within Gowda’s work an allegorical value recalling the industry and production system, as well as the constant and alchemical transformation of the material they are made of from a physical state to another.
Untitled (Cow dung), 1992-2012
Untitled (Cow dung) is one of the first works in which Sheela Gowda experimented with the manifold usage of cow dung. This material represents an emblematic element in her shift from the pictorial to the tridimensional space. She uses and manipulates it through several shapes, techniques, and spatial dimensions, as a painting medium, or by including cow dung as found object in her works. Consisting of around 900 pats, each having a diameter of the length of a hand, and 25 bricks that are similar in size to construction bricks, Untitled (Cow dung) is a coming together of two periods in the artist’s production. The pats are made by pressing a ball of cow dung against a wall surface and allowing it to dry. The surface of each element therefore bears the impression of the palm on it. The artist made pats to replicate those that are seen in rural areas of India, where the women engage in collecting cow dung and making pats on a daily basis. The bricks are made through a laborious process of application of several layers to form a solid block of cow dung. As Sheela Gowda explains, «Painting is not just about canvas and pigments, it is about the materiality of the paint, about touch, it is about space, about pictorial space, the space between you and the canvas, between you and the viewer; there are many dimensions to it.»
This reflection on the space is included in another later work made from the same material. Stock is a sculptural installation consisting of several cardboard boxes of different dimensions filled to the brim with a multitude of cow dung balls of varying sizes. The containers are arranged one next to the other or on top of each other in compact groups. Shaped by the artist in different diameters, the round forms have been roughly marked and pierced with simple holes that could be read as anthropomorphic traits.
Protest My Son, 2011
This found-image-based work was created from a newspaper clipping of a demonstration in Bangalore that Sheela Gowda enlarged to a “wall-size poster”. The work depicts a group of people, including many children, seen with raised arms, shouting and appearing keen to be photographed. Their bodies are mostly bare except for loincloths, beads and feathers. The people seen protesting are members of Hakki Pikki, a semi-nomadic tribe from southern India who is seeking land rights. In the background there is a red flag and a blue banner that is affiliated to a political outfit that is inspired by Ambedkar, a dalit (a lower caste group) and the chief framer of the Indian Constitution. In daily life, the Hakki Pikki wear urban clothes and are known for their ingenious ways of making a living not only by selling forest produce and self-made herbal oils, but also fake animal parts such as tiger claws and elephant hair which they sell to the gullible, both in India and abroad. The group in this photograph is also presenting their tribal self in an exaggerated manner. Placed on the larger image is a smaller duplicate version of the main photograph; an image within an image that Gowda transformed by painting on the figures tattoos, headdresses, body paint, and other details that are visual markers of tribal groups around the world such as Maori, American Indian, Maasai, Yanomami. The raised hand of a man in the larger image holds a string of fake tiger claws that the artist acquired from the Hakki Pikki community close to Bangalore.
This figurative work reveals the artist’s interest and inquiry on the role of images and the matter of factual representation that refers back to her education and early practice as a painter. As for In Public, the way she approaches found pictures is to begin with a reading of its various components. She then modifies them by blurring, blowing them up, hiding some parts, inserting sculptural elements, or painting over them. In this sense, the presence of the watercolor can be seen within the image with some differences from the original picture, playing with stereotypes and premeditated ideas of the meaning of “exotic”. That the people in the image self exoticize to become visible and be heard allowed the artist to take liberties with their identity. The painted image collaged on the printed surface along with the hanging claws gives the work a sense of illusion and depth and creates a tension between the image and the artist’s intervention.
If You Saw Desire, 2015
This installation is made of three stainless steel poles that stretch diagonally across the pillars of the Navate exhibition space, intersecting each other at oblique angles. On innumerable smaller steel branches attached to each pole are hung flag-like sequined fabrics sourced in Hong Kong markets, the city where the work was made and first presented at Para Site. The sequined fabrics are in different colors, abstract patterns and shapes (triangular, rectangular and swallowtail), their excessive bling adding to the shininess of the stainless poles, as if the “weight” of their excess seem to justify the half-fallen nature of the poles.
This installation is made of found architectural wood objects (door frames and door shutters) typical of south Indian vernacular architecture (blue, light green, pale and deep yellow). The colors were further enhanced by the artist’s use of oil painting. Common door frames have been dismantled and rejoined with flexible joineries to turn them into linear structures. These are then hung from the ceiling with chains or along walls creating varied angular articulations and tensions, in relation to each joint and its resistance based on the length of each frame. Thus, they create a connection between both the vertical and horizontal dimensions.
The subtle line between the media of painting and sculpture, and the different functions of everyday materials and their abstract significance are some of Sheela Gowda’s concerns in the realization of this work. The doorframe as a marker of the passage from one room to another when disjointed and linear liberates the spaces they once guarded. The ephemeral and precarious nature of the dismantled wooden doorframes creates a connection between the domestic scale of the original architectural proportions and the spatial dimensions of the volume of the Navate, where the installation acquires a new connotation.
The site-specific installation featured in the Cubo space is composed of numerous rectangles made by stretching gray metal mesh over wooden frames. Varying in dimensions, they are placed next to each other on small pedestals beneath them giving them a floating lightness. On each of these surfaces, the artist arranged and aligned forms of all sorts that she molded using a paste by mixing a particularly sticky tree bark powder with charcoal, materials traditionally used to produce incense sticks. By lighting each of these forms, the dried material burns slowly to ash, still retaining its original shape. These very delicate and ephemeral geometric patterns of squares, rectangles, oval and linear forms have their own markings created in the process of burning, with a color palette in subtle gradations of black, beige and grey tones.
Sheela Gowda’s poetics and practice aims to weave together modes and shapes, materials and concepts. In Collateral the passing of time evoked by the slow burning of the incense results in fragile forms that settle on the flat surface of the metal mesh beds, arranged horizontally within the space of the Cubo. The burning of the incense that has taken place during the opening of “Remains” generates a sort of silent event that the visitors get to experience in a multisensory way.
In Pursuit of, 2019
Black Square, 2014
For the exhibition in Pirelli HangarBicocca Sheela Gowda has conceived a new work in relation to the architectural features of the Cubo space. Installed on the two opposite walls of the room, the work is made of approximately 15 km of hair rope which hang at a little distance from the wall. On one side is arranged a rectangular area that has the same dimensions as the entrance door frame of the Cubo, while on the left wall the artist has created a square form. Its shape dialogues with another work—Black Square—that is displayed elsewhere in a corner. It is made of a sheet of rubber sourced from the Amazon forest, on which the artist has painted a black square that gets distorted when the rubber is stretched on the wooden frame. Also this work refers to Malevich’s 1915 Black Square which is acknowledged as a singular act that pushed the boundaries of modernist abstraction.
Tree Line, 2019