with Vibha Galhotra
By Marnie Benney, SciArt Center curator
Marnie Benney, SciArt Magazine: Could you talk about the difference between community works, gallery shows, and land art? How does the making process and exhibition feel different in each of these situations? Do you value one over the other?
Vibha Galhotra: That’s a very good question, one that no writer has asked me before and I wonder why. For me, all the different modes of work are interrelated, in a continuous dialogue with the subject I am working on at any specific time. The site specificity, however, helps me maneuver a performance. I was trained as a printmaker but was interested in intervening within the landscape. Arte Provera was a big influence on my early practice where I was more involved in land art even though it was hard to find support of acceptance of the latter in the Indian art scenario. Consequently, I was mostly pursuing residencies to fill the gap. But slowly, on my move to Delhi, I started focusing on the issue of migration more and more.
Migration makes one question the structures of society and the loss of one’s own lineage and culture. Since I had moved base to Delhi from Chandigarh, I was dealing with all kinds of societal structures, cultural politics, and the art community. While trying to understand the new utopian idea of a city’s rapid urbanization, Delhi itself witnessed a rapid growth 2005 onwards when money started pouring in preparation for the Commonwealth Games that were to take place in Delhi in 2010. There was an omnipresent smell of cement in the air accompanied by the sight of endless unplanned construction. While this led to severe inconveniences for the people of the city, no one protested, as they were required to show solidarity as a nation for the upcoming sports event. Whether it was the construction of the metro, changes in architecture and materials, skyrocketing real-estate prices, the cutting down of forests, or the conversion of farmland into building land for high-rise apartments, the result was unimaginable inflation, an exploding economy, and a beehive of construction on the one hand, and the contamination of the environment and the deterioration of health on the other. Western influences flooded in country, whether they fit the local topography or not, and each and all were facing towards the motto of India Shining. In the midst of this situation, my thoughts started revolving around the impact of economics and politics on the environment and social behaviors.
At heart I am a very visual person, and the process of making art within different situations using varied materials activates a much larger context within my art practice. Tactile manifestation of serious socio-economic-political or environmental issues gives the viewer an entry point to lead their imagination through.
In the 1930s Henri Cartier-Bresson remarked indignantly, "The world is going to pieces and people like [Ansel] Adams and [Edward] Weston are photographing rocks!" with his condemnation of the inorganic as an unworthy subject for photography. One can understand Cartier-Bresson’s stance in favor of a more socially engaged art practice, one that would not only recognize the politico-economic realities of the Depression, but also the ways in which this decisively human context is precisely what allows art to propagate meaning and transform values and mindsets. These contemporary times of turmoil give birth to the inescapable question- shouldn’t art address human suffering and struggle in the face of exploitation, brutality, and impoverishment?
In light of the same, much of my practice is an attempt to address the above-mentioned concern. Consequently, my art deals with the human relationship with the environment - their interdependence and antagonism; the dying social practices; and the clash between beliefs and realities, old and new, construction and destruction, and other such environmental juxtapositions. In some of my works, I highlight the contradictions around the rivers in India, the latter being regarded as holy entities on the one hand and becoming sights of rapid widespread pollution on the other. The conversion of rivers, which are natural resources fostering life forms, into festering cesspools has informed my art practice, becoming its predominant theme, in the last few years.
The absurdity of the situation wherein humans destroy the resources that sustain them in the first place is what lies at the core of my work, once again, raising the fundamental questions of WHERE DO WE COME FROM? WHO WE ARE? WHERE ARE WE GOING? Therefore, I feel that my work is taana baana (weave and waft) of thoughts, observations, reactions, human behaviors and finally, socio-political and economic structures.
These fundamental questions which direct the nature of my work towards that within communities is like food for thought, where you have many co-authors, in a vivacious and democratic setup. Land art also falls a similar trajectory, however in that the artist is the protagonist who shapes his or her surroundings, the latter resembling social sculptures with a transformative quality, both socially and individually. For example, in one of my works, I used horse poop to write "WHO OWNS THE EARTH" in the fast-changing ecological landscape of Mongolia.
Lastly, to answer the third part of the question addressing the gallery exhibition aspect of my practice, it’s a process of construction, [de]construction, and [re]construction of time and space with all the other frills around it. Therefore, I approach exhibition making also as part of the larger process of art making and the constant negotiations of different structures that accompany it.
MB: Why do you sometimes choose to collaborate to make your artwork?
VG: My work is more participatory rather than collaborative. I am increasingly coming to an understanding that art is concerned with the very essence of subsistence. I like to present my concerns in the language of doubts. While doubts themselves are multi-layered, it is due to this nature that people often ignore or pretend to ignore the root cause which is the basis of the doubt. Slowly, therefore, the doubts instead of remaining myths, turn into beliefs, the latter at many times being flawed. Therefore, my practice is a conscious effort to pose and find answers to the three above mentioned questions of where… who… where…
For example, I initiated the project BLACK CLOUD, which during its pilot stage relied on public participation. However, on day one, no work took place as there was no participation. The failure itself was, however, a great source of learning as it helped me understand the deep social structures of the region I was conducting the project in. Bikaner, a town in Rajasthan, where the project was to take place, is very popular for kite-flying and has a few clubs with members who fly kites every day, often competing in this traditional sport. While on the outside these members seem equal, I soon learned that there were numerous divisions of class and the clubs had a complicated interior social structure. While the members would compete, they could not come together for any cause. Therefore, it took a lot of convincing to bring them together to fly kites for a cause (and not just as a competition). While the pilot followed through at the end, I failed to break or even partly affect the class structure through the participatory work. The experience taught me that understanding social structures is an essential aspect of participatory work, especially in the public domain.
MB: You say you are not an activist, yet your artwork has a clear opinion - can you explain how your artwork toes the line between your perspective and activism? How do you hope your work inspires change?
VG: To articulate this, I would like to borrow from another artist friend who quoted Arundhati Roy to answer a similar question “when people define me as writer-activist, I say that sounds like a sofa-cum-bed.”
I am glad to be part of this present tense where the lines are thinning between diverse fields, knowledge studies, science, and spirituality. Art gives me an opportunity to expand boundaries to understand the very epitome of being. I envision the domination of nature over humans. However, my view is not widely shared or considered a cause of concern since humans believe that they can dominate and mold the environment around them. While the environment is rapidly depleting at an uncontrollable pace, the policies being made to protect it are questionable in the least, or even redundant at times. I feel that there is a serious need for calm discussions, without finger pointing, in order to address the forthcoming environmental challenges and catastrophes.
MB: In many of your pieces you use the traditional Indian beads known as ghungroos. Can you talk a bit about why you choose to work with this material?
VG: The form of a ghungroo was originally inspired from a seed used by people in traditional cultures as a form of ornamentation, the sound produced to make their presence felt in the atmosphere. In modern times, they have a mostly customary role amongst Indian married women. I started using the material to replace something tangible like a seed with a metal bead, since the latter deceives the viewer from the seriousness underlying the work, while at the same time also evokes interest in learning more about the work by drawing the viewer in. In addition, the form itself is a metaphor for constant change. I construct the drawing underneath, which is then deconstructed in a somewhat controlled-uncontrolled manner by the women who sew the ghungroos, and finally it is reconstructed in its new manifestation.
An example of such a work is Acceleration, which is based on chemist Will Steffen’s “Great Acceleration Graph” of changes in the Earth’s ecosystem and atmosphere owing to changing economic patterns of production and consumption, the latter especially gaining momentum post 1950. While Steffen made separate graphs showing socio-economic trends, which highlighted the effect of the rapid growth of human enterprise on the environment, I, instead, overlapped all the graphs to make a real time graph with ghungroos to represent acceleration. The material with its sheen and beauty hides the real picture, metaphorically highlighting our socio-political denial about the deteriorating ecosystem.
MB: What is your dream project?
VG: My dream project is one that I have been working on for almost 30 months now - Food For Thought. It is a public participatory performance including photographic content, video, research, and installation, designed to question issues centering around ecology, economy, politics, and behaviors.
The public gathering will aim to bring a set of different practitioners and audiences together to eat, talk, argue, and network around a common theme. Food, consequently, will be used to not only create a more organic, less antagonistic atmosphere, but the carefully curated food will act as a metaphor for different artistic ideas and histories/geographies of food. The project is inspired by The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago and Untitled (Free) by Rirkrit Tiravanija. This is a very brief abstract, however I shall only be able to reveal more about it when the project is actualized next year.
MB: Who - or what - are your biggest artistic influences and why?
VG: That is a very tricky question to answer as I am a constant learner and many artists, writers, experiences. and incidents influence me. But as I mentioned earlier - Arte Povera, the social sculptures of Joseph Beuys, Satyajit Ray, Peter Greenaway, Tarkovsky, and endless others inspire me. I won’t make a list as I won’t be doing justice to the names I might miss out on, but, I do feel that these influences lie within the realm of my intuition and what differentiates them from me is not the concerns I share with them which revolve around the dying atmosphere and how art can help people understand the dire need to act for equilibrium, but rather their ability to articulate their viewpoints.