Wandering through Parasol unit—which currently hosts Bharti Kher’s solo exhibition—making my way from the first to the second floor and into the courtyard, feels like flipping the pages of a memoir: the musings of a woman strung between Britain and India. These pieces blend elements of contemporary Western art—the result, no doubt, of Kher’s UK-based art training—with the rich flavours of India. East and West combine in the shapes of her objects as well as in the narratives they project.
The curators have successfully brought together a substantial body of work and balanced it across the generous gallery space. Sculptures play off two-dimensional pieces, and a variety of mediums live comfortably alongside each other. As a result, works can be viewed individually but also collectively: they tell the story of the artist’s journey from West to East, and ponder her consequently fragmented identity.
As a UK-born Indian, currently living and working in New Delhi, Kher recounts the friction and fusion of her two worlds. Her use of found objects reflects the works’ biographical dimension. Nonetheless, while her subjective experience is their starting point, this acts merely as a filter through which she probes the social implications of centuries of Anglo/Indian history on generations beyond herself.
Bharti Kher, Solarum Series I, 2007–2010, Fibreglass, metal, 274 x 335 x 304 cm (108 x 132 x 120 in); © Bharti Kher / Ursula Hauser Collection, Switzerland / Photography: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich.
Nature figures prominently in much of Kher’s works, conjured-up in the surreal creatures and metamorphosing, organic forms she creates. A tour-de-force of this kind is Solarum Series I: a life-size sculpture of a tree bearing leaves that morph into wax-like animal heads as we approach. Staging elements of surprise allows Kher to reveal our own preconditioned vision of things. In a sense, these visual ‘traps’ act as metaphors for the shortcomings of claiming objectivity; rather than facing our own cultural biases.
Recurring features of Kher’s works are her spermatozoid bindis. These are employed in different contexts and to varying effect. At times, the highly textured bindi compositions recall rhizomatic patterns of the natural world. In other instances, they evoke Indian textile traditions. Often they do both. By appropriating them in her work, Kher extends them beyond their original connotations (the obvious link to women and Indian marriage traditions).
Yet as with many other elements in her work, meaning is never fixed. Instead, it resides somewhere between an object’s original context and its current form. Once again, this displacement and re-appropriation can be understood as a critique of the culturally mediated meaning of things.
Bharti Kher, And all the while the benevolent slept, 2008, Fibreglass, porcelain, plastic, pedestal in mahogany, wood, copper wires, 178.5 x 220 x 121 cm (70¼ x 86½ x 47½ in); Courtesy of the artist and GaleriePerrotin, Paris © Bharti Kher / Private collection / Photography: Guillaume Ziccarelli
Some of Kher’s pieces rely on metaphor and abstraction; others affront the viewer with imagery that is crude and unabashed. Yet none of them feel muted, nor are they gratuitously cringe-worthy. Perhaps the most troubling piece in this show is one we come across at the very start of our visit, And all the while the benevolent slept: a mixed-media sculpture of a headless woman being penetrated by an erect penis that emerges from the severed wooden tree trunk she is squatting on, as she holds a primate’s skull in one hand and a porcelain teacup bearing a whole set of human teeth in the other. The skull operates on a symbolic level: paradoxically juxtaposing the quintessentially British reference to Hamlet’s masculine, intellectual contemplation with the base proclivities generally associated with ‘lesser’ primates. Her association with nature and debasement are further implied by the woman’s lack of a head—the bareness of her body and uncouth posture, as well as her carnal ‘marriage’ with the tree. While this piece could easily qualify as obscene, it is aesthetically refined, compositionally harmonious and surprisingly elegant. In other words, rather than cancelling each other out, form and content are carefully balanced, and the result is engrossing.
(Image on top: Bharti Kher, The skin speaks a language not its own, 2006, Bindis on fibreglass, Life size, 142 x 456.2 x 195 cm [56 x 179½ x 76¾ in];© Bharti Kher / Private collection, Switzerland / Photography: Bartholomew/Netphotograph.)