Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.
"Dissolve" says Death—The Spirit "Sir
I have another Trust"—
Death doubts it—Argues from the Ground—
The Spirit turns away
Just laying off for evidence
An Overcoat of Clay.
- Emily Dickinson
Throughout the course of art history, an artist appears with a quest to reinforce the
connection between art and life, between the relentless and the ephemeral, between general
philosophies and personal interpretations. Yardena Kurulkar is one such artist, for whom the
thematic of death as an inevitable physical end is explored in an ironically corporeal body of
In her beautifully staccato statement issued for ‘Transience’, a solo exhibition of her
most recent works, Kurulkar describes these works as her attempt to capture “the ephemeral
[becoming] permanent.”1 Each work in the show bids to embrace or showcase the complex
process of transience one goes through when passing from life to death. Her sculptural
installations, performative interventions and monochromatic drawings further her insistence
that to conquer and accept death is to fully liberate oneself to live life.
5 Seconds Later, 2011/ 2009 is a performance piece involving a clay mould of
Kurulkar’s body being submerged in a shallow pool of water and slowly eroding until
recognizable physical shape dissolves into murky mass. This process, having been performed
twice before, is documented in large-scale inkjet prints of the same name, wherein the rigour
of the process of decay and dissolution is meticulously recorded. Gap in the Void, 2011,
consists of an iron rack displaying, in a laboratory manner, ceramic casts of the artist’s head,
holding its breath, in various postures whilst being submerged in tanks of water, which have
been sealed off with a layer of oil. The title work, Transience, 2011, depicts a smiling
swaddled baby resting on a marble gravestone on which are carved lyrics to the popular
children’s nursery rhyme ‘Rock-a-bye-Baby’. Death of a Marker, 2011, is an abstract
drawing made with a permanent marker across multiple sheets of paper until it dries up and
can draw no more. The physicality of creating such a piece, as well as the unpredictability of
the marker’s life is manifest in every stroke made by the artist. Each stroke, especially
towards the end of the linear piece belies an exhaustion caused by the physical exertion. In
much the same way- in the fluidly moving abstract lines, life and energy are alluded to.
Therefore the running out of ink symbolizes the running out of time for the living body as it
fades into death. The use of the permanent marker itself raises questions of the permanency
of everything even something as small as a marker.
Her own body is Kurulkar’s instrument of choice, as it was for pioneering
performance artist Ana Mendieta2. Kurulkar employs the body as somewhat of a spiritual
catalyst through which a myriad of social, ritualistic and personal concerns are explored and
wrestled with. Mendieta used her own body as both subject and medium to explore issues of
gender and cultural identity. In her groundbreaking documented performances, The Silueta
Series, 1973-1980, Mendieta made impressions and left silhouettes of her own naked form in
dramatic natural landscapes. These ephemeral performances were meant to be fleeting and
often employed perishable props like leaves, twigs, blood, or various other organic materials
that inevitably became transformed by the elements over time. By interjecting the performing
body into nature she sought to forge communion between an ancestral past and a displaced
Kurulkar too uses an earthy medium, that of clay. She also takes impressions of her
own form to further her artistic inquiries. However, her work depicts a contemporary
departure from Mendieta’s legacy. Her use of clay, in a controlled urban environ, engages the
natural landscape in a circuitous manner. For her, clay is symbolic of transition, erosion and
ephemerality. The bodily forms that she constructs from this material, seemingly solid, are
cast then re-cast, subjugated then reinvented, eroded into nothingness, then resurrected.
Another way in which Kurulkar’s practice is a present-day evolution from Mendieta
is rooted in the way she handles her material. Her process of using, collecting and re-using
clay is central to her inquests into the cycle of death and rebirth. Her clay has a history of past
lives; it houses remnants of the curves and silhouettes which it once formed. Kurulkar’s
intuitive re-use of her material not only accentuates her preoccupations with cyclical
transitions, it also brings into play, albeit unconsciously, the very contemporary global
concern of recycling.
In 5 Seconds Later, 2009/2011, Kurulkar activates impressions of her body cast in
clay- alternately reviving them and letting them erode into unrecognizable form, hence
staging a ‘dust-to-dust’ scenario in a very literal sense. Although Kurulkar casts her own
body, the body displayed is erased of all discerning character as it is subjected to death-
inducing processes. As a result, her bodies, in their various states of break-down and dis-
existence become stand-ins for any body: male or female, young or old, ravaged or beautiful.
It is in these in-between states that her works embody most powerfully her preoccupation
with life becoming death and cycling back. It is also in this most abject and unrecognizable
state of decomposition that her ‘bodies’ attain a paradoxical degree of monumentality. The
absence of form, and of life force speaks volumes of the inevitable forces that made them
Clay as a material appropriately lends itself to the theme of transience in the very
manner in which it reacts to and interacts with the elements. The fragility of the material is a
perfect counterfoil to the very dense forms into which Kurulkar moulds her bodies. Clay, she
fascinatingly uses as a metaphor for manifestations of a living body, but also as
manifestations of the body as stilled by death.
Each of her works attempts to engage the viewer in confronting and accepting death
by controlling the fear of its eventuality and by yielding the physical body to its eventual
demise and disintegration. Each depicts the body giving way to death in a different way. Her
performance piece depicts a total surrender to death, an embrace of the inevitable. The
sculptural works depict various states of struggle to survive, each face is contorted in the
fight to draw breath and not give into suffocation, in spite of it being a losing battle. Her use
of the medium of water also has ritualistic undertones. Ironically, water is a prominent part of
rituals surrounding both birth and death. Cleansing the body in preparation for the world of
the living or for an after-life is a ritualistic part of these processes in most cultures and
Transience, takes a more hopeful attitude toward death’s inevitable victory over life
by introducing contradictory compositional tensions. The ceramic form of the baby could be
read paradoxically, either as the swaddled body of a newborn, or as one swathed in a funereal
shroud. However, the baby writhes with an infectious energy and a smile bursts from its face
even as it lies on a gravestone, its inevitable resting place as pre-empted by the lullaby carved
as an elegy on a tombstone. He or she will live life fully in the face of death.
In Kurulkar’s works, life and death, resurrection and ending, beginnings and finality-
exist simultaneously as she attempts to harness both sets of paradoxes in one ideological
framework and one multiply replicated body.
Kurulkar, Yardena, “Transience”, Transience Recent Works by Yardena Kurulkar, Gallery BmB, Mumbai, 10
August – 7 September 2011, [exhibition press release]. Mumbai, India: Gallery BmB, 2011.
Ana Mendieta (1948–1985) was a Cuban American performance artist, sculptor, painter and video artist. She
experimented with a diverse range of artistic media and pushed the boundaries of conceptual and performance-
based art practices. She used her own body as both subject and medium to explore issues of gender and cultural
identity. In her performances, the naked female form inserted in nature became a hallmark of her artistic
production as she developed her own self-labeled genre of art, “earth-body art,” which can be described as a
hybrid of two 1960’s movements: earth art and body art.