Bharti Kher: The Body Memoirist

Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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Bharti Kher smells with her tongue to make her art

THE ONE OBJECT Bharti Kher has been carrying on her person for at least 13 years does not belong to her, even though she possesses it, not in a Zen-like way, but as an embodiment, or a silent witness that discreetly records every sensuous incident she has since experienced. That singular blue pendant in the shape of a votive eye has hung by a chain around her neck each time I’ve met her; first, years ago, as an artist acquaintance, someone I’d see at art openings in Delhi, someone whose work moved me but who I admired distantly, and gradually, as a cherished friend, someone with whom I’d spend more than half an evening at a party, immersed in deep, unencumbered conversation, speaking about bodies and motherhood, sex and creativity. On the eve of her birthday last year in June, at a dinner at the beautiful home of artist couple Rashmi and Ranbir Kaleka, I remember her spouse admonishing me in jest for being closer to her than I was to him. “You were my friend first, I introduced you to Bharti, now you spend more time with her,” Subodh Gupta had said to me. It wasn’t necessarily true, my relationship with Gupta has been independent, but it wasn’t untrue either. Perhaps it was our mutual fascination towards the subject of the feminine body that encircled our friendship, solidifying the unspoken bond that has quietly existed between us.

During my last visit to her studio in early August, having first exchanged notes on what we were currently reading—I had just embarked upon Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups, Kher was mid-way through Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present by Lisa Appignanesi, having breezed through the whole of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels—I decided to finally ask Kher about the significance of her omnipresent pendant, which I learnt I had mistakenly assumed to be related to her preoccupation with the bindi, by now her signature motif.

“This belongs to Lola,” she said, as she clutched the blue almond-shaped object with an eye nestled within. “I’ve been wearing it since she was born, and when she leaves home, I’ll give it back to her.” The pendant was originally a gift to Lola, her daughter, by her brother’s then wife of Turkish origin, meant to symbolise the evil eye. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s so nice, I’ll wear it for Lola,’ and I’ve worn it ever since. I wear it every day all the time. I put on other things, but I also wear this, because I like it, and because I’m really lazy with my jewellery and never take it off, so it just stays with me.” Occasionally, Lola reminds her mother that the jewel is in fact hers, and asks for permission to wear it. Kher gives it to her cautiously. “I tell her, don’t lose it, because I’m carrying it for you. It’s like my eye, when I give it back to you, it’ll transfer everything I’ve learnt.”

It’s not about my work. It’s all about Lola, Kher reasserted, but whether she denies or accepts it, the gesture of having worn and of continuing to wear that talisman constitutes a few elemental principles of her artistic practice; that of continuity and transference, and of the female body as a calibrated being upon which time is marked and measured. Kher likens the tenor of her creative zest to that of a snake. “To make art, you have to smell with your tongue, you have to use all your senses in this really non-linear way.” Where, for a writer, the narrative is shaped by the approximation of a beginning, middle and end, in art, Kher believes, the strategic devices rest primarily on form, balance, volume, shape, colour and tactility. “These are the tools we use to create,” she said. “In my practice, it’s especially about balance. I use materials that somehow should contradict themselves visually.” Her most well recognised work, The skin speaks a language not its own (2006), acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation, Australia, as well as the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, best exemplifies this theoretical foundation. A life-size fibreglass elephant crouches on the ground, fragile and defeated, the solidity of its flesh betrayed by the apparent porousness imprinted upon its skin through dense constellations of sperm-shaped bindis that illuminate its epidermal expanse. Its form is fluid, even though its poise suggests a physical imbalance, a surrender to the earth upon which it should have been reigning. The sculpture was a stylistic feat, particularly since Kher, otherwise used to casting a live model, was compelled, in this case, to deal with approximation and improvisation. The skin speaks a language not its own evoked the presence of a sentient being, much like her incredible mixed-media sculptures of hybridised warrior-like women such as Arione (2004), Warrior with cloak and shield (2008), and The Messenger (2011), all of whom seem like members of a personal and evolving mythology that is extracted from the bulk of her learning and research, but also seem like expressions of Kher’s own inner strength and resilience. “As an artist, I’m interested in a lot of things, but the central part is the body; through the self, not specifically the autobiographical self, but in terms of how time passes through us, and how the things that we accumulate carry meaning for us,” Kher explained.

As an artist, I’m interested in a lot of things, but the central part is the body; in terms of how time passes through us, and how the things that we accumulate carry meaning for us

Kher’s studio in Gurgaon is one of the most curiously gestative spaces I’ve ever visited. A series of brightly coloured concentric circles marks the wall of the building encasing the mini fortress, like Kher’s very own coat of arms epitomising the cosmic dimensions of her practice, personified by the bindi, a motif commonly understood to be the ‘third eye’, thus an awakening, an understanding that Kher believes is slightly bereft of nuance. The eye could also be imagined as something that is looking at you, she explained, thus broadening the scope of her seeming own coat of arms so that it reflects her artistic proclivities as well as her penchant for being self-referential and self-aware.

It was during this visit that I realised that while Kher’s linguistic flair informs her art, it is the one component about which she is most ferociously secretive. I spied, as she was speaking, a range of sentences beginning with the letter ‘I’ in her diary, which she’d left open after having noted the words ‘Dodie Bellamy’ and ‘Tender Buttons’ (Gertrude Stein) at the start of our conversation. Ever since I introduced her to the seminal work that is Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, which she loved, she takes my recommendations seriously. If Kher were ever to write a book, I know with all certainty I would list her as among my favourite writers. I was unwittingly seduced by her writing during an hour-long lecture she had delivered at the University of Chicago’s Delhi centre, titled ‘The Body: Casting, Hybrid and Absent’, dedicated to her art teacher, Martin Shaw, who died a few weeks after Kher went to visit him in England 26 years after having been his pupil at the Greenacre School for Girls in Surrey. Kher recounted the privileged space Shaw had created in the art room, where erasers were contraband so as to encourage mistakes.

When I arrived that afternoon, I’d found Kher immersed in her work, a waxen cast face in one hand, in the other, a brush she’d dipped in an oil and wax concoction that she was swooshing over the face, endowing it with a green hue. Moments before, as I would learn later, she’d had an epiphanic moment, as she was getting out her oil paints (some of which she swears were from her college days and the four or five years just after). “As I was mixing the oil in the wax to colour it, I could smell the oil. You know how something just takes you back. It was really amazing, like I was back in college, and then I went back to school, and I remembered the first time I smelled oil paint and linseed oil, and thinking at that time, ‘God, I really want to be an artist! I want to have a studio. This is what I want to be and do’.” Her next thought, she confessed, was ‘Wow, I did it!’ She looked around her and thought, ‘Not bad, I got the studio! What next… World domination? She said? What was that little mouse?’

Six women seems like the apotheosis of Kher's recent practice, the culmination, perhaps, of years spent understanding and commenting on the female body

“The Brain, from Pinky and the Brain!” I replied, excited. ‘What do we do tomorrow night?’ Pinky would ask Brain, and Brain would say, ‘Same thing we do every night, try to take over the world!’ Kher and I exclaimed in unison. She remembered watching the Steven Spielberg cartoon series with her son, Omi. We laughed.

AS SHE PREPARES for a solo at the prestigious Freud Museum in London, Kher has been brushing up on psychoanalysis and delving into her own complex relationship with her mother and father. In fact, her father was the first male body she’d ever cast. His seated form is poised in a corner in the studio, constituted by wax; the space where his heart would be is exposed, so the inner scaffolding of plaster-of-Paris cast is revealed, and in the interstices between matter, the suggestion of hair follicles and the imprint of skin. The exterior resembles wax that has been chipped into with the serrated edges of a knife, as if she has been chiselling away at the image of her father, restructuring it, showcasing flaws and rough-hewn edges. The remnants of this subconscious act of polishing sit on the pedestal that holds the sculpture. “In the casting process, there’s a trilogy,” Kher said. “There is the body, my intervention to carve the body, which is plaster on to the body that takes the imprint of the body, its memory, and then it comes away, and that space between them is the essence; it’s the something you can’t see.” This is where the transference takes place, because the cast now holds the essence of the person. “It’s about trust. You have to trust your materials to make them, animate them,” Kher added. Her concern with medium lies in her wanting to subvert its own possibilities. “During the Renaissance, you had Michelangelo making these extraordinary folds of fabric in marble, but that was 500 years ago,” she said. “What we’re able to do today is say that there’s no wrong way to use material. My skills won’t allow me to make folds of fabric, but I can technically bastardise two materials and allow the mistakes to become part of the work, which is inherently human in some way. The intention is completely different, to not create reality. I’m actually not interested in reality, to be honest. I don’t think any of my work is about reality.”

Kher’s Six Women (2013-15), which was displayed at Cockatoo Island as part of the 20th Sydney Biennale, is one of her most complex recent works. Kher cast six female sex workers from Kolkata, and documented her own inhibitions and anxieties in her diary at the time, excerpts from which she’d read at her talk at University of Chicago’s Delhi centre. One mould of the six seated women, each one individually postured on a chair affixed to six separate pedestals, lies on the top floor of Kher’s studio like sentinels. They confront the viewer’s gaze with the enormity of their lived experience. Their skins speak a language our tongues can’t quite comprehend. Six Women seems like the apotheosis of Kher’s recent practice, the culmination, perhaps, of years spent understanding and commenting on the female body, through the sculptural as well as the readymade. When someone asked Kher if women specifically incorporate the body in their practice more than men, she agreed wholeheartedly. “At the time I said, ‘It’s a weakness that we have, that’s what makes it so good.’ Women are marked much more by our own bodies. I look at my own body and the transformation is extraordinary. You have the power to create and be part of this extraordinary thing called life. Your body will respond. You could put six women in a room, have them share a house... within three months, everyone is menstruating together.” Kher admitted that at some point she realised that though she was investigating the body, at a certain point she wasn’t looking at her own body. “My work was preempting me to do things I needed to do,” she said. “Maybe the work you make is the work you needed to make, because you couldn’t make anything else.”