There is something of Gregory Crewdson’s air of disquiet in Bharti Kher’s current show Disturbia, Utopia, House Beautiful, even though their media couldn’t be more different. Crewdson is an American photographer known for his surreal, elaborately staged scenes of American suburbia. Through his images we catch glimpses of soulless rooms and streets peopled by empty human shadows—a woman floats in a cluttered living room, another gazes into a mirror that catches the reflection of a naked female form, a man outside the window shines a torch on two sleeping children. Crewdson’s world is perpetually caught in twilight, wrestling between light and dark.
Kher’s new works—a collection of onsite installations—are confined to the environs of a hundred-year-old colonial home, which now houses Gallery Ske. She uses the space to explore gaps between the promise of ideal domestic perfection and the stifling conformism that marks suburbia. There is an air, like in Crewdson’s photographs, of great theatricality about the works, combined with an acute sense of imbalance and tension. Green Grass Grows, for example, could be a snapshot out of an ideal home magazine, except for the fact that the floor fan is mangled, and the chair the cat snoozes on is tipped on three legs, the fourth supported by a broken teacup. The teacup, which Kher has used in earlier works, is a recurring motif through the show and one loaded with connotations—that of comfort, sharing, warmth and familial gatherings, yet also of the ubiquitous tea ‘ceremony’, a ritualistic process conducted when an outsider or stranger visits your home. Perhaps nothing else captures the vision of domesticity as a prettily-patterned ceramic cup and saucer, which is why the installation The Mistress and Master of Grand Ceremonies is at once humorous and disturbing. It comprises a couple of sturdy granite blocks supporting two glass cabinets—one filled with rice grains and ceramic samosas, while in the other stands a tower of teacups and saucers, topped off by an elegant pitcher. On close inspection, however, you can see that one of the cups is chipped and broken. The tower is precarious, in constant danger of tipping over. The idea of balance has regularly been explored by Kher—in The Skin Speaks a Language Not its Own, a life-size elephant lies slumped on the floor, in The Wag Tree a trunk is ‘tipped over’ and doesn’t stand straight and tall. In an inhouse interview at Gallery Ske, Kher says, “A lot of my work is about balance… there is a time of the day when everything can seem off. You just catch yourself before tripping up.”
The installation Make Up (As You Go Along) is an especially good example of this. Here, a solitary dark-wood dressing table stands imbalanced on bricks made of burnt and melted bangles. This piece of furniture, intricately patterned with multi-coloured, variously-shaped bindis—Kher’s famous signature trademark—also carries multiple connotations. It is the place at which the ‘self’ is arranged first thing in the morning, or through the day, where a person catches a glimpse of herself or himself as she or he crosses the room, while the bindis, as Kher explains, “are remnants of a day in the life of a person, the residue of the memory of a day. It gives an element of time; somebody’s been looking at themselves everyday for many years…what do you see? What are you looking at? Where are you going? What are you taking back?”
Like Crewdson’s images, which invoke a deep sense of physical absence—empty chairs at a dining table, desolate roads, unused cars—Kher’s works are also built around the non-presence of people. For example, with In Your Absence, she evokes mundane, daily life through a set of five straight-backed wooden chairs strewn with resin-coated blankets, saris and clothes, the residue of a person’s day. They also point, in opposition to Make Up, to the act of ‘undressing’, of being naked and hence extremely vulnerable. The chairs function as individual, singular entities as well as a unit or a ‘family’. Unlike some of Kher’s recent solo shows—Inevitable Undeniable Necessary at Hauser and Wirth, London and An Absence of Assignable Cause at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York—Disturbia, Utopia, House Beautiful is a far more compact, intimate collection of works. The theme is tighter, more focused and poignant. It gently wrestles with promise and despair.