Enter the first room of Bharti Kher’s exhibition at the Hauser & Wirth Somerset gallery in rural Somerset and you are confronted with a gangly concatenation of objects suspended from the ceiling like so much detritus dragged from the sea. An antique weighing scale hangs from the wooden rafters. Weighing down one side is half a wooden stepladder strewn with black lace, a twisted clump of rope, a piece of bone, a samurai-sword-like curve of polished wood and what looks like part of a dismantled loom. On the other, a near life-size articulated wooden doll-puppet is suspended on a long wooden pole, festooned with skeins of leather and an earthen pot dangling from one foot. Look up and you’ll notice the scales are tipped slightly to favour the stepladder.
The installation lends its title to the whole exhibition—and A Wonderful Anarchy it is. You would struggle to come up with a more apt phrase to describe the work of one of the most important and eclectic artists working in India today.
Bharti Kher was born and raised in Epsom, a suburb of London. Her parents arrived in England in 1967, and Kher was born two years later. At school she was lucky enough to have a teacher who understood the magical, alchemical, transformative power of art, inspiring Kher to study fine art at Newcastle. In her mid-twenties, tired of London and restless for new horizons, she flipped a coin to decide where to go next: New York or New Delhi? The coin landed Delhi-side up and so, in 1992, she travelled to New Delhi on a six-month visa—and has lived there ever since.
When her mother arrived in England, she spoke not a word of English, and when Bharti arrived in India, she couldn’t speak Hindi. Kher laughs now, at the irony of repeating her parents’ experience in reverse. Within a few months of arriving, she met a fellow struggling artist, Subodh Gupta, and despite the language barrier (Gupta, at that point, knew no English), they fell in love and got married. Their meteoric rise from young unknowns to becoming the power couple of India’s contemporary art scene is well known. But to portray this as a simple ‘rags-to-riches’ fairy tale would do serious injustice to the energy, determination and sheer hard work that made it possible.
Bharti Kher has always been a battler. Recalling the young woman, newly arrived in India and determined to make her way as an artist, curator and critic Gayatri Sinha described Kher as ‘pugnacious’: “She’d got her dukes up. She’s not going to pull her punches if she has a certain perspective.”
And pull her punches she didn’t—and doesn’t.
“I never do what I’m told,” Kher explains to me as we walk around her latest exhibition. Looking at the heterogenous array of works on display, I ask whether she has ever felt pressured to specialise in one medium or another—to stick with drawing, or to focus solely on sculpture, to focus on abstract art or the figurative. “No way. I would be bored! It’s just not the way I am. I’m too restless.”
It is this restless, prolific and anarchic spirit that makes Kher such an endlessly fascinating artist. Over the past three decades, there is almost no medium she has not explored: acrylic painting to smashed mirrors, plaster cast to bronze statuary, the disturbing hybrid figures of human-animals, works both textual (of which more later) and textural. She is, perhaps, best known for her bindi works, some of which form part of the Hauser & Wirth Somerset exhibition. From tiny amoeba-like patternings to huge spirals made from stickers the size of dinner-plates, Kher has elevated the humble, everyday, cheap and cheerful decorative dot to an entire artistic medium in its own right. So iconic of her work has the bindi become that the gallery even has Bharti Kher-branded packets of bindis on sale in their shop—chic little sperm-squiggles at £2.50 a throw, with the proceeds going to charity.
Kher is the ultimate bricoleur—she delights in unexpected juxtaposition. Sometimes this is a violent smashing together of two different forms. In what I think of as her Hadron Collider phase, this results in the formation of a whole new creature: bat-winged baby, hoover with the head of an Alsatian dog, naked clothes-store mannequins with amputated limbs and sprouting strange graftings. There’s a kind of Frankensteinian glee to these grotesques: they seem calculated to shock, challenge and provoke.
But at other times, the juxtapositions are gentler—curious and delightful. In her recent work, she has assembled hundreds of the rough, painted clay figurines that you often see in the temples of South India. Some religious, some secular, these doll-like figures have been smashed, sliced and spliced together to form a new series of works called ‘The Intermediaries’. In their scale and their sheer quirkiness, they seem less like Art, with a capital ‘A’—offputting and overpowering—and more like something you could play with.
During her three-month-long residency in Somerset in 2017, Kher spent much of her time chopping up and sticking together these little figures. There’s a boy’s sitting body from whose neck a fat bunch of green bananas sprouts. Another is a priest with three extra heads on either side of his own. There’s a ‘Mother India’ figure, serenely holding a flag, with a lion’s head where her own should be, as though she’s just been brained by a falling Ashokan pillar. There are others where it seems as though an entire family has been passed through a dodgy transportation portal and reassembled at the other end, pieces missing, glued together, with half their bodies back where they left them. “I’m interested in creating these new avatars,” Kher says in one interview, “they are the new tricksters, new shamans, almost kind of making the new gods in some way.” Like many modern artists, she sees no natural (which is to say God-given) divide between the domestic and the divine, between the secular and the spiritual, and these curious figurines express perfectly the elision of doll and idol.
Through the large window, we can see another of the intermediaries, mounted on a plinth outside in the courtyard. A larger-than-life-size figure of Saraswati, standing on a lotus, has been sliced exactly in half and sandwiched together with a decorated half-circle, through which you can see the low hills and grey clouds beyond. It tricks the eye: the brain ‘fills in’ for what is missing—the other half of the goddess, the complete rim of the circle. “The point is, that the space is what holds it together,” explains Kher as we walk through the exhibition. “If the circle is complete, the woman will go. The circle is the negative space. A lot of the things that I make are about space: it’s about the energy around the work.”
It is tempting to try and construct a linear narrative about Kher’s development as an artist, to stand back and point to a piece and say, ah yes, this is her ‘early work’ or this is from this or that phase in her career. But retrospectively imposing a chronology like this would not only be difficult, it would actually misrepresent what she does, how she works and who she is. “2009 or 2019—it makes no difference to me. I could go back to earlier work and pick that up now. I just make stuff.”
We go into her studio and she starts showing me sheet after sheet of drawings that she has been working on. Some look like doodles, some like Chinese calligraphy. They are experiments with shape and form. With line and space. They are playful, serious and intensely private. Even with this simple flat surface—drawing on a sheet of paper—I am struck by how diverse they are: each one might have been done by a different person. I say as much to her, and she grins. “Yeah, I use everything. I’ll use spraypaint. If I’ve got nothing, I’ll just use pencils. I’ll use mud if I have to. I’m not a materials snob. It doesn’t have to be good paper, in fact the worse the paper the better it is for me. It’s not so precious.”
She leafs through the sheets one by one, examining each, as though she herself as creator is continually surprised by what she has made: as though it’s answering her back. And these drawings do have a slightly eerie feel to them, a bit like automatic writing or speaking in tongues: they appear to channel something. “Drawing is always the thing that I do first, when I don’t know what I’m doing,” she says. “It’s just your hand, the paper, and your body. You have to trust your body. To know that it’s going to communicate with the paper the way it needs to.”
Away from the demands of running a vast studio in India, with many assistants to help her create and construct her large, ambitious sculpture work, this interlude in Somerset has offered Kher a way to reconnect to the simple, solitary act of putting lines on paper, playing with crayons and pastels and ink. Listening to the drawings—although that might sound odd, for Kher, the whole field of art is profoundly synaesthetic. “I think I draw like a sculptor, because it’s all really about space,” she says staring quizzically at another sheet of abstract lines and patches. “Does it have music around it? What colour is it? How do you describe space?”
Back in the exhibition, one entire wall is covered with a neat spiral made up of large bindis in many shades of green. The wall is pierced by a door and you have to walk through the work, as it were, to get to the last room. This forms part of Kher’s ‘virus work’, a thirty-year project, which was started in 2010 and will run until 2039. Accompanying the sworl of bindis, which even in its form looks like a wormhole in the space-time continuum, is a stack of printed sheets, for visitors to take and read. This is a sheet of short bulletins—one for each year—a mixture of ‘headline’ news and domestic events, reportage of things that have actually happened in roman text and predictions for the future in italics. Here, for example, is the entry for 2032:
Ukrainian astronomers predict that a giant asteroid will destroy the world. Half the world is desperately short of water. India’s capital, Delhi is now completely waterless and the city empties. I am 63.
This is a work about time. It is about prophecy becoming history in the ever-present, ever-moving point of the ‘now’. In its sense of helpless forward momentum and hindsight, the work reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s idea of history. History, he says, is an angel facing the past and being blown backwards into the future: “Where we see the appearance of the chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it at his feet.” This image was taken directly from Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus, a curious goggle-eyed doodle of a figure, scroll-like hair—almost comical, and yet painted at a time and in a place which was anything but. Painted in Germany in the 1920s, it was one of many works seized by the Nazis as an example of ‘degenerate art’.
Benjamin’s angel of history wants to go back, to fix and repair the things that have been broken. Smashing and repairing, breaking and healing—these are the twin engines that power much of Bharti Kher’s work. Her smashed mirror series is perhaps the most obvious iteration, in which she takes a sledgehammer to huge sheets of mirrored glass, and then covers the splintered surface with a healing swathe of bindis. The bindis form almost a new skin—like scar-tissue over a wound. Then there are the ‘intermediaries’, stuck together in ways that highlight the awkwardness of the joins, the imperfection of the finished form. The large sculpture outside, for example, could easily have been Ardhanarishwara, the familiar incarnation of a deity made up of two halves, feminine and masculine, perfectly conjoined to form a unified whole. But Kher’s semi-goddess is made complete by the space, by her missing ‘other half’.
Objects, for Bharti Kher, are not simply objects, nor is space simply their absence. She describes it as a way of seeing. “Say you’re going to draw this table,” she proposes. “How do you draw everything around it, to tell me that there’s a table there? That’s how I make work. I don’t only make the thing, but the spaces around the thing.”
We are back at the first room in the gallery and I notice something that I hadn’t really seen before. The whole teetering edifice of ‘A Wonderful Anarchy’ is anchored to one side with a thick rope secured to a huge wooden pillar. I hadn’t really taken it in before: assuming it was as practically necessary but ultimately meaningless as a picture hook is to a painting. But on second viewing, it becomes clear that this is an absolutely integral part of the work. It is what allows it to exist at all—otherwise the whole thing would collapse into a miscellaneous heap on the floor. I walk under and through the space, marvelling at the poise, delicacy and strength of the balance. It could almost be that the rest of the objects exist simply to frame and offset the single, taut stroke of rope cutting through the air.
‘Balance works’ are what Kher calls installations like these. They teeter on the edge. They dance. They are the still point of the push and the pull—held by tension in a place where they can rest. It’s not a bad way to think about life, really. The chaotic, wonderful anarchy of a life lived forwards and made sense of backwards, our bodies lifted up and grounded by gravity, completed and encircled by that which we are not.
First published, Indian Quarterly, Jan 2020