Artists, it is believed, have their heads in clouds. Steeped in a personal universe of ideas, the artist’s world draws from reality, but as far as popular belief goes, artists live on their own planet. And if contemporary art is any indication, the produce from that planet is weird and rarely related to what we can recognise as reality. Take Hemali Bhuta’s Point-Shift and Quoted Objects, for instance. If you thought the title was strange, imagine walking into the art gallery Project 88 in Mumbai and seeing what looks like a massive slab of concrete. The exhibition has made the gallery look vaguely like an incomplete construction site. But everything is an illustion. ‘Folded Line’ by Bhuta isn’t a sculpture made of concrete. It’s made of alum, the humble water purifier of many a household.
The strange, minimalist works in Bhuta’s new show have their beginnings in a simple feeling: homesickness. Bhuta has spent much of the past three years travelling and, as the note accompanying her show informs us, during this time, she yearned “for the simplicities of domestic life in India”. This was her inspiration — memories of home, the space created and nurtured by women.
Femininity is a volatile idea in India now. So many of us are outraged by the crimes inflicted upon women. Attacks like the one that has left a medical student in ICU in Delhi make us feel weak and fragile. They raise the question of what it means to be a woman in India today. Are we vulnerable, as the cases of rape and sexual harassment suggest? Or are we resilient, as the age old stories of womanly fortitude preach? Bhuta’s art shows that old conundrum in a modern light. All the objects that look solid are actually riddled with pressure points. The sculpture that looks like a lance and stretches martially across a wall is actually made of beeswax.
Look carefully and Bhuta’s show is all about illusion. Nothing is what it seems. Every artwork in Point-Shift and Quoted Objects is delicate, prone to crumbling. If you ask the gallery what the longevity of these works should be — oil paintings are known to last for centuries — there’s no answer. That’s how novel Bhuta’s art is. There is no precedence for these works so no one can prophesy how long they will last. They’re like today’s feminism — it’s up to the men and women of this generation to decide how resilient or fragile it will be.
Vulnerability appears much more obviously in Abir Karmakar’s new exhibition, Room, Interrupted in Passage. This new set of works is a departure from Karmakar’s established style. They are small, which is a dramatic change from Karmakar’s older paintings which spread across walls like portals into sensual but unsettling worlds. Karmakar has steadfastly stuck to being a painter for most of his career. This time, though, he’s tried his hand at video projections. ‘A long whisper’ shows a shadow of a male figure on a flimsy, gauzy curtain. It’s a tentative figure that hovers like a nervous wraith. ‘Shadows of Distressing Dreams’ is a set of layered video images that shows men and women sleeping. The men come across as particularly vulnerable because of their restless sleep and awkward nudity.
Karmakar’s vision of masculinity is starkly different from the aggressive brutality that characterises Indian men, particularly like the ones accused of gang-raping a woman in Delhi. And here’s how current affairs makes art relevant and more poignant — though Karmakar probably didn’t intend this, the shadowy man in ‘A Long Whisper’ looks like a voyeur, peering through the curtain, watching the women on the other side of the purdah. Bhuta’s perfectly-straight lines look terribly prone to breaking the moment you know how fragile the raw material is and I can’t help looking at the hollow, broken works like the pillar made of graphite — touch it, and it will stain your hand like black blood — and remember the woman who is fighting for her life in a hospital in Delhi. Say a prayer and let’s hope next year, the life reflected in art is more hopeful.