At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any connection between Prashant Pandey’s new exhibition, titled Shelf Life II, at Gallery Maskara and Sarnath Banerjee’s Barwa Khiladi — a gallery of underachievers at Project 88. Banerjee’s prints tell endearing stories about mediocre athletes. Pandey is a sculptor who works with found objects and there’s rarely anything humourous in his work. If you consider the moods of the two shows, they’re completely opposite. Barwa Khiladi is sometimes hilarious and constantly amusing. The sculptures in Shelf Life II, on the other hand, are shadowed with melancholia. Here’s what the two do have in common: the starting point for both artists’ work is rubbish.
In Pandey’s case, this is literally the case. His last show had works using sweat, blood and even urine (his own). This time, the materials are less personal, but no less rejected. Pandey has used objects like chunks of road tar and dried sweet lime pulp to create his sculptures. You might recognise that “Black Moon” is made up of bits of a road — particularly if your commute forces you to travel on roads that look about as fragmented as Pandey’s sculpture — but if you can figure out the original materials of “Yellow” and “As I Cut Them”, you deserve a prize.
“Yellow” is an off-white cube, which looks unremarkable until you realise Pandey sculpted it out of sweet lime bagasse (the dry, pulpy residue that’s left behind after the fruit has been juiced). The circular fruit has died and been reborn as a white cube. “As I Cut Them” looks like it belongs in a hair salon because it seems to be made up of swatches of hair that look shiny and soft, like ponytails from a shampoo advertisement. They’re actually bunches of sharp, spiky copper wire. “Love”, a massive heart-shaped sculpture that hovers in mid-air, is made of marble blast stones that give the work an almost balloon-like quality even though marble is anything but light and airy.
While Pandey’s use of the mediocre and rejected is poetic, Banerjee opts for a more humourous take on immortalising those whom we’d relegate to the trashcans of history. Banerjee was commissioned to create a public art series for the Olympics in London this year. Considering the reputation Bengalis have for being disinclined towards athleticism, Banerjee and the Olympics seemed like a curious combination. However, Banerjee chose to create a series about underachievers and proved that the Bengali dedication for slacking off physical activity could hold its own even when faced with the Olympics.
Curated by the Frieze Foundation, Banerjee’s drawings of Olympics non-medallists were seen as billboards and posters all over London and now they’re enjoying pride of place in Mumbai. As usual, Banerjee’s work is great fun and its strength lies more on Banerjee’s storytelling skills than his drawing prowess. Take for example, the ping pong player who at a crucial moment is distracted from the game because he can’t remember the correct spelling of eerie. Banerjee tells you about a high jumper whose commitment to keeping himself primed for a sport at which he’s not particularly good means he spends his days contemplating gravity and surrounding himself with all things light: “Light food, light music, light reading”. The only thing that grounds the high jumper is his lone medal, which is bronze.
For all the humour in Banerjee’s work, what makes his work charming is that there’s no finger-pointing at failure. On the contrary, he’s full of sympathy for these rejects who persevere despite being losers, because they show true dedication. Anyone can stick to doing something they’re good at, but if you continue with something despite failing, that’s love. In Banerjee’s show, it’s the fact that they’re rubbish at what they do that makes them heroes who are worth immortalising as art.
The ancients from all over the world had been convinced that an object known as the philosopher’s stone, which could turn base metal into gold, existed. Christians and Muslim alchemists of yore believed God was supposed to have given it to Adam. In Buddhism and Hinduism, it was known as chintamani and appears in many legends. Philosophically speaking, the idea behind the stone is simple optimism — the stone makes it possible to create something precious and refined out of the ordinary. No one’s found the philosopher’s stone so far (except Harry Potter), but Pandey and Banerjee have come close enough.