Feb 18 2014

Bharti Kher’s “Misdemeanours”

by Katherine Tong

Target Queen (2014) is a mural installation featuring enlarged bindis on the museum’s exterior wall. Usually obscured, the wall was exposed when the adjacent building was demolished during the redevelopment of the Rockbund area. Courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum.

Shanghai is a historic port which first opened up to foreign trade more than 100 years ago. It is therefore fitting that the Rockbund Art Museum (RAM)—a government-affiliated museum inaugurated in the former Royal Asiatic Society building in 2010—has endeavored to showcase artists who are not of Chinese origin. “Misdemeanours” is both a major survey of Indian artist Bharti Kher’s 15-year solo practice—her first in Asia—and a series of new site-specific works that demonstrate her highly receptive nature when responding to the everyday environment.

Spread across the six floors of RAM, the exhibition is organized around several themes, including life and dual identity. Works from different stages of Kher’s career illustrate her progression and maturation as an artist. For the purpose of this exhibition, the artist also took up a new research topic: the history of the British East Indian Company, highlighting the joint history of colonization and exploitation in China and India.

While frequently referencing Indian tradition and society, Kher denies that her work is explicitly about herself or her country. Instead she emphasizes its universal nature; the domestic and the everyday are windows onto broader issues of humanity and history. She describes her practice as laboratory work, with research being conducted in various fields, and with different materials. This exhibition bares the fruits of years of dedicated practice.

At the museum’s entrance, visitors are greeted by Misdemeanours (2006), a realistic fiberglass sculpture of a laughing hyena. This lonesome creature not only reflects the building’s past as a natural history museum, but also the artist’s sense of dislocation in the city. Photo by Katherine Tong for ArtAsiaPacific.

“Virus” (2010– ) is an ongoing series of site-specific works made with bindis,  the mark worn by Indian women on their forehead, traditionally written in pigment, but which today are mostly mass-produced stickers. Made for RAM, this fifth edition, Virus V (2014), consists of a mahogany box containing big, yellow bindis (here applied on the wall), designed as a DIY mural kit. Photo by Katherine Tong for ArtAsiaPacific.

The Hot Winds that Blow from the West (2011) consists of 131 used radiators that the artist bought in the United States. Weighing up to ten tons, the pile was delivered to her studio in Delhi before she stacked them, creating a minimalist cube that was later shipped back to the US for a gallery exhibition. Photo by Katherine Tong for ArtAsiaPacific.

Every single word from the matrimonial column of an Indian newspaper is written onto a grain of rice and put into a Tibetan singing bowl on top of a marble pedestal, forming the work Sing to Them that will Listen (2008).  Inspired by the absurdist methodology of Dadaist poetry, this work is an analogy of the artist’s cosmology. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, London, New York and Paris, and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Installation shot of the “Hybrid” floor. At the front: Warrior with Cloak and Shield (2008); and the back: self-portraits (from left to right), Family Portrait,Chocolate Muffin, and Angel (all 2004). Photo by Katherine Tong for ArtAsiaPacific.

And all the While the Benevolent Slept (2008) is inspired by an Indian myth about a headless goddess who sacrificed herself, feeding her blood to a copulating couple. Here, the artist has made the goddess holding a teacup, suggesting a female offering herself to a domestic setting. Photo by Katherine Tong for ArtAsiaPacific.

On the lower floor lies The Skin Speaks a Language not its Own (2006), in the front, and Bloodline (2002) in the back. On the upper floor, visitors contemplate Not all who Wander are Lost (2009­­–10). Photo by Katherine Tong for ArtAsiaPacific.

A detail of The Skin Speaks a Language not its Own (2006,) which depicts an elephant collapsed and dying. Sperm-shaped bindis cover its skin, making this a celebration of life. Photo by Katherine Tong for ArtAsiaPacific.

Bloodline (2002) is a stack of 4,200 glass bangles extending across two floors of the museum. These red-and-black bracelets are worn by Indian women and create a clinking sound. Streaming LED lights animate the thin pillar from within. Photo by Katherine Tong for ArtAsiaPacific.

In Western Route to China (2013) are four old maps, each with the actual routes taken by the British East Indian Company fleet, marked with bindis. Originally a symbol of fertility, when applied to the map the bindi acquires a new meaning, signifying direction or presence. This is part of the artist’s continued interest in reorienting traditional symbols. Courtesy the artist and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Seven antique globes placed on stools form Not all who Wander are Lost (2009–10).  Resembling the solar system, the work draws an analogy between colonialism and society’s current astronomical pursuits. This work serves as a warning against repeating history.

 In conjunction with the exhibition, a series of talks and workshops introducing traditional and contemporary Indian art will be held over the coming months.

 “Misdemeanours” is on view at RAM from now until March 30, 2014.

Katherine Tong is a writer and researcher at ArtAsiaPacific.