BHARTI KHER, The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own, 2006, Fiberglass and bindis, 142 × 456 × 195 cm. Photo by Katherine Tong for ArtAsiaPacific.


Bharti Kher

China India
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

The four-year-old Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) has organized several important exhibitions of acclaimed Chinese contemporary artists during its short history. “Misdemeanours” brought about a change, presenting a 15-year survey of one of India’s most eminent artists, Bharti Kher. Spanning all six floors of RAM’s art-deco building—once a natural science museum—the show initially seemed out of place, both culturally and functionally. Yet the artist’s exploration of dualities in her practice firmly tied the show to the historically cosmopolitan Shanghai Bund, where the museum is located, reminding the materialistic city of important issues that exist beyond aggressive economic growth.

At the foyer, visitors were greeted by Misdemeanours (2006), a fiberglass hyena that seems to be glancing back and laughing at its viewers. Through its presence at RAM, in a building that once held taxidermied animals, this installation generated a transition in time, echoing the venue’s history while introducing visitors to Kher’s contemporary visions. The hyena wears an unidentified animal skin on its back and stands on a stack of wood atop a dolly; its laughing expression seems more horrified or embarrassed than joyous. This lonesome beast looks lost in time and space; yet as a result, this work could not have been more appropriate for display at RAM.  

Also on view was The Hot Winds that Blow from the West (2011), a massive cube comprising over 100 used, cast-iron radiators brought from the United States to India. Kher modestly claims that its minimalistic form was a result of various failed attempts to create a more complicated installation. Yet this simplicity succeeds in drawing attention to its material: the radiator, one of many inventions of the Industrial Revolution that changed Western civilization. As its title hints, Kher’s installation reflects on the spread of globalization and the effects of the scientific advancements that emerged from the West, and encourages the contemplation of both human development and degeneration.

On one floor was a display of the artist’s “Hybrid” photographic series (2004), which consists of three studio portraits, along with three associated life-cast sculptures of half-woman, half-animal creatures. All these characters exude a sense of domesticity, which is demonstrated by a series of household objects that accompany the figures, such as a vacuum cleaner and ceramic teacups. But by merging different elements into these female figures, dualities such as domestic-public, docile-wild, pleasing-repellant and human-beast are laid upon the works. In one of the portraits, entitled Chocolate Muffin, the protagonist, a half-naked woman holding a plate of appetizing muffins, has the face of an ape and the leg of a horse. In this work, and all the pieces in the series, the hybrid female figures are shown standing proud, embracing their complexities.

Another work on show was Western Route to China (2013), a new work that was created especially for the exhibition. The installation consists of four antique maps of India onto which Kher has applied numerous yellow bindis (a decoration symbolizing fertility, traditionally worn by Indian women on their foreheads, and one that Kher uses often in her practice). Referencing the history of British colonialism—a shared past for India and China—the artist contemplates a potential future in which the two countries achieve economic domination over the rest of the world. In using the bindi to portray the notion of conquest, Kher has seemingly changed its signified meaning from fertility to conflict. Elsewhere in the exhibition was The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own (2006), in which sperm-shaped bindis cover the skin of a fiberglass elephant lying on the floor. Here, it is the dualities of life-death, female-male, micro-macro and power-weakness that are evoked through the delicate use of the bindi

Bharti Kher is a midcareer artist with a mature practice formed by her broad, multidisciplinary interests and persistence in research. Her oeuvre concerns themes that are personal, local and temporal, but are also universally applicable across eras and nations. It is precisely this strange yet familiar complexity in her works that reflects the world that we live in today.