The ceramic works of Jaipur-based artist Vipul Kumar, currently on view at Delhi’s Threshold Gallery, demonstrate a strong sense of the Earth element, while exploring the turbulent relationship between humans, as a profligate race, and Nature, as a depleting yet bountiful force.
Kumar’s ‘Earth Diaries’, as the show is titled, engage with two materials – stoneware and porcelain, which are different types of ceramics. Sculpted into dissimilar shapes and forms, his exhibits embody decay and doom, palpable through cracks and lava-like formations coiling over the objects. The artist, a student of fine arts at Benaras Hindu University, attributes his experimentation with ceramic art to his brother Kesarinandan, who runs a studio in Delhi. Prior to that, he was trained under famous sculptor Balbir Singh Katt, known for his adept use of marble and wood materials on a large scale.
As a trained stone sculptor, Kumar said he began with geometrical, rigid forms that found a new visual vocabulary in the ceramic medium. Maintaining the rigidity of his stone sculptures, his has used the delicacy and richness of clay and porcelain materials to enhance his artistic practice—an experimentation that has preoccupied him for the past ten years. The exhibition at Threshold Gallery highlights his foray into this new medium, that also doubles up as a platform to voice his concerns about the effects of climate change. It’s a concern that has shaped his life too, having left Delhi to setup a ceramic studio in Bhaislana, so “he could breathe better”.
At the entrance of the Threshold Gallery is placed a big slab-like sculpture, titled “Cheraweti”, believed to be a Sanskrit word from a Hindu scripture, that roughly translates into “chalte chalo” or keeping moving. The sculpture’s powerful visual imagery and an unmistakable ‘ancient’ quality set the tone for the show. Depicting the only human form in the entire exhibition, the sculpture invokes divinity as an omnipresence witness to the birth of civilization and eventual degradation, which is characterized by termite-like cavities.
The theme of deterioration extends into other exhibits: in “Nature’s Signature”, for example, the dull green protrusions and cavities acquire an expanded form; an “Untitled” window-like installation shows it is slowly being consumed by the same termite hillocks; and the “Global Warming II” sculpture shows volcanic eruptions in an increasingly altering environment. (An expanded version of Kumar’s “Nature’s Signature” sculpture has been mounted at the Indian Ceramics Triennale in Jaipur, a first-of-its kind homegrown initiative that acknowledges the finest experimentations in Indian and overseas contemporary ceramic art.)
Adding to the symbolism of humans corroding nature’s largesse is the sight of consumerism and capitalism depicted in “Untitled-II” object at the Delhi show. Formidable and fragile at the same time, the comparatively smaller sculpture in the collection is an ironical reference to the architectural grandeur of today’s day and age.
Humans, the exhibition shows, are not all that powerful despite their extractive tendencies: we are governed by “astral phenomena” or zodiac signs (Untitled Mural) and the concept of the movement of time (Jantar Mantar-II), inferring to the infinitesimal nature of human existence.
The intense visual imagery of these exhibits takes a break when you notice these 15 objects. Playful and organic, this installation doesn’t seem to be conveying a moral tone, unlike the rest of the collection. On closer look, it turns out that other materials such as chips, glass, bangles and even husk have been added to these objects, giving them a peculiar ornamental quality.
Seen together, the exhibition does not confirm to the common ideas of art being necessarily beautiful or pleasing. Instead, the show is about Kumar’s reflections on the prevailing ugliness in the world. Working out of his large ceramic studio in Bhaislana (which is also the site of black marble mines), the artist is one of the handful of Indian practitioners to have earned the reputation of elevating “the humble pot or clay sculpture to the status of high art”.
One of the oldest human inventions, ceramics have, for long, been identified as a traditional, artisan-based craft for industrial, functional, ritual/temple, and architectural purposes. Even though ceramic art has witnessed renewed interest among artists to experiment with multiple techniques and concepts in the medium, a historical gap has been noted in terms of the ‘stepchild’ status given to ceramics when compared with painting or sculpture.
Kumar was born in Sitamarhi in the state of Bihar, which has a centuries-old history of ceramics. But he considers himself to be primarily a sculptor, who happens to work in the ceramics medium. And yet, a conversation with him reveals how his own brother, a trained ceramist, often felt he was just a “kumhar”(a potter), instead of being a visual artist.
Sharing this insight into the existing barriers within the art market, Kumar said: “There seems to be a ‘class distinction’ in painting, graphics, sculpture and pottery. I have tried to use ceramic as a material to shake up the image of ceramic craft, transform it into the form of sculpture and elevate its status in contemporary art”.
‘Earth Diaries’ is open for public viewing at Threshold Gallery until October 27, 2018.
Ankush began his career as a journalist in 2008, and has since covered multiple stints in print, television and digital media in India. In 2016, he took up a communications and outreach assignment for an American social innovation organisation, which works with the Tata Trusts in India. He is currently working, in Delhi, as a media publicist for art practitioners. He tweets @artandculturediary, and shares his photography on Instagram.