The Earthiness of Vipul Kumar’s Ceramic Sculptures

 

Ankush Arora

 

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.

 

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Gallery View. Picture Courtesy: Threshold Gallery

 

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”.

 

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 Cheraweti Stoneware, 49x46x16 inches, 2018. Picture Courtesy: Threshold Gallery

 

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.

 

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Global Warming II. Porcelain 13×11.5×11, 2010. Picture Courtesy: Threshold Gallery

 

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.)

 

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Nature’s Signature, Stoneware, 168x120x65 cm. Picture Courtesy: Indian Ceramics Triennale. 

 

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.

 

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Jantar Mantar. Stoneware. Woodfired 15x24x12 inches. Picture Courtesy: Threshold Gallery

 

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.

 

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3 Untitled Mural, Poreclain, 120×48,14 in (40 pieces each 10×10 in side view) and An Accident. Picture Courtesy: Threshold Gallery

 

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.

 


276520d7-6209-4f19-a17e-7e4d98264b55Ankush 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.

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When Art Transcends Human Creativity

 

Delhi-based Nature Morte Gallery’s recent exhibition, ‘Gradient Descent’, seeks to establish artificial intelligence as a new genre of contemporary art-making

Ankush Arora

What happens when a statistician and an artist decide to create a new form of art? The outcome is an experimental initiative for artists and technologies of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) to reimagine creativity in contemporary art practices, while establishing a collaborative human-machine relationship. That is the stated goal of ‘64/1’, the Bengaluru-based art curation and research collective founded by brothers Karthik Kalyanaraman, whose interest in visual arts predates his career as an economist, and Raghava KK, a multidisciplinary artist known for creating an art book for children on the iPad.

And what happens when a gallerist realises that AI (broadly, the ability of machines to replicate human intelligence) is slowly beginning to shape the way we access technology? The result, this time, is a startling collection of seven exhibits and installations, made entirely by AI algorithms (or computer codes), establishing AI as a new medium to make art. This is a rare show curated by an Indian art gallery, joining an emerging movement of AI-based art in other parts of the world.

 

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Imaginary Landscape, 2018, Nao Tokui. Courtesy: Nature Morte, Delhi

 

Featuring mixed-media elements like AI-generated sounds, videos and images, the exhibition at Delhi’s Nature Morte Gallery debates the common apprehension that technologies like AI could make human labour or creativity redundant. Instead, human expression in art can be reinvented by technology as a combination of man and machine, the exhibition ‘Gradient Descent’ demonstrates, even though different forms of human labour are being replaced. The exhibition’s six overseas artists and one Bengaluru-based practitioner have trained AI networks to produce the final artworks by exposing them to multiple audio-visual materials.

Here are excerpts from a conversation with Karthik, who taught econometrics in the UK and US for about four years, before setting up his art curation and research collective. He has curated this exhibition with Raghava, who began his career in art as a cartoonist, moved to painting and simultaneously began experimenting with digital processing and programming tools to create art.

How did the two of you get interested in AI art?   

We were both obsessed with art and somewhat frustrated with the lack of deep engagement of artists with what we thought are issues of the future: the rise of AI as a symbol of continuing labour replacement by technology and climate change. So it was natural for us to start looking for artists who were engaged with AI.

What does the title of your show, ‘Gradient Descent’, mean? 

It’s a pun. ‘Gradient Descent’ is the name for a particular mathematical (optimization) routine that the AI algorithm performs in order to learn. At the same time, we want to imply that there is a gradient, a continuum, between man and machine.

Has your show, in any way, changed perceptions towards AI art in India?  

I think most people in the art world did not really realize the developments made by AI art, so it was a bit of a surprise for them. So I’m not sure that it has changed perceptions, because I think initially there was a huge lack of awareness. But I think now we have definitely seen younger artists become more interested in using AI as a tool. As for people in the tech world, our hope is that they have started to realize that their world intersects with the art world in interesting ways and will want to experiment with cross-overs.

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Perception Engines, Tom White. Courtesy: Nature Morte, Delhi.

 

How is the AI art market in India shaping up?    

The potential is huge. But the truth is there are very very few artists truly engaged with AI in India, despite the fact that the kind of AI needed to create interesting images is actually taught in computer science departments like say, at Ashoka University. This is because of the wariness with which our art schools still regard this media art space. The challenges are not technical. We have the technology. The challenges are in getting more members of the art world (art school faculty, students, critics, curators) to engage with this space.

Your show is dominated by international artists, with only one Indian artist from Bengaluru. Did you intend to make it a global show or does India not have too many AI artists?    

Both. It was a pioneering show globally too: the first time a mainstream art gallery organized such a show in the world. So we wanted it to be global. As for India, after intense search we only found a few artists in this space and of them only Harshit Agrawal was doing stuff that was both at the forefront of technology and conceptually interesting.

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The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Algorithm, Harshit Agrawal. Courtesy: Nature Morte, Delhi.

 

It appears that while talking about AI-based art, the medium takes the centerstage, somewhat marginalising the actual theme of artworks. And that has also happened in the way your exhibition has been received. Is that problematic or even unfair?

Very much so! I think because of the novelty value of this kind of show, purely the ‘AI’ part is getting stressed. We see this globally too: for instance the piece auctioned off by Christie’s is really quite unoriginal and has been done by other AI artists, so they are primarily selling as made my AI, creating a kind of idiotic mystique around the whole field. The truth is the human artists have gone nowhere! In a group show like ours, you could really see the aesthetic diversity of the artwork and this stems mainly from human decisions, because all the artists are starting out with more or less the same raw algorithm.

The human artist designs the concept, the human artist trains the machine in a specific visual style, the human artist curates the output. So then whole completely produced by AI idea is a myth. So yes, it is unfair.

In India, how are you planning to keep the conversation going regarding AI work?

We are in the initial stages of first moving the show to a couple of other cities. We would love to be able to create an outreach to art schools and engage young artists with the art of the future. Another idea was to create a lab that would provide the resources for young artists to engage with this stuff.

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Self-Portrait, Mario Klingemann. Courtesy: Nature Morte

 

According to the exhibition, AI art is just two years old. How did you arrive at this timeline? We do know that artists have experimented with the idea of creating art independent of humans for more than 50 years. 

In a sense you can say (French modernist) Marcel Duchamp kicked off that process with his readymades so I would date it even earlier. But the idea that an image can be made, where one has no control at all over the final look of the image, where the machine is not given any procedure or recipe for creating images, but is only fed a whole lot of examples to learn from, is very new.

The main idea for allowing a machine to generate an image, pixel by pixel, came in 2014 with the publishing of the paper on Generative Adversarial Networks by Ian Goodfellow and co-authors. Before that there was some experimentation with things like style transfer and Google DeepDream, but these were not as aesthetically interesting to artists because of their limited image-making capabilities.

‘Gradient Descent’ concluded at Nature Morte Gallery, Delhi, on September 15, 2018.


276520d7-6209-4f19-a17e-7e4d98264b55Ankush 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.

The Curator #4

In the last few posts we saw how curators weave a narrative around the existing collection to make it viewable and legible, and how some redefine collections. But how would you curate something which is not there? Something which is absent and whose presence is anticipated. Something which will appear much later in the curatorial process. These are complicated questions, but these were some of the important questions which Raqs Media Collective had encountered while curating the seminal exhibition Sarai 09. Earlier we had discussed about looking at curation itself as a process and how to not see the final exhibition as the most important aspect of that journey. Curation is a map of that journey, and the final exhibition is one of the halting points. But where does the journey end. That is another important question which was raised by Raqs, “When does curatorial work end?” It is an important question which draws our attention to the practice of curation itself. With the conventional form of exhibition making we assume that once the exhibition is open for public viewing it starts its life cycle and once the works are taken away on the closing day, the exhibition is over.

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Sarai 09, Courtesy: Raqs Media Collective

In Raqs Media collective’s own beautiful description, “To curate is to offer, metaphorically speaking, not just old wine in new bottles, or even new wine in no bottles, but also all that is entailed in so far as the cultivation of a vineyard, running of a distillery, maintenance of a cellar and the animation of a tavern are concerned, and all at the same time. It is to create the conditions necessary for the intoxication of what is called ‘rasa’ (aesthetic jouissance) in the Indic traditions to occur, and for sobriety to be called into question, as an aide and afterthought to the revelry, all the time. The curator is the distiller, bootlegger, tavern-keeper and barmaid of rasa, or aesthetic experiences.” Here we see the varied roles of the curator. As the world and the object domain of the contemporary art expands the functions of the curator too broadens.

In the fourth issue of “The Curator” series we present artist collective and curators Raqs Media collective.

The Curator #4

Raqs Media Collective: Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta

Exhibition: Sarai 09 

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Raqs Media Collective:  (L to R) Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and

“The Raqs Media Collective enjoys playing a plurality of roles, often appearing as artists, occasionally as curators, sometimes as philosophical agent provocateurs. They make contemporary art, have made films, curated exhibitions, edited books, staged events, collaborated with architects, computer programmers, writers and theatre directors and have founded processes that have left deep impacts on contemporary culture in India. Raqs (pron. rux) follows its self declared imperative of ‘kinetic contemplation’ to produce a trajectory that is restless in terms of the forms and methods that it deploys even as it achieves a consistency of speculative procedures.”

 

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Sarai 09, Courtesy: Raqs Media Collective

 

Sarai 09 was stretched across nine months as a series of propositions, in an empty space, ‘like a blank space” which would eventually unfold into objects, situations, utterances, gatherings and questions. I had a chance to visit the final exhibition in Devi Art Foundation. The energy there was tremendous. Viewers moving from work to work, interacting with the artists, works, and performances. Even few of my friends who were part of the exhibition found the experience very useful. It helped them to see art making and participating in an exhibition as a process and a collaborative experience. The exhibition too featured different kinds of “works” which we do not see as art works in a conventional manner but which had a deeper sense of belonging to the contemporary world in terms of its content. According to Raqs, “the term “artist” got thoroughly dismantled and explored by each protagonist; it became elastic. Our role as curators in this situation was also to observe overflow.”

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Sarai 09, Courtesy: Raqs Media Collective

This democratisation of participation, the expanded notion of what is art, and the emphasis on the process and seeing curation as an ongoing journey has made Sarai 09 a memorable experience in Indian art. As far as the important question of when does curatorial work end. I would say curation is an incomplete work, it is an ongoing journey. Once started it keeps on traversing the landscape of art and history. It accumulates new meanings, interpretations, responsibilities, and attracts new “consumers”. The work of curation never ends.

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Sarai 09, Courtesy: Raqs Media Collective

The details of this exhibition could be found in the Sarai catalogue Sarai 09 with the proposals of the artists and the curatorial note of Raqs (http://sarai.net/sarai-reader-09-projections/). Here is another important interview with them on the exhibition which appeared in On-Curating magazine ( http://www.on-curating.org/issue-19-reader/interview-with-raqs-media-collective-on-the-exhibition-sarai-reader-09.html#.WZbaWfig_Mx ). The magazine is free to download and also look for other topics which interest you.

We wish you a happy weekend. Please share, comment and discuss.

-Premjish, Director, Outreach

The Curator #3

Redefining and recasting is the essence of any radical gesture. As I mentioned in the introduction to this series a curator not only presents the existing canon but also redefines it in new ways. Curator presents new readings on the existing artworks, schools of art movement, styles, and conceptual formulations. With these radical interventions the field is renewed, new questions are raised, frames are altered, enabling explorations in newer directions. We know, in the history of art, artists have always taken the past styles and forms as a tool to explore the contemporary. In South Asia’s context artists have used the miniature tradition to revive Indian visual arts as a response to the European academic realism, and later on many artists from the contemporary period have used this idiom to address  socio-political issues, aspects of representation and perspective, and its materials and techniques. In such diverse ways of a renewed use of the miniature tradition how does a curator make sense of it? In the third issue of Art1st’s “The Curator” series we introduce you to the renowned curator and art historian Gayatri Sinha and her exhibition “Fabular Bodies: New Narratives in the Art of the Miniature”, 2011 which has contextualized this renewed zeal in the use of miniature tradition by the contemporary artists.

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The Curator #3

Curator: Gayatri Sinha

Exhibition:  Fabular Bodies: New Narratives in the Art of the Miniature, 2011

 

Gayatri Sinha is an internationally acclaimed art critic and curator whose primary areas of enquiry are centered on gender and iconography, media, economics and social history. She has also initiated Critical Collective, a forum for thinking on conceptual frames within art history and practice in contemporary India.

Hair Burns Like Grass Orijit Sen

Hair Burns Like Grass, Orijit Sen

“Fabular Bodies” was an exhibition which presented the art world with the newer possibilities of miniature in the contemporary. It has clearly moved away from its royal circuits of production and reception, and has ‘moved into the domains of video and digital art, animation and illustration.’ Sinha reminds us about the complexities of fixing this term with a static definition, and asserts that it had always existed in a flux, getting constantly reinvented and redefined.

Never Ending Story, Manisha Gera Baswani

Never Ending Story, Manisha Gera Baswani

Featuring important contemporary artists such as Nilima Sheikh, N.S. Harsha, Mithu Sen, Desmond Lazaro, Waswo X. Waswo, Manjunath Kamat, Chintan Upadhyay, etc., who have been inspired by this medium and a group of young artists who have displayed promising interventions in this idiom such as Varunika Saraf, Lavanya Mani, T. Venkanna, etc., this show remains as one of the most important in the history of South Asian art to engage with miniatures with a complex lens.  The show’s catalog has a brilliantly detailed essay written by the curator along with the bios of the artists and images of artworks.

– Premjish Achari, Outreach Director, Art1st

Varunika Saraf, Tryptich, 2009

The Curator #2

Curation, as we read in the last post, emphasized on presenting a group of artworks clubbed together with a particular theme or a narrative. This particular process gave importance to the final show, the exhibition. It foregrounded the final exhibition as the most important event in this entire process while neglecting the role of the curatorial process. For example the curator’s interactions with the artists, his selection of works, why did he or she selected that work, the process of displaying the work, the selection of a theme or a narrative, these all are part of the curatorial process. But conventionally our sole focus remains on the final exhibition which remains static throughout the display period. What can one do to activate the exhibition that it becomes interactive and participatory? Is contemporary art exhibition only about art making and displaying? What about its role as a platform to educate and create awareness?

You see, there are so many questions and the ways to address these through is new ways of curating which highlights the importance of the process of curating, art making, displaying and viewing. This week in Art1st’s ‘The Curator’ series we introduce you to Premjish Achari and his exhibition ‘Inquiries on the Contemporary’.

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The Curator #2

Premjish Achari

Exhibition: Inquiries on the Contemporary

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Premjish Achari is a Curator, Writer and Translator, he is also the Outreach Director of Art1st. He has conceptualized a curatorial platform called Future Collaborations to reclaim the political potential of 1) curation 2) collaboration 3) exhibition and 4) writing. This platform’s main objective is to bring together artists, writers, poets, performers, activists, etc to collaborate with each other, to mainly question the alienated individual spaces of art practice. It initiates collaborative practices between participants to turn exhibition spaces into sites of experimental research. Through this Future Collaboration’s turn public spaces into a battleground of different ideas to allow multiplicity of perspectives.

Screams of howling

The first edition of Future Collaborations adopted inquiries as a methodology. It drew inspiration from Karl Marx’s seminal text ‘A Worker’s Inquiry’ written in 1880 to understand the nature of labour and the condition of the working class. Seven practitioners from diverse fields were brought together to expand the scope of this text through their inquiries into issues related to caste, sexuality, displacement and disability. Before leading to the final exhibition the group collaborated on various performances, interactions and activities. Also to highlight the educational aspect of the curation,  artists like Gigi Scaria, Dayanita Singh, etc. were invited to give interactive public talks.IMG_2320.JPG

This meant that curation and exhibition was not only about the final display but has to be seen as a continuous exchange of ideas. The project grew out of monthly meetings based on shared reading and engaging with strategies of exhibition-making to activate art’s political potential.

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Through this project Future Collaborations attempted to shape a practice of knowledge production that seeks to bridge the lacuna between practice and theory in order to transform the white cube space into a location for debate, inquiry, and reflection. This exhibition featured installations, live-performances, artworks, etc. jointly created by the participants.

 

We would be very happy if you leave a comment for further discussion or clarification.