The art of misunderstanding

On the eve of Bharti Kher’s 2008 exhibition at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England, the centrepiece of the show, a five-metre sculpture called “The Waq Tree”, toppled over. “I was emotionally shot,” she admits when we meet during the installation of her latest exhibition, at London’s Parasol Unit. “It could have killed someone. I started crying and I sat outside and called my husband [the artist Subodh Gupta]. He was like, ‘Go back inside; is it looking good or not?’ I went back in and I thought ‘Actually, it’s looking great.’ So we repaired it and didn’t tell anyone. Suddenly something becomes something else.”

Born in London in 1969, Kher moved to India when she was 23, having visited the country just once as a child. There she met Gupta, and decided to stay – reversing the migration her parents had made to England. She now lives in Delhi, and she and Gupta have two children. Dressed in a dark suit jacket and jeans, she has the air of authority and ease that often comes with success. Although she specialised in painting for her fine art degree at Newcastle Polytechnic, her practice now includes sculpture, installation and photography, and her work regularly fetches six-figure sums.

Kher’s work has been shaped by her decision to stay in India – as has her attitude towards artwork collapsing and things not going to plan. “In India,” she says, “you have to give a bit and you have to go with it.” The chaos that characterises life in the country’s teeming cities, and the clamour of its 1.2bn voices, is expressed in Kher’s poignant piece “Sing to them that will listen”. Part of the Parasol Unit show, it’s a small Tibetan “singing bowl” filled with rice, each grain hand-inscribed with words from an Indian Sunday newspaper’s matrimonial column. Phrases such as “fair girl”, “B.Tech” and “caste no bar” speak of the selection process behind each potential match – but these careful messages are mostly obscured by others, leaving chance to create its own order. “It’s the smallness of us,” Kher says simply. “All that angst about who and where and colour and if your teeth are good, when, in the galaxy, we’re just a grain of sand.” She pauses, shoots me a sideways glace and assumes the pompous tone of a critic: “It’s an anthropological study of the entire Indian subcontinent in a bowl of rice.”

Kher borrows from Indian life in her art. She has used saris and bangles, and her bindi paintings are well known: a particularly striking untitled example, with layers of coloured bindis as big as vinyl records, was shown by Charles Saatchi in his 2010 London exhibition The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today. (A bindi is a small decorative mark or sticker on the forehead; a red one traditionally signifies marriage in Hindu culture.) But the piece that thrust her on to the international stage was “The skin speaks a language not its own”, a life-size female elephant slumped – dead or sleeping – on the ground, her skin an intricate patina of sperm-shaped bindis. One of three existing versions of the sculpture was sold for just under £1m at Sotheby’s in 2010. “I’d been thinking about making an elephant for a long time,” Kher tells me as we walk slowly around its great mass, “but I was cautious about the cliché of it.” Yet the piece has become iconic: loaded with differing interpretations, from India’s cultural exhaustion to its imminent rise to dominance.

Kher’s art invites – even deals in – misunderstanding. She gets frustrated when people see her bindi work as being “about marriage” because, for her, “they don’t function as the bindi any more, they’ve become something else: markers or residue or memory or this idea that you can actually see.” (Bindis also mark the “third eye”, a link between the physical and spiritual realms.) Yet surely she’s playing with the idea of cultural misunderstanding, of subjectivity. “Yes,” she agrees, with a glint in her eye. “I do set myself up for it – and I’m not complaining. I have lots to say about it.”

Although Kher is interested in more than “the Indian married woman thing”, images of women – femininity, motherhood – abound in her work. The Parasol Unit’s strong selection draws this out. On a terrace overlooking the garden stands Kher’s “imperfect” bronze goddess, with 11 arms instead of the usual 12. Its title, “Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholy, Sanguine” (the four humours), points to the fragile balance in many of Kher’s women: this strong multi-headed goddess nonetheless has “baggage and memory, like when you walk with a limp because you’ve got a lot to carry”.

On the first floor of the gallery is “Warrior with Cloak and Shield”, a hybrid creature cast from the body of one of Kher’s female friends but with long curling horns. Her face is calm, almost child-like, and she is naked but for her underpants – which Kher did not intend to be part of the work, but which the model left on during the casting. Yet, for an artist who often depicts part-human part-animal creatures, that sole item of clothing “strangely adds to her vulnerability”.

Such duality is always present in Kher’s work; she embraces multiplicity and contradiction. She tells me she misses painting, then a few minutes later that she recently purchased a cement mixer and is also considering making an animation. She is scathing about Indian corruption and bureaucracy, yet her face lights up when she talks about the energy of the people she deals with every day. And she seems to be an incurable workaholic. When I venture this observation, she smiles. “I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t going to the studio every day. I think a lot of artists are like that, because you don’t really feel like you’re working. Everything starts with you: you’re the driving force.”

Bharti Kher, Parasol Unit, London, September 14-November 11,

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