India has fascinated Westerners at least since Rudyard Kipling's birth there in 1865. British Imperialism; Gandhi; the 1947 partition that created India and Pakistan; and myriad other political, religious and cultural realities make it a country of fascinating depth to outsiders. At the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, the three artists of Distant Nearness mine the subcontinent's complicated and multitextured polarities.
Two of the three artists were born in India. Two live there now, and the third lives in New York. And though the States have seen many group exhibitions of contemporary Asian artists since Margo Machida's groundbreaking 1994 exhibition, Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art, at New York's Asia Society, it's good to finally see one here focusing on India.
Of the three artists, Subodh Gupta has probably garnered the most press because of his pieces' dramatic appeal (and because he has been showing his work internationally since at least 1997). He makes large metal casts of ordinary objects that have come to stereotype Indian people. "Curry," the most striking work in the exhibition, consists of gigantic stainless-steel kitchen shelves piled neatly with stainless-steel platters, spoons, bowls and other kitchen implements. For Gupta, the kitchen is a place of worship and symbolizes daily life — and, he says, 90 percent of Indians use stainless-steel kitchen utensils. By enlarging his memory of a simple kitchen and the curry made there, Gupta adds power to this particularly Indian experience. Other sculptures suggest the tension between traditional rural and modern life, such as a cast bronze and aluminum scooter and bicycles with milk pails hanging from them.
Like Gupta, Bharti Kher exhibits her work internationally. An artist of transnational identity, Kher was born in England to parents of Indian origin; in a reverse trajectory of historical migration, she chooses to live in India. Animal imagery is central to her work. In "Or the Great Indian Rope Trick," a life-sized head and neck of a giraffe, cast in bronze, has been hung from a ceiling fan by a thick noose. With its broken neck skewed to the side, the giraffe seems to stand in for all enslaved and oppressed beings. In "Solarium Series," tiny animal heads represent leaves or fruit on a fiberglass-and-metal tree. Here, too, animals serve as metonymic devices for all living things. Other works center on the bindi — the small dot worn on the forehead as a Hindu third eye.
Building on themes of dislocation and colonialism — of ideas, images, people and objects — Rina Banerjee makes the most visually complex work in the show, both installation sculptures and works on paper. Her drawings emerge from Indian miniature painting, suggesting their intricate and delicate patterns and details, yet she modernizes them with abstract layers of imagery. Her sculptures are accumulations of objects such as feathers, chairs and sand. Banerjee was born in Calcutta but has spent the majority of her life in the United States; this undoubtedly contributes to the sense of rupture and diaspora in her work.
Like most artists of migration and mobility, these three artists articulate concepts of Indian identity as particular — but not monolithic — and mutable.