Baroda born and Mumbai based, Hema Upadhyay (*1972) uses photography and sculptural installations to explore notions of personal identity, dislocation, nostalgia and gender. Upadhyay draws on her own personal and family history of migration to express her concerns and this is expressed through the way she portrays herself in her works and the urban slums in her installations.
Hema had her first solo exhibition Sweet Sweat Memories in 2001. The exhibition speaks of a sense of alienation and loss and at the same time a feeling of awe and excitement one usually feels when in a new place. In 2003 she was part of the Vasl residency in Karachi where she made a work titled Loco foco
motto that spoke about the India-Pakistan divide keeping in mind her own family history related to the partition of India. Constructed of thousands of un-ignited matchsticks assembled into elaborate chandeliers, these pieces embody an important element of Hindu ritual, symbolizing creation and destruction, a trend in her work, which explores violence co-existing with beauty. In her recent works, Hema explores the sculptural element in her large scale installations. She repeatedly utilizes the landscape of Bombay and patterned surfaces (from Indian spiritual iconography and traditional textile design) to reference the repercussions and socio-economic inequalities that emerge as a hidden consequence of the relentless tide of urban development in the city.
Selina Ting, Jan 2011
Residence in the Calder Atelier
Selina Ting [ST]: We are here in the Atelier Calder in Saché (France) where the late American sculptor Alexander Calder spent his last 15 years to work on the stabiles. He chose to build his house close to the wild nature in the Loire Valley region. Now this space is entirely dedicated for artist-in-residence projects. You do you feel after spending some months here?
Hema Upadhyay [HU]: When I came here, I realized that my proportions as a human being fit perfectly inside, in an interior. Once I am outside in the nature, it was too vast for me to understand my proportions. Nature has its own speed, site, growth and process. Comparing that with the manufacturing process of an artist, it’s a very different thing. I am confronting this right now. I am given a studio to work in, and I have this big house and the big forest, I can work anywhere. But I feel my proportions are right inside here. The moment when I go outside, it’s a complete upheaval for me.
ST: When we look at your previous works, we see a strong influence from the city environment of Mumbai where you live and work. While here, you are in a very different environment, vast, empty and peaceful.
HU: Yes, so much chaos in my work actually came from the city. When I work in my studio in Mumbai, there are lots of elements, of decay, of life, of chaos. It’s a double-edged condition when you see development in the making – you see growth but decay, you see modern skyscrapers but the mushrooming of slums, etc. It is the dichotomy which existed within us and outside us as well. Here, it seems to be no chaos but an internal chaos is there in the forest. A construction and deconstruction cycle is taking place. As an artist, I am constantly confronted with the idea of creativity, of how the natural elements or conditions affect the manufactured work.
ST: It’s only when you cross the border that you can see the difference. Do you feel that it’s influencing your concept of art or art practices as well?
HU: Yes. I think Nature often puts the question back to us, for example, how I look at my own process of art making with the one which is happening outside. Because, as an artist, you are always working alone with your ego and your alter ego, your good side and your bad side. All these come together with disrespect for a lot of things in the process of art-making, because you are really involved in it. Once when a work is done, when you look at it, you can analyze it.
ST: Because by then you can be put a distance in between… Do you think that the work is independent from you once it’s done?
HU: When you are working on a work, you are obsessed with it. That’s the core of the practice. After that, I sometimes related to it as an object and when I have to install it in different spaces, I can alter it accordingly to the site. But this is not the core for me. The core is still the time spent in the studio. That’s why I enjoyed reading the previous interviews you have done, because they deal with the pure concept of art making, the process.
ST: Thank you! So, back to the installation you conceived in Atelier Calder, what’s the idea behind the multiplication of tree leaves?
HU: When I was invited to stay here for the resident project, I wanted to use kinetic element which Calder used to do, but I am not able to, it’s very tough for me to do that kind of work. But I don’t want to do the same kind of work that I do in my studio. So, the idea is to create a mystery. We install lines and lines of forest with copyright free images of tree leave patterns. When you look at it from far, you can’t identify the trees but a kind of black drawing. Only when you get closer, you can see the individual leaves. There is a desk at the centre where you can actually sit down and look at the forest.
ST: You mean you are bringing the forest indoor?
HU: I am trying to replicate the forest. I want to make a landscape work but I don’t want to use materials from the forest. I want to create a forest in my studio. I don’t want a forest that looks like a forest. So I decided to select certain trees from the surrounding. The materials we’ve chosen also reflect the inside – outside dichotomy. It’s almost like bring the outside inside but not in the literary way. How would I do that? It’s an experiment, a process.
ST: A trial and error process?
HU: [Laughs] Work keeps changing itself. Because when I am experimenting, some problems merged. I asked myself if I am dealing with beauty and decay in my work, i.e. the existing beauty and the decay behind it. I was scared that the work looks very crafty. As an artist, it bothers me when I see something comes out like design which I don’t need. Then from there, it changes. That’s what happens with this work. When I looked at the first five lines, it looks like an IKEA curtain! I was so depressed. I wanted it to look like a mass of black charcoal in the air! Then, I re-worked on it and found out solutions to make it the way I want. Yes, I would say it’s a trial and error process, and sometimes we made errors as well…!
ST: Crafty is not the necessarily design, but there is lots of human touch in crafty works.
HU: Maybe I use the wrong word. I know I use a lot of craft in my work which involves human work and certain techniques that have a process. I am not talking about craft in that sense and not that I am looking at craft as high or low art. But when I did the first few lines of the installation, from there it started to change. It became kind of an associated form which I have seen as design somewhere, that’s what I meant. Not that the high or low between design and art.
ST: So compare to you other works, this one is kind of sweet?
HU: Sweet? Haha… I like your word!
Does Concept Need a Note?
ST: I was thinking of your work The Nymph and the Adult (2001) where you hand-crafted 2,000 cockroaches. The installation is not just unappealing but a hard blow on our concept of human progress.
HU: The work was done in 2001 as a reaction to a political plan that India and Pakistan would have their own nuclear reactor. That’s a decision beyond individual level. So, as an artist, I was looking at the aspects of a changing humanity and what would eventually happen. We invented the medium to destroy ourselves, and at the end, cockroaches might be the only survivors as they have a much higher tolerance to radiation. It became very imaginative and dramatic, say imagine the whole earth full of cockroaches. It was the opposite of what you expect life to be. So, I have two thousand live-size hand-made cockroaches on the wall, look like they are infesting the whole gallery.
ST: How did the visitors react to it? Do you think they get the political message?
HU: When I showed the work, a lot of people don’t understand the political link. For me the political critique is there. It makes the essence of the work. But at another level, as an artist, I am dealing with realism, with form, with space. The content comes from outside, but the interests of art-making and the concerns for forms and representation come from my need as an artist. Then there comes a third level which is the audience.
ST: As an artist, do you feel the need to have the concept of your work understood by the audience?
HU: I think the visual is so strong in the work itself. Today we are the generation of visual hybrid. We inherited so much of imagery that our imagination can go completely wild. I don’t think artwork needs a note to survive. There are so many imageries around.
ST: Would it be a pity that such connection to your research or the political critique failed to be transmitted to the audience?
HU: One thing that I constantly questioning is that, does the whole process of visual-making need a form? The moment I tell them it’s about nuclear war, they would strongly react to it. I don’t mind putting a note for people who would be interested to read, but I want them to experience the work themselves first. At the same time, the work is my very subjective reaction to a possible nuclear blast. I don’t want to confront that, I wanted to make the work from that thought, and I believe at least one out of a million would understand the idea of the cockroaches. People come to a gallery or a museum with an agenda. I know for sure that people would do research before entering the exhibition space. I would never underestimate the audience. For me, if it’s the essence of the work, I would put a note somewhere to guide the audience. What do you think? Would you put up a note?
ST: I agree with you that too much explanation limits the imagination of he audience. But I am also thinking about the idea of informed aesthetics, that an audience would feel connected to the work when they understand it better. Especially today that a lots of contemporary art projects are no longer an artist’s mere subjective perception of the world but involved a lot of research. I am not being pedagogical, but I somehow believe that providing a way for the audience to approach the work is a sort of constant long-term art training as well. And it’s a pity that a visit to an exhibition always remains on the visual level and never enters the intellectual level of the audience. But personally, I never followed a guided tour neither because I don’t have the patience to listen to a somewhat scripted speech. The best way is to talk to the artists, and I have to say that I am in a very privileged position right now doing all these interviews.
HU: It’s a big debate right now because a lot of artist interviews are going on. When I read them, I almost say “artwork”, because you are going into the artists’ mind, knowing his or her process, what s/he’s thinking, where the materials come from, why and what is being transformed, etc. You are right, because the written texts have become slightly more important than the visual.
ST: It’s not just the artists’ interviews but the fact that nowadays artists always have to produce an artist’s statement for their work. And from that we see how the artist develops his form to carry the message.
HU: I am kind of questioning this. It’s a new way of looking at an artwork. Somehow I prefer the pureness of form even if I created all the realistic sculptures. For me, the discussion exists outside of it. For example, in Dream a wish – wish a dream (2006), of course I know the socio-economic structures and social hierarchy in the slum and the city. But as an artist, I am more interested in the aesthetics they created in the slum. When I looked at the architecture, the set up of the area, the form and colours they created, I am seeing surrealism, conceptual art and arte povera. But it’s their home. When I pass the area everyday on my way to work, I took the part of a voyeur to spy into their life. I am dealing with the dichotomy of social hierarchy and the whole idea voyeurism where I take the protagonists as the performers. They become the objects for me. So as an artist, how do I relate to these images without an exhibition space? They are not arrangements; they are part of their daily basic life. How could I bring them out in the work? How’s the whole hierarchy between high art and low art? I think that’s the main concern for me. When people come to see my exhibition, then they immediately think that I am talking about politics, I am not. This is the way I look at things.
ST: Here you bring out another issue in contemporary art criticism, the pluralism of signs and the problem of over-interpretation. As what we have mentioned, the autonomy of art once it leaves the studio to enter into the system, it invites interpretations. But sometimes it can be just as simple as life.
HU: As I said, I am more interested in the realism, that’s my language of projecting what I do. I can’t find it more conceptual because it all comes from life. So the form becomes very important, all the other discussions, be it political, socio-economic, artistic, aesthetic, etc, all comes from that. What’s high art and low art? What’s the whole process of placement in art and objects? That’s why this work is particularly important for me.
ST: Is it the reason that you developed the work Where the bees suck I in 2009?
HU: This work came from Dream but it’s more about destruction. Again, it comes from the political agenda of development where people were relocated from one place to another in the name of social development. It’s a whole pattern that has been happening over centuries. What happen to them? How do you look at that as an outsider? That’s how the idea of using the Hand of the God comes, and moving things from one place to another.
ST: Do you see your work as a continuation?
HU: I think I see my works as a whole, because one idea leads to another. From the physical aspect to the mental aspect, how the landscape affects you and what it does to the people. For example, this is a new installation [Twin Souls (2010)] that I am working on. I have 60 ready-made toys of birds flying in circular motion. This sort of movement is actually seen as a disease, animal madness. In most cases, it happens because the animals couldn’t adapt to the new environment. So I pick up the movement and relate it to the human conditions, the claustrophobia and schizophrenic in the city. Here I think your idea of speaking with a note would be very much needed!
ST: Usually a flying bird signifies joy and fun, for children and for adults equal.
HU: Not many people can see the psychic impact unless they stay long enough with the work. But again, it’s very interesting to read what can happen to human mind and how would I want to replace that in art? The birds become a source of speaking about the problem.
Indian Contemporary Art and Market?
ST: Let’s talk about the art market. Indian art is right now very hot in the market and we see many young artists coming into the scene are employing recognizable Indian symbols or traditional elements in their works, such as textile, embroidery, etc. How do you see these in terms of the market?
HU: I think the market takes those work but I don’t think the artists make these especially for the market. In my case, when I use textile in my work, such as Killing Site (2008). When I did research in the slum for Dream a wish – wish a dream, I realized that there were some small-scale industries, such as leather, alcohol making, textile printing, etc. I happened to run into the textile printing shop and found that they actually fabricated the patterns from ancient books, they changed the pattern a little bit and they supply to a completely different market. There is no copyright issue involved. That’s a city within a city where they have their own rules and laws. So the textile piece comes from here. Another reason that I used the patterns from textile books was also to avoid copyright problem. It was a body of work that I replicated patters from the books.
ST: To highlight the anarchical aspects of creation…HU: Exactly! My intention wasn’t to sell it to the market. I really don’t know who’s going to buy this work. But that’s not the first thing.
ST: But do you think this kind of decision is always neutral for artists?
HU: I don’t want to make this kind of judgment because when you are attached to an institution such as a gallery, you are part of the system, no matter if you are a conceptual artist or a pop artist. After that, I think it’s the agenda of the market. When you look at the Indian contemporary art, the kind of art that is being shown in the international category, I wouldn’t say that they are questionable, but maybe that’s the aesthetics of the artists which was picked up by the market. For me, what’s becoming important for India today is how much art is in the concept rather than market being the concept. Market is not necessarily a bad thing, artists need to survive. The market would pick up whatever it likes and make it into a market. That’s the concept of market, but the artistic process is completely another thing. If you look at all these artists interviews published, they are just fantastic, they have nothing to do with the market. It’s a production process in isolation. When people read them, they say, oh my God, I think in the same way. I really feel artists interviews are like art works.
ST: What about your own experience in international art scene? Do you think it matters to present and see yourself as an Indian artist?
HU: I don’t see myself as an Indian artist. I really look at myself as an artist. I know there are certain elements that come from my Indian background. But I know that there are many more elements in the future that are not about India. For example, this chandelier made of matches. I don’t think it has any cultural identity.
ST: Thank you very much, Hema!
Meeting the Hema Upadhyay
The meeting with Hema was fixed in 3 minutes through 4 emails when we happened to be both online at 2am; one in Saché, one in Paris. When we finally met, Hema told me that she’s an impatient person and that’s why she’s so perfectly fitted for Mumbai’s speed and chaos. Hema’s mother, of Pakistan origin, shakes her head while confirming to us what a restless child Hema was. Yet, I suspect that when I looked at the images of her 2,000 handcrafted cockroaches (all done by her, alone) and the matchsticks constructed chandelier. Hema is one of the most open and warm-hearted persons I have met. “I love your interviews!” The first thing she said when we met. There is no need for warm up, perhaps that’s one of the expressions of her impatience.
So rather, we tried to “cool down”. It was freezing cold in Saché last December. Yet, we decided to have a little walk in the “forest”. As our vision stretched over the vast open land, Hema said, “Once I am outside, the nature was too vast for me to understand my proportions.” Hema had the house, the studio and the forest completely at her disposal, yet, she preferred to work indoor where her proportions become “right”.
Hema led me upstairs to see her bedroom. Did Calder sleep on the same bed? I joked. She laughed proudly, “Yes, they keep everything here”. Let’s call it “The Surfing Bed of Art” – Is there any single bed that has served so many great artists (and their lovers)? Around 37 internationally renowned contemporary artists had slept there – Jimmie Durham, Ernesto Neto, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Marina Abramovic, Julian Opie, Sarkis, Jessica Stockholder, Tomás Saraceno, Jeppe Hein, just to name a few. Next to the bedroom is an “open-door policy” bathroom – another huge empty room with a bathtub stands lonely and rather embarrassingly at the centre, facing it, huge windows! I wonder if Hema really finds her proportions inside?!
Special thanks to Corinne Bouvier and Guillaume Blanc of Atelier Calder for organizing the visit. Gratitude to Lily Lyons and Sandy Rower of Calder Foundation (NY).
About the Artist
HEMA UPADHYAY was born in Baroda. Did her B. F. A. (Painting) and her M. F. A. (Print Making) both from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda. She won the Tenth Indian Triennial in 2001. She received the National Scholarship and the Gujarat State Award in 1996. She did her residency at Art Space in Sydney in 2001, Vasl Residency in Karachi in 2003, Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh in 2007, Singapore Tyler Print Institute in 2008 and Atelier Calder in France in 2010.
Her major solo shows include 2009 Where the bees suck, there suck I, Reopening of MACRO museum, Rome Italy; 2008 Universe revolves on, Singapore Tyler Print Institute, Singapore (Ex. Cat); 2004 Underneath, Gallery Chemould, Bombay (Ex. Cat); 2001-02 The Nymph and the Adult, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane (Ex. Cat); 2001 Sweet Sweat Memories, Gallery Chemould, Bombay (Ex. Cat); 2001 The Nymph and the Adult, Art Space, Sydney.