Ranjani Shettar: Making Earth Songs

This spring, the Phillips is excited to present Ranjani Shettar: Earth Songs for a Night Sky as part of the Intersections contemporary art series. In February 2019, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenović visited Ranjani Shettar at her studio in Karnataka, India, to look at and discuss her work and inspiration.

Join Ranjani and Vesela for a conversation at the Phillips on May 16 at 6:30 pm.

Ranjani Shettar and Vesela Sretenović discuss an installation in progress.

Ranjani Shettar and Vesela Sretenović discuss an installation in progress in her studio.

VS: Let’s start with the title for your upcoming Intersections project, Earth Songs for a Night Skywhere does it come from?

RS: My titles mostly happen toward the end. At the beginning I have a general impression of the show and as the works are being made the vocabulary develops slowly and the title comes from there, gradually. In this case, the title came from my daily life, my surroundings, the jungle and the sky, but it’s also universal in a sense that when you live in a remote place like I do, you experience things in solitude, more vividly and closer to their natural habitat. Here I wanted to create something light, melodic, and joyful, something like when you sing a song with your heart and you are happy! Of course, there are so many things that are not right in this world and I do want to take them into account, but I am a person full of hope and I want to emphasize the state of hopefulness and the positive aspect of things.

VS: “Songs” in your title brings to mind Kandinsky’s Klänge (in English Sounds), his 1913 book of poems and woodcut illustrations. Your works seems to me like a dance to Kandinsky’s “sounds.”

RS: Perhaps, but Kandinsky calls for sounds, and I call for songs. For me, sounds and songs are different things. A sound can be anything, while as song is about synthesized sounds; in other words you chose sounds to make a song. And then you sing a song! Kandinsky’s words and images are sounds, they are simple and I love his visual poetry.

VS: Your creative process is extremely laborious, and you love it. Earlier you said that the meaning is in the process. How so?

RS: Well, so much happens in the process of making; there is a lot of practice behind a concept, and it is this ongoing engagement on a daily basis that is the most fulfilling, more so than the final product. The slowness of making and exploration of materials matters greatly, and what comes out of that is a slow growth, which is what interests me the most.

VS: And where does your process start? with sketching? drawing?

RS: It starts in the mind, but parallel with the material. I think of it as two-way. As a sculptor I am attached to my materials but also to the form, something that wants to come out. My mental image is projected over a material and the process connects the two. The hardest part of the process is when I am not doing anything physically, when I am thinking and getting ready to start. But once I start working it is the happiest time and I don’t want it to end. There is a lot of problem solving and decision making during the process of making, some are conceptual, but most are technical problems. I enjoy the hands-on, trial-and-error aspect of the process very much.

VS: Given the interconnection of process and materials, tell us more about your choices of materials?

RS: At the beginning I would try out everything that I could lay my hands on. I would hop from one material to another, always learning something new. But with time I realized that the wider my choices were, the harder it was to be ecologically sensitive and responsible. I used paper, plastic, industrial materials, glue, just about anything. Now I have narrowed down my choices and work primarily with organic materials such as wood, fabric, treads, pigments, and beeswax.

Ranjani Shettar looking at an installation in progress.

Ranjani Shettar looking at an installation in progress in her studio.

VS: Where does your work come from? What motivates it?

RS: My work comes from a need to express what I imagine rather than what I see or feel—it is about imaginable possibilities of the physical world and its moving forces. I think what motivates it is three-dimensional form. The form usually comes from within the mind but also from the natural world and surroundings, like geometric forms which I then try to transform into more organic shapes. I am drawn to things that can stretch and bend, that are pliable or mutable. Subsequently, this elasticity informs the final form.

VS: Were you always drawn to abstraction?

RS: No, I started with more representational forms but slowly broke away from that. My training was in figurative art but I was never interested in objective renderings. I was drawn to pure form more than anything. And I have always loved sculpture—three-dimensionality, materiality, volume, space—rather than flat surface.

VS: Your versatility of techniques and craftsmanship is impressive.

RS: I love learning different crafts and new skills. I love design and making nice looking objects. I don’t like to have assistants—the pleasure is in the making and I want to keep that pleasure to myself.

VS: And what happens when the project is done? Does it feel empty?

RS: You see, emotional connection to my work is also very important to me. Over the years I learned to always work on multiple works at once and leave some works incomplete. That way I have something to return to—an emotional anchor!

Visiting an indigo dyeing and weaving workshop.

Visiting an indigo dyeing and weaving workshop.

VS: Let’s talk about the Phillips project . . . still in process as we speak but coming to its completion soon.

RS: When you invited me to visit the site in order to propose the project, I spent some time walking around and found the galleries in the historic house very intimate, domestic, cozy, and I liked that feel very much. And the wall that divides the two adjacent galleries on the second floor was very interesting to me. Then I thought to create a works that wraps around it—thus responding to the specificity of the architecture—directing how one navigates through the space. That particular piece, comprised of many parts, is made of stainless steel, muslin fabric, and indigo. But instead of dying my fabric, which I have done in the past, here I use indigo as paint for the first time. Being at the Phillips I saw clearly in my mind that the piece ought to be in blue; indigo blue presented itself as a great contrast to the monumental 19th-century architecture with fireplaces and their wooden mantels.

VS: But then, next to this fluid multi-part work in fabric and indigo, we have dense, wooden sculptures, beautifully carved. How do they relate to each other?

RS: For me, it is about a spectrum. If you are a singer singing in three different octaves, you read the notes together to strike an emotion and create harmony. So it is about spectrum or the “whole” made of parts.

VS: Speaking of the whole and the parts, the third part/octave of the project is a small installation made of thread and wax. Tell us more about it.

RS: Well, the three parts—fabric pieces, wooden sculptures, and thread-wax installation—are deeply interconnected. They all deal with balance and precariousness yet in different ways. They all embody volume and lightness, movement and shadow . . . they all occupy our living space.

Art in Calm and Chaos: My Week in New Delhi

(Left) Balasubramaniam (aka Bala), Stone Waves, Fiberglass and sandstones Dimensions Variable / 2010-2011. (Center) Vesela Sretenovic and Bala in front of his work, Nothing From My Hands. (Right) Balasubramaniam (aka Bala), Dead-line, Iron and jute 48 x 19 x 105” / 2011. Photos: Vesela Sretenovic

Recently I had the challenging pleasure to spend a week in New Delhi.  The occasion: artist A. Balasubramaniam (or as we  know him “Bala”) opened a solo exhibition at Talwar Gallery concurrent with the 4th edition of India Art Fair. My experience of the two places could not have been more different. Bala’s show was pristine, solemn, and inward, an oasis for quietude and reflection. The art fair, much like other art fairs, was hustle and bustle, only this time with unusual suspects (numerous non-western dealers and artists) and with intensified colors and scents unknown to New York, London, Paris, and Madrid. The untamed energy of New Delhi and the potential of art coming from the region was fascinating, perplexing, and the future will tell if this potential gets fully realized.

But to get back to Bala, I was thrilled to be able to see the follow up—and much, much more—of his artwork that we had on view last summer and still remains in our courtyard. See photos of the installation and de-installation of his sculptures at the Phillips.

Entitled Nothing From My Hands, Bala’s exhibition at Talwar (a gorgeous, four-story gallery in south New Delhi) features different bodies of the artist’s work spread through separate indoor spaces and an outside garden and roof. These works include sculptures emerging from walls (Nothing from my Hands, see photo above center); wooden, organic forms displayed on the floor (Stone Waves, see photo above left); an eight-foot thorny spiral made of rusting metal hung from the ceiling (Dead Line, see photo above right); a six-foot diameter sphere made of spokes from bicycle wheels, similar to the one that is currently at the Phillips (Embryo), and a large scale outdoor piece made of granite (Nothing from my Hands). In short, experiencing Bala’s work in the midst of a super-sensorial city was like a breeze of fresh air that brings you back to life, the inner life away from the street crowds and noise, continuous cars’ honking, and an overwhelming dust in the air.

I am still bewildered by the contradiction between the outward chaos and inward peace in people. As a friend of mine—who is originally from Delhi but spent almost 20 years in the United States—said upon returning to her hometown, the city’s chaos gave her a new sense of freedom. Although I can’t go that far, Bala’s exhibition did give me an opportunity to experience both the “outside” and the “inside,” which is what his work is about all about.

Vesela Sretenovic, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Hodgkin and Holi: An Unmistakable Connection

This work from the collection of the Freer Sackler Galleries illustrates the tradition of Holi. A Holi festival. 19th century. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. H: 28.9 W: 19.2 cm India. Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1907.25.

As I was giving a recent tour of Howard Hodgkin’s monumental prints As Time Goes By, a docent at the Freer Sackler Galleries pointed out the possible relationship between the prints, which are characterized by exuberant areas of intense color that appear to be thrown onto the surface, and the holiday of Holi, the festival of colors, which takes place throughout India and other South Asian countries in early spring. Holi was originally celebrated by farming communities as a ritual expression of hope for a good harvest and a collective rejoicing in the spring.

Holi is also thought to have had various mythological beginnings whose narratives usually have a moral. One originates in the boyhood of Krishna, considered one of the most human of the gods. When Krishna was playing with Radha, a girl in his village, he noticed that her skin was fair and his was dark. When he complained to his mother, she suggested that he throw color on Radha’s face so that the difference could be erased.

During Holi, participants, who dress in white, throw colored pigment and water on each other. According to the myth, people do so with the aim of erasing differences of color, creed and religion, hoping to create a truly equal society. Hodgkin has traveled extensively in India and collects Indian art.

Watch the videos below for a glimpse of the modern celebration of Holi.

Karen Schneider, Librarian