Like the luscious bougainvillea blossoms she pays homage to in her installation In Bloom (2004), Ranjani Shettar's beeswax balls and lacquered bead installations expand into space as if they had freed themselves from their natural surroundings. Shettar, born in 1977, has already emerged as a major presence on the Indian contemporary art scene, employing a visual vocabulary that eschews the familiar tropes and conventions that define many of her peers. Although political and social changes in India inform her sculptural explorations, she claims universal and organic themes as the sources of her works. This is perhaps the reason why this young Bangalore-based artist has been singled out for participation in high-profile exhibitions such as the Sydney and Sharjah Biennials. This fall, the Walker Art Center's chief curator, Philippe Vergne, chose her installation Just a Bit More, (2006), as his individual contribution to the Lyon Biennial, and Shettar also has an upcoming solo project at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, in March 2008.
Just a Bit More, first shown at the Biennale of Sydney in 2006, is the culmination of the artist's two-year engagement with delicate three-dimensional suspended structures which began taking form with works such as Vasanta (2004) and Hoomalae (2004). Vasanta consists of an assemblage of hand-rolled beeswax nodes presented in a gradation of yellow and green shades and connected through dyed strings unfolding form the ceiling onto the walls. In Hoomalae, thin multi-colored threads hang from the ceiling to the floor in a curtain effect, yet they are barely visible. The structure plays with the transient quality of light and almost threatens to dissolve into space. In contrast to Hoomalae, the sprawling yer tightly knit web of Just a Bit more seems to reclaim space. As natural light runs through this enticing seven-part installation of suspended veil-like waves, and the color and reflections of the beeswax balls subtly modulate, an at once giant and weightless microcosm surfaces. The effect is majestic.
Shettar's creations touch upon the fragile nature of beings, inviting viewers to contemplate new realms of possibility. An untitled series of large three-meter-long woodcut prints partakes of the same sensibility but is more introspective. Here the blank surface gives form to the rest of the print and allows pools of cold blue worked out in concentric womb-like circles to contrast with abstract round orange shapes. The restricted two-dimensional print format enables her to look at details she cannot study as closely through other mediums, Shettar told ArtAsiaPacific .
Trained as a sculptor, Shettar now reengages with traditional mediums such as wood. When AAP visited her studio, she was working on a new installation, Fire in the belly (2007), for an upcoming show at Talwar Gallery's New Delhi space. This installation consists of smooth, bean-shaped forms carved from acacia wood - planted in the Bangalore area to service the paper industry - and then coloured in metallic green car paint, allowing the wood grain to show through. The natural evolution of the materials is an intrinsic part of the installation; with time, the wood will crack and release itself from the paint. Shettar's inspiration came from observing fireflies at night in rural Karnataka. Slowly, she reminisces, the fireflies became a catalyst for other symbolic issues such as electricity, a scarce and sought-after commodity in today's India.
Shettar is hard to pin down. While the artist claims that she has no major influences on her work. Vergne compares her to other sculptors and installation artists like Eva Hesse. Shettar, who is rarely included in group shows focusing on Indian contemporary art, has remained in relative isolation from Mumbai and Delhi, the beacons of the Indian contemporary Art milieu. Shettar's father was in the civil service, and she grew up in Southern India moving from one rural town to another. Arriving in Bangalore, the regional capital, for her college degree was in itself a radical change, she recalls. Her inspirations do not necessarily stem directly from this experience but her works, which are often read by critics through the prism of India's ever-widening rural-urban divide, spell out the tenuous equilibrium of our living environments.
Me, no, not me, buy me, eat me, wear me, have me, me, no, not me (2007), presented at the Sharjah Biennial earlier this year tells the global tale of frenzied consumerism. The idea for this work came from Sharjah itself, where Shettar saw a pile of car bumpers that were being sent to India for recycling. The result is a group of sculptures made from car parts interwoven like baskets presented on the floor in various open forms. Me, no, not me also presents a change in scale from the previous "molecular" elements to large modules that inhabit space in a very tangible way, heralding the artist's more politically engaged approach. The social lives of things resonate in other past works using recycled materials, but the strength of Shettar's creations resides in the way she invests the smallest particles of her installations with an enthralling, poetical grandness.
ArtAsiaPacific also caught up with Ranjani Shettar in New York, where she was visiting after a trip to plan a new installation for Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art in 2008.
You often work at the intersection of organic concepts and industrial materials. Can you tell us more about how you produce your works?
My approach changes depending on where I am working. I try to connect with local themes and issues whenever there is a chance, and then I try to think of how to convey those ideas through material. I often engage craftspeople to create the small components that go into my installations. For instance, I have worked with traditional toymakers a number of times. But I don't consciously pursue organic form.
Are you interested in nature itself?
Yes. I think it comes from having spent my childhood close to nature. I grew up moving around small villages in the southern state of Karnataka. Most of the time, it rains heavily and there was always the forest line quite close by. So we could trek into the forest whenever we wanted, and that was freedom for us.
And how about the industrial aspect of your work?
I'm fascinated by the way certain things function. I work with industrial byproducts really - small-scale industries. One of my uncles had a nuts and bolts factory, as did my grandfather, making little parts that get incorporated into bigger machines. That gave me an understanding of how I can manipulate materials to suit my needs and engage other people to get things done.
Do you conceive of your work as sculpture or creating an environment?
I studied sculpture, so I probably think of it that way, but I'm not very concerned about what it should be called. As a student, I started off doing figurative sculptures, but then I realized that it was necessary for me to express my ideas through more flexible media. I started experimenting with cheap plastics, pipes and ropes, and the journey started from there.
When did you start using craftsmen?
A long time ago, I made work using a kind of unbleached cloth- kora cloth from the state of Kerala. But I'm not very good with sewing, so I hired a tailor to help me. And then for example I had the toymakers make wooden beads for me. It's a very interesting process, because everything is done by hand, and yet they make perfect round shapes. These ancient crafts are developed and improvised from generation to generation, so what we see is incredibly refined - impossible for me to recreate in my lifetime.
And in other cases, as with your installation at the Sharjah Biennial earlier this year, you are able to push the limits of the materials you can use.
Yes, Me, no, not me was fabricated at a factory in Bangalore. I bought old cars from junkyards and had them flattened, cut into strips, and then woven like baskets.
What was the idea of weaving them together?
In that work, some of the cars were new but had been in accidents, others were old and had simply exhausted their use-value. But each car contains these stories- their own histories and those of their owners - so I tried to bring all of that together through the woven forms. When you look at the piece, you cannot recognize where the materials come from, although I kept the colors of the cars as they were originally.
The work also goes further in exploring how economies interact with and determine daily life. Junkyards exist everywhere, but I think they take on specific characteristics in each country. In a place like India, these objects don't live one life, they live many lives. And many humans are supported by or dependent on the junkyard economy - everything has value. The people who did the fabrication for me were laborers, so I had a first-hand experience of their lives. It doesn't translate in the work, but I'm addressing those issues in a subtle way.
Do you see yourself as making social commentary about India?
I don't do it consciously, but because I'm there, and I'm an Indian, I'm sure it comes through. I am proud of my society.