In 2004, Bangalore-based artist Alwar Balasubramaniam made a sculptural bust of himself cast from sand, fiberglass, and evaporating compound. This is presently placed in an acrylic case and is slowly evaporating over time until some future date when nothing of the original form will remain.
In this work, one sees what Bala (as he is widely known) does best - experiment with different materials and techniques to undermine the formal structures and physical properties (form, weight, mass) of sculpture. Over the years, he has done this by constantly existing on the slimline that distinguishes, in his words, "that which is in, that which is out, and that which is in between." ie the definite, the indefinite, and the indeterminate. This train of thought continued from 1997 - '98 when he made Open Secret, using his cupped hands to mold and shape sculpture, thus making unconscious spaces visible. It is this essential quest that has defined the last decade of his work, exemplified by his exhibitions, (In)Visible (2007) and (In)Between (2009).
In this new solo exhibition, Nothing from my Hands, that opens at Talwar Gallery, New Delhi, this month, the focus remains on expanding the parameters of what we know and what we believe we know. In the installation Stone Waves, he manages to impart an impossible elasticity to large rocks by leaving the impressions of a pinched hand, a punched fist, a poked finger into the stones. The work immediately begs impossible questions like, how does one pinch stone? How does one leave thumbprints or knuckle impressions on it? Bala gives voice to this wonderment, "The viewer is not able to fix the work by looking at it," he says, the visual form defying cognitive knowledge.
In 2009, Bala showed an ingenious and intuitive work, In Between, In and Out (2009) that marked development in his desire to gain knowledge of the surface of objects and places by interacting, penetrating, or protruding. Conceived in three parts - an egg-shaped wooden sculpture on a pedestal, a welded metal frame of the wooden sculpture resembling an armature mounted on the wall behind the pedestal, and finally a wall-mounted glass frame containing the white fiberglass shattered cast of the wooden sculpture - suggests multiple ways in which an object is conceived/ created/ birthed. It was also on this occasion that he showed Oomph (2009), a large iron and brass wire sculpture, which casts sharp shadows around it, and suggested that Bala would move away from undermining definition in sculpture to enhancing it with greater use of line and light, and perhaps a material shift from fiberglass to metal.
In the present exhibition, there are two striking works, Knot and Endless Line and Expanded Space show the maturation of Oomph. The latter is especially fulfilling of the prediction. Bala has made one line of welded metal and expanded it outward by a foot, thus converting a line into an indeterminate three-dimensional object, a 'space' as he calls it. Testimony to the precision that is required to make all of Bala's sculptures and installations, the number of points on the line and of the spatial structure remain the same. Knot too subverts the one-dimensionality of line creating a knot in a seemingly linear sculpture. The core resembles an embryo.
Previously, Bala has employed shadows and magnets to produce visual puns. With fiberglass, wood, acrylic, and magnet, the artist created a wire tipped with a hook stretched taught between two adjoining walls in Link (2009). The surprising aspect is that while one end of the wire is embedded into the wall, the hooked side ends mid-air, a few inches away from the facing wall. Magnets are similarly used and cleverly disguised in Energy Field (2009) and Untitled (2009), where rust shavings clump together like mold of fungi on a smooth white surface.
Bala is known for embedding sculptures in walls to create a seemingly seamless protrusion or cavity in the flat white cube. Shell as Body (2007) resembles the creased, crescent-shaped opening of a conch seashell in an otherwise unmarked white wall. Silent Sound (2009) is a perfectly formed white human ear on the white surface of a blank wall. Shadow of a Shadow of a Shadow (2007) and Kaayam (2008) develop this interaction between sculpture and gallery surface further. In the former, three white cardboard boxes, made from fiberglass, wood, and acrylic are shown in various compositions. They are presented in a manner to suggest that the box is unraveling as it flies across the wall. In Kaayam, four deflated and crumbled white human figures, made using the same materials, are presented in an arch across a white wall. They resemble the shape and movement of a white crumpled paper as it is thrown across the air. The figures are fiberglass body casts of the artist, a method he employs repeatedly in his work.
What is perhaps the most pertinent thing about Bala is that his language and concerns are unique in the landscape of contemporary Indian art. Born in 1971 in a village outside Chennai, Bala completed his Bachelor's degree in fine arts from the Government College of Arts, Chennai, in 1995, and moved to pursue his love for the genre at the Universitat fur Angewandre Kunste in Wien, Austria. Having traveled and exhibited extensively in places as far as France, Spain, Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, Norway, and USA, Bala manages to leap outside of his context and engage primarily with the experience of viewing, perhaps an outcome of his early international exposure. A featured speaker at the TED conference in Mysore, Bala has been awarded for the Fundacio pilar Joan Miro's Award, Spain; the Grapheion Review Award at the International Print Biennial, Prague, and the 3rd Sapparo International Print Biennial Sponsor Award, Sapporo, Japan.
Though he makes small steps with each exhibition and there is a familiarity with his work, Bala manages to keep his audience engaged with his project to formally and visually 'know sculpture'. His exhibitions are quiet spaces, bleached of loud attractions and popular narratives.