Alwar Balasubramaniam puts his palms flat against the wall in a small room in New Delhi’s Talwar Gallery and scoops out the fresh white plaster—or at least it appears that he does so—as he talks. The only exhibit in the room is Stone Waves: an installation with 10 smooth pebble-like sandstone sculptures on the floor and a single white protrusion on one wall. Balasubramaniam (Bala) demonstrates, clasping his palms together, how the sandstones have been cast to show what his hands hold - what you would otherwise not see.
In the basement is a series of five such protrusions on a wall—all fashioned from Bala moulding clay between his clasped hands, and casting this in plaster. This installation is called Nothing From My Hands, as is the exhibition, the 41-year-old artist’s latest solo show of 20 new sculptural works, which opened on Wednesday as a collateral event to the ongoing India Art Fair in New Delhi.
“The absence of the hand will help the person to see the presence of something,” says Bala. “We think of nothing as negative. I am attempting to show that even nothing is something beautiful.”
Outdoors, in the gallery’s lawn area, is a larger rendition of this “nothingness”—almost 5ft-high and carved in granite. For Bala, it was the irony that worked. He wanted to use the hardest of the materials to sculpt nothingness.
For over a decade, Bala’s work has ached to express the overlooked, and the invisible. While his art is physical, it is at its core an exploration of a deep metaphysical question: What defines the self?
This exhibition takes his engagement further. It is a culmination of several conceptual threads in his art practice, such as casting works using his own body and placing himself between the art and the viewer. Or negotiating the skin as an edge where one’s own physical self ends and everything else begins. In 2004, in an exhibition titled Into Thin Air at the Talwar Gallery in New York, Bala cast a life-sized bust of himself in solid air freshener, a material that slowly evaporates when exposed to air. This dissolution of the self to a seemingly invisible form of matter brought forth some of the tenets of Hinduism and Buddhism. Later, in 2009, in an exhibition titled (In) Between, at Talwar Gallery in Delhi, there was Kaayam, an exquisite series of crumpled fiberglass casts of the artist’s body, each seemingly dissolving into the wall. Both works excavated the unseen; the absence of something essential.
Nothing From My Hands is even more intimate, with the recurring motif—the hands—driving home the point sublimely. When a viewer studies the sculptures closely, they can see the lines of the artist’s palm: his lifeline and his heartline.
Bala borrows liberally from different schools of philosophy, but he isn’t prone to naming any. Questions on the self and the whole from the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy run deep, though. “The moment I articulate something, the moment I sculpt it… its existence is true… or is it not?” he asks, hands flying, his otherwise quiet persona lit up with these questions. Bala speaks of a guru who lived in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, close to where Bala was born, who never allowed himself to be photographed. He lived without a name. There was, essentially, no proof of his existence. Bala had met him as a young art student in Chennai and it is evident that this frames much of his artistic outlook.
This exhibition also marks Bala’s first-time usage of metal and stone, although he is dismissive of material being a point of discussion. The six metalworks in the exhibition weave in the other conceptual pursuit—the concept of the skin as the edge of the physical self. The metal sculptures are an intricate lattice construction of lines, flowing gracefully with no apparent endings or beginnings, where there is no clear demarcation between the inside and outside. Between Here and There, for instance, is a distorted egg-shaped sculpture that burrows into itself—making the outer skin its inside as well. There are two sculptures titled Knot which are visual puzzles, twisting into themselves in complicated fishermen’s knots.
Bala’s engagement with sculpture is relatively recent. Yet he has been so inventive with his sculptural works—material only being one aspect of it—that it would be hard to tell. Trained as a printmaker—which he studied at Chennai’s Government College of Fine Arts, and in the UK and Austria—Bala worked as a printmaker for the first 10 years of his career. Gallery notes describe him as a “self-taught sculptor”, at which Bala laughs. “How can anyone be self-taught? I learn from those around me,” he says, in all modesty.
In the past, Bala has used materials as diverse as wax and pure gold. For the metalworks in this exhibition, he has used cycle spokes (they’re flexible but can withstand tension, he explains). “A medium is just that: a medium to convey an idea. If I think something works as a medium I’ll learn how to work with it,” says Bala, who studied metal welding by attending workshops while he was guest faculty at the art department at Cornell University, US, in 2008.
For all the talk of medium, Bala has moved beyond the material. He switched from printmaking to sculpture because after 10 years of “going higher and higher”—he draws the analogy of standing on a brick wall—he felt imprisoned. “The moment you use your knowledge to create boundaries, you find yourself imprisoned.”
Spread over three floors, and spilling onto the lawn and terrace, Nothing From My Hands is a celebration of Bala’s art and philosophy thus far. Each work is a minefield. But the aha moment is an Untitled sculpture on the first floor: It is the exact opposite, the perfect fit, to one of the five sculptures of the installation Nothing From My Hands. It’s an abyss in the wall—a “nothingness” shaped abyss.
In 2000, the art critic Holland Cotter, writing in The New York Times, had called Bala young, savvy and in the middle of a spurt of growth. “It could take him anywhere, but there’s already a lot here,” Cotter wrote.
With this exhibition, Bala has reached anywhere.