Truth is something one will rarely discover in its entirety. And that's exactly what draws artist Alwar Balasubramaniam to its pursuit. His is a continuous search for what exists but which we fail to see, think, or feel. Such is the purpose of his work- a dedicated inquiry into the essence of our being, where his curiosity about man and his surroundings informs and feeds our own inquiries. This pursuit and its expression have helped make a niche for Balasubramaniam in the world of art.
Bala, as he is otherwise known, has shown at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, New York; the Essl Museum, Austria; the Fundacio Pilar i Joan Miro, Spain; and most recently, at the Phillips Collection, Washington DC. Sk(in), a two-part installation, is everything one would expect from the artist - there's the preoccupation with the 'inner' and 'outer'; the effects of time; the fascination with traces; and the ability to activate a space, which shows effectively in his wall works, Wound, Hidden Sight, and Untitled.
"A.Bala represents the younger contemporaries of Indian art who are the most experimental and radical in their approach to art-making," says Kiran Nadar, one of India's foremost art collectors and curators. "It is fascinating to see how with each work he delves with the mystery of the creative process and extracts metaphors from the material he uses." "Through simple shapes shadows, and perspective, Bala's work aims to capture traces of time passing and the transformative aspects of life, as well as the connectedness of the visible world and invisible memories of it," says Vesela Sretenovic, curator of The Phillips Collection, where Bala's works are currently on view amidst works by Rothko, Klee, Hopper, Kandinsky, and others.
Born in Chennai in 1971, Bala's talent became evident early on, winning him drawing competitions from the time he was 13. An especially serendipitous win led him to study at the Government College of Arts, Chennai, from where he graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts in 1995. The next few years were spent in Austria and the UK, where the artist specialized in printmaking. A self-taught sculptor, Bala believes the work dictates the medium, and so, he does not limit himself to medium or material. "If I know it, I'll use it. If I don't, I'll learn and do it," he says bluntly. The variety of media Bala has used through the years is testament to this - he has worked with gold, fiberglass, wax, steel, rust, magnets, acrylic, wood, and even the evaporating compound in air fresheners.
Bala reveals he works in three ways. One is with a clear vision of what he wants to do even before he starts the work. Another is when he does not know how the work is going to end, but where he knows how to begin it. "Slowly the work will lead me to the next step and finally to completion," Bala explains. The third is when things come together as a surprise, as with Link (2009), which was conceived while he was collecting rust for Energy Field (2009). Bala realized that a bristly circle of rust formed as a result of the magnet's attractive force, so he buried a magnet into a wall and suspended a hook tautly up in the air, and Link was born.
Bala considers Link to be one of the pivotal works in his oeuvre. "It's not that one is better than the other," he clarifies, "but when you are walking on a path there will be turning points." Self in Progress (2002), Untitled, 2004, and Shadow of a Shadow of a Shadow (2007) are other works in which Bala believes he took the right turn.
Untitled, 2004 is on display at art collector Anupam Poddar's Devi Art Foundation in New Delhi, and Poddar picks it as a work that captures the essence of the artist, one who "has grown with constantly challenging his boundaries and experimenting with his medium." The work bears two portraits made in sand, fiberglass, and an evaporating compound. While one will last, the other, in camphor, will perish over time, leaving behind crystals on vitrine walls, almost like a person who ages and dies, leaving behind traces of life.
The philosophical aspect of his works can be explained by Bala's Indian origin. "Bala's art is a reflection of his thoughts and inquiries, which in the process are influenced by India, where he was born, brought up, lives and works," says Deepak Talwar of Talwar Gallery, New York. "There is a lot of India in his work but it is below the surface, where the foundation rests. For over a decade, Bala has pushed our limits of perception, understanding of the material, and experience of space. The phenomena created by him reveal the omnipresent but invisible and the essential yet overlooked."
Back in Bangalore after the opening of Sk(in) at the Phillips Collection on May 26 (the exhibition is on till October 20), Bala plans to move to the more rural Ratnagiri in Karnataka. But what about his art - does he have a big picture in mind? "Art is not about proving an ambition," he says. "It's more about making ease with your own self and getting connected with others."
-Nishat Fatima, Sasha Altaf