Seeing What Is Not There: A Conversation with Alwar Balasubramaniam
Alwar Balasubramaniam (Bala) is an intuitive artist, despite his training and disciplined approach. His recent body of work, shown in the exhibition “Liquid Lake Mountain,” at the Talwar Gallery in New Delhi, raises the rhetorical distinction between the realms of the abstract and the real while paying homage to the place in Tamil Nadu where he has made his home and studio. Drawing on the area’s scenic beauty, Bala has worked with nature, capturing it through different materials and mediums—sculpture, installation, and painting. Each work is unique, yet they all come together in cohesive dialogue.
Bala does not try to control his materials or coerce them into rigid shapes; instead, he gently coaxes them into form. In a rare camaraderie, he lets the materials find their own way—within his parameters. In the process, he tries to re-create or unravel through imagination what is not seen. Playing with oppositions—two sides of the same coin, really—he allows viewers to make their own distinctions or connections between the intentional/unintentional, the tangible/intangible, and the defined/undefined.
Chitra Balasubramaniam: Did you consciously pursue the works in “Liquid Lake Mountain,” or did they just evolve?
Alwar Balasubramaniam: I never really work for a show. Art-making, for me, is one continuous, non-ending process. There is no difference between making an artwork and making a building. I do what is in front of me, and I enjoy the process. The works included in the exhibition were created over a period of almost four years. The ones from Bangalore are different from those made after my move to the village. For a show to materialize, you need certain elements to come together, and that happens after the works are created.
CB: Liquid lake mountain is a special work, and it inspired the entire series. How did it come about?
AB: The place where I work now is in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, in southern India, and it is a scenic wonder, with mountains and rivers. When water flows from the mountains, it collects in small depressions and forms lakes. The lakes then start to dry, leaving traces of natural colors and water. I tried to capture that by positioning the canvas at a controlled angle to ensure the distribution of pigments; then nature played its part. It is nice to see a work evolve: you go the next day and ask, “Wow, how did that happen?” You are the artist and the viewer at the same time. I am trying to work with nature in a collaboration. These works use the power of the sun and the properties of water, while the application of pigment, the structure of the canvas, and the outer form are controlled and intentional. I assessed the evolution of the work each day. The process was completely irreversible—just as in life, you cannot go back to the previous day.
CB: Your foray into construction, building a home, studio, and a school, has influenced your work. While some people might have found the experience of working with bricks, cement, and mortar daunting, you found beauty and inspiration. Why was that?
AB: Brick and cement are very pliable mediums, and I loved working with them. I used them to build my home, my studio, and a school, which is attended by kids from the village, including my son. The home and studio are in rural areas, so it was difficult to work with architects because they could not travel this far very often. In addition, 50 or 60 years ago, fields were not so specialized or fragmented. Architects understood structural and civil planning and vice versa. Now, specialization is common, and I could not cope with an architect, structural engineer, civil engineer, civil contractor, and their standardized procedures. So, I built all of the spaces, working with local masons. I studied roofing and building techniques, both historical and current, from India, Mexico, Afghanistan, Egypt, Spain, and Africa. Deepak Talwar of Talwar Gallery was very encouraging, saying, “Just don’t let the roof fall on your head.” That made me more conscious of the structural integrity of the buildings.
For my studio, I wanted a tall, wide space with no beams or columns. It measures 24 by 100 feet, with 24-foot ceilings. In Africa and Mexico, people have been doing brick roofs for thousands of years. This made me think of the old ways of doing things. For Seeing the sea in a shell, I made a block of terra-cotta brick and cement and carved it. Terra cotta is easy to carve. The shapes and designs were inspired by the insides of a seashell. It is fascinating to try and re-create what a closed space will hold or tell. Untitled, which is made from terra cotta and cement on board, also happened around the same time.
CB: You have used a lot of colors in these works. Why did you depart from your trademark white?
AB: When you think about the shape of a painting, it is almost always rectangular or square and always a framed image, fixed at 90 or 180 degrees. My earlier works are like this, and they do not allow the flow to come into the shape. Now, I have allowed flow into the edges. It is more about the flow than anything else, which accounts for the abstract shape of Under current.
I was using white for a long time because it is closest to light. Light always makes me wonder—wall spaces are mostly white, and white is also symbolic of emptiness. My new surroundings are so amazing that, even with closed eyes, you will see light and color. The landscape makes you want to capture the color.
CB: Is that why you have taken up painting in addition to other mediums?
AB: I studied painting in my early days at school, but I never tried to restrict myself as a painter or sculptor. For me, painting on canvas or board is just a medium to convey what I want. It is a medium between two points. My 2007 exhibition at Talwar Gallery featured a work called Breath. I made two holes, at the height of my nostrils, in the wall. This was a space where no air had entered for years and years, and the air inside had never come out. It seemed an appropriate way to show breathing. Air was going in and coming out according to the temperature. For Rainbows of the rainy day, I went back to my old medium, which I had not touched for a while—the canvas. The subject made me choose the medium, which is incidental to what I want to convey.
CB: Your recent works investigate the different states of water.
AB: On one level, ice, water, and vapor are the same; I relate them to the body, the mind, and the spirit. Ice is like the body, with weight and mass. The mind is like water, fluid and flowing, while vapor is just like the spirit, undefined, yet still there. Water, wherever it starts, finds a way to the sea. It is constantly moving, you cannot stop it; it will move to the left, right, up or down, stop for a while, build pressure, and move again. It is amazing how water finds a way to reach its destination. There is a canal in the front of my property and a river at the back. When the water recedes from the land and leaves marks behind, it is like seeing what is not there. These are marks of something that has happened. I created an environment for the water to pass. I took a mold, cast in fiberglass, mixed the earth I poured in it, and then painted it. When you see wet earth, it is more impactful. There is a different intensity to seeing wet land, so I had to use pigment to get that effect.
CB: There is a leisurely pace to these works. Does this reflect how you have evolved as an artist?
AB: Yes, I am more relaxed, content with the flow of things. Earlier on, I used to struggle to find a medium to express what I wanted to depict since the moment of thought or inspiration had physically passed. How to preserve it and show it in a timeless way?
Now there is an intention to go somewhere, but I am not restricted to reaching it. It is not about how to execute what was in the mind, but about seeing what is happening or what has happened—to be in the moment of the process. It is so nice to witness your work happen with attachment as well as detachment. In Liquid lake mountain, I worked with the elements—sun and water. The pigments and position of the canvas were intentional, while evaporation is natural. Negotiating these things is very subtle. It is beautiful to see how the work evolves, like in Under current, with the shape left behind after the water has receded—one can only imagine it, and I have just tried to capture its flow.
CB: You play a lot with opposition—abstract and real, intentional and unintentional. Are you trying to find answers or just showing how contrasts can coexist?
AB: All of these coexist, the answer is somewhere in between. There is a reality and an abstraction, as with clouds. They are real, since when it rains, there is energy with lightning, yet they are abstract and unique, since there are no two clouds that look the same. The color can change, the shape is constantly changing, but still we call it a cloud. The shape one sees at one moment can never be seen again. There is undefined territory everywhere in life, which we try to fix again and again to understand things. This is a discomfort that I always enjoy seeing for myself and sharing with others.
CB: Is there a work or direction that excites you, that you want to explore further?
AB: There is Untitled, a pigment on board piece, which is really sculpting and painting. It is like when something close to what you want has come, but what you really want has not yet arrived. The pigments are scraped to reveal the layers. Maybe I will work on them, making it into a slab and carving to see what it reveals. I would like to explore this more; I am not finished with it. I also want to draw—simple, plain drawing showing the quietness of it all. That does not mean I will stay there always. It will be a break before moving on to something else.