Skip to content

Alwar Balasubramaniam's sculpture plays with time, shape, shadow, perspective: four tricky sensations that can reveal -- or conceal -- what's really out there. At TEDIndia, the artist shows slides of his extraordinary installations.

"The moment I say "school," so many memories come back to me. It's like after every exam, when I walk out, the teacher would say, "Hey, come. How did you do?" I would say with a great smile, "I will definitely pass." And I didn't understand why, in one hand they say, "Speak the truth," in the other hand, when you say the truth, they hated you. So it went on like that, and I didn't know where else to find myself. So I remember those nights I used to go to sleep with asking help from [the] Unknown because, for some reason, I couldn't believe what my father and mother hanged in the Puja room as a god, because my friend's family had something else as a god. So I thought, "I guess I'll pray to [the] Unknown and ask help," and started getting help from everywhere, each and every corner of my life at that time. My brothers started giving me a few tips about drawing and painting.

Then, when I was in eighth standard around 13 years old, I started working in a part-time job in one of the signboard artists called Putu. And then school also started supporting me. "Oh, he's bad at studies, but let him send to the drawing competitions." So it was good to survive with that little tool that I found to find my own place in school. And one of those competitions, I just won a small, little transistor Philips radio. And I didn't have the patience to wait until I reached home. So I just switched on in the train, loudly. If you travel in Indian trains, you can see people listening to radio and, you know, even from their mobiles.

So at that time -- and I was 13 -- and I was listening to just radio, and someone happened to sit next to me, like these three people are sitting here. You know, like just adjacent to me. He just started asking, "Where did you buy the radio? How much is it?" I said, "It's a prize from [an] art competition." And he said, "Oh, I teach at a college of arts. I think you should study in a school of art. You just quit school and come there." So, why I'm telling you this, you know, maybe, you know, whoever is sitting next to you can change your whole life -- it's possible. It is that we need we need to be open and fine-tuned. So that's what made me enter [the] college of arts after three attempts and just continue to inquire what I really want to do with art work, or art and finally I'm here in front of you.

When I look back, you know, on what happened between that time and now here -- the last 10/15 years -- I can see that most of the works revolve around three subjects, but it was not intentional. And I just start out with a trace because I was thinking, "What really makes us?" -- you know, it's actually [the] past, what makes a person. So I was thinking, but when you look at the past, the way to understand the past is only by the traces available, because we cannot go back [to] the past. It can be ruins, or it can be music, or it can be painting or drawing or writing, whatever it is. But it is just a kind of trace of that time. And that fascinated me, to explore that territory. So I was working on the line, but instead of working about traces, I started capturing traces.

So here are some of the works I would like to show you. So this is called "Self In Progress." It's just a trace of being in this body. So here, what happened then, you know -- what I really enjoyed the most is that this sculpture is nothing but a trace of myself. It's almost like a 3D photograph. So there is an element of performance, and there is an element of sculpture, and there is an element of feeling one's self, so close to one's self. So it's almost like fossils for the future. And then moved slowly to explore the other possibilities of capturing traces. So this is what I was talking about, while molding, it's such a great experience, because we have freedom of like walking, or moving my hand or, moving around in the space, but the moment this becomes solid, when you cannot move even an inch, because this is plaster of Paris, so the moment you pour it it's like liquid; but after 20 minutes, it's almost like a hard stone.

So this is capturing the trace of a thumbprint because, knowingly or unknowingly, whatever we do, you know, we leave our traces here. So I just thought, "I'm going to capture thumbprint, footprint, or whatever traces we leave as humans." This is the trace of fire, this is the trace of sun. Because when I was capturing traces, you know, this thought comes to me always: is it, only when the object touches the thing and it leaves the trace, or is there other ways to capture it?" So this work is nothing but like -- because of the focal length of the lens, it just shows what is on the other side. So I just put the paper on the focal length, which was an etching print, then I got the portrait of [the] sun from sunlight. This is called "Dawn to Dawn." What I did here, I just put like 10 feet [of] paper then put a coconut rope, and just burnt it. So it took about 24 hours to get this line. So wherever the fire is eating the paper, that's what becomes the work -- detail.

Even though we have traces when we try to understand them, the perception and context play a major role to understand it. So do we really understand what it is, or are we trying to get what we think it is? Then move towards questioning the perception because, even though there are traces, when you try to understand them, you know you play a major role. So like let's say even a simple act. How many of you saw a cow crossing in India while you were coming from Bangalore to Mysore? Can you just raise the hand?

If you just ask an opinion of how, everyone can interpret it. Like, let's say, if a schoolteacher says, she'll simply say, "To get to the other side." Why the cow was crossing the road, you know. The answer can be so different if Potter said it. He would say, "For the greater good." Martin Luther King would say, "I imagine a world where all cows will be free to cross the road, without having their motives called into question." (Laughter) Imagine Moses comes now, and he sees the same cow walking around the street. He would definitely say, "God came down from heaven, and he said unto the cow, 'Thou shalt cross the road.' And cow crossed the road, and there was much rejoicing as a holy cow." (Laughter) Freud would say, "The fact that you're at all concerned reveals your underlying sexual insecurity." (Laughter) If we ask Einstein, he would say, "Whether the cow crossed the road, or the road moved underneath the cow, depends on your frame of reference." (Laughter) Or Buddha -- if he saw the same cow, he would say, "Asking this question denies your own nature [as a] cow."


So, what we see is just what we think often, and most of the time, we don't see what it is. It just all depends on one's perception. And context, what is really context? You know, I could just show you this little piece of paper. Because I always think meaning doesn't really exist. The meaning of what we create in this world doesn't exist. It's just created by the mind. If you look at this piece of paper, this is the breadth and this is called length. This is how we've been taught in school. But if you tear it in the middle -- now, I didn't touch this breadth, but still, the meaning of this changes. So what we conceive as a meaning is always not there; it's on the other side, even when we say dark, light, good, bad, tall, short -- all meaning it doesn't exist in reality. It's just that being a human, the way we train to perceive the reality creates this meaning.

So this work from this period is mostly like -- you know, this is a work called "Light Makes Dark." It's just captured through from the lamp. So the lamp is not just giving a light, it's also giving a darkness. So this is a work of art, which is just trying to explore that. This is called "Limit Out." This shows how limited our eye or hearing sense or touch -- do we really see? This is an exact negative. It's about six inches deep in the wall, but it just appears like it's coming out of the wall. You know the wall is almost like -- this is the first skin, and this is the second, and there's a third, and each creates a meaning. And we're just pulling the wall off the gallery. Again, "Inward Out." It's a full-figure cast from myself. It's about eight inches deep.

When I was doing that, I always wondered since I've worked with creators -- and now you know, I've moved to questioning the perception -- whenever I see the bird flying in the sky, it just makes me feel like: is there anything behind, are there any traces up there, which as a human, we don't see them? Is there any way to capture the thought into visual art? I couldn't find it. But a solution arrived after being quiet and not working for about six, seven months, in the restroom, when I was changing the air freshener that goes from solid substance to vapor. It's called Odonil. This is the work I made out of that material. The process to get to make the sculpture was interesting, because I wrote to Balsara, who produces that air freshener called Odonil, saying, "Dear Sir, I am an artist. This is my catalogue. Will you help me to make this sculpture?" They never wrote back to me. Then I thought, "I will go to the Small Scale Industries Facilitating Unit and ask help." So I told them, "I'd like to start an air freshener company." They said, "Of course. This is the fee for the project report, and we will give you all the details," and they gave. Finally, I went back to them and said, "It's not for starting the company, it's just to make my own work. Please come for the show." And they did. And this work is in the Devi Art Foundation in Delhi.

In India, nobody really talks about works of art; they always talk about the appreciation of art. You buy this for 3,000 rupees, it'll become 30,000 in two months. This is the craft that was going on, but there are a few collectors who also collect art which can depreciate. And this was collected by Anupam -- which is like, finally in the end, he will not have anything, because it will evaporate. So this is after a few weeks, this is after a few months. It's just all about questioning the preconceptions. So if someone says, "Oh, I see the portrait," it may not be the portrait after a few months. And if they say it's solid, it will not be solid, it will evaporate. And if they say they don't get it, that's also not true, because it's in the air. It's in the same gallery or in the same museum. So they inhaled it, but they are not aware of it.

While I was doing that work, my mom and my dad, they were looking at it and they said, "Why do you deal with negative subjects all the time?" And I was like, "What do you mean?" "Light makes dark and now evaporating self. Don't you think it remained something about death," they said. "Of course not. For me," I'm thinking, "this is tucked in some small solid, but the moment it evaporates, it's merged with the whole." But she said, "No. Still, I don't like it. Can you make something from nothing as a sculptor?" I said, "No, mom. It can't be. Because we can create a sculpture by gathering dust together, or we can break the sculpture and get the dust, but there is nowhere that we can bring dust into the universe."

So, I did this work for her. It's called "Emerging Angel." This is the first day -- it just gives the appearance that one is becoming the other. So, the same sculpture after a few days. This is after 15/20 days. Through that small little slit between the glass box and the wood, the air goes underneath the sculpture and creates the other one. This gave me a greater faith. That evaporating sculpture gave me a greater faith that maybe there is many more possibilities to capture [the] invisible.

So what you see now is called "Shadow Foreshadow." And what I'd like to tell you is we don't see shadow, and we don't see light too; we see the source of the light. We see where it's bouncing, but we don't see [them] as they exist. You know, that's why the night sky, we see the sky as dark, but it's filled with light all the time. When it's bounced on the moon, we see it. The same thing in the darkroom. The little dust particle will again, reflect the light, and we realize the existence of light. So we don't see dark, we don't see light, we don't see gravity, we don't see electricity. So, I just started doing this work to inquire further about how to sculpt the space between this object and there. Because, as a visual artist, if I'm seeing this and I'm seeing that -- but how to sculpt this, you know? If we sculpt this, this has two reference points. The skin of this is also representing this. And skin at the other end also represents the floor. I did this as an experiment of casting the shadow. So this is a corrugated box and its shadow. Then the second one -- the moment you bring any invisible into the visible world it will have all the characteristics of the visible existence. So that produced a shadow. Then I thought, okay, let me sculpt that. Then, again, that becomes an object. Again, throwing light, then the third one. So what you see is nothing but shadow of a shadow of a shadow. And then again, at that point, there is no shadow. I thought, "Oh, good. Work is finished." You can see the detail.

This is called "Gravity." It's called "Breath." It's just two holes on the gallery wall. It's a false wall, which contains like 110 cubic feet. So that hole actually makes the air come out and go in. So where it's happening, we can see, but what is happening will remain invisible only. This is from the show called "Invisible," at Talwar Gallery. This is called "Kaayam." Detail.

And what I'd like to tell you, our senses are so limited -- we cannot hear everything, we cannot see everything. We don't feel, "I am touching the air," but if the breeze is a little more faster, then I can feel it. So all of our construction of reality is through these limited senses. So my request was like, is there any way to use all this as just a symbol or a sign? And to really get to the point, we should move beyond, you know, go to the other side of the wall, like illogic, like are invisible. Because when we see someone walks, we see the footprint. But if we're just cutting that footprint from the whole thing and trying to analyze it, you will miss the point because the actual journey happens between those footprints, and the footprints are nothing but passing time.

Thank you."

-Alwar Balasubramaniam