Ask artists how they visualize what they are going to create, and you are bound to get a variety of answers. Some make a rough sketch, some take photographs, and some others keep adding elements to their work as they go on. In short, they have a vision that slowly translates into a work of art. But, it can only be at Khoj that none of the above takes place. To a less trained eye, Khoj artists would even appear eccentric, but for the academia, it is a well known fact that it is only at a Khoj residency where artists have the freedom to create nothing at all – which can be equally potent as I understood recently.
So two weeks ago, when I meet Masooma Syed, a Pakistani artist now settled in Delhi after getting married to artist Sumedh Rajendran, I am startled to find that Syed has no idea what she is going to present at the end of the month-long residency. All one can see at her table, in the middle of a bare whitewashed room at Khoj’s open studio, is a pile of trash – amulets, clay figures, beer bottle caps, strips of cloth, lace, medicine tablets – which Syed calls “material.”
Syed has collected heaps of such material from nondescript market places and sometimes, even from outside temples which is all supposed to come together to showcase her current fascination with the concept of ‘vanity.’ So next to the cluttered table lies a velvet-covered steel trunk box that is being designed liked a vanity box. But why vanity? “Well, I have been making jewellery, although of a different kind, by using my own hair, fingernails, tamarind seeds and scrap metal, for some time now. But I don’t think of jewellery as just an ornament of utility; it is also a strong vehicle for communication. It has an embedded history of a society and its politics that we live in. It also makes structural references to sculpture and architecture. From this evolved the idea of ‘adornment’ that then took me to the idea of ‘vanity.’ I visited several market spaces where everything and anything is available – all for the sake of satisfying one’s vanity,” she says.
As I leave her mulling over what to put inside the steel trunk to join German artist Gabi Schillig working in the ground floor room of Khoj Studios, I find her struggling with dozens of strips of cloth, trying to stitch them all together with thread and needle. I am unsure if anything will be seen by the viewers when the show opens a month later. Schillig is undaunted, however. She says that since the very beginning of her art practice, she has been working with cloth as her material, especially felt (a thick woollen cloth), to create three dimensional garment-like installations that have the ability to interact with the human body and also straddle architecture, textile design, performance and conceptual art.
“This is my first time in India and at Khoj. Since I have trained as an architect, my work is about creating an interaction between public space, people and the material that I work in,” she says. So what is her installation at Khoj going to look like? The answer I get is an apologetic smile.
And then, all this was two weeks ago. When the show opened this Wednesday at Khoj, and I walked into the courtyard, or rather into Schillig’s ‘interactive cloth installation’ hanging like a big fishing net (not netted, of course), I knew instantly there was more. I find her next to the collage of photographs that have been taken of people negotiating with her work. “So I did end up making this 4 feet x 4 feet work, although with the help of a local tailor,” Schillig smiles at my indiscreet look of surprise. “I finally chose chanderi because it is an Indian cloth.” As I wade in and out of her work, almost feeling like having given a piece of performance art myself, I realise there are intricate geometrical patterns, reminiscent of her architectural training, that Shcillig has used to fold and pleat the cloth pieces with. It’s a minimalistic work, with only one colour on the outside but various hues on the inside of the installation. When you hide inside it, you can see the outside world and from the outside, the space inside it seems to be moving with every fold.
Syeda’s room is my next stop. And there is no trunk here any more. Instead, the room has been divided into two spaces with a long pillar and some real pigeons are perched on top of it. “Well, as I continued to work with all the stuff that I had gathered, I realised I wanted to work with the space rather than the material. When I made this pillar, I could feel the space change.” So, she proceeded to fill the space with birds? “Here divided space acts for me like divided realities. These birds that were bought from market were caged and domesticated, they didn’t fly high or behave flamboyantly, the way birds in the air do. I can best describe my work as a material conversation between them and the space I have created. As I watch them, images appear and disappear in a blink of a second like divided realities,” she shrugs.
In a distance of few metres, I have moved from a space full of activity to a space full of nothing at all.
Intimate Architectures: Materials at Play – a show of art works exploring the relationship between material and space by Gabi Schillig (Germany) and Masooma Syed (Pakistan/India) that have been created during a month long residency at Khoj Studios can be seen at S-17, Khirkee Extension, New Delhi till October 8, 2011.
Captions: Pic 1: Gabi Schillig’s cloth installation
Pic 2: Photographs of people interacting with Gabi’s work
Pic 3: Masooma Syed working with found material
The work will be displayed at Khoj Studios, S-17, Khirkee Extension, New Delhi from September 28 till October 8, 2011.
Poonam Goel is a freelance journalist and has covered the arts for over 15 years. She contributes on visual arts for various newspapers, magazines and online media. More about her on Story Wallahs. Write to her @ firstname.lastname@example.org