As an artist, I constantly navigate the borders between painting and sculpture, the digital and the analogue, perfection and distortion, and most recently, the rupture in identity that is a result of having a United States passport and an Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) card. Visually, I am interested in transforming the act of drawing into sculptural gestures that react formally and also conceptually to architectural spaces and their histories. This process emerges in part due to my relationship to the legacy of Minimalism and its emphasis on reductive form, modularity and literal scale. My approach explores the tensions between wholeness and fragmentation, gravity and suspension, and containment and dispersal. Ultimately, my installations reflect the regional, cultural and geographic influences of the time and space in which I am working. I define a new territory that allows for subtlety, anti-monumentality and unexpected levels of candour. Perhaps this comes from my ability to navigate the borders between sculpture and painting, reticence and ambition, and Punjabi and English.
Halt., the work that I created for the Ruptures in Arrival exhibition, is a meditative and conceptual response to the routes that the Komagata Maru took from Hong Kong to Vancouver and back to Calcutta and the political implications of this 1914 voyage. Mapping, travel and psychogeography1 are subjects I deal with frequently in my practice, examining them from cultural, political, formal and absurdist points of view. In an effort to situate and contextualize Halt., I would like to discuss three other projects that orbit these same concerns.
Aquamapping (2013-14) is a series of three art interventions in three different locations, each responding to a site’s coastal history, topography and climate. Part one, Aquamapping (Kochi), engages with the routes of maritime trade in southern India, as well the routes of the local fishing vessels and passenger ferries. An oversized buoy-like form was towed behind or carried on a passenger ferry, a local wooden boat, and a motorboat. The route that each of these vessels took was closely informed by their normal paths and in some cases the historic spice route. The journeys took place over several days around the coast and backwaters of Kochi, India. Each documented journey, presented through a combination of still photos and a time-lapse video projection, attempts to actualize the dotted lines that serve as signifiers for these routes on maps. With Aquamapping, I was interested in what happens when these conceptual markers and borders — reminders of past and present geographic, military and cultural boundaries — become part of the physical landscape. The next two iterations of the project will examine and respond to the rugged coastline of Astoria, Oregon and later the economic diversity along the harbors of Baltimore, Maryland.
At Owners Risk
At Owners Risk (2012) was a site-responsive installation that addressed the structure and function of Suyama Space as an architectural firm and gallery, while also reflecting on the previous history of the space as an auto body shop and livery stable. By applying simple design tactics, seemingly obvious materials and colours were repurposed to create a platform in which the past and present collided. The installation included imitation hydraulic lifts (like those seen in auto body shops), oversized troughs of faux motor oil and blueprint-like drawings. A diagonal graphite line that spanned one wall and a thin wooden ramp created a visual rhyme with the space’s architecture and acted as framing devices.
Craig Drennen, in his catalogue essay, wrote, “The slope of the ramp mimics the gentle decline of the graphite line drawing that spans three of the perimeter walls of the room… [it] is the largest single gesture in the installation, but also the most quiet. It links visually and conceptually with the ramp to provide an ideological room tone that gently references Seattle’s Denny Regrade. The Denny Regrade was one of the most radical instances of urban alteration in the United States as the country shifted from the 19th- into the 20th-century. Downtown Seattle’s Denny Hill — and later nearby Jackson Hill — was leveled to create an hospitable city topography more friendly to road travel, port access and residential living.”2 The formal elements of At Owners Risk — line, scale and color — created a visual system to which one could relate both the figurative path of history and the literal flattening of the city streets.
Mathesis: dub, dub, dub
Mathesis: dub, dub, dub (2009) was an installation that addressed the architecture of Gallery Maskara, its history as a warehouse and the psychogeography of its locale. Located in southern Mumbai, the gallery’s surroundings include a Naval base (where I grew up), an international port and a robust business district. In this work, I brought construction and packaging materials (cardboard boxes and crates) into the gallery in a way that invaded the space with authority and elegance. The modular quality of boxes and their everydayness fit my aesthetic sensibility well. For me, they implied movement (shipping) while also being rather stoic, static and cold. The boxes’ quotidian scale contrasted with the vastness of the space as they were stacked and piled, creating a formal tension as one walked around the space.
Some of the packaging came from neighboring galleries and businesses and was returned once the show was over. So, in a sense, the work had an afterlife as the materials were repurposed and moved elsewhere. The use of a relatively limited blue-grey colour palette was informed to an extent by water, shipping materials and the aesthetics of the Naval base. The title suggests a sense of calculable and personal logic: “Mathesis,” from science, meaning “the process of learning” and the repetition of “dub dub dub” alluding to randomness, sound and movement.
Halt. is a sculptural drawing. Two long canvas scrolls cascade down from the wall onto a large orange barrier. The routes of the Komagata Maru have been visually recreated on these scrolls: one representing the outbound journey and the other delineating the return. The routes were reduced to single, graphite lines and any related visual and textual information of landmasses and port cities is absent. Through this simplification, the audience is urged to examine the poetics implicit in the infinite scope of hope for the outbound journey and the heavy despair of the return journey. The abrupt end of the scrolls on the barrier is a conceptual reference to the “barriers” experienced by the eager passengers of the Komagata Maru. The length and drape of the two scrolls is four to five meters, as an indirect reference to the traditional material for Sikh turbans. The use of raw canvas draws attention to both the history of painting as well as the most common utilitarian fabric aboard a ship. Accompanying this work is Halt.376, a stack of 376 map prints that rest on a horizontal plinth. One face of each print shows the routes of the Komagata Maru while the flip side features 376 digitally drawn lines, each line acting as an homage to a passenger. While Halt. employs a similar aesthetic and ways of making as my previous work, it differs in that it is in response to a specific history. Nonetheless, the story of the Komagata Maru carries for me many of the concerns that are the undercurrent of all my work.
My practice borrows from the history and tenets of Minimalism, a movement dedicated to the pursuit of the intrinsic or absolute nature of objects or materials and the absence of external narrative. I diverge from this history by citing the interconnectedness of current and past cultural, political and geographical climates, using techniques like site-responsiveness, incorporation of subtle narratives, an embrace of the distorted and the imperfect and a conscious use of impermanent materials. In Halt.376, for example, I simplified the image of the Komagata Maru’s voyages by eliminating all the typical marks of a map, maintaining only the drawn line of the ship’s route itself. In this way, I draw attention to what I see as the most important element of the story, while minimizing extraneous information. The image and concept are stripped to their barest bones, where perhaps a purer or deeper sensation of the hardship faced by the Komagata Maru’s passengers can be accessed.
Although the story of the Komagata Maru is often thought of as a part of Canadian history, it is an eternally and globally relevant story that is repeated constantly throughout the world. It has resonated with me on a number of levels, provoking questions of travel, immigration, dreams and what it means to be a true Sikh. As a child of the Indian Navy, ships and their voyages have always been an important presence in my life. My father, who commanded a number of ships and submarines, would often narrate for us various stories of the sea, often tales of commitment and hardship. The voyages of the Komagata Maru were ones that we talked of often, and still do.
- 1. Psychogeography is a concept that originated with Dada and Situationist artists and thinkers. It deals with the mental and physical connection between the walker or traverser of space and the space (geography) itself. A common psychogeographic exercise was the dérive, a walk taken through the city without a particular goal or endpoint, for the purposes of realizing a playful physical and mental engagement with the route.
- 2. Craig Drennen, “At Owners Risk,” catalogue essay, At Owners Risk installation by Avantika Bawa, Suyama Space, Seattle, WA. May 2012.