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Bangalore-based photographer, sculpture and video artist Surekha’s documentary, digital and performance-based works centre largely on the body within its gendered, political and historical context.
The Boiling Concept and The Burning Concept (2006) feature characters performed by the artist herself, abstracted from stories uncovered in her research on unnatural deaths and domestic violence inflicted upon women throughout history in the city of Bangalore. Restriction, veiling and silencing are taken up in more direct ways in Line of Control (2003), Between Fire and Sky (2006) and Three Fragmented Actions of Silence (2007), which plays on the concept of veiling through positive/negative video images and overlays of colour and external footage.
Documentary works Un-Claimed (2010) and Romeos & Juliets (2010) explore the liminal space between artistic and everyday performance, sketching out an aesthetic reading of the rituals of burial and community gatherings through speedups and slowdowns, muting and repetition, while maintaining a heightened sense of their social significance.
Surekha In conversation with Abhishek Hazra
The body seems to continually resurface in your work as a polyvalent site.
Well, that has been a continuing thread. In my early works, I was using the material of rice paper almost as a kind of skin. Simultaneously I was also using it as fabric. And along with this I was also introducing fragments of autobiographical narratives – woman’s stories from almost hundred years back, where they talk about their experience of wearing a blouse for the first time under the British colonial regime. In a way I was trying to extend our notion of the body, trying to connect different things together. Later, I used fabric to make costumes which gave an impression of the body but which could also have been some strange object. When I started making videos I tried to explore a particular issue by constructing different characters. Actually in my videos there is often a tension between ‘documentary’ and ‘fiction’. I tend to edit my videos very minimally and what happens is that there are moments where the viewer might get a little unsure of the identity of the onscreen body – is it the artist Surekha’s or is it that of the fictional character she seems to be portraying. Sometimes it could even be just a small gesture that throws this into relief – like the point in Waves -“Reaching Myself” where I am seen adjusting my clothes.
Actions that makes you relook at the narrative and how it has been constructed
Which reminds me of another thing. If you notice that in most of the videos the body as such doesn’t act. Other forces typically act upon it: like the waves that toss and turn the body in “Reaching Myself”. And also the action that might be generated by this non-acting body can actually be set of very simple motions which are hardly remarkable in itself but which becomes important within the overall narrative of video.
Would you say that some of your videos then work almost like a recorded performance?
Yes, I would also think so. For example in Moment of Strange Stillness – a work I did in Sri Lanka – I just sat motionless in a public space for around twenty five minutes and the entire duration was documented on video. But this video was not just a record of my individual performance – it captured certain moments of the audience response and later in the final piece these responses became a set of entry points that could give you a very different reading of the work.
So what drew you initially to performance?
Actually, in the second stage of my blouse project, when I was working directly with rice paper and stitches I began to feel that the work needs something else, an another element as it were. As an object by itself it looked incomplete. That’s when I started usingphotography -body with the fabric. And I started using it in a way where the body and the fabric started to merge into each other. Later around 2000, I think, I started using the video camera more frequently. I almost used it like a sketching tool – imagine the scenario: you are there, you have the video camera with you, you get an idea and you simply go ahead and shoot it. So there is none of that elaborate planning that one typically associates with video production. In fact, in most cases I don’t even work from a very planned script. All though I do have the idea in my head. So this kind of a process allows me to explore a wider range of things with a certain degree of flexibility and spontaneity, though there are also a couple of videos, which are much more planned and controlled than the others.
One could perhaps say that it is this ‘sketching’ potential of the medium that has contributed significantly to practice of video art. However, talking about sketching I am also interested to know more about the way you have used stitching in some of your works.
In the process of working repeatedly with stitching I realised that the world of stitching is intimately connected with woman’s stories – stories we have grown up with and which circulate through oral traditions. So then I thought that I also should tell some tales along with stitching. This is where the video came in handy. Also for me it was a way of bringing two technologies together – the ancient craft of stitching and the relatively newer technology of the video. So the work that emerged out of this was “Threading the Threads”. Basically it showed a group of women sitting around and stitching a quilt-like work together while sharing stories among themselves. But even in this apparently harmonious community setting I was trying to build a different narrative as it were. As you watch these women stitch and enjoy their stories your eye also travels to the quilt that is being stitched and there you see that it is not a nice decorative pattern that is forming there but a clutch of random, chaotic lines and needles.
So in a way the stitches tell their own story and then when you play the soundtrack of the actual oral stories along with the image of these apparently chaotic stitches, an all-together different narrative level emerges.
The second part of this work was done mostly with urban woman. Many of them were my friends, though not necessarily artists. I basically installed a private space and invited these six women into that space individually. Once they were inside that space I requested them to do something that they considered an intimate activity or share something about themselves that have never shared before. All these interactions were shot and then projected onto the same object – that is the private space I had created for them. So when a viewer encountered the work, he or she could hear the voices of these women very clearly whereas the image remained fuzzy and unclear.
Also what is interesting is how certain domestic spaces become quite evocative. For example in “Bhagirathi bringing water“the bathroom becomes a space for contemplation, or in Urban Heroines- the boiling concept the kitchen becomes a space for an ironic play on power.
In fact a significant part of my last series of work was shot in my house – because most of the domestic spaces are very intimate spaces and which also often have a strong political subtext. Apart from that sometimes I go out and shoot, in a beach or gym for example. So in way, if you look at it, most of the interior spaces in my work are located inside a house whereas exterior spaces are largely within nature.
What was the process like for the work that you did at the Mysore KHOJ workshop?
There are two images that stand out from my childhood memories of growing up in Karnataka and visiting Mysore on holidays – one is that of the Mysore Palace, particularly when it was lit up in the evenings, and the other is of the jasmine garlands, the famousMysore Mallige. So when it was decided to host the KHOJ workshop in Mysore, I had kind of decided to work on jasmine. And during the workshop I decided to work with the local photo studios, which have a tradition of photographing women with their jasmine braids. In fact, it is a very typical arrangement in these studios with the women standing and facing the camera while a strategically placed mirror at the back shows off the jasmine braid to the viewer. In fact when you look at the jasmine braid in these photographs they almost look like the spinal cord. Now, though these photo studios are still very much there in Mysore, finding one, which had an archive of old photographs, was difficult. But eventually, I (with Harsha’s help) did manage to locate one (Raj bros.,) which has meticulously preserved almost every single photograph that they have shot over the last sixty years. The studio was set up by the grandfather of the current owner and has been in operation without a break.
What was the response to the final installation?
It was interesting as the final installation created an experience, which was not the same as looking into an isolated jasmine braid photograph. For the final installation I created a corner in one of the rooms at the site and created a wall of these jasmine braid images, culled from the archives of this particular photo studio. These images were however stuck onto mirrors and hung on the wall. So when the viewer walked into this space he had to confront the direct gaze of all these women almost simultaneously and on top of it he had to also deal with the multiple fragments of his own image that was visible in the margins of the mirrors. I guess it proved a bit overwhelming as many of them couldn’t stay in this room for long. So for me also, this process of moving from a single image to an entire installation was compelling. And in some ways it made me re-look at these rituals of womanhood and the manner in which they frame our perception.
How was the experience of being part of the KHOJ organising team ?
Though I was around for the Bangalore KHOJ, I was actually more involved with the Mysore KHOJ along with Harsha. Overall it was a fantastic experience. Also, working with Harsha was a great learning experience. For many us, it was also our first experience of raising funds in the city. We began with small contributions – even two thousand rupees from individuals. Slowly we built up the eight lakhs that was needed for the workshop. Then we tried other institutions, government bodies etc. In fact as a result of our fundraising activities we landed up in places like government offices and its working methods, which we wouldn’t have otherwiseexperienced. But though it was a big struggle it was an enriching experience. We all felt that it was part of the larger attempt of making art connect with the community. And in fact, during the workshop, the community outreach programmes worked out really well. Different artists worked with different communities – some worked with speech and hearing impaired children, some worked with paper craft and Rangoli, some with bamboo workers. So in a way it was about exploring the city of Mysore in multiple ways.
Over the years, what has been your engagement with the city of Bangalore?
Bangalore has been my city. I was born and brought up here. I was born into a peasant’s family and my ancestors must have stayed here for at least two hundred years. Actually over the years I have seen the transformation of Bangalore, particularly its rural areas. I have witnessed the city taking over the village. My parents lost their land and had to adapt to new ways of living and working. Now of course, my community has more or less adjusted itself and is part of an overall urban framework. However, we still have our village fairs, festivals and a variety of rituals and folk performances. Even though I don’t believe in these rituals I find them to be a part of my immediate past, as they give you a glimpse into areas of our lives which we are rapidly forgetting. In her book, Janaki Nair points to the broad division of the city into roughly two areas – the Market and Cantonment. I originally belong to the Market area but have started venturing out into the Shivanjinagar and Cantonment area. Now, I would say that I am in the middle – simultaneously part of both these contexts.