A trip through the cosmos – via Southern India
The following review was first published online in Tokyo Art Beat. Original article here.
Asian contemporary art has grown exponentially since the 1990s due to an explosion of regional biennial and triennial art fairs that aim to showcase emerging Asian cities as alternative art centres. This, combined with the growing international recognition and success of Asian artists, means current interest in contemporary art from rapidly developing nations has never been stronger. Capitalising on this interest – and as part of its continuing series of solo exhibitions featuring mid-career artists from Asia – the Mori Art Museum is hosting a retrospective for Indian artist N.S. Harsha. The playfully titled “Charming Journey” encompasses his major works since 1995 and explores the absurdity of the real world, juxtaposed with the infinite and imaginative possibilities of the cosmos.
Purposely dim lighting right at the start of the exhibition accentuates the light-brown tones of Harsha’s earlier works. One can almost feel the dusty plains portrayed in these rural paintings. These traditional scenes – painted from the ancient city of Mysore where Harsha was born – form the backbone of the exhibition. Unaware of where his life and his paintings would take him, Harsha expresses a genuine love for his home city in these early works, a theme that continues throughout the retrospective. Despite achieving global success, Harsha made a conscious decision not to relocate to the growing economic powerhouse of New Delhi, instead choosing to stay close to his roots and observe the outside world from a local perspective. The result is a commentary on today’s modern – and often frightening – cultural and political landscape from the refuge of one of Asia’s most ancient cities.
Mysore in fact plays a pivotal role in the exhibition, reflecting the importance the city has on Harsha’s own personal life. Instead of being relegated to a mere mention in the footnotes, the city is given centre stage through a ‘resource room’ introducing visitors to the cultural, historical and social context behind Harsha’s work. A number of local newspapers are spread out for people to read. Star of Mysore is not unlike hundreds of other tabloid newspapers you may have seen from around the world, and is scheduled to be delivered to the Mori periodically during the exhibition’s run. It’s a nice touch – a clever way for Harsha to bring his hometown directly into the exhibition, while also setting the scene for the changing global climate being discussed in his work. Gaudy generic advertisements for KFC, alongside headlines on the recent US Presidential election, momentarily jolt us out of this ‘charming journey’ and back into the real world.
Throughout his career Harsha has been most comfortable with acrylic and polymer paint on canvas, but this retrospective also shows a willingness to use other mediums to deliver a particular message. Some of his accomplished bronze sculptures would look just as at home in a museum collection. However, it is these painted works that have the strongest impact, many of which are of some considerable size. We Come, We Eat, We Sleep (1999-2001) is a simplistic representation of the stages of life from birth to death – with a strong visual emphasis on repetition. This style not only reflects the repetitiveness of life, but also the multiple figures and limbs seen in traditional Indian sculpture.
The exhibition flows well, charting the progress of the artist’s work in line with the various social progressions (and regressions) happening at the time. Harsha’s output at the turn of the millennium zeroes in on economic reforms, specifically how farmers have been pushed into poverty due to monopolies held by foreign corporations. This economic hardship is even more difficult to digest considering what the government chooses to spend money on. Today, India is one of the world’s largest importers of arms.
Parallel to this social commentary is the other main thematic strand to Harsha’s work, and one that weaves its way throughout the entire exhibition: the artist’s fascination with the cosmos. This ‘charming journey’ is in fact a reference to our own existence and intimate personal relationship with the universe. Poetics of Cosmic Orphans (2006) shows the connection between the cosmos and sleep; such subject matter allows Harsha – and us – a certain amount of escapism from what has become an increasingly chaotic and overpopulated world. In his Sky Gazers installation, Harsha cleverly uses a ceiling mirror to show countless faces – a representation of India’s enormous population – staring off into the cosmos.
The climax of the retrospective comes with the huge Punarapi Jananam Punarapi Maranam (Again Birth, Again Death) (2013). From a distance, this sweeping tarpaulin looks like one huge and unbroken brushstroke. Upon closer inspection, one sees that the brushstroke is in fact made up of thousands of stars, planets and galaxies. Just as the city of Mysore was earlier brought into the exhibition, so now too is the universe, completing our journey.
Harsha may have started his own artistic journey combining a mixture of styles, but has now adopted an approach that is unmistakably his own. Over the years he has grown to become one of Asia’s most valued artists – and while the raw themes addressed in his work may not always be pleasing to think about, his artistic practice most certainly is.