Mechanics of art and life
Nonika Singh

His images are provocative and his assertions equally intriguing. “Often, I don’t understand my work… my works are completely meaningless… there is no value to it.”

But before you take one of India’s leading conceptual artist Sudarshan Shetty’s comments seriously, lest you get carried away by the apparent superfluousness of it, better take cognisance of the deeper truths of life hidden beneath his mechanised sculptural installations.

Ephemeral-ness of life and hence its emptiness, impermanence, the cycle of life and death recur in his works almost like a cycle. Though he may profess. “Art is a complete act of deception,” it’s through this “pretence” alone that he is trying to understand the life of his ancestors, of the Upanishads and Vedas. Any wonder, critic Ranjit Hoskote calls his works, “giant toys whose conception of play is as serious as a game of life and death.”

Son of a Yakshgana artist, the sublime meaning of human existence, Sudarshan understood early on in life, but more so after his father’s demise. He says, “We all come from a position and negotiate with the world from that point of view.” Of course, as a student of the J J School of Art he did imbibe acquired thinking and vision, too. Studying western art he was influenced and inspired by conceptual art. To begin with, he recalls how he would imitate the works of great conceptual artists. But soon he realised that western conceptual art is minimalist, not quite in sync with Indian sensibilities for, “In India, we are constantly bombarded by the plurality of images, culture and much more, constantly leading parallel lives.”

Living in Mumbai, this plurality has been rubbed in further and as far as inspiration goes, he admits that no city could have been a better artistic ground. Seeking stimulation from the real world, the gutting of the Bade Miyan eatery in Mumbai became the trigger for his work “The Party is Elsewhere” comprising 385 wine glasses, a table, a mechanised hammer and neon lights. Violence that we encounter in everyday life manifests in his creations by way of skeletons, bones and of course a whole range of disruptive instruments like knives and scissors. The mundane humdrum of life is echoed in his mechanised installations in which he uses unconventional mediums such as liquids. In colour red, it is symptomatic of blood, as white it becomes milk…either way, it creates the poetic flow, resonance of movement.

“Medium,” he says “is not the message. Old medium can be new today and I can convey the same thing through painting, something that I actually left years ago.” He turned to mechanics to draw the attention of his viewer,

“Once you have him interested… you can make him aware of other things too.” Since much of his work involves the help of others like engineers, wherein lies the craft of the art? He agrees that there is no art without rigueur but avers, “How can you assume that there is none in putting things together? What does A. R. Rahman do? He conceives the music, which is actually played by others, and puts it as one whole. But there is discipline as well as creativity in his conception.”

As for the perceived absence of aesthetics in some of his images that suggest violence, he smiles, “There we go again. Don’t we have our own interpretations of beauty? The problem with art is we try to define it and fix meanings.” Thus, to those who think some of his images are perverse, if not obscene, he quips, “The idea of perversity comes from morality, which again is conditioned by our own sense of it.” And as an artist, his job is merely to suggest and allude, not make dramatic statements.

Thereafter, critics may go gaga over it… buyers like the one who bought “The Party is Elsewhere” and installed it right in his bedroom may simply love his work … museums like New York's Tilton Gallery might be only too keen to organise his solo show as they did this year the one titled “The more I die, the lighter I get.”

In short, one of India’s pioneering artist, whose vocabulry is both unusal and dynamic, might be dismissive or derisive about his work, there is no getting away from his immense creativity and incredible power of visualisation. Once upon a time he may have professed, “In India I remain on the margins….”. Today, the artist who has exhibited a piece titled House of Shades, commissioned by Louis Vuitton for the Women's Fashion Week in Milan (later installed at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II) is equally busy in India. Besides, having participated in GallerySKE’s outstanding group show in old drive-in cinema in Mumbai, he is currently exhibiting at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Make no mistake, he has been accepted and acclaimed both in India and abroad.