Sheela Gowda – “It.. Matters” at Munich’s Lenbachhaus

Sheela Gowda, And…, 2007, installation view at Lenbachhaus. Photography by Simone Gänsheimer, Lenbachhaus. Image courtesy of the artist and Lenbachhaus.
Sheela Gowda, Behold, 2009, installation view at Lenbachhaus. Photography by Simone Gänsheimer, Lenbachhaus. Image courtesy of the artist and Lenbachhaus.
Sheela Gowda, Stopover, 2012, installation view at Lenbachhaus. Photography by Simone Gänsheimer, Lenbachhaus. Image courtesy of the artist and Lenbachhaus.
Sheela Gowda, Untitled (Cow dung), 1992-2012, installation view at Lenbachhaus. Photography by Simone Gänsheimer, Lenbachhaus. Image courtesy of the artist and Lenbachhaus.
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THE 2020 SOVEREIGN ASIAN ART PRIZE

Sheela Gowda’s first solo exhibition in Germany is taking place at Munich’s Lenbachhaus. It’s not a retrospective (as both artist and curator, Eva Huttenlauch are keen to point out), but it’s broad, diverse, and spans decades of her social engagement and artistic activity. There’s a new work too, and yes, it is made of cow dung.

TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Lenbachhaus

 

The Lenbachhaus, a pretty, burnt-honey coloured villa a stone’s throw from Munich’s Königsplatz, plays host to a modestly-sized and impressive collection of artists with a strong connection to Munich. These range from Franz von Lenbach, who once owned the house, to Kandinsky, Münter, von Jawlensky, and other 20th century luminaries of the Blauer Reiter and Brücke schools. Franz von Lenbach’s most celebrated paintings are of bedraggled shepherd boys squinting ruminatively into the sunlight. Was his life as peaceful and content as these paintings suggest? We’ll never know. However, in the artist’s living room upstairs, he and his family gaze out of a canvas with a threatening, almost maniacal intensity, reminiscent of The Omen or The Exorcist. Munich is a complex place too—a city, which has seen good, bad, and evil times. The square’s elegant, Greek-style classical monument was built at the behest of Bavaria’s King Ludwig I, before being memorably used by Adolf Hitler to scream his speeches at the thousands of SS soldiers gathered before him. The former Nazi German HQ, at the opposite end of the square, is now a museum.

Sheela Gowda’s exhibition is subterranean, as if asking the visitor to plunge below the surface and assess the depths and the foundations of this history-charged square above. It works well as a forced separation from Munich’s individual dynamics, and as a journey into India. For this is an exhibition that resolutely grips Indian themes, perhaps thereby distantly echoing some of Munich’s own tragedies.

When descending the ramp into the space, one’s first impressions are of a construction-site. The arte povera materials of ropes, tin drums, mud, and metal piping form fresh shapes and shadows across the belly of the bunker. The layout (credit to the curator) is organised, logical, and simple. It is easily followed, with an accompanying booklet that initiates the uninitiated.

 

Sheela Gowda, And…, 2007, installation view at Lenbachhaus. Photography by Simone Gänsheimer, Lenbachhaus. Image courtesy of the artist and Lenbachhaus.

 

This is a show that engages with India’s intense wellspring of life and energy. Upon closer inspection, the ropes in Behold (2009) are actually the woven hair of devout Hindu pilgrims, and what was first taken as mud is cow dung. The cow is a sacred animal in India, whose rights have themselves become a battleground for what some see as insidious racial discrimination: the rise of Hindu nationalism and increasing marginalisation of Muslim life in the subcontinent.

Sheela Gowda has worked with cow dung since the 1990s and her affinity with the material is well known. The single new work here, Where Cows Walk (2020), is made of it: a caramel bombardment over six jute canvases. The concept is a simple one that did not require the artist’s intervention. The curator and a farmer oversaw its creation, and the cows of Zillerhof farm just outside Munich are generously credited for their collaboration.

 

Sheela Gowda, Behold, 2009, installation view at Lenbachhaus. Photography by Simone Gänsheimer, Lenbachhaus. Image courtesy of the artist and Lenbachhaus.

 

To navigate the exhibition is to be confronted with objects that form the typical street scene in Gowda’s home town of Bengaluru (India’s Shenzhen). Some of these are easily overlooked. For example, Chimera (2004): a dizzying, metallic helter-skelter embedded in a solitary tar drum. The drum struck this visitor as a metaphor for the indignities of poverty: its slow inexorability; its razor-sharp edges of despair and sorrow; and its ultimate abyss.

Adjacent to this is Stopover (2012), which presents two hundred grinding stones that were once used in Indian households, with pestles, to grind spices. This installation was created for the inaugural Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The demise of the humble grinding stone, discarded in their millions as families upgrade to newer methods of food preparation, perhaps represents a disconnection from the warmth of family and home, and even a departure from some of India’s gentler, less abrasive traditions. The trade routes projected on the wall behind map the progress of these quintessentially Indian objects, on their journey in container voyages to distant Germany—an echo of how spices once formed the backbone of India’s trade with the outside world.

 

Sheela Gowda, Stopover, 2012, installation view at Lenbachhaus. Photography by Simone Gänsheimer, Lenbachhaus. Image courtesy of the artist and Lenbachhaus.

 

Sheela Gowda, who studied at London’s Royal College of Art in the 1980s, is an artist whose prime inspiration is India itself. A lifelong migration to Europe, to wrestle with its preoccupations, was never likely. A glance at one particular work provides clues as to why. Best Cutting (2008) is formed of news pages reporting stories that shed kaleidoscopic light on India’s most vicious battle lines. These stories are genuine, not fake news; but digitally remastered, arranged, and decorated to enhance their combined effect. Here, you will find stories investigating why India is so dirty: courts ruling that Hindu deities have property ownership rights; two rapists acquitted because their victim was deemed “promiscuous;” and musings on the politicisation, or “saffronisation,” of history itself. For those such as I, who have visited India but never lived there, this piece may serve to awaken the understanding that it is a hugely complex country.

Arguably, only an artist on the inside, like Sheela Gowda, can even scratch the surface. Even her simplest materials are a lesson to the outside world in India’s bewildering multi-dimensionality and undercurrents. Cow dung, the accompanying exhibition notes reveal, has traditionally been used in construction, flooring, and thermal insulation; dried cow-pats as a fuel for cooking. As the cow is venerated in Hindu tradition, its dung is “considered to have cleansing and healing properties; it is also burned in sacred fires and its ash is used to make caste markings.”

In Untitled (Cow Dung) (1992–2012), Gowda has pressed and moulded cow-pats into warm, brick-like tablets that bear her own hand and finger prints. This artwork is a simple incarnation of the artist’s role as a sifter, shaper, and appraiser of matters physical, spiritual, and historic. It is also a memorable mission statement. Gowda’s everyday materials map India’s impossibly broad canvas: the conflicts India’s women face in their everyday lives; the life of the urban poor; the ambitious middle class; and the collision of economic expansion with historical tradition. “It.. Matters” makes this visitor realise how little he actually knows. I hope that is, at least, the beginning of some kind of wisdom.

 

Sheela Gowda, Untitled (Cow dung), 1992-2012, installation view at Lenbachhaus. Photography by Simone Gänsheimer, Lenbachhaus. Image courtesy of the artist and Lenbachhaus.

 

Sheela Gowda – It.. Matters
31 March – 18 October 2020
Lenbachhaus, Munich

 

About the Artist

Sheela Gowda was born in Bhadravati, India in 1957. She studied painting at Ken School of Art, Bangalore, India (1979); pursued a postgraduate diploma at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India (1982); and an MA in painting from the Royal College of Art, London (1986). Having trained as a painter, Gowda expanded into sculpture and installation, and has since also embraced photography. For her installations, Gowda uses distinctive materials from her country whose nature, colours, and scents endow her works with a narrative as well as metaphorical force. The creative use of cow dung, kumkum powder, coconut fiber, hair, needles, thread, stones, tar barrels, or tarpaulins meditate on both urban and rural life in India.

Sheela Gowda participated in the biennials of São Paulo (2014), Gwangju (2014), Kochi (2012), Venice (2009), Sharjah (2009), and Lyon (2007), as well as documenta 12 (2007). Selected solo exhibitions include: BombasGens, Valencia, and HangarBicocca, Milan, 2019; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 2017; Para Site, Hong Kong, 2015; daad Galerie, Berlin, IMMA, Dublin, and Centre International d’Art et du Paysage, Vassivière, 2014; Lunds Konsthall, Lund, and Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 2013; and Office for Contemporary Art, Oslo, 2010. The exhibition at the Lenbachhaus is held in conjunction with the Maria Lassnig Prize awarded to Sheela Gowda in 2019.

 

 

 
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