“Artists are violent people. I will debate that point with any artist who claims they are not violent. I think that artists are deeply violent because we try to stay so honest to ourselves. That honesty kills us”, said the Delhi-based, US-educated artist Vishal K. Dar (b. 1976) whose installation work Maruts – Storm Dieties (2016) is currently on view at the Power Station of Art as part of the 11th Shanghai Biennale curated by Raqs.
Text / Selina Ting
Images / Shanghai Biennale & courtesy of the artist
When Dar saw the 165-meter tall industrial chimney of an old defunct thermal power station, he was immediately connected to it as he saw the beauty in its trauma. Negotiating with the abandoned site through his own trauma, Dar reimagined Maruts, the storm deities (the Rig Veda describes Maruts as a troop of young warriors, companions of Indra, the God of Clouds; Storm Deities, capable of shaking mountains and destroying forests) in the site-specific installation whose structure is laid bare to the naked eye of the audience. Seven oscillating beams of light set to varying metronomic meters create a hallucinatory zone, each beam of light an object with a distinct time-code. The base of the chimney is transformed into a reflective pool and viewers experience Maruts from a spiral ramp inside the chimney. The notion of presence, of being in the midst of the work, is central to the experience of Maruts.
In the interview, we touched on several notions in the artistic practices of Dar, such as the phenomenological experience of art, the site-specificity, the object and the non-object, the magician and the illusionist, the mortal time, the clock time and the cosmic time, etc…
To start with, I think that Raqs, as an artists’ collective and curatorial group, has a very different approach to art as an object compared to other biennial curators, who are art theorists or critics…
You have to know the object as an object. If you know it as a concept, but not as an object, then it becomes very difficult to access and position it, and make the object appear to another person. If the curators are artists, or have evolved to a level where they can decode the language of the object as an object, then what are your saying starts to happen and access to a larger audience becomes much more direct. As artists and curators, Raqs are very sharp and extremely articulate about this. I have known them for some time as friends and installed one of their retrospectives at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, as a scenographer. They are interested in people and that is what’s exciting about them.
They are also interested in activation and the chimney becomes part of that. I remember Monica [Monica Narula, Raqs member] showed me the images of the chimney and saying, “We saw the chimney and thought of you.” They are not thinking of an artist’s practice but the artist himself or herself. At the core, a person is much more than what he or she produces, far more complex. Monica had seen a previous work of mine, where the computer had controlled the lights, and asked me, “Do you think that would work in this chimney?” Looking at the images of the Chimney, I replied “I could see it would.” There, the idea of understanding object is very important. We could both see the work in the space without its presence, as both of us were looking at the idea, the phenomena behind the object, regardless of its scale, and not the object itself.
What would a phenomenal object be for you?
A phenomenal object would be something that is both concentrated and reflected at the same time. It is an object producing a certain idea of climate within us. It is almost like the thermometer in the chimney, it is an indicator. It could be a signal, an object which can produce a signal, and the work in the chimney produces a signal because there is nothing to touch or to hold. It is an object that actually does not exist. Therefore, the phenomenal object is, produced through the idea of space and the idea of material, and it is immaterial.
Anything that is terrestrial cannot be phenomenological because the phenomenological has to go beyond the idea of touch. For artists, this is really difficult because artists can posit authorship with materiality. For me, non-authorship is the most important thing. The work has to be autonomous. As an object, it has its own breath and so does not rely on me, or my presence as a brand, for you to experience it. Because Raqs are media artists, they understand the idea that time is a part of a work. With my work, time is not visible, but it is very much there. That is where the phenomenological appears.
To experience such works, one has to break away from two ideas – Mortal Time and Clock Time. Mortal time, as in human mortality, is the idea that we want to do everything within our lives of approximately 70 years. The Clock Time is the idea of time being measured by the clock and the invention of the clock itself, which enabled people to organise labour. That time has an even more destructive effect on us. We start forgetting every other clock that exists. We only have these two clocks working for us and forget that every little object that surrounds us has its own clock.
It is not measured time, and that is why the beams are all oscillating when you look at it. I am always interested in oscillatory time because the cosmos is built out of a multitude of oscillatory objects and is oscillating all the time, expanding and contracting. That’s how our breath works. You do not have the same measured breathe from the time you are born until the time you die. Your own body clock tells you how you to oscillate within the universe. Once we start stepping outside of the mortality clock, we start experiencing many other things and they start expanding our universe and our ways of looking at things and understanding them.
Over time, the water pool is going to create a microclimate of its own and because it evaporates, it has its own clock. It also creates a reflection space – every time there is a ripple in the water, everything changes inside. At the previous installation, I allowed people to walk in the water and make all these patterns.
It is a silent, soft, reflective pool. Beams of light create reflections of themselves as circles, but the moment the water is disturbed, those circles break into ghostly forms and then capture the space in a wholly different way that I can’t plan for, which is the magic of that material. It has a quality, and this is characteristic of wanting to become whatever it wants to be, in whichever way it wants to.
One thing that disturbs many people within the art business is the fact that I’m keenly interested in the space where everything is not authored. It is not about taking responsibility, but instead saying, “Go a little further, forget the name, forget the maker, be with the work…”
It is like going back to the 70s. I am a huge fan of the land art movement with Robert Smithson and the whole gang. When I saw the image of the Spiral Jetty, I thought, “He is challenging the idea of institutional architecture. He is challenging the museum building as a building form. I found great inspiration there because it wasn’t Smithson’s object that inspired me, it was the idea of ‘Hey, can you absorb this scale? How big a building will you make to absorb what I am trying to tell you?’ He resolves a lot with the mirrors, sand and rocks. He resolves it as an object, but there are moments when he is saying, “You will not be able to resolve it.” I thought it was incredible.
It’s like the way you answer the curators’ question: “Why not ask again?” The same questions from the 70s are to be asked again today and you have tried to answer them…
Yes, I throw the question to myself and then throw it back into the space to the curators, saying “Deal with this now. You threw a question to me, I am asking it to myself, and then let’s just throw that question back as an object or a non-object.”
There are artists who talk a lot about the non-object, such as Anish Kapoor. What do you understand the “non-object” to be?
Yes, but I have always felt the presence of an object in Anish’s work. To make the object disappear, you have to become the magician, rather than the illusionist. There is a leap of faith with the magician, whereas with the illusionist it is down to the trickery of science. That’s where I kept thinking, where is Kapoor missing the mark? He is an illusionist, and not a magician yet.
I am a huge fan of Harry Houdini, who was a magician that physically created the trick. He was not making an illusion happen, it was not smoke and mirrors. Houdini did lock himself up in a trunk, throw himself in water in front of your eyes and escape. A magician plays with the physicality, rather than tricking you. He is saying, ‘I am a naked person’. That image of Houdini is incredible when he is in his underpants, saying, “I have not hidden anything from you.” I like that idea. That’s the child in me, to see the magician as a hero. He is who he is because that’s all that there is. There is no paraphernalia, there is no set up. The magician says, “I am here, boom.” I find that fascinating and a part of me wants to be that magician.
I also think of the difference between the magician and the illusionist when I see the installation. Everything that happens inside is very hypnotic and meditative because the light oscillates in the vault and the space is quiet and echoey. You feel as if you are in another universe. This mental state is closer to the illusionist than the magician, but the setup of the work is laid bare and visible to the audience, just like the magician.
That’s why I’m not an illusionist. In an illusion, everything is hidden, only the effect is there, and it becomes a spectacle. If the installation had been like that, it wouldn’t have gotten you into a meditative state. In my work, everything is laid bare and your eyes can see it all. So your eyes then don’t want to see it, and that is where it becomes a machine. I see it as a treatment machine. You enter and can be treated for many things if you want to be. It connects to a certain idea of neurology. If the structure is hidden, then as a viewer you can be diverted and start thinking about the idea of how it was produced and how it has been made possible, when that should not be present in your mind.
How do you relate your work to the site, in this case, the chimney?
In one way, the idea is that if you came back three biennales later and there was somebody in the chimney, what would happen? I assure you that you would find traces of the Storm Deities in the chimney, without it actually being there. The reason for that is I never leave anything behind with all of my site-specific works. The objects vanish as they are not embedded and do not alter the space physically. They make that parallax happen for a moment. The water will be drained, the pool folded, the bricks removed and the truss brought down. It will all go and so reboot the space to how I had found it. I am excited by these sites of abandonment because they have run out of the functionality they were created for. But that does not mean they are defunct. It is just like us. What does it mean to retire? What does it mean to be no longer relevant as a human being? So, I see the site very much as my own self, in the sense that I see a trauma in it. It is a space of trauma because it is right there, in your heart, in the centre, and it is marginalised. It is like the two of us are sitting and there is a third person sitting here as well.
It is challenging for an artist to work within this extremely imposing vertical site, but also very exciting to work within a space like this. I am very curious, why has no other artist wanted to do that before?
I was very surprised too, but I have to give credit to the curators who have unlocked the areas and brought about a certain way of making it work. Site specificity is so important for a site like this. You can’t start putting work in just because you think that it should be used as a space. Going back to the idea of activation, how do you activate a space? Raqs were more sensitive in understanding who they should go to. If it had not been me, it would have been another person who understood the idea of scale, site and volume; who understood the idea of what it means to not position yourself above what is being given to you, because it is very graphic in appearance at the end of the day.
It is about how they can fully utilise the space. But at the same time, the first thing you think about as an artist is how to contain the space itself because its physical presence is so intimidating.
That’s where I differ because I have never wanted to dominate the space. I love the site a lot because I can see its trauma. I can talk to it through both my trauma and its trauma. The work emerges out of a negotiation between the site and me. It cannot be me because I am active, alive and breathing, but the idea is that we are both living things, as the site is made up of the same atoms on an atomic level as I am.
Was it quite safe to go inside?
They kept checking that because no one had ever done anything like it before. We kept finding things right until the very end and did a lot of readjustment to keep the space intact. I didn’t want to touch anything, gouge or drill. I don’t want to leave a mark when I leave the building. I want it to be a spatial trace, so you’ll still see the lights if you come back, as you’ll never get them out of your head once you’ve seen them. It is almost like a cathedral space – a revered architectural space that connects us to the higher. That is the purpose of large sites for me, to connect us with other clocks. I am very mindful of these things.
At the same time, it is the symbol of the building.
Yes, it is. But it’s so sad at its core, which was charging up the building because that was where the steam was let out.
It becomes a graphic symbol because it is the thing that reminds us this was a power station, and gave the name to the museum – the Power Station of Art. However, unlike the Tate, where the history is so present, the history is invisible here, and the chimney is not even a historical symbol but a graphic, literary reference.
I agree. That’s what troubled me the most and that’s where I sensed the trauma was when I first entered the chimney. That the inside was crumbling. But there is also a microclimate in there and it has more history than the outside. It has taken the brunt of everything that was pushed out of the power station. It is the core, the inside of that chimney, and it’s almost like the building is possessed by the storm deities. They are trapped inside but they are soft, gentle and benign. They want to escape it, but can’t.
If you are inside a storm, it is very calm. The chaos is only experienced from the outside; it is never within. It’s like when starlings make those beautiful patterns flying around, and you think, ‘Oh my god, why aren’t they all crashing into each other?’ It is because there is a code, an order inside all of it. Outside all is disorder, but inside it is all order. This links to the ideas of temporality and the time codes that eventually define and decide form, image, movement and, therefore, experience. So, it is deeply disturbing to work on these sites.
It all looks very meditative and beautiful but we both know, as Asians, the history of meditation is in violence. That is exactly how meditation came about in India.
What do you mean by violence in meditation?
The invention of meditation was to flush out the violence of the body because the body is violent and the Buddha constantly talks about it. He is saying, the first act of violence that the human body produces is sound. That’s why Buddha became silent in the last part of his life and stopped speaking. You have to kill the source of violence and there is so much violence within the body. The production of sound through the human body disturbs everything. Meditation is a way of completely taking all of the violence out of the body. It calms you down. It is a therapy.
There is, of course, a philosophy, but it is deeply scientific and wants you to understand the time codes of various things happening around you. Otherwise, how can you be meditative? The whole thing with transcendental meditation is that you can meditate anywhere, even in the middle of Times Square. How can you do that? Maharishi [Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, 1917 – 2008] said that the moment you understand the time codes of everything around you and absorb it, you will be okay with all the madness and the chaos, as you are within the chaos and understand its order. You, therefore, can understand the position of every time code with respect to each other.
Have you reached that level?
No. Far, far from it. Artists are violent people. I will debate that point with any artist who claims they are not violent. I think that artists are deeply violent because we try to stay so honest to ourselves. That honesty kills us. What saves human beings is their dishonesty, which does not allow the guilt to grab you. It psychologically tells you that you are doing things you shouldn’t be doing and so, as a result, you are dishonest to yourself. Most of the time, artists try to be honest with themselves and that’s when we are like, “Oh God, I have already created…” But psychoanalysts have said you will find the least amount of suicides in the artists’ community.
By destroying other things artists manage to…
…To save themselves.
That violence is constructive.
Absolutely, but we are violent. We are deeply violent people.
About the Artist
Vishal K. Dar (Born 1976, Digboi, India)
Lives and works in New Delhi
Vishal Dar is a New Media Artist with a background in Architecture (MFA, University of California, Los Angeles). His unique style of expression combining architecture, sculpture, design and art sets him apart from his contemporaries. Digital animation software and prototyping technology are two of the many new media techniques that Dar uses to create ‘archi-sculptures’. Often known to comment satirically upon political and sociological issues, a majority of his works probe into the theme of ‘digital ornamentation’. Vishal K. Dar has had several gallery and museum exhibitions, including at the Nature Morte, New Delhi and at the The Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Why Not Ask Again:
Arguments, Counter-Arguments, and Stories
11th Shanghai Biennale
Curated by Raqs
November 12, 2016–March 12, 2017
Power Station of Art
Selina TING (Editor-in-Chief, CoBo)
Selina is a curator and a specialist in contemporary art with over 10 years of professional experiences both in Asia and Europe. Stationed in Paris and Brussels between 2004 – 2013, and Beijing in 2013 – 2015, she has a network traversing the Chinese, Asian and Western art world. In the last 5 years, she was Editor-in-Chief of initiArt Magazine and Whitewall Magazine (China Version). Selina has published extensively on her research projects as well as on general issues regarding art and culture. Selina is currently Editor-in-Chief of CoBo, the first Asia community platform for collectors.
Instagram : @selinating