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Bharti Kher, An absence of assignable cause, 2007

Draped Saris to Plaster Casts: Memories of the Skin in Bharti Kher's Work

  • Essay
  • Arts
  • Global
  • Art & Society
  • PHI Foundation
By  Marie-Hélène Lemaire

Content: Skin

What would you say your work is about? “Lots of things... but essentially, it all comes back down to the body and the engagement of the physical self within a space.” [1]

Bharti Kher

Bharti Kher’s practice comprises four distinct but interrelated dimensions: bindi works, hybrids, readymades, and sculptures. At the heart of this ensemble lies the body, and with it comes the skin. For the artist, this skin is not intended to confine the body in a permeable envelope. Rather, it is manifest in a surface layer teeming with bindis, in saris embracing cement pillars or in the plaster imprints of strange and familiar bodies encountering one another.

The heart of a blue whale: bindi-skin embracing the organ

An absence of assignable cause (2007) is Kher’s sculptural interpretation of a blue whale’s heart. The power and immensity of this organ overwhelm us, as it serves to pump and circulate blood throughout the body of the largest mammal on earth. True to size, the sculpture gives off strength but at the same time, given the heart’s extraction from the body of an animal, fragility and vulnerability. The membrane that surrounds it is ribbed with veins and shaped by multiple clusters of bindis. From the sanskrit word bindu meaning point or drop, the bindi is a dot traditionally applied to the forehead in between the eyebrows to represent the third eye.

The draped sari: memory, portrait, fluidity

A number of works shown in the exhibition incorporated the sari. There are those considered by the artist as portraits, which comprise saris dipped in resin and wrapped around cement pillars. Each one is the approximate weight of the artist and is associated with a women Kher knows. A careful consideration of each draping thus becomes a way to reflect on these women’s different stories. Also exhibited are works such as The night she left (2011) or The day they met (2011), which are composed of twisted saris working their way up or down ready-made staircases, or rolling out in a succession of folds. Associated with the South Asian woman’s body, the sari is a piece of fabric without stitches that is worn draped over the body in multiple ways. For Kher, it can, among other things, evoke the memory of an absent body, adopt a natural or animal movement or explore its various identitary, cultural and political dimensions. The sari also recalls her childhood, when her father worked in textiles and her mother was a dressmaker with her own fabric store.

Plaster casts: the imprint of one body to another

From 2012 to 2014, Kher created a series of a plaster casts representing sex workers in Kolkata—each one sitting on a stool, nude, eyes closed. From this series emerged the powerful Six Women (2013-2015), which was presented in the exhibition. Most recently, Kher pursued her research on the body and skin with her parents. As she wrote in her journal: “When you caress the skin and rub the plaster gently over and over so that all the pores and creases are etched and filled with plaster, it’s like encasing and mummifying a living being. You are trying to capture their breath, to find the imprint of their minds and thoughts and the secrets of the soul. (...) What the cast carries only the model can give.” [2]

Movements

Bharti Kher: Movements was designed by the PHI Foundation Education team to encourage visitors to develop and elaborate on some key concepts of the exhibition Bharti Kher: Points de départ, points qui lient, presented from April 20 to September 9, 2018.

Bibliography

[1] BLOOMBERG (2015). “Bharti Kher”. Brilliant Ideas. Online. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciBfW7ozNg8. Consulted April 3, 2018.
[2] ROSENTHAL, Stéphanie (2016). “A Rhizomatic Invasion.” The Breathing House. Exhibition catalogue (Freud Museum, September 30 to November 20, 2016).] London: Hauser & Wirth Publications, p. 24.

Author: Marie-Hélène Lemaire

Marie-Hélène Lemaire is Head of Education at PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art. She completed a Ph.D. in Communications Studies at Concordia University in 2015 that focused on developing a movement-based pedagogy for the guided group visit in contemporary art exhibitions. Using a feminist pedagogy of embodiment, new materialist and poetic inquiry approaches, she aims to privilege and validate somatic and affective engagements with contemporary art. She nurtures a poetic writing practice for developing, facilitating and interpreting curricula for guided visits. She is committed to epistemic justice in the arts.

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