Alcove, from the series “Life on Mars,” 2019. Nickel-coated ghungroos, fabric, and polyurethane coat, 72 x 72 x 5 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

A Conversation with Vibha Galhotra

“Beyond the Blue,” Vibha Galhotra’s current solo exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, imagines a narrative of interplanetary migration to Mars in the wake of the (human-made) destruction of our planet. It includes her series “Life on Mars,” in which images of the surface of the planet sourced from NASA are rendered in hand-sewn wall works created with traditional ghungroo bells, as well as installation and sculptural works that employ broken glass, cement, and metal—the material building blocks of modern living. By breaking apart and reconstructing the present realities of the climate crisis, Galhotra embodies and questions shifting baselines, the entanglement of science fiction and reality.

Recent shows include “Climacteric” at Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi, Chandigarh, India, in 2019, as well as Who Owns the Water?, a participatory panel and dinner hosted by Asia Society that focused on cross-disciplinary discussion of water crises around the world. Another ongoing project, Black Cloud, mimics the ever-present “black cloud” of polluted air over Delhi through kite-flying, with the collective effort of many participants shaping the form in the sky.

Sculpture magazine: How did your new show come about?
Vibha Galhotra: I’ve been working around, I won’t say climate change, but nature, for the past many years. In my college days I was already interested in Land Art and doing a lot of works which involve nature. I don’t know when I got fixated with the idea of climate change—it was a very organic process. And for the past 12 years now, I’ve lived in Delhi. Delhi is the capital city of India, and it’s quite polluted. When I moved there, I was not aware of the geography of the city: I knew that the river flows close to the old town, but I had no idea that the sewer I crossed is actually the Yamuna River. But it has turned into a sewer because of residential waste and industrial affluence. I became interested in reading the river more and more, and I started doing walks around the rivers. I discovered a lot of things about the city. Delhi then became my window to look at the world, and to look at the capitalist idea of nature, at contamination, at climate change, and at the Anthropocene.

Layer by layer by layer, we are on a suicidal path with nature. I basically look at the politics and economics of cities around their natural resources, especially a country like India, which is constantly developing. We are building and building and building and building, so I don’t know if development itself is as relevant as the degrowth of nature and natural resources.

I can talk about today’s situation in India: Delhi is going through this apocalyptic time with air pollution. There is a festival in one region of India where people go to the river, immerse themselves, and pray. When they went there, there was kind of a froth, from the chemicals in the river. India is going through an economic crisis, so people are not able to pay attention to expensive solutions to their industries. Around November/December every year, the air is also really polluted. They blame the fires from the farmers, who burn their staples. I don’t know if that’s the right reason or there’s some other reason attached to it, but scientifically, according to W.H.O.’s guidelines for breathable air, we are living six percent over the safe limit. So you can imagine that people die.

Installation view of “Beyond the Blue,” 2020. Photo: Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery

Sculpture: Is that the whole country, or in Delhi?
VG: Delhi especially, but in other parts also. We don’t have the data from every place—we have data only from a few places. They say that we don’t have resources, but lots of things are being hidden—fake news and data are given. But it’s undeniable that you are breathing that in.

I try to bring the fiction and fact together in my work, so that I can bridge a gap between understanding for the masses, the viewers, whoever is seeing my work. I know it’s a very difficult road, especially in India. There are very few art audiences. You have to kind of create this voice and, you know, shake people with your work. But people come to see aesthetic work. So how do you shake people? I try to bring my pieces to such a juncture that it can serve both purposes: my conceptual need for making the work, and people’s viewership. How can I make audiences react to certain situations? That’s the base.

For the upcoming show, “Beyond the Blue,” I am looking at interplanetary migration as a solution given by the science right now. But my question is: Is it doable or not, and how many people can go there? Is there water on Mars? Are we going to Mars in suspense? People who are buying space on Mars or a one-way ticket to Mars are very absurd to me. And the only data that has been provided is from NASA or Elon Musk’s SpaceX. These are the combined sources I’m using for my research work, and I’m re-appropriating the images which they are providing for public use. Now NASA has opened their archive for Mars so that they can advertise the idea of going to Mars more and more. I’m interested in these twists that all the capitalist machines are doing. Why are we spending so much money going to Mars? We can do it here.

Sculpture: How did you first come across those images?
VG: The articles started appearing in 2013 or 2014, I think. And I’m very interested in research about Mars, because it provides a lot of data from different countries, especially about the air. I started doing work about the air in 2012. I follow Vedic philosophy, which has a quote that what exists in you exists in the universe, or what exists in the universe, exists in you. It’s both ways; it’s vice versa. So that means we are made of five elements, and so is the environment. If we hamper the environment, we hamper ourselves. Are we ready for that, or are we actually not leaving room for any repair? We’ve repaired things through science for a long time now. Industrialization, the whole capitalist idea, seems like it has failed; I know a lot of people can oppose me on that, but I think for living, or for a sustainable environment, those are the failed ideas. Now, how to go back? It’s not possible. How to stop it here, now—that’s something I think we can work on.

I know I’m not an activist, but being an artist I can convey these ideas through visuals. I’m also aware that we as artists are creating a lot of carbon footprint. But we don’t have another solution to narrate the story in a different way. I might have it in the future, but for now I still think that how I can reduce my carbon footprint is very important. Most of the work in this exhibition is going to be made from industrial materials, so it’s in your face. There is going to be printing, cement, glass, and metal. These are very conscious decisions to use those materials, because I think they are the materials modern living is drawn to.

Ejecta, from the series “Life on Mars,” 2019. Nickel-coated ghungroos, fabric, and polyurethane coat, 72 x 72 x 5 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Sculpture: With these NASA images, the water has become almost an abstraction, because it’s not there; we’re looking for it. That’s an interesting shift from your previous work.
VG: Thank you. I think we are living in such times that we really need to think through what we are doing to these elements. These elements are very important to us—especially water. Without water there is no life. We are not shifting to Mars because there is no water as yet. The moment there is water, everybody’s going to try to shift there. It’s going to be very expensive, and only the rich will be able to access it.

All the work, I’ll say, comes from life. It’s just paying attention to the details: how people are ignoring what they shouldn’t ignore, or how we are pushed to ignore certain things. Those are the details you have to look into. Maybe as an artist I have more time than the people who are going into an office and working.

Sculpture: How do you generally begin a piece? Often you work with data or images.
VG: I am constantly reading. And there are some beautiful writers I follow, like Donna Haraway, Amitav Ghosh, Naomi Klein. These are the people that have researched a lot on climate change and policymaking, and they are questioning everything.

Sculpture: What do you most want out of an audience when they come to see an exhibition, if it’s this tricky play between the aesthetics, as you were saying, and the concept?
VG: I think I am mimicking the situation about the environment, where people don’t understand what is right, what is wrong—even I don’t know what’s right and wrong. It’s important for audiences to immerse themselves in the experience that I go through while making the works. But the work is also about aesthetic play. I definitely want them to read about my work so the writing gives more understanding. And moreover, for me, as an artist, process is more important; I will give them some kind of storyline or thread to understand the work better.

The first section of the show is going to be about the wounded earth. I’m making some performance-based works in the studio, where I’m actually wounding a round plate, poking it with knives and sharp things—something like Fontana. There are grooves puncturing the surface. It’s a metaphor for the earth: how, as a human being, I am constantly wounding the earth. And on the ground will be broken metal, with printed images of landscapes which are already gone, or already extinct—like the Amazon, like so many islands which are submerged in water. The earth is breaking, it’s very fragile anyway. The whole atmosphere is very fragile.

I want people to experience that while walking to the new planet. That’s why it’s called “Beyond the Blue.” So the first section is going to be all about the blue planet, and the second section is about Mars, and will be very “spacey”—how a spaceship is designed, or how we imagine space. How do you look at earth from the other planet? It’s kind of narrative, but also very abstract.

Installation view of “Beyond the Blue,” 2020. Photo: Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery

Sculpture: Do the new works employ ghungroo bells at all?
VG: In one section, there will be ghungroo works. I think the show started developing organically, and I was already working on those pieces, so it was in continuation of making the series “Life on Mars.” Those pieces will be included, as well as the new pieces, which will be only paper—paper sculptures or paper casts. It’s a flat surface, but there is a casting involved.

Process-wise, all the works are collaborative. The ghungroo works are done with my team in studio: it is in one of the urban villages, so women who were just homemakers came to my studio and now have been there for the last 10 years working with me. I’m really happy with that team of people. They pay more attention than me sometimes; they are very careful of each and every thing that I say, and they have a great respect for the work. I’m really blessed to have such a great team of people working with me.

Once the work finishes, and we stretch it and display it on the wall, you must see their expression. They have this great feeling of pride. “We made this, really?” That feeling I die for.

Sculpture: What is the technique used?
VG: It’s sewing. I have an artist’s assistant who, in my absence, guides them. I draw on the canvas, so there is a process of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction in the work. Basically, nothing is permanent; everything is intangible. My drawing is being given to these people in a certain way, but while making, because the ghungroo sizes are different, the drawing changes—maybe 20 percent only, but it changes. I generally use wax colors on the fabric—it’s a very childlike drawing. I just draw and fill in the colors like a child.

Sculpture: The Yamuna River has recently been granted partial legal rights in India, but many questions about the actual application of the protection, of who’s guarding the river, remain. Can you talk about your recent project with Asia Society surrounding issues of water rights?
VG: India thinks that rivers are the goddess, so they are living entities anyway within the religious belief system. The project which I did with Asia Society questions the ownership of water. I open-endedly questioned experts who come from different backgrounds: from the government, as well as activists, academicians, people from diverse communities like the Lenape community and the fisherman community from Southampton, musicians, artists, and writers. They all got together to talk about water, and they were being served very good food. We recorded them, and I am trying to make this an evidential piece between developing and developed countries. 

In America, like other countries, lots of policies have not been accessible to the public. People are generally very deceived about policies and the doings of the big companies, such as  how companies are selling us water, and why we are buying water, especially in India. The country is poor, so why are we buying bottled water? Why is my country not providing me clean water? It seems like clean water versus the right to pollute. How are you fighting that? It’s very uncertain right now. Looking at the younger kids taking leave to talk about the environment, asking questions like Greta [Thunberg], I think it’s amazing. It’s something really powerful, and we need to have more and more kids asking questions of us.

Windblown Sand, from the series “Life on Mars,” 2019. Nickel-coated ghungroos, fabric, and polyurethane coat, 72 x 72 x 5 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Sculpture: Would you say you’re an optimist?
VG: I am, in a way. Otherwise I wouldn’t be making art. But I question our way of living, our new human behaviors, how we are influencing the whole world. Maybe Google is the biggest engine to convey the image of “perfect living.” But that perfect living is failing somewhere. And it has been introduced in the other part of the world. A lot of people here, I’m seeing that they are going vegetarian, they are reducing their consumerist needs. But in a country like India, consumerism is going up. Because people have not experienced that kind of life, and they look forward to this kind of life. The grass is greener on the other side, always. People from America or Britain want to follow the Indian way of living—with yoga and healthy food—and we want to follow the opposite. We want to follow the West. It’s kind of how the idea’s been sold to you.

Sculpture: Certain artists feel the need to separate their work as activists from their professional work, but it seems that you don’t find that distinction necessary.
VG: Frankly speaking, I’m making my work. I’m not interested in these labels. Even to call myself an artist, I hesitate a little. I’m just an observer of my time. I think we all have an important, I won’t say duty, but it’s a concern. If you have some concern, you will act on it—otherwise you’re just living like a goat.

“Beyond the Blue” is on view from February 21 through March 28, 2020.