In “A Wonderful Anarchy,” Bharti Kher presented new works produced during a three-month residency with Hauser & Wirth Somerset in 2017. An array of found objects expressed her interest in the dual concepts of the mythological and scientific, the secular and ritualistic, and the physical and psychological. In her exploratory approach, she analyzes materials then transforms them into hybrids to create a dialogue between the material and metaphysical worlds. Kher lives in New Delhi, and her use of found objects, as revealed in this showing, is informed by her responses to the geographic and social milieus in which she finds herself.
The fallow, a 3.5-meter, cast bronze figure of a goddess, served as an outdoor introduction to the exhibition, perched high on a lotus base as if protecting all the surroundings that she surveyed. Conceived from a series of much smaller sculptures, “The Intermediaries,” which were shown inside the galleries, The fallow represents female multiplicity and healing, alluding to how the land must lie fallow in order to restore fertility. Seemingly excavated, halved and hollowed, the goddess’s form is governed by a half circle, a motif that recurred throughout the show. On entering the building, the exhibition’s namesake, A wonderful anarchy, offered a potent counterpoint to The fallow, using an assortment of dangling elements—mannequin, ladder, yarn, lace, chains, arm cast, horn, and architect’s measuring rod—anchored by ropes and pulleys. This fragile arrangement strikes a carefully conceived balance that could, ostensibly, collapse on contact with the slightest breath.
“The Intermediaries” consists of a collection of small clay figures, broken and then reassembled into mythical hybrids. The golu dolls collected by Kher are typically made by rural artisans and traditionally used in conjunction with the Hindu festival of Navaratri; they can be interpreted as avatars of human existence. Kher endows them with enigmatic titles that allow for multiple readings, as in Homonym, As dangerous as an albatross, Echidna, Artemis, Sunshine Child, Ship of Fools, and The offspring of a deity perhaps. Extracted from their natural habitat of South Indian domesticity, their chipped and worn surfaces laid bare and manipulated, the remade dolls are then positioned on impeccable cement columns. These columns, topped with colored and delineated layers of wax, are just as alluring as the theatrical tableaux they support. Wax retains its essential properties through all stages of transformation, thereby lending “The Intermediaries” a fundamental stability that was crucial to the overall success of the installation.
The final, and arguably the most successful, space contained an assemblage of abstract forms suspended in a state of precarious equilibrium. Consummate joy and a Sisyphean task echoes the Greek myth in which the king Sisyphus, punished for his deceitful acts, is condemned to roll a massive boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down again, the task repeating in an endless cycle of fruitless labor. In Kher’s interpretation, the boulder becomes a perfect sphere, juxtaposed with other classically Modernist forms fashioned from wood, copper, and red jasper stone—all intrinsically satisfying materials. Her practice ultimately derives from the tradition of reduction; and in this installation, her preoccupation with form and the integrity of the object became the overriding force.
The exhibition culminated with Virus X, created from hundreds of small felt circles arranged into a hypnotic swirl. This expanding entity squeezed onto an end wall simultaneously functioned as a backdrop to Consummate joy and a Sisyphean task. Kher conceived the “Virus” series in 2010 as a 30-year project, designed to interrogate our actual and imaginary journey through time and to reveal often dystopian insights. It involves the creation of an annual bindi work and accompanying text, which combines prediction and chronology to assess what the future may hold for both the artist and humanity in general. Virus X, which represents the year 2019, reflects on the legalization of cannabis, solar sail propulsion spacecraft, the sun’s energy, pinhead-size cameras, and advances in virtual reality. The series will end with Virus XXX in 2039, when Kher’s parting shot remains simple and characteristically enigmatic: “I am 70 now. See you then.”