Chromathophobia, 2012. Wooden log, granite, and hammered coins, 91 x 78 x 89 in. Photo: © Tallur L.N., Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY

Crossing Thresholds: A Conversation with Tallur L.N.

An artist of complex oppositions and striking balances, divisions and unities, Tallur L.N. spends half the year in India and half in South Korea, maintaining independent studio practices in both countries. He studied partly in Northern England for a Masters, and he exhibits partly in New York and partly in Mumbai. It’s remarkable just how comfortable his work appears in any context. His sculptures, with their magical transformations of interwoven stories and materials, can seem to reflect a fusion of inter-Asian and Western artistic practice while undermining it at the same time. Obituary Note (2013), for instance, appears to take one critical stance, before switching to another, more sober interpretation. The Bell and the Cat (2013), which takes its starting point from a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon, locates social commentary in a bell form that reappears in Halal 1 (2014) in combination with a wickedly aesthetic hook. Dagger without Cloak (2015) and Halo X Body 1, 2, 3 (2014) mutate and twist things further, combining otherworldly allusions with the threat of down-to-earth violence.

Robert Preece: Obituary Note (2013) seems a standout work for you. The form is seductive and beautiful, but the charred wood suggests a deeper story, particularly in regard to what it replaces. Could you tell me more about the concept, and how it addresses your societal concerns?
Tallur L.N.: The trigger point was the “yesterday-made” antique industry in India, which evolved recently and is quite disturbing. My special concern was to make the work look like a Chola dynasty bronze from India’s golden age of sculpture. Contemporary copies of such works interest me. The commercial pressure to produce them in large numbers—with economy and speed of production method—adds an unusual character and strange illusion to this work and others in a similar vein.

I chose sculptures from this industry and tried to work with their original ideas. For Obituary Note, I used a classic sculpture of Shiva dancing to destroy in order to create (shivathandava), tearing down to build again. I had already explored that idea in Enlightenment machine (beta 1.0) (2011), where, by grinding off, one can re-create the sculpture. It’s a tool for makers.

In Obituary Note, I started by covering the sculpture with wood and burning it, which is similar to a cremation ceremony in which the dead body is burned. In the West, the dead body is buried in the ground; in India, some communities burn the body in the belief that it goes back into the five elements of nature.

Obituary Note, 2013. Burnt wood and bronze, 73 x 64 x 41 in. Photo: © Tallur L.N., Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY

RP: How do you see Obituary Note differing from the earlier Unicode (2011), in which the framing bronze ring is filled with concrete and coins?
TLN: Unicode is a language of characters, which forms a common global platform capable of transcending the medium, and it inevitably absorbs symbols from all over the world. This standardization/monoculture could be disastrous—God of Concrete and God of Money are our new unicodes.

RP: Could you walk me through Chromathophobia (2012), its references to the Buddha and its use of wood, coins, and viewer participation?
TLN: In Chinese culture, the “Happy Man,” or Laughing Buddha, is a symbol of money, prosperity, and wealth, like the salmon, the horseshoe, the horn of plenty, or Fortuna, the Goddess of Luck, in the West. It is believed that a rich man gave away all his wealth and became a Buddhist monk, traveling to different villages to spread his laughter, which was contagious—all who gathered would start laughing. In his right hand, he carried a cloth sack filled with precious items. He used to keep it on the floor and pick it up only to take it with him to the next village. When asked why he did this, Laughing Buddha said, “It is simple, keeping your problem down.” Keeping the bag down symbolically means to “dissociate from your problem,” “separate from it,” and yes, just laugh.

In my work, I asked people to hammer their coins on the wooden log, so that the Laughing Buddha can carry all their greed. Meanwhile, when you do this as a therapy, the accumulation of coins will not allow Laughing Buddha to go to another village.

RP: I understand that you spend about half of every year in South Korea. How did this come about? What does being in South Korea bring to your work?
TLN: For about 10 years now, I have been dividing my time between the South Indian town of Kundapura and the South Korean city of Daegu. Kundapura gives me shelter during the Korean winter, and the Indian summer sends me to Daegu. My wife is South Korean, and my daughter, Yuna Tallur, goes to school there. The two locations contribute different perspectives to my practice and thinking, and this continuous shift breaks any conditioning. I love thinking about India from South Korea. All of my planning happens in South Korea, and the execution happens in India. The time that I spend in India is always very intense.

Still Life, 2009. Feather, silicone, thread, sand, and machine, 60 x 70 x 40 cm. Photo: © Tallur L.N., Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY

RP: Do some works more clearly reflect the South Korean influence?
TLN: In 2007, there was a major oil spill along the Yellow Sea coast of Taean County in South Korea. It was a spectacular tragedy. I still can’t forget the mood and the landscape. After a few months, I found industrial silicone in the market; this is a petroleum by-product with characteristics similar to wet oil. I started using it for its ability to look like it was just made, as well as for its flexibility—even finger impressions are visible.

In Untitled (2007), I tried to understand the medium better. This work and Still Life (2009) deal directly with my experience of the oil spill. Still Life was made in Arario Studio on Jeju Island, south of the South Korean peninsula, where I collected seaside remains, mixing bird feathers with silicone to try to re-create the experience.

When concept and medium become one, the work carries a quality of completeness. I try to find new materials and think about them. In South Korea, where I regularly visit industrial and technology fairs, I am exposed to a lot of new materials.

RP: After studying in India, at about the age of 30, you went to Leeds to pursue a Masters. Did that experience translate into a conceptual strengthening of the aesthetic refinement, historical elements, and social concerns in your work? And where does South Korea come in? Or looking back, have the influences been something completely different?
TLN: In 1999, I got an award and had the opportunity to show in New York. At that time, I was studying for a degree in museology at the University of Baroda in India. It was my first trip abroad, and I was thrilled. When I returned, I felt that I wanted to study more, at a university overseas if possible. I got a Commonwealth scholarship and studied for an MA in Contemporary Fine Art Practice at Leeds Metropolitan University. The refinement process that started there was intense—the cultural shock was overwhelming. My Korean college classmate in India also went to the U.K. to study English. This led to our marriage, and my Korean connection started. When I look back at my studies, stays, and trips abroad, nothing much changed internally. These experiences confirmed some of my thoughts and ideas, and built more confidence.

The Bell and the Cat, 2013. Bronze, steel, and cow dung, 60 x 24 x 24 in. Photo: Photo: © Tallur L.N., Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY

RP: The Bell and the Cat (2013) and Halal 1 (2014) disturb me. What do these works mean to you, and what do you hope viewers will get from them?
The “Bell and the Cat” fable was obligatory subject matter for a 1954 “Tom and Jerry” animated movie. When Jerry the mouse’s efforts to bell the cat through stealth prove futile, an innocent young mouse under Jerry’s tutelage succeeds by giving Tom the bell as a present, which he happily accepts. Halls of fame are always full of such belled cats, and time plays a cat-and-mouse game with a society’s images of fame and success.

In Halal 1, the death has an approval. The animal must be slaughtered with a sharp knife by cutting the throat, windpipe, and the blood vessels in the neck, causing the animal’s death without cutting the spine. The blood from the veins is drained.

RP: Could you explain the ideas behind Intolerance 2015 (2016) and Threshold (2015), which together make for a wild comparison?
TLN: In some religions, devotees stack stones to build a tall pile, but they fail to balance them. Here, I have created an illusion of stones piled up effortlessly, but, in fact, it is a single stone. In the 2017 version, viewers can also add graffiti with an electric engraver.

I feel that we are living in an era of necessary hazards. We know they are stones—they are heavy, and it is painful to carry them—but we have happily lapped them up. In an ambitious quest for a better tomorrow, we have piled up this necessary and iconic pain. We pretend to be tolerant of it, but this is actually “intolerance” toward the present.

Tempering is a process of heat-treating that increases the toughness of iron while also reducing some hardness after reaching the Threshold. That means blades pass through much higher temperatures to become flexible. This treatment is needed from time to time. It is like Verse 7, Chapter IV, of the Bhagavad Gita: “It is Faith, which teaches renunciation and is responsible for the elevation and well-being of human beings. Whenever righteousness declines and unrighteousness prevails, I manifest myself with all my powers to restore Faith.”

We are living at a time when the boiling/melting point has already been attained. Society has mastered the art of walking on the edge. We believe that a remedy exists for every problem, that all the gaps between our actions and our thoughts can be filled, and that everything we do is in the right direction. This confidence in human action and behavior is of huge interest for me as an artist, and my recent show, “Threshold,” explored those sensitive areas and tried to validate the convictions behind these thoughts.

Threshold, 2017. Iron band, saw blade, and holder, approx. 624 x 48 x 126 in. Photo: Sunil Raju, Courtesy the artist and Chemould Prescott Road

RP: Dagger without Cloak (2015) and Halo X Body 1, 2, 3 (2014) spin my thoughts in directions I’m not sure I want to go. What are they saying?
TLN: A body is the personification of a being, but the image of that personification may or may not fit within that body—there is always a tension between the halo and the body. This tension is of interest to me. Animals develop horns, claws, and teeth to defend themselves. For a craftsman, it’s his livelihood to make crafts of this horn. Ivory, elephant tusk carving, is banned in India. So, craftsmen moved on to sheep, buffalo, bullhorns.

RP: Do you always make your own work? How often do you have assistants or craftspeople working in your studio?
TLN: In the case of my recent show, “Smoke Out,” in Mumbai, technology helped me to work in two different countries. I have an idea sketchbook that I constantly review. Once I feel that an idea is working, I start making models myself in clay, or synthetic clay, and then do more research. A year ago, I bought a 3D scanner. I scan the sculpture and then rework the piece. The data is sent to a company in India to do the milling in different materials—this time, most of works were done in stone.

At each stage in the process, I review the milling; I try to show the signs of that process, which is important to me. Then the work comes back to my studio, where I rework it again by carving some parts or adding a different object. Basically, I leave all those signals that indicate what the work has passed through. Each of my works has its own story of making. Concept, research, and demand lead the way to make the work in a certain way.

RP: Is everything a Balancing Act (2013)?
TLN: Ideally not. When a person comments on a certain thing, it cannot be a balancing act. It is the person’s stand at that point in time, and if it is a balancing stand, that means the person is a fence sitter.

Robert Preece is a Contributing Editor for Sculpture.