Untitled, from “Love,” 2006. Aluminum, brass, electric wire, motor, and mechanical device, 111 x 110 x 22 in.

Futility and Enchantment: A Conversation with Sudarshan Shetty

“The setting of the installation plays out the falseness and futility in the objects, the artificial. Our engagement with the world of objects is very connected to our own mortality. In our making and gathering of objects, there is a sense of futility. And we continue to engage in this futility knowing full well it is not real. The market plays on this notion. Enchantment and disenchantment can happen at the same time,” says Sudarshan Shetty. Unedited reality, tinged with philosophy, forms the conceptual basis of his sculptures and installations—so much so that the objects themselves can become incidental in the face of the thoughts, emotions, and connotations that they reveal. Shetty’s works provoke, entertain, and enthrall, luring the viewer into another world. Drawing on the artist’s personal history, these creations inspire us to recall or imagine similar experiences, thus establishing a bond or connection that creates a thought-provoking dimension of its own.

Untitled, from “Listen outside this house,” 2011. Wood and Perspex, 102 x 102 x 138 in.

Born in Mangalore in 1961, Shetty is now based in Mumbai, a city that echoes through many of his works. His love for painting and sculpture developed early: “I was good at painting in school and won many awards for it. Also, I was making money painting portraits.” Though he wanted to take up painting professionally, when the choice of a career came, family pressure convinced him to study commerce in order to secure a good job. Shetty recalls, “I was miserable doing it, so eventually I gave it up and went to study at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art.” Here, he became interested in contemporary art and began to play with various mediums, an approach that continues to define his sculptures and installations: “I first worked with found objects, putting them together and painting over them, while studying painting.”

Shetty’s kinetic sculpture installations evolved out of early experiments with mechanized motors. When he went to Ahmedabad to study at the Kanoria Centre for Arts, he added another component to his repertoire and began to cast found objects in different materials. For example, he cast a bottle in terra cotta, fiberglass, and bronze. From here, he started to combine objects in larger installations. “The objects,” Shetty explains, “were humble items for everyday use, which are usually never given a thought. The putting together of these diverse objects was such that they generated surprise as to why they were together; there was something absurd about it. This created a sense of togetherness for the objects.” The process of combining these objects was sometimes conscious and sometimes subliminal, almost subconscious. In his installations, everyday objects—teacups, terra-cotta pots, and tables—are cleverly juxtaposed in curious ensembles that lead beyond ordinary forms and functions.

As Shetty says, “Our concept of art is shaped by the Modernist art of the West, which we imbibed without questioning it.” In the West, knowledge arises from knowing the world, which then helps in the understanding of the individual. In India, it is the reverse: understand yourself well, and then it is easier to understand the world. Shetty’s work has moved from West to East: “Where earlier [my work] was assimilating or moving toward the center, today, I start with the core, the essence, and then construct around it.”

Speaking about his exhibition “Listen outside this House,” Shetty says, “In my latest show, I have started to use words from my own experience, though it might be classified as fiction. The texts are written as third-person accounts of an experience that could be mine or could belong to anyone. It is generic. The words are written in one line: 150 words read in one go breathlessly without full stops or commas. It allows for the world of words to have an opportunity in the world of objects.” The words have little or no correlation to the objects; instead, they offer a possibility that evokes a response, triggers something in the memory or imagination.

The phrase “Listen outside this house” conjures myriad interpretations, including relevance to the world beyond art. Is it a way to reach out and include everyone by picking up nuances from the common world? A way of connecting the artist’s imagination to everyday life, and giving it an impact in the real world? Viewers are drawn to Shetty’s work because he does not impose a viewpoint; everyone can interpret his fluid compositions in a personal way.

Untitled, from “this too shall pass,” 2010. Wooden chair, paint on fiberglass, neon, stainless steel, and glass vitrine, 141 x 92 x 92 cm.

In “Listen outside this house,” a work made from a jacket, a shirt, wood, letter transfers, and paint is overpainted with a circle of words that repeat the phrase “what will change is what will last.” The paradox goes around in an endless circle, the words bringing out the duality of change and permanence, the absolute nothingness of everything, and the potential irrelevance of it all. In another installation, words taken from film hoardings are strung together in a poetic presentation of the mundane. Pages from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata appear with highlighted words, as Shetty looks “for my own story within them.” Written around a dilapidated historical monument, the words, “He saw her waiting at the bus stop across the street from where they met as he walked by and never looked back to know if he was dreaming,” bring out the fact that nothing is permanent. The stringing of the words creates a continuous present, though the past tense again reveals the play of opposites.

Duality also characterizes the series “Between the tea cup and a sinking constellation” (2011) in which a teacup stands in for the concerns of the present, while a sinking constellation captures the transient nature of it all. The notion of the momentary gave a layer of edge to Shetty’s exhibition at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. “this too shall pass” (2010) underscored the irony behind the desire to make the past into a present. Shetty does not find anything depressing about such plays with mortality and juxtapositions of life and death, explaining, “It is the truth, and we subconsciously acknowledge it, but still go about the mundane, cyclical process of enchantment and disenchantment which leads to creation.”

Shetty’s materials might seem secondary to his message, but that is not the case: “Over the years, you acquire a sense of rigor in what you do. Rigor is very important. The choice of the medium/material becomes second nature.” Ideas now synchronize perfectly with materials. The years of hard work have resulted in the honing of craftsmanship and skill, so that he understands what the material is capable of doing or what associations it can raise. The material itself works in the background, while the concept occupies the foreground. Shetty gives the example of a work made of wood and motors from “this too shall pass,” which replicates a demolished car down to the minutest detail. Using a material such as bronze or fiberglass would have required working with a mold and resulted in an extension of the crashed object. With wood, the event is re-created afresh and the thought plays out longer.

Some critics argue that such a degree of familiarity with materials carries the danger of repetition and stagnation, but Shetty doesn’t believe that this is a necessary outcome: “You want to sidestep any mannerism you may have gathered by making objects over the years. An artist’s job is to view the work from a distance, sidestep it, and view it from outside the studio space.”

Untitled, from “Between the teacup and a sinking constellation,” 2011. Wood, sword, stainless steel, mild steel, granite construction stone, rope and motor, 237 x 240 x 30 cm.

Drama plays a key role in Shetty’s installation. His father was an artist in the traditional Yakshagana theater, which combines dialogue, music, dance, costumes, and staging to hold audiences spell-bound. Shetty learned from this hybrid form, staging dramas within his installations that immerse viewers in the story and hold them riveted through a variety of means, including motorized accessories.

Shetty says that his inspiration comes from “nearly everything.” His 2006 show, “Love,” grew out of a visit to a school for the blind and centered on Braille as a focal point. In “this too shall pass,” a statue works with a slot-machine-operated mechanism. A wooden lattice door carved with a tree of life motif was inspired by Ahmedabad’s Sidi Saiyyed mosque and carved by craftsmen at Mumbai’s Crawford Market who usually work on antique reproductions.

Shetty is currently working on a bus project for Mumbai, the city of dreams. Will he ever get back to painting? Right now he is more interested in moving further out into the world: “Installation is working with people and a group, while painting is a solitary exercise requiring another kind of mental make-up and rigor.”