Pervasive Expansion, 2016–19. Staple pins and mirror, 120 x 96 in. Photo: Courtesy AICON Gallery, NY

How We Live: A Conversation with Pooja Iranna

Pooja Iranna coaxes industrial materials and office accessories, including cement, mirrors, and staples, into thought-provoking portrayals of how the world and its proliferating cities are evolving. Her recent exhibition “Silently—a proposed plan for rethinking the urban fabric” ended with a chilling film that enacted the rapid colonization of the earth’s remaining green space. By the end, we had caged ourselves, the green gone forever.

Chitra Balasubramaniam: “Silently” issued a coherent message, conveyed through works created over the course of your career. Have your interests remained constant over time, changing only in terms of visual expression?
Pooja Iranna: “Silently” could be considered a mid-review of my work. It was a show from the heart. The city, and its relationship with its inhabitants, has always fascinated me, particularly in terms of how we live and how cities are changing all over the world. Inorganic growth is choking us. Geographically based diversity—of peoples and cultures, heritage and history—is being lost every day, taken over by mass-produced, mass-manufactured growth and insane development. This story is being played out all over the world.

Almost Clones (2018), an installation of my signature staples ensconced in cement, shows how design worldwide is becoming monochromatic. Buildings look the same everywhere—Shanghai, New York, Tokyo, Cairo, Delhi. In the name of efficiency and mass production, we are simply cloning everything and losing local heritage and culture. Installed in a hemisphere and reflected in a mirror, these 50 forms reinforce the message of monotony. This is how the entire earth will look. There will be nothing left for future generations. Studying our relationship with the urban world and expressing it in my way have remained constants in my journey as an artist.

Almost Clones, 2018. Cement, staple pins, and mirror, 50 pieces, 14 x 1 x 1 in. each. Photo: Courtesy AICON Gallery, NY

CB: You are not an architect, yet you are fascinated with the urban lifescape. Where do you think this obsession began?
I have been fascinated by open spaces since I was a child. I was born in Delhi and continue to live there. My grandfather was a well-known architect in the Central Public Works Department during the 1950s and ’60s. This may have triggered the fascination. We used to live at the Triveni Kala Sangam, Connaught Place, which is in central Delhi. We could see the sky from our terrace. Then suddenly, the view transformed in front of my eyes. What had been a pleasant place with open space to walk was now choc-a-bloc with high-rises. To me, this evolution is heartbreaking. Delhi today is almost dead, with no room to breathe. There is no life, no open space, just mindless buildings. Every inch has been built over. Squeezed (2016–19) shows how we are all forced into tiny apartments that promise a luxury lifestyle. But the promise is false; it’s a sweetened pill, which we consume, not knowing it is a slow killer. We are trapped.

CB: Why do you use inorganic materials?
These materials make high-rise apartments, malls, shops, and office complexes. Build, sell, destroy, rebuild— greed has taken over human existence. Why this mindless cycle? Who is it for? Someone will have to shake us from this stupor. So I use my staples, custom-made colored carbon, cement, canvas, cardboard, acrylic sheet, mud, and photographs. Together, they convey my meaning in a way that makes me happy. Assorted Aggregation (2018–19) is done on glass panels, and it hangs so that viewers walk through a narrow passage, with the work suspended on both sides. There is a sense of claustrophobia, just like with high-rise construction. When you are ensconced within them, you realize the suffocation of inorganic materials.

Reconciliation attempts, 2019. Staple pins, 19 x 16 x 16 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

CB: You are able to manipulate your materials to express the nuances of your ideas. Were these conscious choices or unconscious accidents that then became preferred materials over the years?
The initial choice may have been intuitive, but it has been a well-thought-out process. I know my material and what it can do. I also know what I want to say and am very sure about what I want to show and how. It is an internalized process. I do not draw beforehand; I have an installation in my mind and slowly work it out. Wastages cannot be high because things are expensive. Each of my installations is put together by me. I use a special glue to affix the staples and work on it slowly so that it all comes together. I work on several pieces at one time. My studio is a work in progress involving all of my work. I use multiple mediums for expressing what I want to say, including graphics, video, installation, and cardboard designed to form jigsaw puzzles.

CB: The nine-minute video Silently makes the growing concrete jungle palpable, allowing us to see development gnawing away at green space. It is funny how we create problems and then look for solutions.
PI: Silently covers the entire message of my work. I took the photographs and recorded the sounds of the birds and the forests while traveling. The building forms that gradually enclose the green area are from the “Proposed Drawing” and “Juxtaposed Expansion” series, which reflect on how architects are trying monetize every inch of space; I animated the ink-on-polyester-film “Proposed Drawings.” I wanted to use video to show exactly how we are slowly, silently being suffocated without realizing it, how we accept the illusion that greenery and the environment are being protected.

A Twist in the Tale II, 2014. Staple pins, 5.5 x 8.5 x 44 in. Photo: Courtesy Kiren Nadar Museum of Art

CB: Are there other effects of this insane development?
I am also interested in how historical cultures are facing a losing battle for survival. Ancient monuments are being destroyed or dwarfed by new constructions. In the “Intruder” series, I use layered photos, sometimes broken down into jigsaw puzzles, to show how old structures are being pushed out. The title poses a rhetorical question: Who is the intruder? Is it the old monument because it gets in the way of development? Or are we the ones who are intruding and breaking the historical thread that links past and present?