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Sheela Gowda – 'Art Is About How You Look At Things'

Sheela Gowda is an artist living and working in Bengalaru (formerly Bangalore), India. The artist moved from painting to three-dimensional work in the 1990s in reaction to India’s political unease. Gowda’s work is rooted in her experience of daily life in Bengalaru, observing the coexistence of ritual and superstition alongside modern urban and economic transformation. Behold (2009) consists of two contrasting materials, steel car bumpers and knotted human hair. Behold was inspired by the humble talismans of human hair that are knotted around car bumpers to ward off bad luck. The hair comes from local temples, where it is cut off as a sacrificial offering when pilgrims fulfil sacred vows. In today’s consumer driven world, the longer lengths are sold to make wigs or supply keratin for beauty products, while the shorter sections are kept to make protective talismans, such as those used by motorists. Sheela Gowda's Behold (2009) on display at Tate Modern: http://goo.gl/hAFR90. Created by Tate.

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Video transcript

I'm Sheela Gowda, an artist, I live in Bangalore in South India. I started out as a painter, but now I work with sculptural installations and also painting, but in a very different way. I am constantly, kind of, observing and you observe from a personal point of view, you observe from finding something that's new or surprising and not everything that you find becomes material for a work, but there is a moment when an idea and a material comes together. I think it's all the more relevant at this point in India to do what I'm doing, things are changing really quickly, but I don't think what's happening now is necessarily a positive, in fact we are going backwards in many ways. So this is my studio that I built first, before I built my house and it's a custom-built studio and was actually quite large when I built it but it has shrunk. There's so much stuff in it and also my work seems to have gotten bigger and I'm a little bit of a hoarder, I don't let go of small things or big things which I think might be useful. So having brought something home to my studio and looking at it doesn't necessarily then lead to a work. It could be that action actually takes me to something else so these gestures of material locating or looking for one material and finding another, all these are certain processes of making or how a work comes about. For me the formal concerns of a work is very important and I see it as a big challenge to bring about an idea through a formal language and that is usually underlined by the material that I use. The material also has a different context of its own and so I try to either transform the material without changing its identity too much and I try to weave in my own ideas in the larger sense of the work, so both of them exist side by side. At no point has my work been sculpture, in the pure sense, it's always been a relationship to space or your relationship to it as a viewer, which is the case with the work 'Behold' which was done for the Venice Biennale. First time when I worked towards 'Behold' I had with me already the raw material for it, at least one part of it, which is the hair rope. I have been seeing this hair rope round around car bumpers for a long time and in the early 90s when I was becoming aware of materials for their own sake I also collected the hair rope because it was a very interesting object. I think it's used on the vehicle as a talisman. There is the question of being in control of a vehicle, at the same time there's a great vulnerability. Each row has probably hundreds of individuals' hair within it of all genders, ages, communities, so it was really a coming together of people and that was a starting point of that work. I felt that this aspect of the work would be underlined by creating a mass of it, so I joined up about the thousand pieces of this hair rope, so the whole thing came to about four kilometers. The next aspect of the work was to bring the bumpers, because there's a contrast between the organic material and industrial material like a car bumper, so the rotundity of the steel bumper the softness of the curvature of the bumper contrasted with a black of the hair, for something that I said 'okay now, now it's a question of "how do I use these two?"' and I thought like having the steel heavy elements being held up by the ropes was already a certain statement about the strength and the contrast between the two materials, so that's how 'Behold' came about this is an absolutely fascinating shop, I mean the variety is immense. I basically use things which are quite abstract and which I don't feel will abuse its original use. Like these for example, are like copper capsules which you wear around your arm or on your neck and inside will be put a rounded piece of paper, which will have some writing to ward off evil or whatever problems you might be having, but in itself it's not a sacrilegious thing to use so, what you see here are the different stages of the evolution of this figure but what I found was this this one interests me more, because this is somewhere between a piece of wood and possibly a representation of a person because you see two eyes and very rudimentary ways of carving out a figure and that's the kind of that thing that interests me, where form material and context come together the moment of transformation when something is very definitive there's not much more to say about it and you find something that's in that moment of being and not-being or becoming, I think that's far more challenging and interesting to actually appropriate for what you want to say. Art cannot be a kind of an illustration to an issue and I don't consider art to be an agent of social change alone. It occupies other spaces as well and I think one of it is about the exploration of language and the exploration of language actually leads you to philosophy, to aesthetics, to cultural differences in the way we see things or in the kind of things we engage with. I think art is also about how you look at things, how you evaluate things around you