lIn September, Bharti Kher installed Ancestor, a monumental statue of a hybrid female deity, in New York’s Central Park. Five and a half meters high, cast in bronze, it is the largest and most publicly visible work by the London-born New Delhi artist. However, as this exhibition shows, small gestures can sometimes have more power than a public monument. Sometimes this apparent whisper of a show roars with justified anger.
Kher has a distinctive material language by using self-adhesive felt bindis – colored dots or shapes worn on the forehead – as readymades. She uses it to build up pictures, both in rhythmic patterns and a secret language, as spherical abstractions like bacteria viewed under a microscope. Large bindi works line Arnolfini’s upper gallery – rich and handsome pieces, mesmerizing by their simple use of repeating forms. In several works, seductive matte felt is set against a layer of shimmering or metallic paint. The simplest play with optical effects, but Kher achieves a surprising complexity with apparently limited resources: not exactly pointillism, but something more scientific and atomized.
Her ‘balance’ sculptures use ready-made elements to achieve something understated and harmonious. They make me deeply anxious. Granite cones — which appear to be ancient architectural components — rest on three concrete pedestals, each about the artist’s weight. On this balance a huge wooden sledgehammer, a spindly wooden frame resembling a deconstructed easel, and a decorative metal rod set off center with its long handle and offset by two ceramic flasks. Sneezing in the vicinity of these works is horrifying.
There is less unnerving balance in Consummate Joy and a Sisyphean Task (2019). Wood components at different processing levels, including half-cut slices from a log, with bark on one side and smooth curves on the other, sit between a smooth finished horn shape and a hanging loop. Through the wooden loop, on a coarse wooden pedestal, a beautiful lump of red jasper is seen. Here the rock of Sisyphus is not a rough rock, but a precious thing. In the wooden pieces we see the results of repetitive movements: the smoothing and shaping that turns raw material into something smooth and elegant. Sisyphus’s task is seen as a meditative endeavor rather than a punishment.
This relationship between flesh and stone, rough and coarse, is reflected in a series of objects constructed in clumped layers of plaster, jute and colored wax. Somewhere in them are apparently casts of human body parts. The layers of color built up instead transform them into geodes, rocks fringed with banded quartz and crystals. They look like geological specimens on reflective copper plates.
Kher’s ongoing Virus series, begun in 2010, is conceptually heavy. I struggle to understand. Physically it comes down to a colored spiral made in large bindis on the wall, which Kher imagines as a portal through time. It is intended to be a work spanning 30 years, with each annual version accompanied by a text that records personal and geopolitical events and makes predictions for the future. There is something going on here with incremental changes that are so small that only the individual will notice them, and generally become more apparent over longer periods of time. I feel that the work is almost so private that it is hermetic.
Most visitors to the Arnolfini, like me, will start in the lower gallery. It features smaller works on paper, but really, this is the meat of the show. Around the walls are sketches and experiments. It’s exciting to see an artist of this size surrender so freely and playfully to the page. There are splats and smears, finger paints, careful minimalist compositions and wild ecstasy of clashing techniques and colors. It’s interesting to see how this apparent free play translates directly into the more controlled bindi paintings upstairs.
In the center of the gallery is Links in a Chain, from 2016, a series of double-sided works on paper, each displayed in a free-standing black metal frame. Adapted from pages of an old children’s reading book populated by blond anglo kids playing stereotypical gender roles, Kher has it ripped here. It’s like a cultural vomiting – a vomiting response to metabolized behavior and learned norms. Clad with neurological diagrams and showers of destructive sperm-shaped bindis, the pages are defaced with alternate text, including terms of sexist and racist abuse.
“Tim and Spot” becomes “Victim, Homeland, Despot,” while another page reads, “Foresee Sally’s hysteria: It’s from her childhood.” Kher treats these children’s lyrics – so reminiscent of Britain’s nostalgic disease – as a kind of brainwashing, symptoms of cultural hypnosis. Here childhood is something that happens to neatly dressed white children in the countryside, where boys are boys and girls are girls. The raging energy of these works is intoxicating, especially in a show elsewhere devoted to balance, harmony and meditative gestures of repetition.