Shanthamani & Marc Thebault elevate bamboo to an art medium
Bengaluru-based senior artist Shanthamani Muddaiah collaborates with French artist Marc Thebault, to transform bamboo into an art medium, at the show B. Reigns, at Gallery Sumukha, Bengaluru. An interaction with the artists:
Could you begin by telling us a little about your Studio Bilwara in Bangalore? How important is it for you, to be close to nature, while conceiving and working on your projects?
Shanthamani Muddaiah: Studio Bilwara, located on the outskirts of Bangalore, became a reality after 20 years of working in various odd places. It was planned specifically for an artist who can work with different kinds of materials simultaneously.
It being contained in nature only adds to the kinds of concerns I am preoccupied with - we have forgotten how plants interact, negotiate and react to things around them – and in being surrounded by their intelligence I have discovered a great place to learn.
Besides that, it has given me a space to scale up my works as I desire, and perceive the scale differently in the nature. It also has a space to house other creative people to create, discuss and share, another of its significant advantages.
Marc Thebault: I was born in Brittany (Western France) at the seaside, in a small town. My first emotions were related to this coastal area, where the various combinations with stone, light and water create an idea of the landscape.
When I visited Shanthamani’s studio for the first time, I was particularly sensitive to this specific surrounding, and felt back the same kind of emotion, because the terrace, the vegetal background, the lake and a very typical light at different times of a day.
So for sure, it a was a great privilege to work in such a place. I came there four times, and elaborated in situ the main lines of the B.Reigns project, which refers to the historical differentiation between vegetal reign, mineral reign and animal reign.
During these four stays, the presence of wild animals all around was also a new experience for me. So I tried to bring back all these feelings in the sculptures I did. For example, a kind of big crawling snake, easy to see, under the “traveller’s palm”.
We've known you for working with various mediums so far, from coal to cinder blocks. What about bamboo appealed to you, as a medium that is ideal for large-scale installations?
SM: As you know, for the past ten years I have been trying to understand the material carbon, and its role in our life. Our world focuses intently only on one form of carbon (monoxide) that is affecting our environment.
I believe that solutions can only be found in journeying deeper, to the source, and in the journey of understanding carbon, I have located myself at the center of our ideals of development, growth and politics – every aspect of our life is connected to some form of carbon, so I have been eager to experiment with the many forms that it has.
Recently, however, bamboo has taken a greater focus in most parts of the world. It’s qualities like rapid growth, tensile fiber and elements of silica have been explored as solutions to our problems. Bamboo can grow into full timber in 4 years, it can burn at very high temperatures with only 2% ash (waste), one can extract 82% ethanol from bamboo shoots, and it can greatly increase oxygen levels where ever it grows.
Bamboo carbon is used in all filters, for processes like air and water purification. My choice in material is an attempt to be part of the solution-making process rather than making art purely for aesthetic purposes.
MT: I’m used to different materials. I usually adapt the choice of the materials according to what I want to express. In my practice, I’m used to combining several materials. For the B.Reigns project, I wanted only used local material that I could find easily in India. Of course, the bamboo, but also specific stones - marble from Rajasthan, Mysore soapstone, and one stone found on a path nearby the studio.
The choice of bamboo was dictated by the will to use an eco-friendly material, to ensure that the pieces of art reflect an adverse impact on the environment.
How do the characteristics of bamboo change when burnt? And what manner of quality do you hope to evoke out of a material like burnt bamboo? Is it easy to work with?
SM: Bamboo can be bent either with heat or steam, but I would prefer to use fire rather than steam to bend bamboo, because of my existing interest in carbon. The silica becomes brittle once it cools down, and that is how it retains its shape. Burning wood is a way of keeping wood protected, as carbon is its neutral form.
We have bamboo craft traditions that creates delicate forms, but in contemporary usage bamboo is mostly looked at as a rigid material with verticality as its primary characteristic. The challenge is to explore the flexibility of the material to create works.
MT: The look of bamboo pipes is changed by covering them with coloured threads of cotton. I wanted to be sure, at the first glance, that we can forget the image of bamboo. Also, these threads of cotton are produced by the firm DMC, in front of my studio in Mulhouse, France.
It is the only material that I come with. Of course, historically, this firm was in connection with India. So in a way, I wanted to bring back what traditionally belongs to India, from where I’m living now.
Was it elementary to pair the materials of bamboo and handmade paper? Do they make for great companion mediums? Tell us a little about the other materials you're experimenting with at the moment.
SM: Bamboo paper has been made for centuries now, and our perceived harmony of these two materials is deeply rooted in eastern tradition- for instance, the Japanese build houses from wood, bamboo and paper, and we have been seeing bamboo and paper in kite form from our very childhood.
My conscious choices have been to work with natural materials as much as I could, and my initial interest was to explore paper and paper pulp. As I progressed, I embedded photos and textiles into the paper, and later on materials like charcoal got fused into it as well.
Now, along with paper and charcoal I have adopted cinder, the waste byproduct of coal burning. Besides this, I remain a person who thinks through drawing, so much of my work is two-dimensional still.
MT: My last work, entitled “Carvirna Birana”, has been made with local material from the region where I’ve been living these last seven years. I mean, Alsace in East of France. This region is known for its beer, and the quality of the water, like in south Germany.
So, as a sculptor, I decided to make a piece of art through exclusive brewing, with a specific formulation, adding typical seeds from the area to get an original flavour. The name of this seed is Carvi.
Tell us a little about the traditional architectural elements from Karnataka that you sought inspiration from, for your new works. How do you hope to pay tribute to the region's architectural history?
SM: When I was working on “Drop/Argya”, I visited Belur and Halebeedu, an example of some of the finest stone carvings in the world. I took the basic elements of those carvings to adopt into my sculpture of bamboo.
It was interesting to deal with a primarily decorative element while still retaining my expression. "Drop/Argya" is a drop of liquid, or in my context, ink that drops and splatters onto the earth.
MT: I don’t know Karnataka architecture specifically, but for one sculptural work, I studied the achitecture in a village in Bannerghatta, Bengaluru, which resumes the main lines about what architecture could be, in a very simple graphic drawing.
It reminds me of the Greek approach to temple design. And also the question of ruins, and the passing of time. At the end, vegetation will win. So the green cotton threads recover an architectural design for this sculpture.
How do you see things changing, in terms of a more engaging visual experience, for viewers interacting with art today? How do you hope to augment art appreciation, and make things more meaningful and relevant?
SM: Art has branched out greatly, accommodating for advances in technology in a desperate effort to connect with the common man at the street-level. Our world today is hard-pressed with many strata of crises that we have brought upon ourselves.
In the the name of belief, we have turned violent - creating an exodus of homelessness, in the name of growth - we are threatened by global warming, and in the name of supremacy - we perform the most inhuman of crimes against each other.
At such a time, it is crucial to rethink our practice and engagement. Therefore, all efforts of critical thought to remain natural, sustainable and community-oriented are extremely important.
MT: A piece of art is, per definition, unnecessary. So its value is just to open on symbolic ways of thinking. For instance, to use bamboo for the main structure of these sculptures, is better for the planet and sustainable development than steel, plastics or even wood.
Could you give us a quick walk-through of the works at your new show? How much of this will feel like actually walking around a garden, or perhaps, a tour of your own studio and its environs?
SM: This show is not about recreating a garden or my studio environment. It was an effort to think about natural fibers and materials in the practice of art, it was about creating a platform to bring people to think and reflect about the possibilities for an alternative material, one that is fragile and bound by the natural cycle, and at the same time have sustained our existence for all this while. Our aspirations of immortality or permanence is unfortunately unnatural.
MT: Exactly thirty years ago, I did an exhibition in Maastricht, the Netherlands, on the question of "forking paths". It means, everything is just a question of a point of view. The French artist Marcel Duchamp said it was the "viewer that made the picture"!
That means, it belongs to the artist to take care. It belongs to the artist to see, to think and to do. Many things are linked with others, but we don’t know if it exists in a right way! So, it is best to accept the freedom than life is offering.
On view at Gallery Sumukha till January 13, 2018. Details: 2229-2230.