Interview of Graveyards of Utopia with Poonam Jain
Clark House looks transformed. Walls are flipped like pages in a story. Rows of meditative lines crawl on the wall. Numbers are tirelessly counted. And books swell up with feathers ready to take flight. With her first solo show at Clark House loftily titled Graveyards of Utopia, the graduate from Rachana Sansad, Mumbai is already being touted as an artist to note. In conversation with Poonam Jain, she takes us around Clark House while explaining the concept behind the show, things that influences her works and her take on art punctuated with dreamy pauses and riotous chuckles.
Tell us about the concept behind your show Graveyards of Utopia.
The title of the show is appropriated from my earlier earbud sculpture Graveyards of Utopia presented at INSERT 2014.The exhibition looks at the idea of utopia to explore personal and civilisational attempts at infinity and perfection. Our actions to mend the world arise in fact from our past failures which never cease to outgrow the errors. Architecturally, the show is conceived like a book with page numbers stencilled on each wall and artworks named after chapters of a story.
Your drawings are extremely meticulous alternating between being text-based and statistical. How much is your preoccupation with counting informed by your Jain upbringing?
Being a Jain, I have a habit of counting. I remember as a child, we had Samayiks, a Jain ritual in which one meditates, recites rosary for 48 minutes. There is a clock nearby which helps keep time. In the absence of a rosary, we would count on our fingers. In “Evidence of Hope/Infinity”, I count till the pages exhaust and the sequence of numbers tire. In “Small Worlds”, I write text, scribbles and quotations from my sketchbook on the wall counting the recurrence of alphabets alongside the zigzag pattern. I guess there is a lot of carry-over and borrowing here.
At first glance, your works looks very neat and well-positioned. A closer inspection reveals that you are unafraid to make mistakes. There is a bare, un-embellished quality to your works.
My work is very organic and process based. It’s hard to be very strict with my works. For example in “Letter to Me,” I have distorted the meaning of language to convey a poem where the plaster cast apple signifies A and a fish signifies F. These sculptural compositions follow a visual rhythm as well as adhere to practical concerns of holding the installation together. I let my works evolve and dissolve boundaries. Many people asked me why I did not paint these objects; I did not see a need to do so. The juxtaposition of “Evidence of Hope/Infinity” with found Wikipedia page brings out the polarity between the manual and the mechanical. I do not strive for perfection in my works. In fact in one of my works titled -101, each alphabet of the text “Perfection is equal to infinity is equal to purity” has been ironically written using a geometric ruler which is used to measure and determine finiteness.
A lot of your work deals with architecture and spaces. The organic character of the city seems to resonate with your need to let your works evolve fending off strict confinements. How has living in a crowded metropolis like Mumbai influenced your work?
Like most artists, my works are semi-autobiographical in the sense that they reference my experiences which gets expressed in a visual vocabulary that I carve out. Take for example, MHADA-101. It re-constructs a MHADA colony where I live with a network of erasers punched halfway in the centre to resemble houses separated by narrow gullys that run between them. The grid-like pattern is not uniformly perpendicular and seems to quiver at places unlike a planned town. The shaved bits of erasers fallen on the floor symbolises the household discard which becomes inseparable once put together. In fact, the big dustbin outside my house has become a convenient landmark of sorts. The suburbs of Goregaon finds expression once again in Liquid Sky which is a documentation on a split screen of the dirty nallah and the clear blue sky by placing an acrylic sheet over the nallah.
What other influences are present in your work?
Having been raised in a traditional Jain family, I had two options before me-to get married or become a nun. I choose to become a nun. After joining art school, I learnt that I could seek my freedom through art. In Muhpatti, the white cloth used to cover the mouth is made using paper hung by a string on the wall. An exaggerated smile is painted over it to denote the expectation to be nice at all times. In a way, this helps define my background. I have also used images from my dad’s stationery shop and text from James Joyce’s writings as well as verses from my poems and sketchbook scribbles in my works. The childhood method of associating an object with every alphabet is used to convey a 17 line verse I wrote a while back.
The idea of multiples is inherent in my works. I feel that atoms, molecules, galaxies, universe-nothing is really unique-every species have their own copy. Even products are mechanically made and have copies.
Many of your works are like visual puzzles waiting to be decoded. Often, you are wittingly teasing the spectator’s obedience by setting them up to tasks that are seemingly impossible to achieve like in “Match the following” or penning sentences that do not complete to form a story driving the viewer’s curiosity to a tedious yet piquant pursuit.
I like to unlearn and unfix the object and its materiality. I often distort language- what we see and what we hear- the two major channels of communication. While I would like audiences to decode and read the text or verse of my poem, I don’t pass judgement in my works. For me, the letters are lines or forms that form a visual pattern.
Are there any particular artists whose work influences you?
I admire a lot of artists and their work. But I cannot borrow things very easily. My practice is very process based. There are twenty things happening in my studio and it’s all interconnected. I avoid using elements or ideas that do not personally resonate with my practice. I personally believe that art is shit. Everything I try to do is what I have digested and everything I want to throw will come out as art. I may not understand everything I am doing, but I know it’s important for me to do it.
Image Courtesy: Clark House, Colaba, Mumbai. Interviewed and written by Habiba Insaf for Artsome. Graveyard of Utopia is on view at Clark House until Thursday, August 7. Visiting hours are 11 am to 7 pm daily.