You installed a large sculpture Succah in the garden of Camden Arts Centre in 1978. It then went on to be exhibited in WOOD at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 1979. You mentioned it was eventually sold to Lady Gibberd for her sculpture garden. Looking back this Succah seems like a particularly important precursor to your current BENGAL sculpture series. Could you talk a little about the initial concept for this work and how these early projects came about?
I created this work a year or so after I finished my postgraduate sculpture programme at the Slade. At that time, a deep-thinking and very good friend challenged me to look outside the language of art and into what he called my “collective unconscious”, which basically refers to what’s genetically inherited in one’s psyche other than personal experience. Referencing Jungian theory, he said that stored in my subconscious was a wealth of images, dreams and languages which I could tap into. Confused, yet inspired by this, I left the studio and stayed in my bedsit and just drew and drew and drew, and after a time, I seemed to somehow come up with these structures from which my Succah installation emerged. Some months later I checked these forms out in the Reading Room at the British Museum, and found that tabernacles from Mesopotamia centuries ago were conical and pyramidical structures on wheels. That is where my ancestors originally came from so I guess I must have inherited these dreams and images from them. The Succah is a Jewish temporary structure often built outside the home which is meant to signify a sort of transience. Exploring this structure and its relationship with history seemed to resonate with me particularly, and directed the narrative beyond art for art’s sake, instead towards a personal and cultural journey where I wanted to go.
Prior to your fine art practice you worked for many years in theatre constructing sets for a huge variety of projects including at The National Theatre and Royal Opera House. Do you feel this background has influenced your approach to the works you now create? I imagine there was a certain immediacy required when working on these projects and a need to be particularly creative with utilizing materials as a mode of storytelling? I know you mentioned that whilst watching the preparations for the Durga Puja Festival in Calcutta you were fascinated by the speed and ingenuity by which shrines and monuments were constructed for the celebrations.
Working on a theatre or film set, everything was needed quickly – so efficiency and to the point action was the prerequisite. I learned a great deal there, taking on so many challenges and disciplines; from making a miniature city entirely out of biscuits for an Italian biscuit commercial to large-scale steel and fibreglass abstract structures for the Royal Ballet; even an entire Indian village for the Museum of Mankind. I remember once seeing a large Gerhard Richter cloud painting at The Tate and thinking how it looked remarkably similar to the huge skies we used to paint on massive walls in film stages and paint frames in the theatre. There wasn’t any previous training for any of this. We just had to take it on, pretend we were skilled at all of this, and then somehow work our way through it. There was at the time, thankfully a great deal of trust from the theatres and production companies, so we didn’t want to let them down, and we needed to be paid! That’s show business folks!
Also looking back, it was very exciting working within a cultural context helping to tell stories through creative collaboration whether it be for a play, film or festival. The difference between what we did at the time and the artisans in India is that they mostly start from a very early age, therefore are so breathtakingly skilled at what they do. The important ritual element inherent to the structures and sculptures they produce every year is something I try to reflect when making my own work. There is also a coalescence of different influences which are all layered in the BENGAL series. When I went back to Calcutta in 2013, I visited to the Synagogue where my parents were married. It was during the Festival of Tabernacles, so constructed outside was a temporary Succah structure. It was also during the Hindu Durga Puja festival where, all over India, they construct very large temporary Pandals out of bamboo and many other materials. I’m always struck by the combined sense of transience, impermanence and theatricality bound up in these amazing structures, each repeated year after year.
I believe you returned to India partly because you were commissioned by the Arts Council and Christian Aid to make a series of sculptures engaging with issues of climate change in Bengal. This series has gone on to be exhibited in important institutions from Wolverhampton Art Museum to the High Commission of India in London. This Summer and Autumn the work will be taken on a touring exhibition Bengal: The Four Elements which will begin at Grizedale Sculpture Park in the Lake District. Could you talk about the original background for the series but also how the work has conceptually developed over the years?
The Arts Council would often sponsor Christian Aid to take artists to their outreach projects; Don McCullin on HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa and John Keane on Children in Conflict in Angola for example. I was approached to see if I was interested in going back to my place of birth in Bengal to look at what they were doing to address Climate Change and I said yes. It turned out to be quite a difficult and spiritually challenging time as I hadn’t been back for decades. The extraordinary energy was still there, but here I was looking again at such deep poverty and since my childhood, how much environmental damage had been done to both the cities and the rural communities. There were villages covered in black ash from the chimneys of Kologhat Power Station, mangroves drying out revealing acres of exposed roots and eroding riverbanks destroying communities. From this experience, I didn’t want the resulting work to preach or be reductive so I decided on a more artistic/poetic approach whilst incorporating a more personal and cultural history of my time in India. In recent years the work has moved further away from the initial imagery of temples, pylons etc and towards more symbolic and metaphorical references such as PORTAL and FLAME.
Could you discuss the symbolism of the rickshaw? Alongside its immediate association with India I wondered if perhaps you view it as a metaphor for diaspora and cross-cultural travelling? I know your grandparents were originally from Baghdad, your parents lived in Calcutta and now you are based in London.
The rickshaw is such as tenacious but also precarious machine carrying not just people but objects of all sizes, sometimes unbelievably enormous. I wanted that precariousness to appear in my pieces. I don’t know if the rickshaw in itself symbolises anything in my cultural background but it’s very much a symbol of India which seemed to identify what I was trying to say. The fact that the BENGAL pieces seem to carry such enormous structures refer to the Hindu Juggernaut Chariots which themselves support massive wooden temples pulled through towns by hundreds of people. Rickshaws carry people and things from place to place and I like the idea of them carrying history and culture with you wherever they go.
Whilst powerful works in their own right, in some ways your sculptures and drawings are maquettes and studies for monumental sculptures to sit within urban and rural landscapes. Could you discuss your vision for these monumental works and their connection to the landscape? I know that your work PYLON was influenced by the monumental electricity pylons you saw spread across farmland in Bengal and POWER STATION references the chimney’s of Kolaghat Power Station.
I most recently installed the 32m high Jacob’s Ladder at Gibbs Farm, New Zealand which is an important collection of monumental land sculpture and THE SCROLL which sits in front of Norman Foster’s HOUSE OF WISDOM in Sharjah, UAE.Though they refer to a particular aesthetic, it would be exciting to see one of the more layered and textural BENGAL works created at that scale. That has always been my intention, and still is. I am very used to siting large sculptures in both urban and rural environments. I do, however, need a commission to do this.
Many of your past works commemorate different histories or historical events. I know you have created several works for the Imperial War Museum as well as two monumental sculptures about WW1 currently displayed in St Paul’s Cathedral. The BENGAL sculptures and drawings seem to be layered in history. Whilst they are all contemporary in their materiality they appear almost like archival fragments. Certain sculptures are covered in ash and the denser drawings feel almost archeological, somewhat like the paintings of Kiefer or Auerbach. I am aware it is a big question but could you discuss the importance of history and memory in your practice.
I was in a group show alongside Kiefer at the David Roberts Foundation inaugural exhibition. He’s fantastic! He’s a monster! I love his work, not just because of the scale of the pieces but also because of the cultural and historic engagement he has in his practice, which in my view often defines him. I don’t want my work to define me.I see myself more as a Project Artist. I want to tell different stories; be it the Holocaust, Climate Change, Human Rights, Conflict, even Motorsport history. They can be gigantic structures or miniature installations, they have different challenges and unchartered territories which I find exciting. Their subject matter often colonises my soul for quite a while, and I end up, however long it takes me, to produce a body of work when once completed, I move on to the next thing. The one consistent thing in my practice is that I draw profusely.