Artist Today: Fukuoka Annual VII,
introduced by Ushiroshoji Masahiro and
essay by Lynne Green,
Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan(48 pages)
A DIMLY LIT HORIZON
Dhruva Mistry has
emerged from a dimly lit horizon beyond which lies a shadowy kingdom which
Westernization, namely, modernization, has confined to the periphery.
With him he has brought deities that are half human and half beast, voluptuous
women with shaven heads, and curvaceous chairs.
Mistry studied art at M.S. University in Baroda, India. In 1981 he held his first one-person show at Art Heritage, a prominent gallery of contemporary art in New Delhi. That same year he went to London to study at the Royal College of Art. That year marked the advent of New British Sculpture, which swept the British art world in the eighties. Thus Mistry has shaped himself as an artist while directly experiencing the West during a period in which British art was changing.
In the catalogue prepared for an exhibition of his work in Glasgow in 1988, Mistry remarked, "From Britain I was to perceive Europe and the West through my travels and experiences. I set out to test myself against my notions of the world around me, at times finding myself at odds with it. It was an opportunity to see myself and India from afar. At the Royal College of Art, my time was short. To find any importance in my work and its standing within contemporary British art was clearly beyond my expectations. My life and education in India were rather intense and exhausting, yet it was where practical creation lay. At the RCA I did not see much reason to work more than necessary. This allowed me enough time to look around and to examine my own ideas and preconceptions."
Although Mistry's reminiscences are personal in nature, they embody, I think, a universal task facing modern Asian artists. No modern artist born outside of the Western world can escape this task. Whether experiencing the West directly in the West, or indirectly in the non-Western world, the artists question their own identity and rediscover their own indigenous culture through this "Western experience." In the process, their own spontaneous mode of artistic expression is explored for the first time.
The Singaporian artist Tang Da-Wu's comments on the occasion of the fifth exhibition in the present series clearly illustrates my point: "In my twenty years in England," he remarked, "I was constantly reminded, in my relationships with other people, of my 'Chineseness.' I became more aware and interested in my roots and incorporated Chinese elements in my works." " The determination expressed by the Filipino artist Roberto Feleo, the subject of the first show in this series, offers further evidence; "The time has come for us to examine ourselves in the light of what we have become as opposed to what we ought to be." He added, "For this reason, I have chosen to retrace the indigenous traditions of art in my country."
How did Mistry's concerns and artistic style actually change as he reflected about himself and his own culture? A comparison of Sleeping Man (catalogue no. 1), produced in 1982 during Mistry's early period in England, and the series of human figures entitled Man with Dog (see illustration no. 11), created in 1981 immediately prior to his departure for England, reveals how he tried to respond to that question. The figures from his India period depict the naked human figure stripped of all superflous elements. (The graphicness is readily apparent when one compares these sculptures with the human figures produced by John Davies and Antony Gormly.) Sleeping Man, however, has lost the impression of reality as an actual human being, in spite of its compelling presence and realistic rendering down to the small details. It is an existence from another world, a metaphorical human form suggesting a mythical being or a figure in a bad dream.
In his subsequent oeuvre, Mistry has created symbolic works with a mythic or religious background that strongly evoke the Indian tradition. Reguarding Guardian (1985; catalogue no. 2) is a case in point.
As noted above, modern Asian artists generally address the question of their own individuality through their Western experience, rather than imitating Western art. We have encountered many examples of artists readily or uncritically trying to respond to that question by returning to their own tradition. '"
Has Mistry, likewise, taken the easy road of returning to tradition? I conclude that he is no mere traditionalist. Even the series of sculptures entitled Reguarding Guardian, which at first glance seems based on traditional Indian religious iconography, reflects his study of guardian deities that are half man and half beast, which are found in ancient art from various regions. (His research was conducted mainly at the British Museum.) He has digested his research in his own way and fused the elements into universal images. His approach represents a quest for subconscious archetypes that are shared by different ethnic groups or nationalities. As a result, the religious iconography and stories that can be understood only within the Indian cultural context are universalized as a form of artistic expression, creating works that are relevant today.
The appeal of the Reguarding Guardian series unquestionably has to do with traditional culture and religion, such as the mythic aura engendered by the guardian deities and the cosmic sense expressed therein. The powerful overall impression is the product of Indian aesthetics, manifested in the appealing texture and the overall sensuality and rough, unpolished quality. This aesthetic approach springs from the popular aesthetics, what is contemporary and commonplace, more than the rich sensuality characteristic of ancient art. The direct roots of Mistry's aesthetics lie in the gaudiness of popular art, from the mass produced religious paintings that adorn contemporary Indian homes to the gaily coloured deities at festivals and the excessive ornamentation that characterizes Hindu temples today.
The special qualities that distinguish Mistry's work acombination of refined mysteriousness, vulgar popular taste, and traditional sensuality - are amply manifested in his later output as well. These attributes are fully evident in his Maya Medallion series (see catalogue nos. 3, 4, 14, and 15), of course, as well as in his sculptures entitled The Object (catalogue nos. 7 and 17), which more closely approach abstract images than any of Mistry's other works. Such sensuous mysterious chairs, such elegant yet unrefined chairs, would surely be inconceivable outside of his work except in Indian mythology.
These qualities of Mistry's are manifested above all in works commissioned for public space. Sitting Bull (1984; see illustration no. 5), at the International Garden Festival, Liverpool, and Reclining Woman (1988; see illustration no. 6), at the Glasgow Garden Festival, strike the onlooker with their powerful presence because Mistry is both heir to ancient Indian art and the child of popular culture.
The modern value system which places Europe at the apex of the pyramid has collapsed, and things that were shoved outside of that framework have begun to counterattack. This movement has been conspicuous in the art world since the late 1970s.
Even the position of Mistry, who might appear isolated from the context of British art, can be situated within it in the 1980s and 1990s. His works have played a role in the revival of figurative images since the end of the 1970s. The rich narrative quality of his works and metaphorical mode of expression, which taps myth, literature, and religion, have a broad contemporary ring. His method of synthesizing allusions to previous art works also is relevant today amid doubts about the notion of originality. The influence on his work of popular art represents one aspect of the discovery of low art, such as kitsch, as opposed to high art. Moreover, his concern with marginal forms of expression, regional differences, and local vernacular realms fits the times.
In short, in modernism's twilight years, things that had been cast into oblivion by modernism have undergone a re-examination. It is possible to locate and evaluate Mistry's work within this overall trend, in other words, in the context of Western art. As in the case of Orientalism in the past, however, assessments of this sort invariably go hand in hand with a taste for the unusual, a perspective that assumes the centrality of Western art values and ignores autonomous value systems. Mistry does not delight in discovering novelty or originality in what, for him, is a different world lying on the periphery, remote from the center represented by the West. Having emerged from the fringe and discovered himself, he is trying to relate that experience by means of a universal language.
As the mid-1990s approach, the world is no longer predicated upon a value system that places the West at the pinnacle. There is gradually emerging a common awareness that the world is made up of diverse ethnic groups with diverse values, rather than nation states, a political form that emerged after the French Revolution. There is a growing awareness of the importance of ethnicity, the sum of unique cultural characteristics that distinguish individual ethnic groups. At the same time, this trend has brought about a resurgence of nationalism, and, in the aftermath of the Cold War, has spawned considerable ethnic conflict. Members of all nations not just artists from the non-Western world must examine their own ethnicity and, at the same time, recognize and respect the existence of other ethnic groups. Mistry's effort to achieve a universal language as a mode of artistic expression while deeply probing his own ethnicity represents an extremely timely global subject.
Translated by Janet Goff
MISTRY AN INTRODUCTION
Born in India in 1957, Dhruva Mistry has lived and worked in Britain since 1981, when a British Council scholarship took him to the Royal College of Art, London. There is no doubt, however, that his roots (cultural and artistic) remain Indian. It is his intention to return eventually to his native country, and to live and work in the house he and his partner, the sculptor Trupti Patel, are building in Baroda.
The fact that Mistry is Indian is central to an understanding of his art, but it is only part of the story. His native tradition is reflected in his sculptural process (and the materials he prefers to use), in the themes he explores, in certain formal characteristics and, most crucially, in his intention (what he believes sculpture is capable ofl. But his work reflects a deep understanding and knowledge of the Western tradition of art. The use of form and the purpose which lies behind that use differ between the two traditions. The dynamic quality in Mistry's work (and its excitement for us as spectators) has its root in the artist's ability to bring together the essence of these diverse traditions, and to create from this dual inspiration a coherent, powerful and individual statement.
The theme of duality and the sense of ambivalence and ambiguity in meaning which are the strength of Mistry's art, are a reflection and an expression of his own cultural position. He has a foot in two camps the Eastern and the Western. This cross- cultural concern is evident in his earliest works, even before his arrival in Britain. In a piece like Man on a Chair of 1979 (see illustration 3.) the overall formal structure is essentially Western (this figure has much in common with portraits by the English painter Francis Bacon), but the use of multiple arms/hands has its root in the multi-limbed Gods of India. The richness of Mistry's imagery lies in his capacity to re-examine, re-interpret and re- present the most ancient of symbols. If his forms owe much to the sculptural manifestation of Hindu mythology, their power to communicate to a contemporary audience is a result of the artist's own creative genius.
Dhruva Mistry is a figurative artist who views form as essentially abstract. In any of his sculptures it is possible to identify (as he does when describing them) the individual geometric forms from which they are 'constructed'. For his subjects and content Mistry blends diverse cultural threads and influences, but his essential approach to the creation of form is rooted in the Indian tradition. The fascination of the abstract quality of form (natural or otherwise) has led him, in recent years, to make a number of different series of sculptures which abstract form to the limit. In the Spatial Diagram series (see catalogue numbers 8 and 9) a form which had its original inspiration in the inanimate shape of a wooden chair resolves into a female body. But throughout the series the abstract qualities of the form are never overtaken by a final, figurative, interpretation the sculptures remain essentially abstract.
Mistry is also fascinated by the ability of one form to transmute, through his intervention, into another - a domestic object becoming architectural or figurative, as in the series of The Object I and The Object II (see catalogue number 7 and illustration 8.). While these preoccupations have been central to the development of twentieth century Western art (one thinks of Picasso, Gonzalez and Miro as prime examples), they are to be discovered also in the Indian approach to form. For example, each part of the human body is described and catagorised by analogy to something else found in nature: to a leaf, plant shape, etc. This association of one form with another is important in Mistry's working method, as is the understanding which underlies it: that all form is essentially abstract and in the final analysis, one.
The sculptures and drawings in this exhibition are all relatively small in size, but an important aspect of Dhruva Mistry's work is its ability to translate into monumental scale. His reputation and popularity in Britain is largely due to a series of major public commissions which brought his work to the attention of a wide audience. The first of these, Sitting Bull, Liverpool 1984 (see illustration 5.), clearly demonstrates that Mistry's understanding of form (his capacity to create it with strength and integrity whatever the scale) is masterly.
The tradition of public sculpture in India is very different to that in the West. Every aspect of life is described and celebrated under the sculptor's hand. There is also a crucial sense of identification between artist and subject, which is judged essential if the final form is to be imbued with life. This identification also extends to the spectator. Sculptural form can therefore take on the attributes of a living entity, a presence which has an effect in our lives. The traditional use of colour applied to sculpture endows life, and animates the sculpted form, thereby drawing it into our reality. When Mistry applies colour to a figure, its relationship to us changes dramatically, it engages us and seems impossible to ignore. This is true even if the colour is confined to the eyes and lips - as in Reclining Woman 1988, the monumental sand and cement sculpture made for the Glasgow Garden Festival, Scotland 1988 (see illustration 6.).
perhaps in the public commissions, which have required a sculptural response
to an existing architectural context, that we can most clearly see the
confidence and inspiration with which Mistry combines his multi-cultural
sources. At the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff he was asked to create
a pediment figure for a new extension which in its architecture closely
resembled the earlier building. Mistry's sculpture had, moreover, to be
sympathetic to a series of seated luminaries already in place on the original
pediment. His solution is a winged Reguarding Guardians of Art (1988-90),
which rests upon an abstracted architectural chair form derived
from The Object I series. Whilevery
different from the figures on the main building, the Guardian (see illustration
7.) matches them in dignity, while maintaining the sense of history and
tradition embodied in the original museum. The purpose of the building
to house cultural artifacts is aptly celebrated by Mistry's
sculpture, which in addition broadens the cultural references while providing
a very contemporary image.
In an earlier outdoor commission for the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow, Mistry had produced a very different solution. A traditional wooden chair, the inspiration for an ongoing process of abstraction (see catalogue number 7), resulted in the simplest (in the sense of the elements being pared to the essentials) abstract statement of a mother and child. Once again in this Diagram of an Object (First State) 1989-90 (see illustration 8.), Mistry demonstrated that his sense of form could sustain the translation of a maquette or small sculpture into a work of monumental scale.
Mistry's latest public commission, for Birmingham City Council in 1993, is his largest sculptural undertaking to date.A series of sculptures combine to give thematic and formal identity to the main Civic Square in the City. The Victoria Square Project was seen by the City Council as an opportunity to provide Birmingham with a physical and emotional heart, and that is precisely what Mistry gave them. His scheme is dominated by The River, a monumental bronze female figure, reclining within a sandstone shell. Sited at the top of a steep incline, crowning a cascading waterfall and two flights of steps, she gazes with detachment across the Square. Classical in form The River has characteristically Indian face, Life Source, Indian River Goddess, Nature herself, or Venus (who, born of the sea, has a scallop shell as an attribute) these layers of symbolic meaning inform any reading of the figure.
A series of further sculptures accompany The River, enlarging and extending the theme of the duality of life, of the source of our renewal being both physical and spiritual. Youth (two life-size figures of a boy and a girl, who sit upon geometric forms), a pair of monumental Reguarding Guardians (which provide a protective emphasis within the enclosure of the square) and The Object (Variations I and II, two lamp/obelisks. In the midst of a modern industrial city Mistry created a symbolic narrative of life, and in so doing has achieved a grand and dramatic sculptural statement. The accessibility and appeal of Mistry's art lies partly in its essentially figurative nature. Even at his most abstract, the relation of his forms to the physical world is never entirely absent. There is nonetheless something more, a sense of Mistry being relevant to the world in which we all live of his sculptures (however initially strange in character) being relevant to our experience. This has much to do with Mistry's personal understanding of the function of sculpture and its capacity to carry meaning (informed by the tradition of India, in which art is accepted as an embodiment of metaphysical as well as material
knowledge). His themes are ancient and universal, but he has the ability to communicate them in a contemporary way. Mistry succeeds in exploring his concerns as an artist (the way form functions, is capable of change, and relates to space) while creating images that are accessible to us all.