Over the years, Sheela Gowda’s commitment to the realities of subsistence and labour has seen the artist use locally sourced materials – cow dung, kumkum, bricks and human hair – to reflect upon the outmoded cottage industries of the Indian subcontinent. Disengaging specific elements from their contexts, Gowda’s art has often been described as embodying sheer duration – partly through the slow, intensive and repetitive labour of its making, but also because of the time required for her to notice, collect and arrange the materials she sources, and the length of her collaborations with the people who produce them.
Gowda’s installations are not the product of industrial mass manufacture, easily singularized by artistic signature, but often involve ready-made materials and marginal forms of labour and abandonment. (In Stopover, 2012, for instance, the artist and her husband, the architect Christoph Storz, reclaimed defunct spice-grinders from the streets of Bangalore and displayed them ceremonially at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2012–13.)
At Ikon, Gowda’s new, untitled installation is similarly engaged in an act of recovery, invoking vanishing semi-industrial worlds that straddle handmade and mechanized labour forms: what the artist calls ‘brave forms of modest entrepreneurship’. The focus of Gowda’s piece is the humble bandli: that most basic metal bowl used by casual, unskilled workers to carry sand, slurry and concrete to construction sites. Cut out from recycled, flattened metal tar drums, the bandli is hand-beaten into a bowl that is unique in shape, colour and size. Grouped irregularly on the concrete floor, the bandlis form patterns with unintentional citations of the work of Kazimir Malevich, playfully joined by other art-historical allusions; on the walls, the twisted metal drum sheets recall battered versions of Constantin Brâncuși’s ‘Endless Column’ (1918-37).
Gowda pays homage to the utilitarian simplicity of the bandli design but also to the Sisyphean efforts of the anonymous millions casually enlisted by the real estate and construction sector of Bangalore – one of the largest and most lucrative employers of the state’s informal labour force. Confronting the friction-free capitalism of India’s so-called Silicon Valley, with its evocations of a dematerialized information economy, Gowda prompts viewers to think about the vastly slow, primitively infinitesimal transportation of industrial matter and substances to construction sites, and of lives defined by shifting global parameters. The bandli, as Storz puts it, ‘is the needle’s eye through which the substance of every high-rise building of Bengaluru has passed’.
In a second room, Gowda toys with the abstract language of minimalism, covering various construction tools, rods, bandlis and bricks with a granulose coat of white paint. In one corner, the colourful traces of a pooja, an impromptu fetish-shrine, reference rituals performed by workers before construction to seek protection from the earth for actions that could disturb the general equilibrium, to appease energies residing in the space or to ward off the possibility of casualties and the even greater danger of not getting paid by greedy contractors. Gowda messes with minimalism and its pristine repositories of reason and technical prowess to allude to modern art’s most obdurate taboo – the sacred. In this accelerated age, modernity and what Peter Sloterdijk calls ‘the creative offensive of the working spirit against “matter” […] the kinetic nihilism which takes being as nothing but a source of energy and a construction site’ may well be inextricable. Gowda reminds us that the world may be driven by the forces of global capital – with its contemporary forms of slavery – and refrains from fetishizing rudimentary forms of labour. ‘Progress’ she appears to show us, is carried through by the mixing of slurry and sweat in the bandli.
Main image: Sheela Gowda, 2017, installation view, Ikon Gallery. Courtesy: Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; photograph: Stuart Whipps