The first artwork visitors will see when they enter Bharti Kher’s thoughtful and provocative exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery is a life-size sculpture of the heart of a blue sperm whale. The largest creature that now exists on our planet, the blue whale possesses a heart that is also the biggest in the world—the size, the artist says, of a small car. Kher’s realistic, cast-resin depiction of the organ’s two massive chambers, enormous aorta, and branching blood vessels is a work of weird grandeur.
To some, it might suggest an environmental message, a monument to a creature slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands in the 19th century and threatened in our own age by pollution and rising ocean temperatures. The artist, however, says the work is about the nature of love, and its title, An Absence of Assignable Cause, evokes the irrationality of that most vaunted and lamented emotion.
“More things have been written about love and all the ways around it,” she says. “I thought it would be interesting to talk about it using an animal as a metaphor.”
An internationally acclaimed artist who has exhibited her multidisciplinary works around the globe, from Zurich, Paris, and Tel Aviv to Perth, Shanghai, and Mumbai, Kher has just arrived in Vancouver from her home in New Delhi. Seated in the VAG library, she talks about her art with the Georgia Straight before overseeing the installation of her retrospective show. She recounts, too, her life journey, a kind of reverse migration from London, England, where she was born and raised, to India, her immigrant parents’ homeland.
After graduating from art college in Newcastle and working in London for a year, Kher set out for South Asia at the age of 22—and stayed. The decision to settle in New Delhi was based, in no small part, on her falling in love with and marrying Indian artist Subodh Gupta. But it also arose from the excitement India inspired in her—and a more flexible life than was possible for two struggling young artists in, say, London or New York.
“India seems to be more forgiving in some ways,” Kher says. “We were able to afford rent, we could eat.” They could also start a family and launch their careers.
While reviewing the works in her show, Kher describes her fascination with the natural world, with marine biology, primatology, anthropology, and the ways animals function in art as metaphors of the human condition. This is spotlighted in her 2004 series of colour photographs of hybrid beings: women who embody aspects of men and who also share fangs, fur, and hooves with animals.
“A lot of the earlier paintings I was making at art college were images of strange amorphous creatures that were part this animal, part that animal,” she says. “I was trying to twine these ideas of metamorphosis, morphology, hybridity.”
The photos of hybrid women sought to address politics, sociology, and economics within the domestic sphere, she continues. “I was confronting this new reality, living in India, and I wanted to do it in the way that is like me, which is partly ironic, a little bit paradoxical, funny, fearful.”
In her 2007 photographic self-portrait, Kher has overlaid a baboon face on her own. “I like the idea that there is a part of us that is essentially savage,” she says, adding that there are parallels between the ways we relate to animals and marginalize (or colonize) people who are different from ourselves. “When I look at the monkey, it’s more about how close are we to this ‘Other’? We are much closer than we think.…With the bonobo, we share 99 percent DNA. It’s extraordinary.”
Kher sees these photographs as the genesis of a body of work that continues to this day, including a series of goddess sculptures in which androgynous-looking women, based on mythological and art historical precedents, possess tails, hooves, or antlers along with spears or shields. Also in the show are abstract paintings, shattered mirrors, medical charts, and glass-fronted cabinets covered in bindis, the mass-manufactured forehead dots that in the past have symbolized the third eye and signalled a woman’s marital status, but that are now used primarily as personal adornment.
Perhaps most affecting is Six Women, a row of seated female nudes, cast in plaster of Paris. On first viewing, they seem to address the aging female body: with their sagging breasts and slumping rolls of fat, they differ dramatically from the images of female beauty propagated by fashion and advertising. Our reading of these figures changes, however, when we learn that they were cast from prostitutes who work in Sonagachi, the red-light district of Kolkata.
“The intention with all my female figures is to complicate things, to say that this narrative is not as simple as the one you’ve been telling me all these years,” Kher says. “I don’t really want the women to be one thing, I’m not really interested in the one thing. I’m interested in the complexities of human experience.”
Bharti Kher: Matter runs at the Vancouver Art Gallery from Saturday (July 9) to October 10. Kher is in Vancouver as part of the Indian Summer festival.