Saturday, 10 April 2010
I'm just back from the Buddhist Kingdom of Cambodia. Upon my return one of the first pieces of art work I've seen was in the presence of nothing, an installation by Bharti Kher in the basement of Hauser & Wirth, London. The installation consists of a Tibetan metal bowl such as those used as a bell by meditating Buddhists. The bowl is induced to 'sing' when a wooden mallet is passed rhythmically around its outer rim. Here, taking the place of the role more usually played by a monk, a motorised arm comes down from the ceiling.
I've listened to these bells quite a lot over the last few years and the last few weeks even more so. The sound they create is intense and very affecting and rings on for many minutes after contact between mallet and bowl has ceased. In fact, the more closely you listen the harder it is to discern quite when the sound has faded away, which always serves to remind me that in some ways the sound never really ends, in the same way as it never really began. It's part of an energetic whole that we become aware of when it manifests as sound on that particularly resonant vibrational level.
The thing I noticed about in the presence of nothing is that the sound it produces, compared to many of these singing bells, isn't really very enjoyable. It does sort of 'sing' but not beautifully, not inspiringly, not even musically. The sound does not touch the soul. In fact I'd go as far as to say the sound is fairly disagreeable. It seems that when you remove the energy of a living being and replace it with a mechanism, something fundamental is lost. It is perfectly possible to simulate the human being but some je n'est ce quoi is always absent to one degree or another. It may well be that this absence is filled by a different kind of presence, but nonetheless the absence is felt and in this case symbolised by the strangulated sound gurgling effortfully out of the otherwise romantic old bank vault.
Maybe the title in the presence of nothing refers to this absence, although probably it also refers to any number of other absences, most notably to metaphysical and spiritual notions of the inherent emptiness of things, particularly when located in a Lutyens designed bank vault, the place that at one time stored and preserved the very thing that speaks most voluably of the emptiness that surrounds us. After all currency is representative of debt, not of value.
And then I start thinking about other scenarios in which human beings are replaced with mechanisms and I begin to wonder at what cost. These days it’s a delightful surprise to call up almost anyone other than a friend and have a live human being answer rather than an infuriating pre-recorded voice, or worse, a computerised voice simulator. Not the bank, not the movies, not even Tate: "please press 1 for tickets, membership, educational visits or services for disabled visitors, 2 to speak to an information assistant, 3 for restaurant bookings, 4 for …." Deep breathe Beverley! It's irritating as hell, but it's also more than that, it's also rather tragic.
Come to think of it, the telephone itself, even when answered by a human being, is more disconnecting than connecting in many ways. There's really nobody there. No body as it were. Handy, sure, but possibly not entirely healthy. I suspect it'll be our downfall - the extinction of the entire human race traceable to the common or garden use of the telephone.
But what I was really gripped by at 196a Piccadilly was Bharti Kher's prolific use of the bindi, the Hindu forehead decoration traditionally symbolic of female power, energy and fertility. A plethora of multi-coloured stick-on felt dots - some with little masculinising spermatasoic tails, some not - covers almost every piece of work in the show, culminating, for me, in the glorious indra's net mirror series on the upper most floor. This consists of sixteen mirrors in antique (or antiqued) wooden frames, lining the space like a feminised Upper Room, Chris Ofili and David Adjaye's exquisitely vibrant cross-disciplinary (in more ways than one) Hanuman chapel installation currently showing at Tate Britain. I adore The Upper Room. You don't need to do anything – you just sit and soak it up. People come and people go and all the while you just sit and absorb the sounds and the colours, the atmosphere and the vibration.
And so it is with Bharti Kher's indra's net mirror. I wonder if Mr Wirth mightn't have imagined to provide benches as he so thoughtfully did in the basement. This work needs time. It needs to be allowed to seep insidiously into the system. One needs to enter it passively and calmly and allow it to do its stuff. Later one can form opinions, much later, when the sediment has settled. We're always so keen to have opinions, but sometimes it's better to wait and allow the opinions to form themselves, to let the seat of intuition engage and perhaps even proceed the over active intellect for a change. And perhaps this is the very notion that Bharti Kher is hinting at by covering everything in bindi.
The bindi sits between the eyebrows at the yogic third eye centre, the seat of the sixth chakra and source of that most feminine of wisdoms, intuition. From the third eye centre we achieve clarity of vision and the ability to see the ultimate truth of what is.
Shown in one of the most successful and uncompromising contemporary art galleries in the world and housed in an ex-high street bank – 'the listening bank' rather pertinently - designed by Sir Edwin Luytens, famous for his instrumental role in the development of New Delhi, the Indian sub-continental town in which Bharti Kher's studio is now located, the whole thing seems so beautifully synchronicitous. A multitude of difference comes together to form the perfect moment. To me it feels right. Just right.