When an artist such as me, who has a studio-based practice, is ‘released’ into an opportunity that opens up the process of creation, at first I freeze. Every time, in working with nature in Iceland, Scotland and India, I have gone with an apprehensive tension and come back with a greater sense of fulfilment than ever before. I also carry back with inspired thinking and contradictions in the place I was and the place I am – and that makes for further art.
Travelling through the rugged landscape of Gujarat with GNAP with a group of Indian and international artists in a well-organized trip through deserted beaches, forests, marshes, national parks, salt plains and border areas, I had the best of group interactions, seeing some fabulous artists at work and the best of solitary time to work and reflect.
There were a lot of discussions on nature art, environmental art, sustainable art and land art – definitions, opinions and arguments galore. We visited institutions that were doing marvellous work for the environment in planned and sustainable ways that benefit the people and the environs in an ethical way. But an artist still itches to create, to make inputs into outputs, and we were given days in various sites to work in solitary mode if needed.
Being left alone in unfamiliar surroundings with only natural materials is an experience I recommend for every artist – the vulnerability that comes in an unfamiliar context away from the familiar everyday life, the studio, the white cubes, the commerce and the crap – brings with it a new and heightened sense of observing, thinking and creating.
There were artists in the group who almost exclusively work in nature and land art. I wondered if I could do that if we had funding agencies or grants that they get to continue such a practice, but I am not sure.
It is a great learning to observe fellow artists at work. Some worked with an almost ridiculous simplicity, one that I would be embarrassed to do but that made me question my ‘artistic ego’ with myself. Some artists worked like skilled construction workers – bending and twisting twigs, some with great physical strength and involvement, digging and moving kilos of mud. Almost like physical punishment.
I had to learn to let go of a lot of ‘thought’, silence my old ways of thinking and approach each site with a fresh, blank mind. At every site, I tried to keep what I carried with me aside and just respond to the place and time.
I had an injury that made me slightly averse to working on the edge at extreme sites and for that I made a puppet doll of myself to insert. But I soon abandoned that series, as there was something that felt false.
At each site I tried to honour the specificity of the site – I used feathers and shells on the beach, twigs in the forest, interventions with pebbles and disintegrating stones on a riverbed and a lot of my own body with a rock.
Only at the salt desert, I brought in further salt and spices because the previous two weeks had been so much about Korean food and Indian food, vegetarian and non-vegetarian needs and artists’ struggles with adapting to diets. I had to honour people and the general impact of geography too.
In Gujarat, I worked spontaneously but in hindsight, I can put the thinking together. Creating works that were ephemeral and would eventually disintegrate/erode, gave a very different kind of creative fulfilment. In a way, such works rebuff the commodity status of art. There were no viewers – an occasional villager or bird or hyena would see it. It challenges the very notion of art practice and of course, reinforces the transient relationship that elements of nature have – I get a reminder of my own mortality, of my place on earth and of the fantastic concept that we call ‘nature’.