Art is a Process
A friend of mine once told me he could smell my art, and when he shut his eyes returning home from my exhibition, the pins and points of colour and shapes of voids pirouette and dance in front of his eyes. Perhaps that is the way of art. He visits my exhibition and my art visits him when he is alone.
When I unwind, I see my grandfather, a nai (barber) back in our village in Gujarat. I used to sit beside him under the tree, in the open, where he used to cut and dress up the hair of his customers. His customers brought many stories. I used to return home with the interior of my head painted with dots of sky, leaves, shadows, birds and gossip.
The community positioned us, the barbers, low on the social ladder. My father glowed with a desire to escape the systematic humiliation, and one day we moved to Mumbai in search of better things, but found poverty again. He was a jute trader for a while. The horizontal, vertical and entwined threads, and the juxtaposition of the silky roughness of jute, are emotive to me. My mother stitched bits and pieces and worked in packing, among other jobs the industries outsourced to low-income households. All of us, her children, lent our hands. When I close my eyes, I see those knick-knacks of material, those colourful oddments coming together as our agile hands would marry them. I see Gujarat, Mumbai and especially the northern suburb of Borivali.
Compression & Compassion
Compression interests me as a process. Life is sprawled like a shapeless body of water. How can I give you a taste of that, more than the taste, an experience of that including the formlessness?
Did you see my Billboard Series? Does it smell like Mumbai? I chuckle looking at my friend. Perhaps it should take you on a both-way road trip. When you return, you see the faces and names on those billboards have changed. Sometimes, there is nothing new, just the old is gone. The structures bare their grandsire teeth at you. There are rust, obliteration, sharpness and molds. Sometimes, they remind you of the slums, where any material can build a private island. I worked in some ad agencies for a period of time. During the recession, they were on their knees. I began clicking thousands of snaps, and when I exhibited, those people puzzled over the fact that they were unadulterated reality, not things I had morphed using digital tools. When I travel and take those photographs, I recall my early local train journeys. Speed blurring the walls we pass, mixing the writings on the wall and the graffiti. I sense the overload of data and visions.
Art is a Journey
I am a painter first. When I use those two-dimensional expressions and mix my multi-dimensional experience and begin sculpting everything in three dimensions, the method of compression, along with other techniques, yields quite different results. Somewhere within the process, abstraction happens. Heart and head blend. Hands toil hard to beat, crumple, mould, straighten, paint and paste the materials. Believe me, each stage is painstaking; each step is conscious, aimed and deliberate. While working, the scenes I have perceived over time overlap, and I sink in the soft world of my method, ensconce myself in the difficulties and surprises each material poses, as well as in the thoughts on how to solve those puzzles and how to master their wild spirits. Remember, Monet had said, “No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition.”
I say that the materials find me. They approach me with their own gossip. Often, I gather them and keep them safe like deposits in some banking institutions. I bring them out when I conceive an idea, find they have turned into some good vintages, and the art will look different in every gallery and space, depending on the order and organization of the display.
When working, I don’t think of any message that art might convey. Art is the journey. The journey is mirth. Any message the onlooker might interpret out of the art is an added blessing. Art is a blessing.
Manish Nai is a Mumbai-based artist whose works have been exhibited worldwide
(This story appeared in the print edition as ‘Artist’s Diary’)