Kochi: To Shanthamani Muddaiah, the spine is a good way to sum up people. “It is fragmented, but strong when it comes together to form a single unit,” says the Bengaluru-based artist.
At the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), she has titled her work ‘Backbone’. It is a cement-and-cinder sculptural installation in the shape of a large spinal column, located on the sprawling grounds of the main Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi.
“In terms of our ideas, our beliefs and our perceptions of ourselves, we are many bits that make a whole,” Shanthamani talks about her work, almost philosophically.
It is not incidental that her 7x5x70 ft ‘Backbone’ is laid in the shape of a meandering river. The artist recently went upcountry on a three-month journey of the Ganges. She found it “loaded with metaphor”, and wanted to also make a contemporary statement on the ancient river that is considered a “backbone of our culture”.
Hence the use of a material like carbon in her KMB work. “It is meant to point to the present issues, such as pollution, that the river faces,” she notes.
Shathamani, who has exhibited internationally, was struck by the backbone when she got an anaesthesia shot in her spine when in labour. It was in the late 1990s when science, after it seemed to reach saturation, was looking at the human body through the new eyes of nanotechnology, gamma rays and MRIs.
“The backbone is centrifugal to my work,” said the 48-year-old artist who was born in Mysore. “I was always curious about the hunt for knowledge and how we perceive our bodies and the world around us. Technological innovations have brought a new interest to look into our own body. The new science of looking at the body interested me.”
Shanthamani, who did her MFA from MS University in Baroda, employs ephemeral natural materials in her work and usually works with paper and charcoal. For her biennale installation, she has used cinder, “which is neither ash nor mineral, and is a material that is drained of all vitality and recast into a sculpture and is a metaphor for my time”.
“I liked the challenge of bringing this sculpture outdoors and the dynamics of it being in this environment,” said the artist, who considers herself foremost as a painter and someone who “thinks through my hand”.
“I enjoyed the aspect that visitors could interact with it.”
KMB ’14 curator Jitish Kallat noted that work felt “as if some long gone history is invoked in the form of this seemingly unearthed fossil”. “Shantamani’s 70 ft-long sculpture in cement and cinder appears as if a colossal millipede had crossed the oceans making the open lawns of Aspinwall House its final resting ground,” he said. “The use of volcanic rock like cinder is especially very interesting as the porous surface of the material bears some geological traces, and itself appears like fossils.”
Shanthamani feels that Fort Kochi lends itself “beautifully to the biennale” and is appreciative of the fact that the exhibition is a great ice-breaker. “You cannot find a space like this, which seems to wear history,” she says. “It is only when you experience it that you realise that India desperately needed a space like this; a space that is really concerned with the creative process.”