When Vrishali first talked about an ontological desire to be engulfed by the material, I didn’t know what to make of it, so I didn’t think about it too much. But then I lived in the same space as her for a month, so I did end up thinking about what she had said, and quite a bit.
In Vrishali’s work is a desire to turn inwards and engage with the material while simultaneously forming an articulation, an utterance directed outwards. There is a need to engage with the material without treating it as an exteriority, and clay allows for an intimacy and a level of physical engagement that perhaps most other materials cannot accommodate. In keeping with her exploration of the meaning of engulfment by the materiality of the medium, Vrishali’s initial design was a clay dome built on the floor of her studio, a space that would allow her to step inside a figure created from clay, to place herself within the physical confinements of the material.
The dome didn’t materialize, but what did was immensely interesting.
I like to believe that Vrishali is something of a rebel. She once planted weeds in the carefully pruned, manicured lawns of her institution, whose people maintained these lawns (and therefore, an aesthetic) with a bureaucratic fervour. At first, when I still viewed this act as isolated, I admired it for its value as a one-act instance of rebellion. But this is really who Vrishali is, and what she infuses in her art. She just despises artificial culturing and boundaries, and the modification of natural spaces to please a certain cultivated aesthetic. She spoke animatedly about a poem by Avtar Singh Pash that synthesized perfectly with what she was doing: मैं घास हूँ, मैं अपना काम करूँगा।
Vrishali’s need for intimate engagement with the material came together with her desire to let the natural world remain an unrestricted element in her final piece for the open day.
The final piece was actually two pieces- the incomplete clay dome and a clay wall, extending from the tree right outside to the entrance of her studio, built from pieces of clay removed from the prospective dome inside.
While the clay wall could be seen as an extension of the studio into the courtyard, Vrishali is insistent on it extending from the tree into her workspace, a wall that ironically becomes a space of connection between the interior and the exterior, connecting something organic and something manmade.
Vrishali also projected macro footages of pieces of terracotta disintegrating in a glass bowl filled with water. In the center of her studio stood the remnants of her clay dome, which now resembled a very shallow well, with one slice of its boundary donated to the clay wall. On the wall behind that were Sylvia Plath’s words,
“I am vertical
But I would rather be horizontal.”
The overarching effect was synesthetic and oppressive, due to the earthen colour palette, and a massive visual of crumbling terracotta without any sound. There was a strange sense of being deafened, of witnessing the slow unbecoming of a larger thing, and the broken dome stood there like Ozymandias, bearing testimony to a space that had been turned into a disintegration-in-process. Plath’s poem supplemented this feeling of seeing only remnants, witnessing the absence of something; her words are an articulation of what she wants but cannot have, a reiteration of a desire and therefore, a lack.
The culminating effect of having been thrown into a space that is a conglomerate of brokenness and absence was not something I had anticipated. I had had extensive conversations with Vrishali about the impulses and thought process behind her project, but I suppose the resulting effect is always a third that is not wholly predictable, that remains unaccountable. Vrishali focused on the tactility of the medium, the conditions of its origin and the material reality and limitations of its very nature. It led to an interesting avenue, highlighting the ontological, physical impossibility of unification with the medium, where intimacy with a medium forces the artist to negotiate with the limitations of its physical form, and of the human body itself.
The clay wall broke down several times, and Vrishali rebuilt it without any structural support. It was an interesting exercise, the recreation of a work of art over its remainders, where each new reparation replaced what had existed before- not a replica or a rendition, but a replacement.
Vrishali’s wall was an ironic structure; it was built from a metaphor and yet in form it fulfilled the exact opposite function. It was ideated to symbolize the breaching of synthetic boundaries between unrestrained and cultivated natural growth, the reaching in of the terrestrial world into a manmade studio. When finished, it fulfilled its function with the utmost literalness- it was literally a wall that wouldn’t let the studio doors close, consequently allowing the rain and storm to deliver their casualties inside that space without hindrance. In some way, it also disabled the solipsism that sometimes accompanies art as a process.
It also left a visual impact- the sight of a distorted, mostly shapeless clay wall emerging from the trunk of a tree was both fascinating and disconcerting.
Perhaps a dome would have been more effective than a wall, in terms of Vrishali’s intentions for her project, and in terms of the kinds of space the two shapes occupy. A dome, being an enclosure, would have allowed the engulfment Vrishali was aiming for, however facile it may be, and created the space for an immersive experience, an envelopment by pure material. But keeping the possible intentions aside, the wall did something of its own. It had an impact on the level of scale and visuality, of looking at something larger than life, a mute shape that stands solid; a shape that enters the studio slowly, that is part-tree but not quite, a constant reminder of a forced verticality in the face of a desire for the horizontal.