Art & Entertainment

Love Is A Many-Splendoured Thing

Sudarshan Shetty’s immersive art installation Age of Love throws up various theories and queries about love

Love Is A Many-Splendoured Thing
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“And could love free me from the shadows? Can a caged bird sing only the song it knows or can it learn a new song?”

—Angela Carter, The Lady of the House of Love

Here, in this room on the screen, there is a pillar and two windows. There is a chandelier and a dining table with six chairs. Their timelines don’t match. That’s how the story begins.

With a song at dusk.

There will be more songs later. About longing, about loss and about birds and about the anklets of the beloved, about memory and longing. Images and sounds like the refracted light that passes through the chandelier. The room is dark except for the illumination from the chandelier. The bended light that passes through one transparent substance into another is like love. This bending, they say, makes it possible for us to have lenses, magnifying glasses, prisms and rainbows. Is love a rainbow then?

Age of Love, an immersive installation by Sudarshan Shetty, is the coming together of six songs of love from classical Hindustani music sung by vocal practitioners across generations. There is no chronology. In this “inside space”, the songs weave together a narrative of images from the world outside. The camera circles the performers. Everything is staged in this familiar room. Yet, everything will collapse in the end. What will remain is a sense of loss. The artist says love cannot exist without an impending sense of loss. “I am intrigued by love,” Shetty says.

The world that he conjures is black and white. They are outside the present time. We, the audience, are at the threshold. The dining table and the chandelier’s broken bits, frozen in time, are within the ambit of this other room where we are. They have travelled through time and space. A frame without the songs. Stillness brought to us in this fractured world of consumerism where love is sold. Like the red hearts. But love slips through the fingers every time one tries to grasp it with reason and logic, Shetty says. Like refracted light. In the end, the light will break free. Is love then an idea that traverses this abandoned room with its artificial lighting like light itself?

***

You are in another room in another time and space witnessing the love songs that are sung in another room that defies any notion of past, present and future. A perfect setting for an exploration of love. The walls are bare except for two rectangular windows that offer views of the inside and the outside. The inside view also has pillars from another time. Any witnesses? He won’t answer that. “It used to be an old tobacco factory,” the Mumbai-based artist says. “Golden Tobacco Company in Mumbai. This room is there but it could be anywhere.” The dining table in the room isn’t ornate. The chandelier is. It is a familiar setting. A domestic setting, he says. And yet, the chandelier and the dining table are mismatched. An illusion? A suspension of belief?

In the end, the light will break free. Is love then an idea that traverses this abandoned room with artificial lighting like light itself?

He won’t answer that either.

This isn’t the artist’s version of his work. Shetty insists you find your own story in this room. He confronts you with familiar objects like he always does. Found objects that he has always cast in wood in his works to evoke nostalgia. There is a disruptive sense to the juxtaposition of the chandelier with the dining table.

The chandelier is timeless. They mimic something that’s obsolete. There is a hint of grandeur. Like all love has. Like all absence has. Like all his works have. A chandelier suspended over a dining table is a familiar sight. A sight that has often been reproduced in homes, he says. The chandelier is a classic one. The room is illuminated with refracted light. It is twilight. That’s an assumption. Dusk is a time of loneliness, of longing. That’s a familiar idea.

***

In the beginning, the chairs are facing each other. Everything is in sync except the setting itself. The disruption begins soon after. Chairs move away from each other. With each singer, images shift. There is a reminder of sounds that are transcendental. A lover’s memory of love. There is no direct expression of love but an allusion to its presence and absence. Shetty’s works have always juxtaposed the past with the present. There is no fear of endings. There is this familiarity with death in our culture, he says. “It is part of our lives,” Shetty says.

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Shoonya Ghar Screen grabs from video & architectural installation, 2017

There are a lot of pauses, a lot of silence in the rooms. Towards the end of the film, the chandelier drops from the ceiling. The fall captured in slow motion is a spectacle. That is a familiar sound too. The sound of glass shattering. And that’s the moment that leaps out of the film and makes itself a physical object that we witness its most searing state, a state of brokenness.

***

It was in 2019 that Shetty first showcased this film at ‘Chivas 18 Alchemy’ in Delhi. In the one that’s on view at Galleryske also in the capital, the film has incorporated more voices, more songs. The idea of multiplicity is revisited along with the sense of emptiness and minimalism that is presented with an abundance of images. In a stark room, the singers sing about objects, about the world outside. His earlier work titled Shoonya Ghar describes the world as empty. Named after Goraknath’s poem, the film asks what it means to be asleep or awake when there is emptiness around. Shetty has often spoken about his attempts to build something and then, build its imminent collapse. Like in this film where two seemingly opposite positions exist in the same experience. Like always, Shetty doesn’t bring any meaning to the object. He is interested in the role of evocation. He challenges the limits of perception. A chandelier is not limited to a lighting object. A dining table isn’t restricted to its functionality. A room is not a contained space.

Mortality is a necessary condition for regeneration, he says. The ending is a prelude to another beginning. In his video installations, the settings always play upon the idea of futility and the artificiality of the objects and our engagement with them. The accumulation and acquisition of objects are an exercise in futility. A chandelier is not forever. His works are also a protest against the market forces that play upon this engagement.Objects, he says, are incidental. The world of emotions that they can evoke are real.

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Creating at scale Sudarshan Shetty’s Flying Bus (2012)

Shetty, who was born in Mangalore, lives in Mumbai and the city often reveals itself in his works. Like the 2012 Flying Bus, an ode to the city he grew up in, that stands as a testimony to nostalgia in the very new age and impersonal glass architecture of the Maker Maxity complex in BKC.

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In the last frame when the chandelier falls, the chairs don’t face each other. They face walls, pillars, windows. Each chair is a storytelling place. Everything in this room is a reminder of love, of loss.

In the night time, the silver wings on the double decker BEST bus have an unreal glint that subdues the glass and steel buildings around it and that’s its resistance. In every object that he replicates, there is a past and there is a possibility of a future. The Flying Bus is many things. The site-specific installation is an ode to that middle-class life in Mumbai in a space that’s almost a shrine of capitalism. The artist commemorated the iconic double decker seen as part of the heritage of Mumbai. He forewarns us of absence by materialising it like British artist Rachel Whiteread, who has been casting the spaces under chairs, inside objects, whole rooms and entire houses. She solidifies negative spaces. She makes air solid. They all lead to the absent thing itself.

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The 9,000 kilos of the Flying Bus installation, perhaps the most evocative public art in the country, is not just the weight of the artwork but also the burden of nostalgia. The work is kinetic. He works with the notion of past continuum. Everything is a verb. Everything carries worlds inside of it. Every object is a gateway.

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Creating at scale Sudarshan Shetty at his studio Chembur, Mumbai Photograph: Dinesh Parab

In 2019, he displayed a whole array of so-called obsolete objects. A dial telephone, a typewriter, keds, a torch, an old television set, a radio. He called these 98 replicas in wood of domestic discards in Pieces Earth Left Behind. The 99th object was a postscript, a contemplation on these objects that function as portals of memories.

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Like ideas, nostalgia can’t be copyrighted.

Nostalgia isn’t obsolete. Nor is memory or love. There is no imposition here. No claims to any revolution either. Shetty won’t tell you why the chandelier falls on the table or why the room is an abandoned one. “It is not my love story,” he says about Age of Love. There is nothing lonelier than a chandelier breaking over a table.

Does love make us lonely? Is the abandoned room a prophecy? Is everything transient? In the aftermath of Covid-19, all these questions are important. In the last frame when the chandelier falls, the chairs don’t face each other. They face walls, pillars, windows. Each chair is a storytelling place. The table, too. Everything in this room is a reminder of love, of loss. This room and that room. And endings can be a slow dance of light shattering, breaking free from the glass cages. It can be beautiful. It is. And there will always be new songs. Or old ones that we can make our own.

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(The show is on view at Galleryske till June 25)

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