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Sheela Gowda: Iniva.

Stepping into Bangalore-based Sheela Gowda's first solo show in London, "Therein & Besides," organized by Iniva's senior curator, Grant Watson, one had to abandon the pose of the casual bystander. Two installations--Of All People, 2011, and Collateral, 2007/2011--occupied the ground and second floors, respectively. Of AH People is architectural bedlam in the prettiest of hues: Cream pillars stand around aimlessly; pale pink windows are placed on walls so that they reveal no outside; cracked turquoise doors hinder rather than facilitate movement; the display is littered with wooden chips that spill over an up-ended wooden table, cluster in a corner like chopped firewood, and nestle at the edge of a sunflower-yellow beam. As one approaches them, they begin to resemble minute faces: The wooden pieces have been slashed with a chisel to delineate rough-hewn visages. Gowda calls them her "little ones," as if they were children. They occupy precarious positions in the multihued riot of mangled furniture. Piled higgledy-piggledy or huddled in groups, they merge into an indistinguishable mass of humanity. Yet now and again their individuality reasserts itself. With markings that delineate mouths and eyes--some long and gaping, others like thin gashes--they bear uncanny resemblances to the effigies used in Indian black magic.


Violence is more explicitly addressed in Collateral--not in aggressive hues but in muffled shades of grayish fawn. Bone-colored shapes--malformed circles and squares and twisted spirals--are arranged on rectangular wire meshes that seemed to hover above the cool, concrete floor. Watson's catalogue text explains that Gowda kneaded charcoal and bark powder into dough and then set the mixture alight. What viewers see is ash, the residue of destruction. But the pale forms conjure tricks with perspective that are quite different from those the "little ones" play. The closer you get to the wooden chips, the more real their faces appear. With Collateral, competing perceptions can be intuited from the same vantage point. The squiggly, shadowy structures evoke aerial views of a burnt landscape--like newspaper images of some war-torn country. Yet they simultaneously resemble mangled intestines or squished kidneys. Either way. Collateral's, damage-infused contours remind us that Gowda shifted from painting to installation in the early 1990s in response to the Hindu-Muslim riots that rocked India in 1992-93. Fabricated from charcoal and bark, the same substances incense sticks are made of, Collateral's pallid shapes might reference those burned alive during the carnage--as well as the traditional practice of cremation.

Despite Gowda's seeming involvement with modernist abstraction--the sharp-angled furniture that dominates Of All People brings to mind vast three-dimensional Constructivist forms--the show rejected utopian aspirations. Geometric fixtures were invariably overlaid with trauma, and the doubt-ridden active spectatorship that was forced on viewers contributed to the turmoil: Just as we thought we were in charge of what we were seeing, we found ourselves shoved willy-nilly into the dilemma. The gallery's transparent exterior (designed by David Adjaye, it glitters with glass) held out the promise of untrammeled access. Peering into the building from across the street, we could survey Of All People easily. We imagined we knew what to expect. Bur once inside, we lost our bearings utterly, bedazzled by the range of contradictory view-points. Certainly, we were taller than the stocky wooden fellows, but we felt terribly tiny walking through the huge doorways. Moreover, pastel windows offered no views, and vibrantly beckoning doors provided no avenues for escape. Could it be, I wondered, that Gowda was transforming her viewers into beleaguered "little ones" too?
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Title Annotation:LONDON
Author:Jumabhoy, Zehra
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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