ART OF LIFE
By: K.G. SREENIVAS Dated: March 20, 2015
“We think our life is just one life. It is far from it. In the given one life-span, you can have millions of lifetimes. For example, when you behold a painting, for a moment you become that painting, when you look at the sky, you become the sky for a moment, when you look at water, you become water for a second, when you melt metal, you are melting for a moment...you forget about everything else. You can have so many real experiences every moment of your life” says VALSAN KOORMA KOLLERI
Valsan Koorma Kolleri finds little distinction between art and life. For him art is life and life art. Bearded, of slim build, summer hat, bespoke, self-designed turtle-neckcotton shirt, cargoes, and a hardy pair of sandals —Valsan is the flower child of art. At his elemental best at Cabral Yard, next door to Aspinwall House, where, for a second consecutive time, he has mounted his work amidst sprawling mosquito-infested shrubbery and creepers under massive trees, Valsan moves about like a phantom — unobtrusive and almost one with his background. Birds of various species keep up a running orchestra throughout the day.The whole scene is shamanic, nature undisturbed, with art and nature coexisting as though from prehistoric times.He describes the space as a “tactile experiential landscape of our collective memory.”
“I have no problem with mosquitoes. In fact, this is not something new for me, I have been living like this. My place ‘Shilpappadiam’, my studio, in Tellicherry in the Malabar is like this. I was taken in by this space just as I was in the last biennale. There are lots of land locked up and fenced off — I just want to figure what can one do with such a space without disturbing it,” says Valsan in his opening comments as we sit down under a tree for an extended conversation on his work and life. The sculptor, who has worked extensively in bronze and who trained under the legendary K.C.S. Panicker at Artists’ Village, wants to see how the “next generation” can adopt Shilpappadiam.
Valsan’s installation the totemic ‘How Goes the Enemy’ (2014) is a laterite sculpture built to respond to the sun and is designed to cast shadows on an inclined surface finely calibrated to the local latitude. The diameter of the round surface is 24 feet representing each hour of a day and simulates the movement of time.
What is realism or what is realistic? There is a big confusion. I think abstraction is more realism than realism... There is no realism, there is no realistic thing... At the same time art is not new and new is not art either...
Valsan is a material man. And detritus is of the essence for him — something that he is intensely passionate about while melding space and craft. “At one stage after years of bronze casting, I realised that every material has great value, not bronze alone. Today we have such a lot of material we just throw, so I think the art of recycling is also important because the material I buy is akin to collecting waste!”
Waste is human. “Waste materials have a greater human touch, so I find it more appropriate for using it in sculpture. The trees and branches you see here are like three-dimensional drawings. But once it falls, I collect them and try and transform them in a sculptural manner.”
Waste is at once transformative too. “Most people do not know what to do with material or things gone bad. If you can make use of it you can make a better life,” says the youthful 61 year old Valsan, pointing to a heap of scrap in the yard.Environment is key to Valsan’s art: “It’s not nice to throw everything into nature. Nature exists not just for us but for generations that will follow us.”
I draw attention to the earthiness of his craft and medium. Valsan, who in the 70s began working with geometrical abstractions of the human body, aspects of which are present in 'How Goes the Enemy', retorts sharply and offers a critique of contemporary media: “I don’t understand what is this new media... We get confused by modern art...”
“Organicity” of craft, material, and practice is central to his oeuvre: “You have to be in the living present. I like to practise whatever I do keeping my body, feeling, and everything in the present — sculpture is also akin to working in the present.” But that is not all. He brings up his pet concern — that of the next generation of artists. “What do we give the future generation? We need to give some clue to the next generation — instead of confusing them.”
Art is another institution. For me Cabral Yard is a university, people come in, get admission, go out to see art, by themselves understand art, probe others about their understanding... It is an institution, a free institution in the sense that it can be freer than the usual school bench...
I probe further. Valsan, who from the late 1990s has moved seamlessly into environment and architecture, says, “new media is a very commercial word. I don’t understand what is new media or what are they talking about, be it plastic or film. You cannot touch film... here you can touch and feel mud, earth... Touching is another way of seeing.”
In the same breath, Valsan, who read at Ecole Nationale Superior Des Beaux Arts, Paris (1985-86) after arts school at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, and College of Art and Crafts, Chennai, questions the premise of realism. “What is realism or what is realistic? There is a big confusion. I think abstraction is more realism than realism... There is no realism, there is no realistic thing...” He hastens to add, “at the same time art is not new and new is not art either...”
We fall silent for a while. There is an odd collection of works nearby. Valsan breaks the silence and sums up his cosmogony. “These are all done jointly... one of the students got inspired by the material twigs and driftwood. I don’t believe in making art all by myself. It is not just me doing the work... even nature is doing its work... insects and birds too are artists.”
So what possibly drives his most fundamental impulses? “The Shilpasastra says first you need to become the sculpture itself and you need to take the sculpture out of the sculptor for it to be seen.”
For Valsan everything surrounding the act of art is a continuum. “Even for you to come and ‘see’ all of these is a big journey... your ancestors have also travelled with you here.” Similarly, “art makes you intuitively connected to something or the other. Some seeds will wait for the right climate to sprout... so life is all about recycling and recovering energy. Art is also something that gives life and energy...”
I probe Valsan on valorisation. “We name art differently, even craft. Good art and bad craft or good craft and bad art is equally bad — it needs to be synchronised beautifully,” responds the artist who uses wood, creepers, nests and hives, leather, even bones and hair in his works.
So is art political? “Art is everything. You can see things the way you want to. That’s why you see it. You can also see politics in it. Art is like god...” Valsan looks towards the horizon above the high walls of Cabral Yard.
Art often evoke mixedreactions from viewers. Some say they ‘don’t understand’. Valsan is equanimous. “That itself is an understanding... At least they know that don’t understand. What’s the use of pretending that ‘I am reacting to it’. Art lovers are artists too, not art makers alone.”
But how do appreciate art? “We practise to ‘see’ others’ art... Practising art is such a great thing that once you get a grip on how to ‘see’ or ‘view’ art, you have gained something.”
Artist and society need to be in constant communication. “It helps,” says Valsan. “Art is another institution. For me Cabral Yard is a university, people come in, get admission, go out to see art, by themselves understand art, probe others about their understanding... It is an institution, a free institution in the sense that it can be freer than the usual school bench...”
Art is central to life and can counter the “destructive tendencies of mankind”. “The biennale is like an art war... The time has arrived to destroy guns and armaments — that’s an old fashioned war. Art is very valuable, but few respect it because they didn’t choose this field. So they underestimate it.”
“Once you understand art, it’s amazing... You have all the right to do bad art, but understanding the value of art is important,” adds Valsan.