Episode 6: Mahalakshmi Kannappan


As a material, charcoal is often associated with drawing or sketching. We often encounter charcoal as soft, slender sticks, yet artist Mahalakshmi Kannappan amplifies charcoal by using it to great sculptural effect. Despite its monochromatic carbon black colour, Maha creates three-dimensional forms that play with textures and differences in light refraction.

For this episode, we speak to the artist about her enduring relationship with charcoal, and how she handles such a tactile and sensuous medium.
Originally Aired: 6 April 2021




Transcript

Object Lessons Space
In making work, artists might paint, draw, sculpt, make photographs, films, write, or all of the above. In comparison to that, what does it look like or mean when an artist focuses all their energies towards working exclusively with a single material for a sustained period of time?

Commonly used in foundational drawing classes or for preparatory sketches, charcoal is a material that many artists would be familiar with. When drawing with charcoal, one is able to achieve both soft, light strokes or harsh, graphic lines. Charcoal is also a rather soft material. It crumbles. When a sketch is complete, it is often finished off with a fixative to ensure that everything stays in place.

This episode features a conversation with the artist Mahalakhsmi Kannappan. Maha’s practice is centered around the use of charcoal. Instead of using charcoal in the context of drawing, Maha creates three-dimensional canvases and sculptures that accentuate and amplify the material’s texture, malleability, and tones.
Mahalakshmi Kannappan
So there's so much you can actually find when you look under the surface. I am a person who always wants to dig deeper. Looking at the cracks and the crevices, people always look at them as deformities, but I look at them as opportunities to discover more.
♪ Podcast jingle ♪
Object Lessons Space
Hello and welcome to another episode of Mushroomed, a podcast hosted by the Singapore-based online platform, Object Lessons Space. My name is Joella — I’m the Founding Editor of the platform and your host for this podcast.

Mahalakhsmi Kannappan, or Maha, has worked her magic with charcoal for a while now. She is known for these large, wall-hung, three-dimensional charcoal canvases. She presented a series of these canvases at a recent solo exhibition of hers. The solo exhibition, titled Singular Moments, was a tour de force performance in charcoal manipulation and materiality. One of these canvases, titled The Crevice I, exemplifies this. The work is dominated by an even layer of charcoal. However, this smooth surface ruptures towards the bottom third of the canvas. A horizontal rift emerges as the artist pries the two sides away from one another. Beneath, sheaths of charcoal layers are laid bare. As you crane your head to look closer, or take the work in from different perspectives, it begins to reveal itself to you.

Maha has consistently showcased her mastery over charcoal as a medium by way of these canvases. Alongside these canvases, Maha also presented a new development in her artistic journey. The artist exhibited a series of four freestanding charcoal sculptures. These sculptures were placed in the middle of the exhibition space, allowing viewers to circumambulate the plinths upon which they were placed. Almost in contrast to the horizontality of The Crevice I, the freestanding sculpture Shreds II emphasises verticality. Shreds II stands upright on its plinth, but leans a little to the side — almost toppling over, yet still remaining in balance. The sculpture, when viewed from the front, gives the impression of a monolithic, unwrinkled whole. Yet on its side, the sculpture gives way to vertical planes of charcoal. They run down the entire height of the sculpture, akin to pages in a book, or layers in a mille crepe.

For this episode, we speak to the artist about her enduring relationship with charcoal, and how she handles such a tactile and sensuous medium.
♪ Transition music ♪
Object Lessons Space
I wanted to begin our conversation by taking some time to speak to the networks that we're embedded within. I wanted to get a sense of what you would say your earliest or even your most formative experience with art was.
Mahalakshmi Kannappan
I was born and brought up in India, in a small cosmopolitan city that most of you will not have not heard of. I came from a middle-class family that emphasised academic excellence all the time, so art was never formal for me. never went to formal art school, because there was no formal art school around me, although I had a huge interest in art. That’s how it was. There was no opportunity for me to pursue it. I used to do occasional sketches here and there, whenever I'm with my friends, we have an art group, where we just do occasional sketches. Then life goes on. I started work, and there was pressure to earn, but I chose a career where – I made sure that I was doing something within the arts sector. This was my involvement before. Following that, I rekindled my involvement in art when I relocated to Singapore.
Object Lessons Space
Within your artworks, there's a very clear relationship between the way in which you work, and the material that you work in as well. Charcoal, in particular, is something that features so prominently across all of your works, and although it's often associated with drawing and sketching, you use it to really amazing, great sculptural effect. Could you also tell us a little bit more about what drew you towards working with charcoal, and what you enjoy most about working with this material as well?
Mahalakshmi Kannappan
I used to draw since I was young, even though I didn’t have a formal education, but I always drew, and an affordable material that I always used was pencil and charcoal sticks. I always use these when I go outdoor sketching. I use charcoal a lot because it gives me the depth that I want. With one single material, I could bring out everything that I actually wanted to bring out in that artwork. That’s the interesting thing about charcoal. I was always kind of attracted to charcoal. It’s also easy to use. You can carry a single material wherever you go, and you can just quickly sketch with it. That was one thing in particular about charcoal. But as part of a course, in NAFA (the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts), there was this module called “Material Exploration”. That was the time when charcoal immediately – it was the first thing that came to my mind. The rawness, the monotone nature of it – really attracted me. That’s why I was drawn towards charcoal.
Object Lessons Space
I was wondering if, throughout your time at NAFA (the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts), whether or not you might have been taught by or came into contact with Tang Ling Nah, the charcoal artist. I was thinking a lot about – if you had crossed paths with her, and even if she might have had an impact on the way in which you work with or think about charcoal as well.
Mahalakshmi Kannappan
I wish I had met her before, but I couldn't. There were a couple of times where there was a workshop with her, but I had to miss them because of my family commitments. Later I came to know that she is also using charcoal. There was one workshop she did, I really regret missing that workshop. It was the one in the gallery, and she sketched on paper that was on the floor. People would crawl through, with charcoal powder on themselves and on the paper, which was quite fascinating, but I missed it. I met her during S.E.A. Focus last year. We had quite an interesting conversation.
Object Lessons Space
Now that you mention S.E.A. Focus, it is probably a good time for us to talk about some of the works that were presented there as well. For example with the works that you've made, you really do get the sense that a single moment is crystallized in charcoal, and it strikes me that the process of making or carving out your work must be quite long and laborious. I was wondering if you could walk us through some of your working processes. How much time do you spend developing a work, and how does experimentation and play figure within that process?
Mahalakshmi Kannappan
That’s quite interesting, and people always ask me this particular question – they want to know more about the process – how do I do it? Okay, so here, I can tell you. Usually my works take two months to finish – from design, to layout, to final outcome. I used to make my works on a canvas base, then slowly I had to move to using a wooden base because the works got heavier and larger. I usually prepare the base, and on the side, I prepare my charcoal layers. The preparations will take at least one week to do, the basic ones. After that, I start the charcoal layers – mixing them or laying them onto the wooden. So that's how I start. With the sourcing, a couple of years ago when I was working on my final year project at NAFA, I used to grind barbecue charcoal myself. You can actually see a full showcase of damaged grinders in my house. Yeah, so I used to do that. Fortunately, I found a source from India when I travelled to India, and I got this powder in bulk from there. So that's how it goes. The interesting fact about charcoal is that you never know what the results are. When I started combining it with other elements, I always got different results every time. When it's wet, it is a different result to when it is dry. I like the unpredictability and the uncontrollable because it's never in my control – the results are never in my control. These things always fascinate me. But over time, when I started exploring and when I understood that I could actually control the composition, for example with the base, like I said, from canvas to wooden, the weather – if it's really sunny, the effects are quite different. The drying time differs, and the effects are quite different. If it's rainy, too much moisture is also a problem. So I have to control the weather by placing it in an air-conditioned room, shift the work from indoors to outdoors or outdoors to indoors, all these things. Also, the composition of the mixture – these things actually have an impact on the output. When I understood these things, I tried to manipulate the composition and the layout, and yet, I cannot have an outcome that is 100% predictable. There is still this level of unpredictability. That’s why I have a happy relationship with charcoal. That’s the one thing that keeps me inspired every time.
Object Lessons Space
It sounds like there's this push and pull between yourself and how you work with the material, but even even with this layer of unpredictability, I feel like there's this really clear and visual formal language to your recent works. In particular, I'm thinking about the works you presented at Gajah Gallery last year for your solo exhibition, Singular Moments. What would you say the significance of layers, crevices and texture is to you? And I mean this both on a conceptual and visual level as well.
Mahalakshmi Kannappan
There's so much you can actually find when you look under the surface. I am a person who always wants to dig deeper. I don't want to skim through stuff, or just leave it and take decisions on the first instance, and things like that. I think this applies to my materials I work with as well. You will never get the results which you thought – I mean, you can get results that you never thought possible. Looking at the cracks and the crevices, people always look at them as deformities, but I look at them as opportunities to discover more. That's the reason why you have cracks here and there all the time. I want to see what is underneath. There is always something behind the scenes. But on a visual level, where do I take these visual ideas from? People always ask me questions such as, “why do you want to have a crack in the middle?”, or, “how do you get these visuals?” For the Singular Moments exhibition, I actually have one story, it's like a childhood memory that has had an impact on me. It is of a boy scratching up parked cars, and I’ve always had this thought coming or flashing in my mind since – the marks that are left on the car, their impact, and how the boy who made them was no longer there when the owners came back. I’ve always wanted to reflect this in my work, so that's how the visuals actually come in. You can see this scratch in the center with my works in the Singular Moments series. There actually is one crack that goes through all the way – from the first piece to almost the fourth piece. This is how I play with the conceptual and the visual levels.
Object Lessons Space
There’s this real continuity, like you say, not just with the crack that runs through the pieces exhibited at Singular Moments, but I think also it presented a really interesting shift for yourself as well. You're known for these really large and layered works that resemble sculptural canvases, and they're often hung on the wall. But with Singular Moments, you presented a series of freestanding charcoal sculptures on plinths as well. Could you tell us a little bit more about these four sculptures? It’s so interesting, because they do feel almost like a natural development from your wall bound works. How do you make sense of the relationship between these freestanding sculptures and the wall bound works, which many people would be familiar with?
Mahalakshmi Kannappan
I always think that the canvas should not be a limit, where you’re only creating works in a 2D form, so this was always there with me. I think this urged me to try 3D forms with the canvas as a base. That’s why my initial works try to draw the connections out from the 2D to the 3D. From there, I believe that sculptures are a natural evolution of my 3D forms. When detached from the canvas, I think I can create more pure and uncontaminated charcoal pieces. That's what I believe, that’s why I’m trying out these charcoal sculptures – to exhibit it in its pure form.
Object Lessons Space
Do you think you'll be making a lot more of these freestanding sculptures? Do you think they are something that you find incredibly interesting, and would like to continue working with them?
Mahalakshmi Kannappan
It was really interesting to work on a 3D form because you can move around. There is more freedom and there's a lot of action involved when you're doing a 3D piece, especially when compared to a canvas. I think there's a lot of freedom to it, so I probably will be continuing the 3D works, but I’m in a transition period right now. I'm still figuring out how to stabilise the works – how to make it stand on its own. The current ones are still not that stable, because the core inside the charcoal sculptures is composed of plywood, so I'm thinking about how I can develop the idea.
Object Lessons Space
Something that struck me when I was seeing the exhibition at Gajah Gallery was that I was trying to take photographs of some of the works that I was looking at, but I couldn't really photograph them in a way that captured how multi layered they were. I imagined this must not just be the case for myself, but maybe your experience as well, when trying to photograph some of your works, either when installed or when you're in your studio. Have you experienced difficulties in lighting or photographing your works in a way that adequately captures its textures or tones?
Mahalakshmi Kannappan
Yeah, tell me about it. It was really difficult and challenging, and the team from Gajah also find it really difficult. We have to take multiple photographs to get the right one. I still haven't cracked the code yet, and I'm still figuring out how to do that. But in the meanwhile, we take a lot of photographs to get that one particular visual that we need. The charcoal itself reflects light, so I could never get the actual color, or capture the textures and the tones. Some have even asked me if I did any component to make it greenish. People have told me that the works look very different in photos as compared to in person. Initially, I thought that that was a good idea because people had to really come in person to view the works. I thought it was a good idea, because I could ask the people to come over. But today everything is online, right? So maybe it’s not a very good idea.
Object Lessons Space
But in a way, I find it so interesting that there's this emphasis on a real-life encounter with the sculptural manner in which the charcoal is manipulated the way in which you do it, because photographs don't adequately capture it. It’s also interesting to me that we're doing a podcast and describing it aurally – how the works are actually formed. Perhaps these are all just different ways of representing something, that maybe does not fully capture the essence or the true form of the work itself, but maybe could gesture at it in order to get people interested. I'm wondering if, based on your experience and also speaking to people that have encountered your works as well – I know, you’ve probably have heard people say that an in person encounter with the work is so different from seeing it in the digital as well. But what are some of the things that people have told you, especially in terms of why they feel this way? Because of course the image sometimes flattens the work and the dimensionality of it, but what do people refer to when they say that the work versus the visual or the digital image just isn’t the same when they speak to you about this experience?
Mahalakshmi Kannappan
Yeah, especially the ones in Singular Moments, right? There are these pieces titled The Blotch that you have to see in person. When you view it online, you can’t really see what I did to that piece. I named the pieces “The Blotch” because of the blotch in them. You need to get closer in order to understand why and the view. There is a subtle difference in the texture, which can only be experienced and enjoyed by looking in person. For the people who really wanted to buy those artworks, the collectors, they actually told me that, “You know, I don't think I can see any difference. I probably have to go down to take a look at it”. So I felt really challenged by not being able to capture the difference properly in an online view. That has been a big challenging thing, and I'm trying to tackle that issue in the future.
Object Lessons Space
Something that charcoal does incredibly well is that it's a material that draws people in – it's so tactile, and it’s so incredibly sensuous as well. When you touch a piece of charcoal – and I think anyone who's done a barbecue has experienced this – it leaves these traces of darkened dust or powder on your hands. I was wondering if, given this quality, audience engagement would be something you'd like to explore in future? Maybe inviting audiences to touch their sculptures or even to hold them?
Mahalakshmi Kannappan
Yes. My works are not very interactive – they are mentally, but not physically. But having said that, the works are very fragile. I don't think I can offer too much physical engagement with them, because they tend to snap. I have developed my works, from the early stages to now, by controlling this fragility a little bit. However, I think you're right, I would definitely like for audiences to know, the intense nature of charcoal and to also have a personal interaction with it, but I think this might be my future project. I will have to have the towers and hand soaps ready.
Object Lessons Space
Maybe in an environment where touch and engagement is actively encouraged again – I suppose it will be different. I suppose it will also be very difficult to facilitate now, with the need for sanitizing and for gloves, even. This definitely sounds like something, perhaps, for the future. Just to wrap everything up, I also wanted to talk to you about your relationship with charcoal. It's something that we've spent a lot of time talking about throughout this whole entire conversation, and I think it's something that is clearly close to your heart, and something that you feel very strongly for. I'm wondering if you're in a place where you'd like to continue pushing the limits of this material, or are you looking at delving into different media as well at this point in your practice?
Mahalakshmi Kannappan
I think we just got married, and we are in the honeymoon period, so I think charcoal and I are enjoying each other's company for now. I don't think I'm looking for divorce right now. I think I might have an affair, or a rendezvous with other materials perhaps, but charcoal remains my soulmate for now.
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Object Lessons Space
Mahalakshmi Kannappan is a Singapore-based artist well-known for her monochromatic works of layered and tectonic plate-like forms, exploring dynamic possibilities through the material of charcoal.

If you’d like to see more of Maha’s works, you can visit her website at www.mahalakshmikannappan.com.

Thankyou so much for spending time with us today. As usual, we had a lot of fun with this conversation, and I hope you’ve enjoyed sitting in. You can find more articles and transcripts from these podcast episodes on our website, www.objectlessons.space.

We also have a presence on all the usual social media platforms, including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. If you like our work, we do have a Patreon page that you can check out as well.

Mushroomed is a podcast series hosted by Object Lessons Space, and produced in collaboration with the wonderful people at Singapore Community Radio. Thankyou so much for spending time with us today.



 
Mushroomed is a series of conversations around art making, artistic networks and ecosystems. Sit in on conversations with artists and cultural practitioners. This podcast is hosted by the Singapore-based online platform, Object Lessons Space, and produced in collaboration with Singapore Community Radio.


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