Madhvi Subrahmanian on Raw Earth, Working with Limitations and the Beauty of Shadows

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Creative Conversations
Issue: On Old-Growth

Singapore-based Madhvi Subrahmanian is a member of International Academy Of Ceramics, Geneva, Artaxis, USA and Sculpture Society, Singapore. She has a MFA from SMU, Dallas, USA. Madhvi’s works are in many private and public collections such as Shigaraki Ceramic Sculptural Park, Japan. Fule Museum, Fuping, China and Indian Heritage Centre, Singapore. She has also shown at international museums and galleries and in ceramic beinnales in India, Korea, Indonesia and China.

Your practice has a clear interest in natural environments, ecologies, and organic materials as well. Our relationship with nature and the plant kingdom is an incredibly rich repository, and your own works reference the abundance and vitality of nature itself. What compels you towards drawing creative energy, first and foremost, from notions of nature as bountiful or plentiful?

Thank you very much, first of all, for inviting me to be in conversation with you. This sounds like it’s going to be really interesting.

I have always had a strong connection with nature, both in my work and in my practice. I think it's because it's a natural avenue that my material itself takes me to, with clay being a natural source. Clay is not just a natural source that we are so connected to, but I believe that we're all sort of connected to it through our DNA. We're part of this material. So it lends itself not only to working with it, but it's also a very natural extension of oneself, and organic objects tend to come about or find shape through this material.

Having said that, I've also done a lot of work that relates to the natural world, whether it's the plant kingdom or looking at Earth in terms of its geography. I worked a lot with seeds and pods that represented this concept and notion of fertility before I became a mother. When I became a mother, I saw my work going towards the fact that my body was a seed, a pod, a container, and I made molds of my pregnant body.

Currently, the natural world comes into my work from a very ecological perspective. Where am I? What are the sort of changes I see happening around me? It comes about in different ways, and it sort of creeps up onto me. I'm not really an artist who thinks about the concept first before execution. I allow things to happen through the process, then I look at them, and I'm always surprised by what I see. So I'm learning from it as much as I'm putting into it. It happens at the same time.
¹ Floating Belly Pods, Madhvi Subrahmanian
2018, Installation View at Chemould Prescott Road

² Floating Belly Pods, Madhvi Subrahmanian
2018, Installation View at Chemould Prescott Road

You touched on your affinity to clay within your answer, and let’s spend some time talking about that. Tell us about how you came to work with clay, and what you enjoy about working with a material that shapeshifts, is organic, and presents endless possibilities.

I think clay is one of the most versatile materials we have on this planet. Like you said, it's very organic. It has a malleability about it, and it is responsive. For clay artists, or for people who work with clay, we believe that — or it's not so much a belief because we can actually see it — clay has a memory. It is evident in its structure, and it also responds back to you. So you do actually develop a dialogue with this material as you continue working with it. When I say clay has memory, I honestly mean it. You can lay a flat slab of clay on a table, twist it in a certain way, before then flattening it back down. If you leave that to rest and come back a while later, you’ll see that that slight twist has come back into the material because it remembers what happened to it. I just love these subtle aspects about clay. It constantly reminds me that it's a material that's very alive. It's not just sensuous, and sexy, and wonderful to work with, but it's also responsive. Clay artists will say that if you push clay too far, it's going to push right back. You can’t really force yourself onto it. You have to work with it.

As I started working with clay and started learning about this material, these are some of the things that — both conceptually and spiritually — helped me to connect more and more with it. In today's very plastic world, we no longer have this connection to raw earth, especially when we think about a city and urban space. I come from an urban space, I live in an urban space, and I am very much an urban artist. Many of these things are very much below the surface. I don't really toil with my hands. I'm not gardening, and although I used to, I'm not making my own clay anymore. So we move further and further away from this connection with the land and the earth. I’m fortunate in that I can work with clay, and be in conversation with this material on a daily basis.

Clay artists will say that if you push clay too far, it's going to push right back. You can’t really force yourself onto it. You have to work with it. 

It sounds very much like a dance between yourself and the material, and I was wondering if you could tell us more about how that dance started? What were your first encounters with clay as a material? Was there a particular moment where you fell in love with it?

As a child, I always liked working with my hands. I remember that when I was looking for something to do outside my academic work, I saw that there was a quarterly course on pottery available, and I took to it. The moment that I started working with clay, I found that it was something quite magical, so I continued on with it.

I went on to study pottery with this American artist who lived in Pondicherry, in South India. Although they were American, they were trained in Japanese pottery traditions so they had this Japanese technique and aesthetic. They were practicing and making functional wares in this very Japanese-American aesthetic whilst based out of the south of India, and I myself come from northern India. From the get-go, it was as multicultural as one could get.

It was a very interesting way to learn about clay, because I was really learning about it from the inside out. I was learning about the material, about building kilns, about building clay bodies, and more. Clay is not something you merely pick out from the top dirt out of your garden for use. It is much more complex, and we call it a clay body — it is made up of many different types of clay. As a result of this, we had very strong foundations in our knowledge of pottery. This wasn't an institution. It functioned as a working and production studio, so we learnt through osmosis and not instruction.
³ Forest, Madhvi Subrahmanian
2014, Installation View at Chemould Prescott Road

Forest, Madhvi Subrahmanian
2014, Installation View at Chemould Prescott Road

It’s like getting to know the whole life cycle of the material.

Yes, exactly.

Untitled, Dangos, Jun Kaneko
2017, Installation View at David & Gladys Wright House,

An artist whose work you’ve been drawn to is Japanese-American ceramicist, Jun Kaneko. Kaneko makes large, life-sized sculptures that tower over viewers. Within your own practice, you’ve also experimented with scale as well, with works that range from small ceramic containers to enormous, sculptural installations. What is the role of scale or size within conceptualising your work, and how have you used it to create either proximity or distance?

For me, scale is very exciting. It's not something that people necessarily think of when it comes to ceramics, and it is something that very few artists practice as well. That's for a couple of reasons. One is the access to equipment of that scale. In order to make a large, towering sculpture, you’d need a kiln that's that high. Ceramic objects also last for a very long time. It’s not a painting that you can roll up and put away. Once it’s done, it’s done, and it’s there forever, so people do have to think quite carefully before they work on a larger scale.

As I said earlier, I'm very excited by scale. I am, of course, very influenced by artists such as Jun Kaneko and my teacher Ray Meeker, who was also working in scale. I was very interested in my own physical body in relation to the piece that I was making. When you have things that are small, you're looking down on them. There's a different relationship, and there’s a different sort of power dynamic. But when you have something that's either your scale or larger, you're in conversation with it. That's the scale I was interested in. I was literally measuring myself — the height or the width of my body — and making large works in relation to that. It was really quite exciting. Some of the other works that I've done in scale have been made in sections because the kiln wasn't big enough. It also makes things much easier when it comes to transportation. An example of this was a commission I did for a house in Bali. I always find it very exciting to start with a little maquette, and then to see it blown up large.

I am quite conscious of making things that are just not going to be broken or thrown away the next day. It’s important to know what kind of space the work is going to occupy. The work activates the space, and the space informs the work. I did a very large project in collaboration with the students at UWCSEA (United World College of South East Asia) recently, and we made these very large totem poles that were 15 feet high. I was interested in creating some form of public art sculpture for the school because they had no art on its campus at that point in time. Fortunately, the school was game for it. Again it comes back to how the space informs you, and what you are trying to put into the space. Jun Kaneko’s work is so inspiring for me, and he works with really amazing spaces and ways of expression. I am bound, but am quite interested, by certain limitations. I don't mind those limitations, actually.

It’s important to know what kind of space the work is going to occupy. The work activates the space, and the space informs the work.

That’s really interesting, because whilst some might find themselves constrained by such limitations, you find yourselves excited by the challenge. Why this sentiment?

I've moved around a lot in my life. In order to work as a ceramic artist, you need a lot of equipment, you need space, you need to be grounded, and you need to be in one place. As such, I've been quite mobile with the way I work. Rather than dictating things myself, I’ve allowed my life circumstances to lead, and it has always worked for me. It has worked to my advantage because I don't know what's coming up next, and I like the element of not knowing. I like this element of surprise.

Recently, I made a work that was to be shown at the Indian Ceramics Triennale. I knew that I wanted to work with the idea of the organic and of trees. I was taking from a previous work, and I always take from a previous work — there’s always a line I can draw through the works. I was exploring this relationship between city and nature, and I knew I wanted to push that concept further. I was working through some of those ideas, and I was going in all of these directions that were just not working. Things were just not building up. The space I was given was pretty large, and because it was in India, I had to think about transporting the work there. Even if I wasn’t going to worry about transporting the fragile ceramic pieces there, funding is often an issue as well. But somewhere along the way, something pops up in my head, almost through my subconscious. Suddenly I saw something, and I took my mobile phone out, shining the flashlight on the small trees I had made. That was when I thought, “Oh my god, it's been sitting here all along. I'm going to make a whole forest of shadows.” And that's how that work came into play. It was one of those little moments that happened after you've been hitting yourself against the wall for a long time. Suddenly, this work pops up in your head, and it works.
Forest of Shadows, Madhvi Subrahmanian
2018, Installation View at Indian Ceramics Triennale: Breaking Ground

Forest of Shadows, Madhvi Subrahmanian
2018, Installation View at Indian Ceramics Triennale: Breaking Ground

Credit: Goh Jing Wen

Letters from Home, Zarina
Tate, 2004

You’ve touched on your own personal histories of travel and migration, and these are themes that emerge in the mononymous artist Zarina’s practice as well. One of the artists you included in your selection for this interview was Zarina, and she was known for working with and interrogating notions of borders, home, memory and migration. There seem to be affinities between Zarina’s work and some of the works you’ve made as well. Could you tell us more about the artist’s influence on you and how you think about your practice?

I'm really drawn to Zarina and the way she approaches mappings and visual layouts because of the way she uses lines. I also share a conceptual connection with her, perhaps, because I have also moved around a lot. I don't think I have a sense of belonging or home. Wherever I am, people always think that I'm from somewhere else. If I show in India, people will say that I come from Singapore. When I show in Singapore, people will say that I come from India. So there's always this sense of not belonging, and I draw upon that aspect in Zarina’s work. She is so sensitive with the way she uses line and mappings.

Personally, I have begun exploring these ideas a lot more. In fact my last solo show at the gallery Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai was called Mapping Memory. It was about the fact that we really only travel to three places in our daily world. It’s between home, work, and maybe one more place, like the grocery store. These are maps that we carry in our head. They are not something we need to look at Google Maps for. I found it very exciting to map out my life here in Singapore, and to map the routes I take in my city of Mumbai, where I grew up. This is not to say that I have a good sense of direction. Actually, it is quite the opposite. I have zero sense of direction, and I don't know my left from my right, but that's beside the point. I just love looking at maps from a visual perspective. They're like layouts for me, and these kinds of mappings tie my life story to my work. I've always brought my life story into my work, whether it's through making seed pods, or by making molds of my pregnant belly. There has always been some moment of my life that seeps into my work. With these maps, it's really about the space I'm in, and the space that I hold in my mind.

Maps have served as a point of interest for so many artists, and different artists have approached cartography differently. For example, you could approach maps from the macro perspective of geopolitical change, or the emotive perspective of psychogeography. What do you see when you look at a map, or what are you looking out for?

I see lines, and I see forms. I don't know if I see anything too complex. I really just enjoy the lines and forms. They give me crevices, places to go into, out of, and around. I'm not looking at maps from a landscape perspective as much as a flat perspective. I take all of that into the process of working in a three-dimensional medium. For me, these all become different terrains. 

I really just enjoy the lines and forms. They give me crevices, places to go into, out of, and around.

In Praise of Shadows, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

Although your works explore our relationship with nature, a large part of your practice also speaks directly to the city and living in the city. You picked out In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki for our conversation, and in his writings about the differences between Japanese and Western aesthetics, I see parallels between this and one way we might approach the relationship between the natural and the urban. Personally, how do you make sense of the ambiguities— do you see them as being in direct contrast as per Tanizaki?

It’s interesting that you talk about the binaries. What I absorbed from Tanizaki and his book, In Praise of Shadows, is really how he talks about the beauty of the shadow. I had never really thought about that before. I never really thought about the fact that shadows have all these layers of meaning.

I was reading this book at the same time I was making the work, Forest of Shadows. It wasn’t like the book informed the work or the work informed the way I read the book, it just happened. That was a  really magical moment for me, because the book touches on this concept of time a lot. If we’re talking about binaries, the Western approach to time can be quite linear, whereas the Eastern approach time is very circular. The shadows then come into that play. How do they change from early morning all the way until late at night? This concept of continuum was what I was very drawn by — the idea that there is no beginning and no end — and I suppose I subscribe to it as well. I always have, and therefore it connected me directly to what Tanizaki's perspective and view was.
¹⁰ Walk and Chew Gum, Madhvi Subrahmanian
2019-2020, Installation View at Hunter College, CUNY

¹¹ Walk and Chew Gum, Madhvi Subrahmanian
2019-2020, Installation View at Hunter College, CUNY

Since we’re on this point, could you tell us about what you enjoyed about Tanizaki’s writings on shadows, and how you've seen that seep into — if at all — the way in which you approach thinking about, maybe not just your practice, but an overarching philosophy at large?

There are so many aspects of that book that really got me thinking about the beauty of light and the beauty of shadows: the way light comes in through the window and the kind of shadow that it projects. It just made me a little more observant.

There were a couple of works that I was making at that point in time that made all of this all the more apparent to me. I had already been photographing this stretch of road, and the way the shadow of the trees would fall on the road. At that time, I was thinking about the conversation between nature with urban space, but I hadn't quite cracked it yet. I knew that the shadows cast were very beautiful, but reading Tanizaki’s writings on the beauty of shadows really opened up a lot of possibilities in my own head.

¹² Roadside shrine in India

Credit: Madhvi Subrahmanian

On that note about the relationship between trees and the urban, one of the things you picked out for our interview were roadside shrines in India, which are common sights in the urban cities of India. Shrines can be Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, or shared between different faiths. These shrines are multi-functional, cared for and venerated by local communities, and serve as important touch points around the city. Could you tell us about why these roadside shrines came to mind in putting together your selection for the interview, and about your relationship to or experience with these shrines?

Just to give you a little background: you can find these roadside shrines in India when you go from one town to another. They're usually along pathways because people used to walk now on tree-laden pathways for the shade they provided. A shrine is a place of prayer, and people go to it to seek protection for all kinds of things ranging from protection on their travels, or from snakes. With urban development, the landscape is going through a lot of changes, and I’m not completely immune to seeing things disappear because I no longer live in India. I started seeing things changing and disappearing, and one of the things I saw changing was that trees were being felled to make way for more roads. When the trees go, the roadside shines go.

I started looking at these shrines, and they began making their way into my work. They're so organic. A little rock can be anointed, and it then becomes a shrine because people feel that their prayers were heard by worshipping at this shrine, and it goes on like this. Roadside shrines can sometimes grow into very big temples. There are many temples that actually started off with a shrine under a tree.

I'm quite fascinated by the fact that there is this aspect of divinity that's found in almost anything. It doesn't have to be carved or sculpted. It could be a brick that you anoint, and it's your faith. It is about what you're putting into it rather than what that is giving you. These shrines are communal as well. It doesn't belong to any one person, and everybody can feed off its energies to gain from it. I always look for these roadside shrines when I'm traveling, especially because I know they're disappearing and they might not be around for too long. There’s also sentimentality.

¹³ River of Earth, Andy Goldsworthy
Musée Gassendi, 1999

One of the works you picked out for our conversation is River of Earth by Andy Goldsworthy. As an artist, Goldsworthy is best known for his artistic interventions into natural environments that amplify our deep connection with nature itself. When you create site-specific works, particularly works that respond to an immediate natural environment, what are the sort of relationships that you hope to draw out or create between the work and its surroundings (e.g. symbiotic, antagonistic, embedded, etc)?

I’ve found myself being increasingly drawn towards ephemeral art. When you think about Andy Goldsworthy, his practice is all about ephemerality. I've always admired his work, and there’s this beautiful documentary that was made about him. He's just so poetic in the way he expresses himself through his works. I've always been interested in responding to space and the environment around me, and now I'm beginning to think about the ephemeral quality of a work. It could be there one day, and gone the next. It's quite a recent interest that I've started exploring.

I was in New York for a residency, and I wanted to make works that would respond to the city. I was taking walks and making these sort of grid-like structures, which I called windows. As I was working on these structures, I was taking a lot of photographs of the road and the signboards when I noticed that I hadn't been seeing something that was very obviously everywhere — on the road, on the pavement — and that was the chewing gum. Even New Yorkers themselves didn't realize that there was that much chewing gum around, so I started looking into it. I realised that a lot of chewing gum bits or gum marks don't disappear. They can be there for decades and decades, and some can even be as old as forty or fifty years. They're almost like artifacts — remnants that a person has left behind.

When I was there, New York City went into lockdown, and the city emptied out. I went to a street between a park and a school that was littered with chewing gum, and started doing these kolam paintings. Kolam paintings are traditional South Indian rice flour paintings that are done every morning, and it's ritualistic. The paintings welcome the new day, and bring fresh energy into the foyer or the threshold of your house. This particular pavement in the city connected one avenue to another, and I started drawing around the leftover chewing gum or gum markes with rice flour. The flour is organic, and it's bound to disappear over time with rain or as people walk over it, so I felt comfortable doing it. I didn't feel like I was doing any kind of graffiti or anything like that, and people would come up to me everyday to say things like, “Oh my god, this looks so beautiful. Why don't you do the whole block?” or “You should do this with paint so that we can keep it.” It was just so wonderful to have such warm and welcoming comments coming from these strangers. Drawing on the streets was a daily process for me, but it was only for me. I didn’t publicise it. I like that engagement in a public space. If you see it, you see it, and if you don't, you don't.
¹⁴ Kolam drawings around gum marks on pavement, Madhvi Subrahmanian
2020, Installation View on East 67th Street, New York City

Many of us have this impulse to freeze a particular moment, or to capture it, for all posterity, and this is something you got a glimpse of through your conversations with passers by. Could you tell us about some of the conversations you had with these strangers, and how they were responding to the interventions you were making into the public space?

Absolutely. These were passers by, they weren't gallery visitors or museum goers. I received responses of shock from people who didn’t know that there was so much gum around. Others were apologetic and embarrassed about how much gum there was on the pavement. Others related it to the times that we were in and thought that I was drawing social distancing circles. I was drawing all of these lines, circles, and making connections between them, and some thought I was mapping out the galaxy or the cosmos. I found all of these responses very interesting. People were just trying to find meaning in the work when there wasn't actually any meaning to it. I just wanted to highlight the gum, and I'm just drawing.

Other than drawing on the pavement, for me, it was also about bringing something that is of a completely different cultural context and placing it into another to see what it would do. It was very interesting to see how people found the need to hold on to it, and to apply or add meaning to what they saw. I think everybody wants meaning out of what they see, so we search for them, but sometimes it is what it is.

It was very interesting to see how people found the need to hold on to it, and to apply or add meaning to what they saw. I think everybody wants meaning out of what they see, so we search for them, but sometimes it is what it is.

Your practice deals with ambiguities, multiplicities, and contradictions on varying levels and in relation to an ever-changing landscape. With upheavals such as climate change and the pandemic, have there been shifts in the way you’re thinking about your practice? What are some of the newer questions that have come to the fore for you, and how are you hoping to incorporate them into your work?

I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a ceramic show that will open during Singapore Art Week. I wanted to make work for the show that actually was new, and like I said, I'm always responding to my own personal life, to the environment around me, and to what's happening. One of the works I’m doing for the show is titled Pandemic Pills. It's very much about the pandemic, and it's a work that is participatory. I wasn't sure when I started making it whether participation was going to be allowed, and I still don't know whether it will be, but it doesn't matter. I’ve made a bunch of ceramic pills, and the pills all have words on it. However you can’t see the words unless you roll the pills out onto a bed of sand, which is in a pill box. Some of these pills are quite large — they're about eight to ten inches — and others are really small. These words that I constantly heard people saying over the course of this pandemic. It ranges from words of disbelief and shock to words of acceptance.

There are multiple ways the work can be read. It's very open to interpretation. You can think of it as a pill that when taken, will relieve yourself of feelings of anxiety, or you can think of it in relation to the pharmaceutical industry and the problems there. I wanted the work to be completely open to the audience’s interpretation. Instead of it being a purely visual work, I think that when the audience participates in it, they complete the work. That’s the part I really like about this. Audiences can take whatever they’d like to from the work. It’s sort of like the pandemic again. When we were thrown into the thick of this, how did we respond to the situation? Was it through shock, denial, anger, or was it with appreciation for the time that we’ve been given to heal, and a rethinking of how we move through the world? All of these emotions can happen to a person, and they might even happen simultaneously. We're human beings. We're always going to be faced with all these conflicting emotions, and often at the same time.
¹⁵ Pandemic Pills, Madhvi Subrahmanian
2020, Installation View at Singapore Ceramics Now 2021

Credit: Singapore Ceramics Now 2021

¹⁶ Pandemic Pills, Madhvi Subrahmanian
2020, Installation View at Singapore Ceramics Now 2021

Credit: Singapore Ceramics Now 2021
Singapore Ceramics Now 2021 is now open. The exhibition will run at Block 7, Gillman Barracks until 13 February 2021.
More information about the exhibition can be found here.

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