Art & Stories We Make Define Who We Are Or Could Be: Rohini Devasher

Rohini Devasher

A enigmatic blend of art and science always brings forth a magical outcome. When it comes to transpiring art from areas both unexplored and fascinating, Indian contemporary artist Rohini Devasher is an impeccable example.

Named as the Forbes Contemporary Artist of the Year in 2014, Devasher has earned the title of a breakthrough artist over the years. From painting at the College of Art in Delhi to printmaking at the Winchester School of Art in UK, Devasher has not only experienced a shift in art forms, but also in regions. She is also a member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Delhi (AAAD). As Devasher recently exhibited her solo show, Hopeful monsters in Mumbai, SheThePeople.TV spoke with her about her work, what art means to her, her show, and how we can encourage girls to pursue science and art.

How did you develop your interest in both art and science at the same time?  What — in your opinion — are the underlying similarities and differences between the two?

That’s a big question and also a difficult one, because I don’t know if it’s possible to chart a clear course through. The simple answer would be, I am interested in nature as a construct which keeps transforming as a discipline which diverges, but also sometimes combines the study of the universe, the natural world, the geologic etc. The changing nature of wonder is another factor which also shows what it means to be human.

Time is certainly something that links everything as the catalyst for change

A lot of your work also features sci-fi. What drew you to science fiction?

Angela Carter said it best “Speculative fiction really means that, the fiction of speculation, the fiction of asking “what if?” It’s a system of continuing inquiry. In a way, all fiction starts off with “what if”, but some “what ifs” are more specific. If you were half way good at writing fiction, you’d end up asking yourself and asking the reader actually much more complicated questions about what we expect from human relationships and what we expect from gender.” 

The speculative makes us question what we expect from human-non-human, human-planet relationships

The speculative allows many visions of the future, not bound by any form of linear progression. It allows us to think about ways of looking and understanding our world without necessarily being rooted in a present. I’ve always been intrigued by these theories which enables me to ask the question ‘what if!?’.

You’ve been working in a variety of media, including video, prints and large site-specific drawings. Your work purely reflects your fascination with exploration and representations of the world around us. When it comes to a specific art, how do you choose your subject?

It varies from work to work. Sometimes, it is the subject that chooses me. For instance, my ongoing interest in astronomy. I joined the Amateur Astronomers Association in New Delhi in July 1999 in my second year at the College of Art in New Delhi. At the time, I thought it might be the closest thing to a science fiction convention in the city. What I discovered was a diverse, dynamic group of mathematicians, physics and astrophysics students, photographers, entrepreneurs, academics and dreamers, each uniquely individual, who came together every Sunday afternoon on the roof of the Nehru Planetarium over chai.

Rohini Devasher

Rohini Devasher

Sometimes, it is the subject that chooses me

About eight years ago, I began a project that looked at unravelling the hidden world of amateur astronomers in Delhi. Beginning as a form of collective investigation with ‘astro-nomads’ or amateur astronomers in Delhi, stories, conversations and histories came together in a slowly building chronicle of the almost obsessive group of people whose lives have been transformed by the night sky. As an amateur astronomer and an artist, this was also an exercise in self-reflexivity. Where did I position myself within the material, or perhaps where did astronomy position itself within my practice? As part of the research, I travelled back and forth across the country with amateur astronomers, each trip focused on a stellar event or site. The work that has emerged out of this has taken many forms, including video, prints, sound and drawings.

Who are the artists you have looked up to?

Raqs Media Collective, Bharti Kher, Susan Hiller, Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell, Kiki Smith, Helen Chadwick, and the authors Angela Carter, Arthur C Clarke, A.S. Byatt.

How have the women in your life shaped your thought process and influenced your journey?

My mother and sister have influenced me tremendously. Both are incredible, fiercely independent and creative women who embody strength and grace under fire. Professionally, Pooja Sood, whom I worked for and with at the KHOJ Studios for almost five years. KHOJ was and still is an incredibly rich and vibrant space for the arts, and Pooja is at the heart of that. Sree Banerjee Goswami, my gallerist (project 88) now for more than 10 years who has stood by me and my work, who asks tough questions but always has my back. And amongst my peers, Aastha Chauhan, a fellow artist whom I met first at KHOJ, and who continues to be an essential part of my life.

In a recent conversation, scientist Minal Pathak told us how it’s important to encourage young girls at the basic level and make them aware of the fact that there’s nothing they cannot do. As an artist deeply involved with science and technology, what do you think is the future for women in this field and what measures do you suggest in encouraging more girls for the same?

I have a seven-year-old daughter and I try and make it a point to expose her to the arts and sciences equally. So we see exhibitions and shows, but we attend observations at the Nehru Planetarium. We read books about artists but also about the many, many women who have made contributions to science the world over. As the scientist you interviewed has said, breaking down myths about what girls can or cannot do is essential.

I have a seven-year-old daughter and I try and make it a point to expose her to the arts and sciences equally

Your black and white series, featuring tree branches, was really intriguing. What inspired you to create that?

This work began with an exploration of L-systems or the Lindenmayer system, a formal grammar most famously used to model the growth processes of plant development. Arboreal or ‘relating to or resembling a tree’,however, is not modelled on any algorithms or programs. Via a deeply intuitive process, each tree is constructed through the gradual manual layering of more than 700 individual layers of video, within a video editing software. There’s a whole process and a lot of hard work that goes into it. What results is a digital forest, a greenhouse of possibilities, and more.

Which art series or project piece is closest to your heart?

Each body of work is close at a specific moment in time. My solo show, Hopeful Monsters, has taken on new forms and directions and it has been exciting to see those developments and transformations.

Hopeful Monsters is currently on view at Project 88 in Mumbai until January 12, 2019.  This body of work which includes, video, prints, drawings etc is significant because in a way it is a revisiting of research that was begun almost 10 years ago

Hopeful Monsters takes its title from the theory of macro-mutation or large mutations first proposed by German geneticist Richard Goldschmidt (1878 – 1958). Goldschmidt proposed that mutations occasionally yield individuals within populations that deviate radically from the norm and referred to such individuals as “hopeful monsters”. Under the right environmental circumstances, these may become fixed, and the population will find a new species. It’s a speculative journey into a sort of transitional morphology, plant, insect, animal.

To borrow a phrase from science fiction author Jeff Vandermeer, the show Hopeful Monsters explores what happens when the natural world around us becomes a kind of camouflage

Hopeful Monsters

What’s next in line with respect to projects that you would like to talk about?  

This past summer, I spent 26 days on board The High Trust, an oil tanker on her route from Suva (Fiji), to Apia (Samoa), Pago-Pago (American Samoa) to Singapore, as an artist-in-residence on an amazing program called the Owners Cabin, co-founded by Alice and Peter Russotti, and run by the d’Amico Shipping Company.

The Owners Cabin made me realise more than ever how closely we are tied in with our planet’s present and its future. It was one of the most incredible experiences, seeing the planet the way I did, felt like the most incredible privilege

Of course, there will be work; so much material collected so many ideas and possibilities to take apart and then put back together but the voyage brought into sharp focus something I have been walking around the edges of for some time now. How do we construct the environment and how does the environment in turn construct us? 

Rohini Devasher

Rohini Devasher

The images we see and make, the stories we read and tell, define who we are, who we could be and how we see and understand the world

What would you like to advise young girls and aspiring artists?

To keep following your dreams but to be patient, both with the work and with yourself. There is no one way to get anywhere, no time before which you need to get something done. Everyone has their own speed, so trust in yourself. I know this is harder than it sounds because one must simultaneously be open to critique, but stay the course.

There is no one way to get anywhere, no time before which you need to get something done

And finally I think it’s important for all young artists, male, female alike to work in the sector they wish to be a part of, by which I mean work in a gallery, work in a not-for-profit, and work in an arts organisation. Not only will this help with essential skills like proposal writing or budgets, it will help them see the kinds of things that go into making their work possible. It teaches collaboration, respect for your peers and humility.

Also Read: Why Women In Their Forties Are Taking Up Painting

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