Mumbai-based artist Sudarshan Shetty talks traffic, dystopia and trucks

Mumbai-based artist Sudarshan Shetty talks traffic, dystopia and trucks

Shetty, considered one of the most innovative Indian artists of his generation, talks with CNNGo about what it's like to live and work in Mumbai
Sudarshan Shetty
Shetty by his House of Shades art piece at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan earlier this year.

Sudarshan Shetty, the Mumbai-based artist, has had a busy year already. He has recently completed a piece titled House of Shades, commissioned by Louis Vuitton for the Women's Fashion Week in Milan, which was installed at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Shortly afterwards he participated in GallerySKE’s outstanding group show in March, set in a half-demolished, magical old drive-in cinema in Mumbai, as well as a solo show at New York's Tilton Gallery entitled The more I die, the lighter I get. 

Shetty is best known for his sculptural installations with mechanized moving parts, which art critic Ranjit Hoskote has described as "giant toys whose conception of play is as serious as a game of life and death". The piece he did for Louis Vuitton was one such giant toy, a kiosk made of rows of moving sunglasses, reminiscent of the kind found at airports. The kiosk, which viewers could enter, "subverted the usual viewer/object role, as the person inside the kiosk is looked at and therefore becomes the object," the artist told CNNGo.

Recently returned from the Italian fashion capital, we spoke to him about life as an artist in Mumbai.  

CNNGo: Two of your recent shows, one in a derelict drive-in cinema in Mumbai and the other in an arcade in Milan, have been installations in public spaces. Do you feel Mumbai lacks public installations?

House of Shades by Sudarshan ShettyThe art installation House of Shades resembles an airport kiosk, an enclosure playing with the classic themes of inside vs outside.Sudarshan Shetty: Yes, I believe there is a huge divide between the inside of a gallery space and the outside. The solution is not just to show art in public. The problem is very deep. One of my concerns as an artist is to close that gap. You know, most of us went to art school in Mumbai, where we were taught art from a Western point of view. This meant that when I was a student, I started making crazy, abstract kinds of art that my parents couldn't understand. There was no connection, and I had a great difficulty in explaining it to them. What I soon realized, however, was that in India art is closely related to the idea of entertainment. My interest in mechanically driven sculptures stems from an idea of how I could bring in a passerby from the street by luring him with the promise of entertainment. Once I've attracted someone's attention in that way, I can then speak about other things.

CNNGo: You once said "the information for most of my work comes from my daily negotiations with the city I live in". What is your relationship with Mumbai as an artist?

Shetty: The great thing about living in a city like Mumbai -- where I've spent most of my life -- is that you don't have to go out looking for an idea, as you know they come towards you at you all times! I am constantly negotiating with the city, but these negotiations aren't always related to my art, but I hope they manifest themselves somehow in the work I make. I see my practice as an attempt to bring a sense of clarity to all those dystopic experiences one may have when living in a city like Bombay.

CNNGo: Does Mumbai inspire you, despite its dystopic elements?

Sudarshan ShettySudarshan Shetty's "Untitled" (2003) featured as part of the Maker's private art show in Mumbai in March.Shetty: Well, inspiration often happens by chance, you can't always go looking for it. That said, I get inspired a lot by the people. I meet many people involved in small industries, making building or printing machinery, for my work. This leads me to places where people are doing all sorts of different and interesting things. A lot of the smaller industries use what I call street technology, which often informs my work. I always try to appropriate those interesting elements into my work.

CNNGo: What do you love the most about this city?

Shetty: What I love and hate most are the surprises that it throws at you every day. A couple of years ago, at a talk I gave in New York, I said that living in Bombay is like being stuck in a traffic jam behind a truck dripping with combustible liquid. You have no other choice but to follow it, never knowing what may happen. Consider yourself fortunate if nothing does!

CNNGo: Does the traffic inhibit the formation of artist circles?

Shetty: Yes. There are no artist circles or places where artists meet in Bombay, as they do in other cities. This is largely due to the way the city is structured. It's not that artists don't want to gather, its just difficult traveling. I live in the eastern suburbs and I feel totally disconnected from the artist community. My community includes people in Delhi, Bangalore as well as people here in Bombay. The physical problems, such as heavy traffic, often means that meeting someone requires taking off a whole day from work. More than ever, we are in need of places to meet each other. There is a complete breakdown in our cultural life because of this. In that sense, I hate Bombay. There is no cultural life at all that you can access. It's all become pocketed. If I want to watch a play at Juhu that's a two hour one-way drive for me. If I want to go to a lecture at NCPA that lasts one hour, I need to travel for three hours. Its the sheer inability to move freely that affects the artistic life of this city.

CNNGo: This doesn't seem to hinder your productivity though! Tell us about your upcoming shows.

Shetty: I am working on a big show in September at the Bhau Daji Lad Sangrahalaya museum (formerly the Victoria & Albert Museum) in Byculla. In the museum there are a lot of historical artifacts, and I want to place my pieces alongside these for effect. I want to create a situation where by we look at the process through which an object acquires value. We do this especially by looking at its history.