It's always entertaining to observe audience reactions to art installations. As much as it's still a largely obscure medium to the average Joe, installations have a natural tendency to be hypnotic. Sudarshan Shetty is fascinated by the act of viewership, in the relationship between object and viewer.
"With my installations, I think the roles of onlooker and object become reversed," he remarks.
Shetty is actually a painter by schooling, and held in considerable esteem too. "At JJ (School of Art), we were looked upon as losers for electing fine art," he laughs.
He later turned to sculpture to force himself into unfamiliar territory. His sculptural practice today incorporates mechanised, digitised assemblages, familiar objects coming together to form entirely new meanings, allowing Shetty to "side-step my own role as image maker". And the paintings are down to three or four key canvasses a year.
Seven substantial installations make up "Love", Shetty's latest showing at Mumbai's Bodhi Art Gallery.
Exhibits allude to the many different ideas of love -- love as mush, love as mass-produced ubiquity, love as pornography, as a casual utterance... "I am curious how marketers arrived at certain clichés, like the Valentine heart. Love is also so expansive in imagery association -- Fire is love, so is milk, and blood."
The subject is clear enough, the mediums and metaphors not always so. On the ground floor of the gallery, a stainless steel Tyrannosaurus rex copulates matter-of-factly with a fibreglass cast of a 1972 Jaguar. Viewers look part amused, part disconcerted by the undisguised display of virility.
Above the din of irrelevant social chatter, a startling gong goes off. With Shetty's work, there is often a recurrent clash or bang, caused by a rotary mechanical motion, punctuating the atmosphere with a kind of raw emotional charge.
"I engage with low-tech mechanics (and in this case even hydraulics) to suggest human frailty, a sense of meaninglessness of the activity," explains Shetty.
Slow, deliberate motion is central to Shetty's work. Motion that, for the viewer, becomes tedious with time. "I am thoroughly intrigued by that moment of shift from enchantment to disenchantment."
Elementary mechanical intervention or not, "Love" is ambitious in both scale and complexity.
Says Sunitha Kumar Emmart, founder of GallerySke in Bangalore and co-host of Love, "The production value of this exhibition is like nothing else we've done before -- 350 kilos of steel, 30 people working with Sudarshan on technology..."
An installation featuring two life-sized buffaloes was eight months in the making. Shetty actually bought a buffalo skeleton, photographed it, dismantled it, sand-cast each bone in metal and got a vet to help reassemble it... twice.
The scale of Shetty's works often restricts them from finding ready buyers. "There was a time when I used to have to fund my own shows," he says.
"Even now," Sunitha interrupts, "there isn't a huge market in India. And it's not just the scale that makes it difficult, buyers are hard to come by for works that make them uncomfortable, or challenge standard notions of aesthetics."
Like the red water, a reference to blood, that flows sensually through a series of vases encased in a glass showcase. "Yes, the 'red water' puts them off." she laughs.
Shetty is unperturbed.
"I make them unwieldy. I make them unfamiliar. I believe that if people buy my work, they also buy into a responsibility for my artistic vision. Or they must not buy at all."
"Love" is on view till the 28th of October at Bodhi Art Gallery in Mumbai.