In Conversation with Tallur L.N.

In Conversation with Tallur L.N.

In an exclusive interview with MAP, the award-winning artist Tallur L.N. discusses his video work Interference, as well as the influences, interests and references that inform his practice more broadly.

Namrata Arjun

Before we discuss your work Interference (2019) for this exhibition at the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), could you start by telling us about your wider practice and its key concerns?

I am always walking towards an unknown destination. If I know my destiny, the journey becomes boring. Generally, my practice requires me, as the artist, to get excited — if I am bored, I make boring work. I do not use a formula to work. I start working from scratch, so I try to see each artwork with fresh eyes, then translate it to the materials. Often, it starts from the material itself. It is interesting to observe the absurdity between private and public languages.

 

Panic Room, 2006, Jute Bags, 4 Blowers, CCTV with cameras. Courtesy the Artist and http://tallur.com

 

Path Breaker, 2019, Glass, concrete, metal plate, motor, tires, clay. Courtesy the Artist and http://tallur.com

In the inflatable work Panic Room (2006), I am trying to comment on human behaviour during crisis; the animal-bone work Fringe (2019) is an icon for the dead; and Path breaker (2013–19) is a response to the small experience of riding a bicycle in the monsoon and getting a mud-strip on my back, which becomes large and makes space for ‘happenings’ in the work. I also designed multiple therapies for the ‘fear of money’ in Chromatophobia in 2010.

Chromatophobia, 2010, Wood, two bronze sculpture, nailed coins. Courtesy the Artist and http://tallur.com

I exhibited my work at the Bhau Daji Lad City Museum in Mumbai alongside the museum’s collection in 2012. This was when I started thinking about museum dust and decided to convert one of the museum’s vitrines into a vacuum cleaner [in the work Thatwamasi (“That thou art”)] to exhibit the ‘dust activity’ inside the stomach of the vacuum cleaner. This led me to view the museum objects in relation to dust. The life of dust is fascinating. In the Vedas, they say God (or art, in my case) is everywhere, even in each particle of dust. When I hear something like this or when I get a dust allergy, it leads me to think about the different layers or directions involved in dust and I feel the strong urge to share it with others. This exercise is always engaging and guides me to go further.

Thatwamasi (that thou art), 2012, Museum vitrine and vacuum cleaner. Courtesy the Artist and http://tallur.com

You often bring up ideas of “strangeness” and create visuals that may unsettle audiences or create absurdity, such as exposing the activity of dust in the stomach of a vacuum cleaner.

The idea of a lifespan of around 80 years is strange, unsettling and absurd. And it is absurd that, in this short span of time, we are expected to come up with an ultimate statement. I see myself as an observer and enjoy and share this absurdity with others. Consider the activities of our own stomach –– there are over 20 words for a stomach ache. Despite this extensive vocabulary, we struggle to describe the exact pain.

You were born in Koteshwar, earned a BFA in painting from the Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts (CAVA) in Mysore, then moved to Baroda, the UK and Seoul. How have these migrations influenced your work?

I believe that conditioning is the greatest enemy of any creative person. Once we achieve muscle memory, the graph starts travelling downward. My migrations helped me avoid this. One perceives different places differently. Different places make you more empathetic towards people from different backgrounds and allow you to think about your own work from various cultural angles. Migrations also bring uncertainty and strain the grey cells.

Is there a specific work of yours that deals directly with the idea of migration or conditioning?

Souvenir Maker: Designed in America, Conceptualized in India, Made in China, Sponsored by Korea. Yes, we are conditioned to think under flag… is a work I made in 2008. I converted a barbed wire-making machine into a souvenir-maker and applied for its patent. Viewers can produce barbed wire souvenirs in the gallery using the machine. This work also played the national anthems of 26 countries, and when people walked towards the machine, the sound of the machine took over. Generally, people do not recognise the national anthems of other countries. They enjoy it, but it is not the same as when their own national anthem plays. We are conditioned to divide music too.

Souvenir Maker: Designed in America, Conceptualized in India, Made in China, Sponsored by Korea. Yes, we are conditioned to think under flag…, 2005, Barbed wire making machine, gold plated barbed wire, National Anthems of 40 countries, glass jars. Courtesy the Artist and http://tallur.com

After your Bachelor’s in Fine Arts, you pursued a Master’s in Museology from MS University, Baroda. How has this led you to engage with exhibition-making in your practice?

I think like a museum. A museum’s way of thinking is different from that of a creator or a visitor. Museums are passport-sized photographs of a country. I create my passport-size photographs, or my works, like museums. A curator’s struggle in building the importance of an object/museum involves creating evidence, identifying its history and telling stories, and that excites me. These backstage activities are my favourite. So, I bring in a fifth dimension to my exhibits/objects. The time I spent studying Museology gave me an organiser’s or a nation builder’s perspective towards my art.

Other than the various migrations you’ve undertaken in your life, what have been your other influences?

Many things inspire me. I am a fan of TED talks. When inventors talk about their work, they explain it clearly, making it easier to understand the basics of complex ideas. I am always looking for those kinds of critics to give me feedback on my work. I had a good foundation because I was inspired by my teachers, like Mr. Ulhas in Mysore. He always pushed me to explore my unique qualities and develop them further.

Would you like to share more about how Mr. Ulhas inspired you?

In most art schools in India, students work in a similar style and follow their teacher’s style, who generally imbibes that style from MSU Baroda, JJ (Mumbai), Shantiniketan, Kolkata, Delhi, Trivandrum etc. When I was studying at CAVA in the 90s, each individual was guided to work in his own way. Even today, I remember assignments and exercises intended to expand our sensibilities. Mr. Ulhas Sanzgiri was behind this way of teaching. Probably because it is not a school that teaches a particular brand or style, it is, or was, not as popular. And once a teacher’s tenure is over, the school sees its downfall. My batch at CAVA is proof of this. Most of my batchmates are not just artists; they are also into different kinds of applied art. They are designers, filmmakers, set designers, animators and photographers. I feel like we got a strong foundation for visual thinking from this teacher.

Could you tell us more about your interest in video art and how it began? Are there video artists or works in India or internationally that you've been particularly interested in?

The right medium carrying the right idea lends a sense of completeness to the work. For a long time, I wanted to make videos because they are powerful. I used to practise but never felt any urge to work in that medium because a lot is available in the medium and it seemed like there was nothing left to do. When I first saw the dust being cleaned from the carpet, it forced me to choose the medium. The sense of possibility, of the senses it can trigger, was my inspiration. No other medium can bring this out with clarity.

Could you tell us more about that encounter and how you developed the work?

When I first visited Junagadh Museum, I watched the museum staff cleaning the dust off those carpets and was surprised at the amount of dust. It was unimaginable. It reminded me of my vacuum-cleaner work Thatwamasi. I began by using my mobile camera to shoot the process. I was thrilled! I asked the museum curator to stop the cleaning. In fact, he was my junior from MSU, Varia Kiran. I immediately proposed documenting this and creating a ‘video sculpture’. The Museum agreed to postpone the second round of carpet cleaning for a month. My mobile video footage gave me some clarity about how to shoot the carpet cleaning for the final work. I decided to go with a 4K slow-motion static camera to experience the dust with clarity and record all the activity in front of the camera.

What was the process of shooting like?

The museum staff continued cleaning the carpet in front of my static camera. I had hired a film crew from Mumbai and all we did was shoot the cleaning. The carpet was made by Junagadh Central Jail inmates during the colonial period and the words ‘Junagadh Central Jail’ are woven into the carpet in Gujarat. It was originally presented by the prison administration to Nawab Mahabat Kanji, who used this carpet inside his Darbar Hall at the Junagadh Palace. I saw it for the first time when it was relocated from the palace to the museum. I’m certain that the Nawab has walked on this carpet, as have his ministers, the British, contemporary officers, even museum curators. The carpet carries ‘historical’ dust in it.

Interference, 2019, 4k video, television monitors. Courtesy the Artist and http://tallur.com. Interference was made in partnership with the Junagagh Museum in Gujarat, India. Special thanks to the Junagadh Museum; Varia Kiran, Videography; Vandita Jain, sound engineer; and Bhanu Pratap Singh

Interference, 2019, 4k video, television monitors. Courtesy the Artist and http://tallur.com. Interference was made in partnership with the Junagagh Museum in Gujarat, India. Special thanks to the Junagadh Museum; Varia Kiran, Videography; Vandita Jain, sound engineer; and Bhanu Pratap Singh

That is fascinating. You mention initially using your mobile phone to shoot the process of cleaning dust from the carpet. The easy access to video that we now have and the ritual of recording the everyday for social media, makes me think of its similarity to making a drawing or sketch. I wonder how this compares to your usual method of thinking of or planning new work.

Choosing the best image out of a hundred that has a complete feeling, quality and character is a challenge with new tools. If an artist is not aware of that quality or character, they fail to choose. It’s like observing intensely before drawing or sketching. I feel like only the tools have changed but the basic perception remains the same. The good news is that new tools are becoming more sensitive and blurring boundaries.

In your sculptural work, it often appears that you have intentionally obscured the ‘original’ or the ‘authentic’ or transformed (or subverted) the traditional ways of reading a sculpture, as seen in your sculptural works like Milled History (2014). What is your relationship with the idea of the original as it relates to this particular video work?

I am interested in the loss and gain in a translation. In my works, I retain all the signals from the ‘original’ and the stages it has gone through. Practitioners can read that easily. Milled History was made using sandstone, with a wood pattern on its surface. Traditional sculptors in India refer to wood or bronze sculptures to make stone sculptures, which is interesting to me. 

Milled History, 2014, Stone. Courtesy the Artist and http://tallur.com

The original of Milled History was bought from a traditional wood carvers’ studio. I then left the sculpture in the woods to be attacked by termites. I controlled the termite-eating using termite repellents. I then scanned the sculpture using a 3D scanner. Finally, I used a 3D milling machine to re-carve this sculpture in stone. Something similar happens in Interference. My personal interference in cleaning the carpet raises many questions and layers of experience. The documentation of the original becomes sensitive when a viewer experiences in it a strange context and the questions that arose become unsettled again.

In this video, there seems to be a blurring of the notions of documentation, the archive and the object. Could you discuss more about whether that was part of the intention of this work?

A ‘dry’ process of museum documentation turns interesting when we start reading the object beyond itself or when the documentation fails to confine the object to its boundaries. When we receive a judgement in a court of law, it’s a result of arguments based on texts, and this is always interesting, because text has its own limitations. In one of my works, I documented the changes in the museum’s thought process towards an object as years went by, and the reflection of this in the label. I juxtaposed my sculpture Fringe (2019) with the tenth-century work Terrifying Attendant Spirits from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While borrowing the sculpture for my exhibition, the curator there shared the various interpretations  in the sculpture’s label since it was acquired. I exhibited all those labels chronologically, with my interpretation as the last label. That’s when I realised that even a museum’s interpretation evolves with time.

Fringe, 2019, Crush bone, bone meal, char bone, synthetic glue. Courtesy the Artist and http://tallur.com

Thoughts can change facts that are perceived as true, and the truth is relative because it can change with time. It can even change with the arrival of a new curator. So the journey of the carpet and its documentation and non-documentation in Interference are interesting.

Could you speak more about the choice of using the word Interference as the title of the work?

Interference Fringe is the title of my recent survey show held in January 2020. Choosing titles for my work is difficult. I believe it’s important to choose titles with the awareness that a text can limit the open-endedness of the visuals. Interference adds more dimensions to the work, both in literal and visual or imaginary terms. 

When Einstein’s lifelong friend Besso died, he wrote a letter to Besso’s family saying that it was of no consequence that Besso had preceded him in death because physicists believed that the separation between the past, present and future is an illusion. I think objects acquire a fifth dimension when they are ‘museumized’/interfered with. Their documentation, material and history expands further, which I interpret as an aspect of Einstein’s four dimensions.

Highlighting labour and the conditions of labour has been an important part of your practice. As the dust is being generated from the museum workers’ effort, would you say this video also deals with the question of labour?

It was also a documentation of the museum staff. Carpet beating is a tradition in many countries, and people are not happy when museums do it. I am prone to dust allergies myself . The labour question is an integral part of the video where the task is done as a duty.

What is the difference between what this work would mean to an audience in the US, where this work was first screened, and a Bangalore-based museum for a global, digital audience?

Human interest is the same across the world. In this internet age, people respond immediately to political commentaries received virtually because of a conditioned, repetitive consumption. They can associate things easily. But this association could be unsettling. Suggestive associations, such as sound, make the work more powerful, making people always want to view it again.

Does your video work aim to challenge that conditioning?

If one starts the work from known signals, the viewer can sense it and feel comfortable. It is then easy to explore complex areas. We need to build from what we have. Challenging is not my way.

Video also operates as a more accessible medium as it can be circulated easily and disseminated through the internet. How important is scale to the work? And are you excited for, or apprehensive about, this shift to an online viewing modality?

It’s an unsettling experience. Once the work is before us, it’s interesting to explore the format. The original size of this work is 30×12 feet, and when viewed in this size, it can add to our human scale. In the case of Interference, I imagine this will work like a teaser to the larger, physical work. The exhibition will confirm that.

Interference, 2019, 4k video, television monitors. Courtesy the Artist and http://tallur.com. Interference was made in partnership with the Junagagh Museum in Gujarat, India. Special thanks to the Junagadh Museum; Varia Kiran, Videography; Vandita Jain, sound engineer; and Bhanu Pratap Singh

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Features, Essays, Blog posts and more from MAP

Explore the world of art and photography at MAP
The Spirit of Creation

The Spirit of Creation

Jagdish Swaminathan was instrumental in bringing folk and tribal art from the mud huts of rural India to the living rooms of its busy cities – two of them being Gond-Pardhan artist Jangarh Singh Shyam and Bhil artist Bhuri Bai. But who was Swaminathan and what was his significance?

Georgina Maddox