Bharti Kher: Alchemies

installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2024

Bharti Kher: Alchemies

Opened to the public on 22 June, this exhibition presents one of the world’s leading contemporary artists, Bharti Kher, who was born in the UK and now lives and works between London and India. In both the Underground Gallery and adjacent landscape, Bharti Kher: Alchemies headlines YSP’s 2024 artistic programme, which focuses on and celebrates themes of diversity, discovery and personal identity, and offers an exploration of the past, present and future of sculpture.

Bharti Kher centres the female body and experience through sculpture. Addressing timely political issues around identity and gender, she reframes the perspective and position of women from her own experiences. The powerful group of works presented in the exhibition spans 2000-24, including four significant outdoor bronze sculptures.

Bharti Kher: Alchemies Photo © Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Photo © Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Curated across the light-filled spaces of YSP’s largest gallery and surrounding garden, the exhibition celebrates Kher’s extraordinary sculptures, representing different approaches and periods of her career. Ideas of metamorphosis weave throughout her work as Kher pushes at defined readings of objects and identities to see what other meanings might be possible – such as the binary of man/woman, or other traditionally fixed and hierarchical representations. Through her work, the artist considers the roles of women in society and culture, and assigns them a place, questioning the different lenses through which identity is viewed.

She presents woman as mother, sex worker, monster, warrior, and deity, often hybridised with animals or as avatars of the goddess. Her mythical characters blur the boundaries between humankind, nature and narrative, revealing expansive potential and new meaning. Cloud Walker (2013) is inspired by Tibetan mythology of the Dakinis, the women that walk the skies and embody all things feminine. Appearing throughout history in both goddess and human form as an ever-changing energy and force of truth, she is both a fierce and compassionate divinity that exists between worlds, between sleeping and waking, life and death.

Bharti Kher: Alchemies Bharti Kher with Virus XV, 2024, Photo © Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Bharti Kher with Virus XV, 2024, Photo © Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park

The exhibition foregrounds central ideas of Kher’s process; “When I make the work in the studio, so many forces are at play: the material and its narrative and needs, my hands and their energies, the space and its dynamic as a holder of potential. The bodies and remnants of voices that leave their traces and essence in the body casts. Positives and negatives fly around me. All of it helps me see better, to sense the temperature, to hear what is physical, but to make the work sing I have let go of all of it. And that’s how the alchemies of the studio come into being”.

The exhibition begins with a room of abstract works, reflecting Kher’s engagement with the pure geometry of sculptural language as well as her use of found objects to suggest the body, even in its absence. The deaf room (2001-12) is a dominating chamber of glass bricks created by melting 10 tonnes of glass bangles; the solemn work and its core alchemical process (transforming delicate circular bracelets into strong cuboid blocks) specifically draws on Kher’s response to the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which an estimated 1000 people died over three days of the worst inter-communal riots since Independence in 1947.

The work makes a powerful statement about the widespread violence against women at this time and the subsequent silencing of female voices. Responding to the incendiary nature of these events, and through a seismic process of metamorphosis over many years, The deaf room stands as an unyielding minimalist monument.

Bharti Kher: Alchemies Bharti Kher, Ancestor, 2022, Photo © Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Bharti Kher, Ancestor, 2022, Photo © Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park

The hot winds that blow from the West (2011) is also a monolithic cube, created from old radiators that Kher shipped from the USA to India. Kher has rid them of their original function as mechanical domestic objects and re-formed them as an impressive artwork. Stacked vertically and horizontally, the defunct tools evoke decaying animal carcasses with ribs exposed. A foil to The deaf room, both works utilise the readymade to create powerful geometric statements that also think about the emotional weight of material and the manifestations of heat to viscerally challenge our sensory or cognitive response to the memorial. Kher often explores the home as a place where narratives and tensions play out. However, she shifts from the domestic to a global perspective, from fact to poetry, through the title of the work, which refers to the ever-changing power dynamics between East and West. Kher has said, “We think of winds as harbingers of change, carrying voices of transformation. From where I sit, the winds blowing nowadays from the West are no longer as strong or reliable as they were. Other voices are changing the landscape now and political uncertainties have put the world in flux, economic actions of global markets are more and more causing ecological ramifications elsewhere, feeling evermore precarious”.

Words Platform Desk
Date 01.06.2024