The senior-most living performance artist in the country is rather rushed when I make her that rare call. ‘Oh, this is so much work, you know, curating the Chennai Photo Biennale…I have no time to breathe so I don’t know if I can do this justice…’ Pushpamala N trails off as I listen and ask her if there’s a ten-minute break she can take from herself, into herself. ‘I can try,’ she finally sighs, and in we dive back to the beginnings of being the Phantom Lady of contemporary Indian performance art – of assuming all the roles she desired in times that the only one for a woman was precisely that - of a woman.
Define your practice as you see it.
I do different things—I’m a trained sculptor; 20 years ago I started working in photography and video; I also write, speak, act and curate—at present I’m the curator of the Chennai Photo Biennale. I have also worked with sound. These are all ways in which I engage as an artist in the world. I try to keep in touch with the most progressive thinking of the day and also with the most progressive thinkers of the day. I think you need to be aware of what’s happening around you and everything you do enters your practice.
What inspires you?
I don’t think artists are inspired as such. What you do is you constantly observe and collect—I collect a lot of things in my head and call it a pseudo archive, or sometimes even physically or virtually from the Web. It’s about constantly researching and collecting and everything I do is adding to my archive. Sometimes it could be the conversations you’re having with people. I still remember a conversation I had in college 40 years ago and I laugh at it and that adds playfulness to my work. I like jokes, I like the vernacular, I’m interested in theory.
“I don’t think artists are inspired as such. What you do is you constantly observe and collect—I collect a lot of things in my head and call it a pseudo archive.”
How has your work evolved over the last 20 years?
I try to do something different each time so I push myself, push the edge so that I don’t keep repeating myself. For example, the first one I did was a black and white thriller on the city of Bombay, the second one was about a nervous breakdown somebody caused. That was also photo-romance but then I hand-painted it. Either technically or in terms of subject matter or theme I try to push it in different ways. After Phantom Lady, I did a video. Immediately after that was Indian Lady— I was doing video for the first time and I was doing photo-performance for the first time. So it gives me a challenge and I push through these difficulties that come up.
Can you take me behind your creative process?
For my research period, I withdraw into myself and then I come out and discuss ideas with people then I go back and write. When I shoot, I like to work out the image in my head but there’s a lot of improvisation. Then I work with people to create and edit. It goes back and forth. You close it in and then you expand it, and then close and expand again. And then the final existence of the work is when you present it. I’m very interested in the audiences. That’s very important for me. Different people engage with my work in different ways.
Which one of your creations proved the turning point for you?
I usually do a series of works so when I was an MA student, in my final year I painted a plaster of paris sculpture that was the turning point for me. That was when people started look- ing at my work.
Then later, I got two major awards for my terracotta work. Another turning point was when I did Phantom Lady, my first photo-performance work, in 1996-98. Also, Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs was a major project which is still showing, is a major international intervention.
“I’m engaging with artificial intelligence at the Chennai Photo Biennale and I’m a non-tech person so all this is too much for me but I think you need to keep updating and refreshing yourself.”
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
You have to constantly engage with the world and know what’s going on. For example, I’m engaging with artificial intelligence at the Chennai Photo Biennale and I’m a non-tech person so all this is too much for me but I think you need to keep updating and refreshing yourself. And you also have to know a lot of younger people—it’s very refreshing.
It’s a huge task to be the curator of the Chennai Biennale. It actually takes a year away from my practice. But it’s so interesting that you get completely engaged in other artists’ works and you learn so much. Also, making a visual image of your work is a very complex process. So I also write, writing is more logical. I don’t write fiction, except for when I write scripts for my performances—they are crazy kind of scripts.
What was your curatorial process behind the Chennai Photo Biennale?
The philosophy for this edition is Fauna of Mirrors , an old Chinese myth that talks about an alternate universe that exists behind the mirror, another dimension which is home to unknown creatures and unknown worlds. I explore the myth to see if the practice of photography is a reflection of modern life, creating a parallel world of images - familiar yet strange, perhaps friendly and intimate, sometimes mysterious and hostile – but always magical. My curatorial concept uses the ancient fable to ruminate in a philosophical and poetic way around photography today.
In February there’s the Chennai Photo Biennale so it’s hectic! Then I’m showing at the Vancouver Art Gallery at the end of April.
Text Soumya Mukerji