22

– Autumn/Winter 2009

The Specific Labour of Sheela Gowda

Trevor Smith

Sheela Gowda, Behold, 2009, hair and steel, dimensions variable. Installation view, detail, 53rd Venice Biennale. Photograph: Christoph Storz

I AM IN AWE OF EZRA

POUND, BEATING THE INGOTS

OF LANGUAGE INTO THE

GOLD LEAF OF POETRY

HE WAS WRONG IN EVERY

THING EXCEPT HE KNEW THAT

HOW WE GET OUR FOOD, OUR

CLOTHES, OUR SHELTER SELECTS

OUR SINGERS & THE SONGS THEY SING

-Carl Andre1

Carl Andre's awe of Ezra Pound was clearly measured across vast political differences. The artist with Marxist beliefs finds common cause with a poet whose towering achievements are sometimes denigrated by his association with Italian Fascism: 'HE WAS WRONG IN EVERY / THING EXCEPT…' It is Andre's exception that interests us here, his suggestion that labour and the culture of labour, how we go about taking care of our basic needs, is intimately connected not only to who makes art but the very character and quality of that art. It is an idea of artwork embedded in quotidian specifics, in the extraordinary gravity of overlooked details and unacknowledged labour. His vivid evocation of Pound '…BEATING THE INGOTS / OF LANGUAGE INTO THE / GOLD LEAF OF POETRY' not only makes palpable the hidden toil of the poet, it also establishes an empathetic link to other forms of artisanal labour. Sheela Gowda has invoked these connections since the early 1990s, when she began making objects and installations employing locally specific materials. More importantly, these materials - cow dung, ash, tar barrels and human hair among them - carry strong associations with the body and forms of labour that are ever more economically and culturally marginal in contemporary India. Drawn to this vernacular matter that is rich in cultural implications, Gowda also extracts formal clues and process techniques from what may seem the most

Footnotes
  1. Carl Andre, 'I Am in Awe of Ezra Pound', Cuts: Texts 1959-2004, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2005, p.216.

  2. 'A Certain Language: Artist and Filmmaker Ayisha Abraham Talking to Sheela Gowda', in Trevor Smith (ed.), Sheela Gowda, Göttingen and New York: Steidl and Bose Pacia, 2007, p.148.

  3. Quoted in Trevor Smith, 'A Conversation with Sheela Gowda, Bangalore, July 2006', Sheela Gowda, op. cit. , p.137.

  4. 'Sheela Gowda', in Hoor al Qasimi et al. (ed.), Provisions: Sharjah Biennial 9: Book 1, Sharjah and New York: Sharjah Biennial and Bidoun, 2009, p.211.

  5. As car design changes and integrates bumpers into car bodies, this practice is dying out.

  6. Correspondence with the artist, 12 July 2009.

  7. Increasingly the short hair is sold for the keratin that is extracted from it and used in beauty products. The irony of hair that is shorn as an act of humility and which ends up as part of the global beauty trade is, I am certain, not lost on Gowda.

  8. Quoted in Yve-Alain Bois, 'Dumb', in Elisabeth Sussman and Fred Wasserman (ed.), Eva Hesse: Sculpture, New Haven: Yale University Press, p.19. Originally published in Cindy Nemser, 'A Conversation with Eva Hesse', Eva Hesse, Cambridge, MA and London: October Files and The MIT Press, 2003, pp.6-7.

  9. 'A Conversation with Sheela Gowda', Sheela Gowda, op. cit., p.145.

  10. C. Andre, 'Matter Mattering', Cuts, op. cit., p.140.

  11. 'A Conversation with Sheela Gowda', Sheela Gowda, op. cit., p.137.

  12. Ibid., p.135.

  13. Ibid., p.134.

  14. C. Andre, 'About Working at P.S.1', Cuts, op. cit., p.157.

  15. Robert MacPherson, unpublished interview with Richard Grayson, 1999. Quoted in Trevor Smith, Robert MacPherson, Perth: Art Gallery of Western Australia, 2001, p.59

  16. Full interview available on the art:21 website: http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/nauman/clip1. html#Bruce%20Nauman (last accessed on 7 August 2009).

  17. 'A Certain Language', Sheela Gowda, op. cit., p.148.

  18. Trevor Smith, 'Sculpture: A Minor Place', Unmonumental (exh. cat.), London and New York: Phaidon, 2007, p.184.

  19. There are two well-known artists called Liu Wei; Hopeless Lands is by Liu Wei (b. 1965).

  20. Interview by Jeanne Siegel, 'Carl Andre: Artworker' (1970), C. Andre, Cuts, op. cit.

    , p.58.

  21. 'A Conversation with Sheela Gowda', Sheela Gowda, op. cit., p.139.

  22. Correspondence with the artist, 12 July 2009.