NS Harsha

By Andrew Maerkle

Punarapi Jananam Punarapi Maranam (again birth – again death) (2013), detail, acrylic on canvas, tarpaulin, 365.8 x 2407.9 cm. All images: Unless otherwise noted, © Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.

Currently the subject of a large-scale solo exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, NS Harsha was born in 1969 in Mysore, where he continues to live and work today. Harsha is known for his intricate paintings of individuated figures arrayed in grid-like compositions suggestive of processions or gatherings. The works are often painted on canvas, but can take on life-size proportions when transposed to floors or walls, whether as lone figures done on paper cut-outs and combined with found “personal effects,” or in installations like Sky Gazers (2010), which uses a mirrored ceiling to insert viewers into a throng of people painted beneath their feet. Reminding us of our dual existence as both individuals and members of of a group, each marked by difference and yet fundamentally the same, these works offer an implicit social commentary – one that becomes explicit in satirical works like They Will Manage My Hunger (2006), from the “Charming Nation” series. In other cases, Harsha departs from conventional painting formats altogether, as in installations like Nations (2007), with hand-painted miniature national flags strung from vintage sewing machines, or Leftovers (2008), with custom-made plastic food samples depicting the remnants of an Indian-style feast, produced for the Maison Hermès Le Forum in Tokyo in 2008. Bringing together works made between 1995 and the present, the exhibition at MAM, entitled “Charming Journey,” provides an overview of Harsha’s career and the different themes that inform it. ART iT met with Harsha after the exhibition opened to discuss his work in greater detail.

NS Harsha: Charming Journey” continues at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, through June 11.


ART iT: Looking at the exhibition here, I was struck by the tension in your work between intricately rendered individual figures, on the one hand, and compositions of rows or grids that evoke the repeating patterns of mechanical reproduction, on the other. It’s as though you are deliberately using labor intensive practice to undo technological economies of reproduction. How did you develop this approach to painting?

NSH: In visual terms I think it started in the mid-1990s. When I was a student I was deeply influenced by the visual languages of gestural painting and Abstract Expressionism and Transavanguardia, but after I went back to Mysore I had this urge to figure out something else. That’s when the idea of repetition came to me. It’s the complete opposite of “painterliness,” which usually prizes accidents. Repetition gives me grounding.
It’s not that I’m against technology. In the 1990s I actually worked as a graphic designer and art director for a software company, using Flash and Photoshop in the early days. After doing that all day, I would go to the studio, pick up a pencil and just do repetitive forms. But it’s not labor for me. If you see one thousand figures in one of my paintings, it’s not “painstakingly done,” as many people assume. They are happily painted figures!

Come Give Us a Speech (2008), detail, acrylic on canvas, six panels, each 182.9 x 182.9 cm.

ART iT: Actually, I was going to say that your work exists on a continuum with digital technology, because the repetition of sameness and difference in your paintings also could be read as a coded script, while each individual figure could be read as a pictogram or ideogram. A work like Come Give Us a Speech (2008) could itself be a gigantic text or narrative made of these individual components.

NSH: In the early 2000s, I had a lot of friends working in the IT industry in Bangalore and Mysore who would come to look at my paintings and say the same thing: it’s like I’m coding. They would say, we look at all the possibilities and permutations and combinations of the same thing, so your painting is like social code, with everything put together. I felt, yeah, why not? Maybe that’s the way we are thinking in India at the moment. So this sense of coding and decoding is always there. There’s a painting from 2009 [Untitled] with abstract marks on the left side and organized marks on the right side, with human figures in the center. I had a few kids around me when I was making the work, so I asked them, which side is coding, and which decoding; which order, and which disorder? A lot of the kids selected the left side as order and right side as disorder, because they felt humans create disorder out of the natural order, but others said the opposite, that humans create order out of the chaos of nature. So this is an interesting reading. Every painting for me has an element of code in it, with the images coming one after another in permutations. And it just happens automatically. I don’t even think about it anymore.

ART iT: In We Come, We Eat, We Sleep (1999-2001) it’s as though you’re investigating all the possible permutations of a specific action: all the possibilities for how to eat a meal, or all the possibilities for lying in bed.

NSH: It’s there, too, in the early work, 1000 Hands Void Space (1995), with the thousand hands holding different objects in different ways. I don’t think I was able to actually depict all the permutations, but at least the possibility is there. I was literally holding the stone in my hand and drawing it. The way that nature offers us this facility for finding the rhythm in all these possibilities is quite interesting for me. Even when I draw a row of cows, I keep thinking about the body and how it fits with the cow, because the human body has a certain kind of movement in relation to the cow. So I go to observe it: how they milk the cow, how the body moves when they walk together. But I also like the challenge of something like showing people sitting on the floor to look through a telescope. Nobody would do that usually, but in my painting, Showstoppers at Cosmic Data Processing Center (2015), all the women are sitting on the floor, crouching and peeping into the telescopes – it doesn’t make any sense! But with certain kinds of people, that’s how technology gets treated. For me that is already a significant contrast or juxtaposition.

ART iT: In a way it seems almost anti-conceptual, because you could draw a single sleeping figure to communicate the concept of sleep, but if you keep drawing different sleeping figures in a row together, then it expands the idea of a single definition of sleep. Or if you draw all the permutations of elephants walking, then it complicates the idea of the elephant.

NSH: I have a great admiration for conceptual art, but for me the core of everything is painting. I love Arte Povera, and I read about it and go to see exhibitions, but then afterward I clean my brushes and get on with the painting. That’s the way I am. I can’t do anything else. Maybe I’ll think about all those artists through my painting and see what I can learn from them. If you really look at it, Come Give us a Speech could be a conceptual painting, because it dissolves itself in the end. It gives you all those details, but on the whole it doesn’t give you anything. Most of my paintings have that quality. I build intensely and then just leave it and then it crashes. It’s there in Melting Wit (2006), too, and a lot of the later works: they have this tendency of not taking you anywhere. Or they take you somewhere and then set you loose.

Above: 1000 Hands Void Space (1995), watercolor, gold paint on hand-made paper, 125 x 123 cm. Below: Running Around the Nectar of Time (1999), acrylic, gold leaf, varnish on silk 189.2 x 345.4 cm. Collection Dinesh and Minal Vizirani.

ART iT: One work I find interesting in this regard is Running Around the Nectar of Time (1999), which appears to show a network or constellation of great thinkers throughout world history, but also performs an archaeology of how representation has evolved over time. The drawing of Alexander the Great looks like a marble bust, while Karl Marx resembles an etching, and others evoke a miniature painting or a photograph.

NSH: The work is like a mapping of knowledge. When you start mapping a knowledge system, you think about how it spreads out. I used to spend a lot of time in the Central Library in Mysore, which has all kinds of books from everywhere in the world. I would spend hours there. As you said, each individual reflects a different approach to portraiture – etching, watercolor, photographs, miniatures. I am fascinated by the idea of how we construct an individual. The tools for molding an icon are highly formatted. So I painted each figure on my own, but they have a tendency to follow how they were illustrated in the original context.
I was also interested in the idea of mapping knowledge through the geographical location of the mind itself and its own map of knowledge. This was at the early stage of the Internet when there was still a strong book culture, around 1998 or 1999. Whenever a new book on contemporary art came to Mysore, there would be 50 people waiting to see it. I loved that. That was the idea behind the work. It was like a farewell to the book as a symbol of knowledge. That was partly why I asked the kids to run around the book in the center of the composition – all that red part with the footprints and the white flowers. I covered the book with a small plank so they couldn’t see what they were running around, and I gave out a chocolate for every three rounds they ran, so they went round and round and round, and all the kids had great fun. Then I opened it and showed them. It was interesting to make this painting with this idea of innocence running around the nectars of time – that’s where the title comes from.
So with each work there is a conceptual approach to it, but even the largest work here, Punarapi Jananam Punarapi Maranam (again birth – again death) (2013), is ultimately just a doodle. The whole idea is a doodle. I still feel scale has nothing to do with that painting. It’s a big painting only because it happens to be big, but otherwise it’s just a doodle. It’s like a cosmic doodle for me. So there is a sense of conceptual approach, but then I subvert it.

ART iT: In both Nectar of Time and 1000 Hands, it looks like you drew each element on scrap paper and then assembled them into a whole.

NSH: That was actually a practical solution. There was no poetry in it. I didn’t have a studio. At work I was very shy about keeping a brush in my pocket, so I broke it in half and kept it inside my shirt pocket along with paper slips that I made. I would carry a few at a time, and whenever I got a chance I would work on the drawing and then put it back into my pocket. Then I stuck all of them together at my friend’s house. So that’s how it was practically built.
The inspiration for the piece with the hands came from the clay figurines of Ganesh that are made for the Ganesh festival, each with their hands in four or five specific gestures. I happened to go by the pottery workshop when the figures were drying in the sun. There were hundreds of hands there, and as I walked among them, I was inspired by the idea of power which has yet to occupy space, and then this model with its permutations. I was quite interested in formal elements at the time.

ART iT: Do you still have this sense of moving around shifting parts when you work on your paintings now?

NSH: To be honest, I’m not much of an experimental person when it comes to the actual production of the pieces. I take certain chances with the paint and images, but that’s about it. Very early I used to do collages, and in college I used to throw paint on one canvas and then stick another on top, or tear things up and paste them back together and all that, but I feel that’s a totally different area of engagement. I feel it’s already enough if I just add one extra line to the work.

ART iT: In a previous interview you compared your practice to writing.

NSH: Yes. That was probably coming from a similar situation to your question about coding and decoding. When I was in school, there was a village close to the art college in Mysore, so whenever we art students went to the village, the villagers would say the people who “write” figures are coming. They never used terms like “drawing.” It was an interesting expression and we discussed it very seriously. For the villagers, paper and pen were the only context. Whatever you did with it was writing. But I also refer to writing for its sense of daily activity. When I’m in this intense painting period, not thinking much, I just pick up where I left off the day before and keep going constantly for 15 days at a time. So it’s almost like writing, where there is this repetition that keeps coming. Then I might sit back for a look and intervene again.

Above: Installation view of “NS Harsha: Charming Journey” at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2017. Photo Shiigi Shizune, courtesy Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Below: They Will Manage My Hunger (from the “Charming Nation” series) (2006), acrylic on canvas, 97 x 97 cm. Collection Bodhi Art Limited, New Delhi.

ART iT: What is your understanding of space and time in your works? Even if it’s not in perspective, the repetition of figures and other figurative elements creates a sense of spatial relationship. It also produces an interesting blurring between simultaneity, with everything occupying the same plane, and sequentiality, where each figure becomes almost like a cell in an animation.

NSH: Time for me is a relative component. For example, I wrote the words “When Is Now?” in the mural here, Reversed Gaze (2008/17). Is now only today, or could it be a matter of centuries? It doesn’t have an existence on its own. For me time is a never-ending loop. More interestingly, long ago when I shifted from making large figures to small, I decided that the body and painting are deeply related. Everybody moves in front of my paintings. They cannot stay in one place. They go close, they step back, they look up or down. They feel they will miss out on something. I love that activity as a painter. I want to paint in every section of the canvas so that it becomes a shared activity. The space is in that relationship.

ART iT: The one series where you incorporate an element of perspective is “Charming Nation” (2006), with the allegorical “rooms” in which you use spatial depth to create a sense of parallel reality between the scenes taking place in the foreground and the “projections” in the background.

NSH: For me the “Charming Nation” series is like a palace of thoughts in which each work is a different room. I made all 13 rooms first, even before I knew the scenes I was going to paint in them. They started off as stage-like empty rooms, with two walls and a background. It’s like you are walking into this argumentative room or a morality room or whatever you want to call it, but it challenges you. Sometimes I painted the background and then left it for two months without deciding what to put in the foreground, or I would paint the foreground and then wait for the background to come. They were all done at different times and in different ways, but the play between front and back was very intentional. In one, the queen is stuck on a balcony that doesn’t have a door, and she’s waving happily. I love that. There’s this whole possibility in the space for what you can do.
That series was like an earth room for me – the story of the earth. Everything is brown. There was this farmer’s movement going on at the time, so it was an intense period. But then slowly the work became more about painting and the painterly journey.

ART iT: You frequently reference Duchamp in your works. What is your connection to him?

NSH: I always keep Duchamp in my pocket. He’s such a fantastic artist. Every painter should keep some space for him in their pocket. It’s important to have Duchamp in some way in your painting, otherwise it doesn’t make sense – because it’s such a great question he put to the world. And then you start working out whether you are putting out ideas or just the idea of beauty. Then painting becomes meaningful. You can cancel out all those great clamors about the death of painting and all that. Of course we can pick up any new technology, but then there should be a sense of rhythm or humaneness in it. That’s when real art comes out.
For me it was great to write “R. Mutt” on the saw in the Tokyo version of Reversed Gaze. In the London version, I signed R. Mutt on the canvas, but in Japan of course it had to be Jakuchu on the canvas, so I was looking for somewhere else to put it, and the saw worked out great. I want to make a sculpture of it now. It just shows that I’m always thinking about the idea of art in all its aspects, whether it’s an artist from the 17th century or the 15th century. There was a 12th-century philosopher in India, Basavanna, who like Duchamp challenged the entire society by saying that you can find the god in a stone, not that the stone can create a god. It’s a similar idea, but because it was in a religious context it has a different connotation. For me, these two guys belong together. It’s like Duchamp and his cousin who was born in the 12th century. It’s just a proposal – a proposal for the next however many hundred years.

ART iT: You draw equally from different painting and artistic traditions. You mentioned Jakuchu just now, and some of your early works remind me of William Blake, while your use of multiple figures on a shared plane could also be compared to the use of space in Tibetan thangka paintings. How do you understand your relationship to these different traditions?

NSH: It all comes to my work very naturally. I’m a great fan of all kinds of painting. I still refer to Giotto, even today. Jakuchu was an important discovery for me. I’m still digesting him. So there is no strategy regarding East and West for me. Many people used to discuss my work in the context of Indian miniature painting, but I have nothing to do with it directly. For me panorama is the only interesting thing – the panoramic view of life. I look at the buildings out the window here and start imagining all those families and what’s going on inside. That’s what interests me. It’s very human. Painting gives me the freedom to think. Actually, Morandi is my all-time favorite, just because of his capacity to look at things – and I mean just look at things. That’s it, nothing else. That’s a very hard thing to do for a painter. Jakuchu had a similar intensity of concentration. He was not bothered by anything else. With all these paintings from different times and places, I would say that there are certain timeless qualities to be found in them, and that’s what interests me the most. I want to be great friends with all painters, and I will travel any distance to see a good painting show.

Above: Come Give Us a Speech (2008), detail. Below: Installation view of Punarapi Jananam Punarapi Maranam (again birth – again death) (2013) at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2017. Photo Shiigi Shizune, courtesy Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.

ART iT: Lastly, you already mentioned the children in Running around the Nectar of Time, but in a number of other works you also have footprints on top of the surface of the piece. What does this act of stepping on the canvas mean to you?

NSH: I always have the feeling when I’m making painting that the painting is also making me. There is a sense of reciprocal physicality to it. The first time I did the footprint, I got it. I felt, damn, this is fantastic! We are not supposed to step on paper. Paper is knowledge, and knowledge must be respected. But there was one moment in my college days when I had to step on it. It was crazy for me to break through that pious attitude toward painting. So it started with this idea of freezing my footprint in different contexts.
I love to walk on the paintings. Sometimes I do it in the beginning, sometimes at the end. It’s a beautiful device, with a long history of thousands of years. Humans always have to leave their handprints or footprints. It’s always been there. It’s interesting to see how it can be interpreted today. And the thing is, you can’t just walk on the painting. You have to prepare the materials and strategize where the next step should go. I love that whole preparation process. I might spend half a day just to make two steps. It could become very conceptual if I were to make it a performance in the gallery, but it’s important for me to resist that, to just be a painter in the studio. I keep telling myself that it takes humanity a century to progress one or two steps, while it takes half a day for a painting. It’s a beautiful way of engaging with the paint.

NS Harsha: No Place Left for a Foot

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