Neither Tree nor Ashes
– Solo Exhibition at Suzanne Tarasieve Paris – 2016

Tami Katz-Freiman in Conversation with Shanthamani M. 

In Shanthamani M.’s work, the material is the central axis, a point of departure as well as an interpretive conclusion. It is at once the support, the mythical origin, the carrier and the meaning of the work. Coal, with its rich associations as a major source of energy, is the main speaker, or narrative voice in her oeuvre. It speaks of a dynamic of tension between tradition and modernity, about accelerated processes of development and urbanization, about the exhaustion of natural resources, about the exploitation of workers in coal mines, about complex ecological issues, about globalization and consumer culture, and about the relations between nature and culture, the body and the environment, matter and spirit.

I first met Shanthamani while co-curating a group exhibition of contemporary artists from India (« Critical Mass, » Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2012, together with Rotem Ruff).  Our conceptual point of departure had to do with matter (rather than spirit, with which India is often associated) as a metaphor for contemporary life in India’s large cities. In the following conversation, we return to this point of departure and to its use as a catalyst for discussing the works. 

Shanthamani lives and works in Bangalore, a city that has undergone an accelerated process of urbanization over the past decade, becoming a metropolitan center that is home to international corporations and factories threatened by collapse due to the absence of necessary urban infrastructures.  Globalization has artificially introduced Western imagery into local culture, leading to various types of cross-cultural hybrids. This hybridity is given expression in Shanthamani’s work, which involves a double process of material and thematic recycling. In addition to recycling charcoal, she makes use of familiar Western myths and endows them with new meaning. Her previous works featured representations of ancient myths or cultural icons – Venus, the Tower of Babel, the hands from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, a dollar bill, and Icarus’ wings. The laborious process of sculpting these images using small pieces of charcoal transformed them and tied them to the global present, lending them the appearance of cultural firebrands. 

The thematic connection between the works in the current exhibition is nature – an overturned tree, a huge tsunami wave, a flying landscape, blind birds and winged pupae; their most significant common denominator, however, is the fact that they are all made of charcoal or burnt bamboo. Coal, charcoal, graphite, and ashes are all related to carbon, are all black, and all have a similar effect in defining the sculpture as a burnt object in the process of extinction. Charcoal is the last stage preceding the disintegration of wood into ashes, while still carrying the imprint and memory of the tree’s form prior to its disintegration. As such, it serves as an allegory for an intermediate stage between being and nothingness.