The “World” of Contemporary Gallery B104

Bharti Kher, nothing marks the perimeter, just a hollow sound echoes, 2011, bindis on painted board, 243 x 182 cm each.
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Bharti Kher and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: NGC

In the winter of 2011, I had the opportunity to visit Bharti Kher’s studio in Gurgaon, a rapidly developing industrial centre on the outskirts of Delhi. In her studio — where Kher, with the help of numerous assistants, creates her “bindi paintings” — we discussed a new work she was thinking about: a large-scale multi-panel production that became the triptych nothing marks the perimeter, just a hollow sound echoes (2011), acquired by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in 2012. 

The work is an excellent example of an ongoing series created by the application of thousands of bindis of assorted sizes, colour and shapes. The artist’s fascination with these felt stick-on dots — applied to the foreheads of women throughout the Subcontinent — explores how these tiny accessories vie between spiritual rites and popular individualized expression.

As architect and writer Kanu Kartik Agrawal has explained, “Kher plays on the role of the bindi in contemporary art. [Her] use of pedestrian bindis is an intellectual and cultural inversion of the mythology of the modern Bindu. By repeating the bindi endlessly and using it in subversive ways to cover various surfaces, Kher [punctures] the transcendent symbolism of the h[a]llowed Bindu.”

Bharti Kher, nothing marks the perimeter, just a hollow sound echoes (detail), 2011, bindis on painted board,
243 x 182 cm each. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Bharti Kher and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: NGC

In nothing marks the perimeter, just a hollow sound echoes, Kher captures and recalibrates the spiritual and the transcendent in the everyday, through a rhythmical arrangement of earth tones, white, and blue bindis on black-painted board. The result is an abstracted landscape, suspended somewhere between the terrestrial and the celestial. According to the artist, her bindi works “can be seen as landscapes or terrains; organic, expansive and microscopic at the same time.” 

nothing marks the perimeter, just a hollow sound echoes is part of an installation of works from the national collection, on view until January 2017, that use pattern, abstraction, and decorative motifs and materials to evoke broader symbolic, spiritual and cultural connections between individual and place. 

Christi Belcourt, Water Song, 2010–11, acrylic on canvas, 201.5 x 389 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Christi Belcourt’s Water Song (2010–2011), for example, is a captivating depiction of floral beadwork and its importance to her Métis heritage. Whereas Kher’s use of bindis appears from afar to resemble a painting, Belcourt has applied hundreds of thousands of small painted dots to replicate the formal qualities of beadwork. The work features a visual lexicon based on Métis cultural knowledge, including a range of medicinal flowers and plants including, according to Belcourt: “wild rose, painted trillium, blueberry, plantain, sundew, clubmoss, strawberry, Indian pipe, skunk cabbage, lady slipper, yarrow, thistle, chokecherry, Miskwabiigamo, tamarack, burdock, maple, clover, and milkweed.” The artist references “Floral beadwork [as] one of the most central artistic legacies Métis grandmothers have left to us.” Water Song acknowledges this legacy while reflecting continuity with a culture that remains “alive and evolving.” 

Ah Xian, China, China‑Bust LIV, 1999, porcelain with polychrome enamel overglaze in four deities and four seasons flower
scroll design, 40.8 x 38.1 x 19.2 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Chinese-born sculptor Ah Xian’s China-Bust 54 (1999) also emphasizes the floral. The cast ceramic bust of the artist’s wife Mali is decorated with a scene depicting the flowers of the four seasons, alongside depictions of creatures including a dragon, a peacock-like bird, and a snake wrapped around a turtle. Ah Xian knows these symbols and their meanings well, and each of the 80 or so busts in his China, China series brings the weight of cultural tradition and iconography to bear upon his depictions of friends, family and other acquaintances.

For Ah Xian, who left Beijing for Sydney, Australia, following the Tiananmen Square uprisings of 1989, the works in the China, China series blend the Western sculptural bust with age-old Chinese ceramics traditions, reflecting the artist’s own diasporic relationship to place. “How,” he has asked, “can an artist brought up in a Chinese cultural context retain the values and traditions, while at the same time enter into a contemporary world dominated by the language and values of the West?” 

Jutai Toonoo, The Arsenal (detail), 2012, oil stick on wove paper, 127 x 483 cm approx. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Jutai Toonoo — whose 2012 drawing The Arsenal was one of his most ambitiously scaled works before his untimely death in 2015 — reverses the equation between traditional symbolism and cultural and spiritual identity that marks Ah Xian’s work. Within Inuit art-making in Canada, Toonoo’s work broke the mould somewhat, with sculptures and drawings that purposely diverged from the subject matter most closely associated with “Inuit Art” among southern consumers. 

As NGC Associate Curator of Indigenous Art Christine Lalonde has written, “Jutai work[ed] in a spontaneous fashion, exploring his media and following his thoughts. [It] deserves to be noted that his artwork is a deliberate denial of the artistic limitations placed on Inuit artists by an overly conservative audience seeking images of Inuit cultural life from the past.” 

Toonoo instead made work that often reflected the trials, tribulations and contemporary challenges faced by those living in the North, starting with the personal. The Arsenal is a story both intimate and universal, inspired as it was by the struggle of the artist’s mother with cancer, along with Toonoo’s visceral reaction to the disease. “I got mad at the cancer,” he has said. “I decided to look it up on the Internet, and I saw these T cells. They fight cancer. They looked so beautiful . . . these blue cells. And I was thinking of my mother . . . thinking one day cancer will be like polio and there will be a cure.” 

The Arsenal is by no means an “accurate” portrayal of T cells, nor is it intended to be. Instead, it abstracts the cells and the fibrous webs connecting them in a drawing that, as with Kher’s triptych and Belcourt and Ah Xian’s works, reads as a landscape of sorts, suspended somewhere between earth and sky, matter and spirit.

There is also much blue in the drawing, and an evocation of icy patches: motifs that figure in the work of another trailblazing figure in the Canadian art world: Micheline Beauchemin. Her shimmering tapestry, Nordic Blue Ice Flow: Homage to the St. Lawrence River (1984), is a reflection on familial bonds — also rooted in notions of place. Beauchemin — who passed away in 2009 after gaining prominence for her work and her promotion of the textile arts in Canada — would travel extensively to find inspiration for her colours and fabrics. Cotton, silk and linen threads in more than sixty shades of blue trace her family’s relationship with the St. Lawrence, upon which they depended for their livelihood.

Image removed due to copyright restrictions.

Micheline Beauchemin, Nordic Blue Ice Flow: Homage to the St. Lawrence River, 1984, cotton threads covered with mylar, coloured silk threads
and linen threads, 162 x 504.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC. © Estate of Micheline Beauchemin / SODRAC (2016)

Beauchemin’s Nordic Blue Ice Flow: Homage to the St. Lawrence River conjures an abstract picture of ice floes meandering from the water’s edge of a small farm in rural Quebec, past the Gaspé Peninsula, through the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and out into the vast cold North Atlantic. It is an apt image with which to summarize the principle on view in B104. In their respective uses of patterning, motif and materials, each of the works by Ah Xian, Beauchemin, Belcourt, Kher and Toonoo reflects upon how the journey between the personal and the universal is influenced by customs and symbolic vocabularies that create identity, familiarity and understanding for and within cultures and community. 

Art has often been called into service to articulate “worldly” affiliations — a fact not lost on any of these artists. Each work, in its way, shares the most generous and important gift aesthetics can offer: a material glimpse into the world of an artist whose experiences may differ in ways both small and vastly greater than one’s own.

The installation of five works by Bharti Ker, Christi Belcourt, Ah Xian, Jutai Toonoo and Micheline Beauchemin is on view in Gallery B104 at the National Gallery of Canada until January 22, 2017. 

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