True to her reputation for dysfunctional narrative and menacing phantasmagoria, London-born, New Delhi-based Bharti Kher showed seven uncanny works in her exhibition "inevitable undeniable necessary." Their fusion of the good, the bad and the ugly both recycles and challenges 19th-century assumptions about Indian art as "baroque and wild" (Hegel) or "savage and grotesque" (Ruskin). Although Kher's pieces appear disconnected, they share a grandiloquence that was only enhanced by the sobriety of the site, a former bank built in 1922 by Edward Luytens, the British architect of India's imperial capital, New Delhi.
The large-scale bronze sculpture choleric, phlegmatic, melancholy, sanguine, (2009-10, installed in the garden of St. James's church next door) portrays the goddess Kali, gorgon-headed and carnival-masked, with her multiple arms writhing about. The implied agony seems strangely detached from that of a female corpse impaled on one of her arms. The work's fantastic symbolism has hints of Fuseli's gothic nightmares.
Inside Hauser & Wirth's opulent, high-ceilinged gallery was the titular work, a 9-foot-tall resin sculpture of a mountain peak, covered in snow and split by a crevice. This slit may invite erotic fantasies, even as it repels with its Disneyland fairy-grotto-like artificiality. confess, a freestanding 8-foot-square wooden chamber with carved lattice windows, sliding shutters and hand-painted ceiling, recalls the practice of Purdah (the Muslim segregation of women) as well as Catholic confessionals. Its interior walls are covered with Kher's iconic bindis, the stick-on variety of cosmetic forehead markers worn by women, some collaged into floral patterns. With their Day-Glo colors and spermatozoic form, the bindis lend the chamber a funky nightclub ambience.
On a stone base alongside confess stood an 18-foot-tall hollow wooden column that served as a vase for giant resin-coated banana tree leaves. The work's title, in the middle of the jungle, may allude to a missionary tale, judging by ecclesiastical motifs carved on the column.
A medley of Anglo-Indian references is found in contents, a group of 21 colonial-era British medical diagrams, each about 3 by 2 feet, of "The Anatomy and Physiology of Pregnancy." Studded by Kher with swirls and streams of sperm-bindis, they depict abnormal births and such mortal threats as postpartum hemorrhages. Here the bindis are more than decorative; they also act as graffiti, defacing and discrediting the colonialist discourse that governed Indian women's bodies.
In the presence of nothing, installed in the gallery's vaulted cellar, comprises a Tibetan "singing bowl" on a podium beneath a suspended mechanical device that performs the ritual rubbing with a mallet. Tibetan monks might wonder at the absurd mechanization (almost Tinguely-like in aspect) of this meditative act, which, as the title suggests, carries on with or without an audience.
Kher's exhibition could well suggest a parody within a parody: a critical post-colonialist take on the ongoing Orientalism of the Western art world. Her practice certainly draws from both Eastern and Western esthetics. The problem is that the works' pluralism sometimes shifts into excess baggage: a surplus of indulgent production that may raise questions as to cost rather than content. Unwittingly perhaps, Kher's show serves as an ironic reflection of the entrepreneurial mood permeating the current Indian art world.
Photo: Bharti Kher: inevitable undeniable necessary (foreground), resin and paint, with contents (back wall), bindis on medical charts, both 2010; at Hauser & Wirth.