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Artist Profile2
A sensitive artist who deals with history & tradition, pain & social tensions
Artist Susanta Mandal is known to experiment with unconventional structural constructions that look to subvert ways of seeing, and simultaneously perplex viewers. Trained as a painter, the multi-faceted and innovative practitioner has always shown a propensity to work with diverse materials and forms, manifesting themselves in mechanized sculptural installations. Employing materials like steel and glass, he constructs structures that present a vibrant visual representation of the invisible energies, running through pipelines that serve as latent backbone of any construction. Outwardly not seen and yet integral, they generate inside the solid building space multiple pockets of tunnels through which various ‘soft’ elements (both virtually and physically) move.

The oft-provoking motif here for the artist is: ‘How long will they run?’; the underlying idea being to expose them and almost lay them bare. The glass pipes enable ‘the transparency of observation’ - for ‘the unseen to be seen’ - further reinforced by those imagined, perceptible depictions of the visual flows of energy. These structures, either wall- mounted or carrying a photo of an actual building in some cases, implanted with the implied knowledge that the whole will finally be put up in an unknown place, emerge as an alien part in the existing familiar body of architecture. Keen to experiment, he has tried his hands at three-dimensional pieces, blending painted surfaces and weaving looms for sculptural, wall-based works. Light and narrative have become increasingly integral to his practice, alluding to a peculiar storytelling tradition revolving around shadow-play, symbolizing abstract fear – that of life or of social change - in his works.

Born in Kolkata in 1965, he did his B.F.A. (Painting) from the Government College of Arts & Craft, Kolkata, and later M.F.A. (Painting) from Banaras Hindu University. Apart from his solos, including ‘It Doesn’t Bite’, Gallery SKE, Bangalore (2007) and ‘Assemblages’, Art Heritage, New Delhi (1998), his work has been featured in prominent group exhibitions like ‘Notes on (Dis)Appearance of real’ courtesy Shrine Empire Gallery, Delhi; ‘This is Unreal’, Experimenter, Kolkata ((2010); ‘India Xianzai’, MOCA, Shanghai; ‘Astonishment of Being’, Birla Academy of Arts & culture, Kolkata; ‘Living Off the Grid’, Anant Art Gallery, Noida (2009); ‘Where In The World’ at Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon (2008 -09); ‘Mechanisms of Motion’, Anant Art Gallery (2008); and ‘Still Moving Images’, Devi Art (2008). He has served as artist in residence at New Delhi’s Khoj International Residency (2007) and has also been a part of the Britto International Artists Workshop, Bangladesh (2008).

For almost a decade (1993-2001), he dealt with structural constructions in a captivating combination of canvas and wood, to deduce different forms and a new visual language. The fascinating forms were inspired by the ancient weaving looms customized by him to produce spun ‘yarns’, which drew from history, politics and lingering human pain. In his earlier explorations, he had also used light as an inherent element instead, drawing on a more conventional engagement with the medium instead of on gallery produced fixtures.

An intriguing installation by him employed solar panels outside the exhibiting space to fuel the release of bubbles that constantly morphed as they emerged. They incorporated another movement in the way of heaps of moving bubbles or dying bubbles to create a fragile structure, lasting only for a few seconds and bursting one by one. At a casual glance, the playful performance was fun, but the apparent playfulness in the structure culminated in an unstated and enduring pain. In an interplay of structured, static forms with the ephemeral and fragile – for instance, bubbles, he juxtaposed his experiences of living off an electrical grid with that of his earlier generations who hardly had electricity, historicizing the contingency of this electrical divide and of state infrastructure as well as social (dis)order.

In a recent series, entitled ‘How Long does it take to Complete a Circle?’ at Bangalore-based GallerySKE, he used signals of light, threads etc to emphasize the visual flow of electricity. Another body of work, which took a cue from the knowledge and impending fear of an escalating scarcity of resources, included lenses that enlarged the clarity of candlelight akin to a magic lantern and projected minute details from the architecture, as if hallucinating with ghostly and eerie images.

In appreciation of his talent, the New York–based Guggenheim Museum acquired his ‘Caged Sacks’ (2007–08), which had nine steel cages aligned to imitate prisoners’ cells, conveys his artistic concerns. The assistant curator of Asian Art, Sandhini Poddar, mentioned of its attributes that focused our attention on quotidian materials and events, thus inviting viewers to witness and confront raw reality in interactive environs. According to the expert, his mixed media installations, which often utilize spotlights and kinetic mechanisms seem playful, but are actually uncanny and ultimately disconcerting constructions. He enhances each installation by balancing theatrical lights with deep shadows. Through chiaroscuro (the arrangement or treatment of both light & dark parts), the works take on narrative and performative elements, echoing the tradition of vernacular storytelling in India, where painted scrolls are brought to life with lamps at dusk.

Elaborating on his artistic processes, he has stated, “I often use lights and movements of shadows which create numerous forms on the screen/walls, describing feelings of individuals, albeit more universal in a narrative manner- featured continuously to project repetitiveness through which pain/ drowsiness/ monotony together dragged on. I gradually started using photographs and videos along with other moving objects through motors. I started working with motors to get ‘motions’-for which there are no substitutes – especially a physical movement - human or mechanical - which is important to me. One thing being articulated in my work is the amalgamation of two types of motions; virtual movement (through video) and physical movement (from mechanical devices).”

At a broader level, Susanta Mandal’s structures mirror his perceptions of the tenuous balance struck between change and stasis, individual subjectivity and universality, subtly bringing to fore the socio-political tensions of our immediate realm.