I was fortunate to learn the process of how Mansi Bhatt brews some of the witty, opinionated, and over-the-edge concepts. Born in 1975, Mansi applied to JJ despite being suggested to opt for MS University just because she hails from Gujarat. However, before she got admission to JJ in 1995, she enrolled in a five-year Applied art course at Vallabh Vidyanagar, which she dropped out after two years. She had already begun experimental works in a myriad of mediums and also continued to visit Bombay (now Mumbai), which got her acquainted with many artists.
We talked about her professorship, conceptual practice, and gendered roles in her choreographed performances and photographic representations.
AA: I feel your artworks are on the verge of spilling your bare opinions. Have you ever experienced a moment wherein you had strongly opined, irrespective of the repercussion?
MB: All the time! I speak from the space of discomfort, which may sound like a strong opinion. I am vulnerable in that reality, and I create the same in my art by questioning it. I don’t intensely work on the design or composition while practising. It is just as pure as I realize it, and it's fluid but sharp! At the beginning of my career, I was advised to limit my words, but somehow it has stayed with me! And, I have catered to my losses, too!
Mansi Bhatt shares that, instead of translation, we have to learn to read the tool of ‘language’. Opining on the politicality of art practice and expressions, she comments:
“Reason is not art, art is independent of reason. Artists may be missing a crucial thing if they are not looking at various processes of reasoning! There is an ethereal pressure that governs the contemporary artist to purposely include politicalness. Discussing political art belongs to a specific era or time. The politics is not region-based, it is universal. The fabric of politics is complex, which has to be touched upon and according to what I think if that complexity is not explored then it is not honest.”
AA: 'Amoeba king and her army of the dead (land test)', 2018, exhibited at Birla Centre, Kolkata I feel, go back to your time when you worked with prosthetics, etc., Please share your comments.
MB: I use prosthetics and makeup to elaborate on absurd human observations regarding the body. This is the same space, in this installation, but outside the body. It is a sophisticated and clean house laboratory but intimidates and threatens one's idea of safety. Although rendered with a touch of poetry, if you touch it, it is not human. The soil keeps it grounded, which says it is not a utopia, but happening at the moment!
AA: When did you start practising performance art? Could you share about the performance in the green room? And, do you look up to any performance artist?
MB: It was a take on celebrity status—about what you are celebrated for—the real and fake! I follow an organic path to practising art. Also, I greatly admire a well-crafted transformation of self. In one of my works in Delhi: the prosthetic transformation act in the dressing room itself was considered as an act of performance.
I first performed during the 2nd year of college, where I incorporated poetry that I had written. What stayed in the end, on the floor, was my submission to the assignment! I have been generally interested, even as a student, in these gaps of the staged and the performed. You can see that attempt in my photographic works, wherein I get the 'chance' of performance in the narrative of staged—they aren't two different thinking spaces.
As a student, I used to like Yves Klein's experiments and Cindy Sherman's elaborate easiness for photographing herself! But there are risks to photographs, which do not go beyond the construct.
AA: I feel you are not concluding anywhere; rather you are always at the crux of all the topics you harness, whether it is politics or society or geography or hypocrisy...
MB: Yes, you are right. I am not interested in answers but to live and experience the questions! Because, I believe, there are no answers! Being a woman, we vary in our negotiations with our community and the world. Our inhibitions and belongings are faced with a myriad of challenges.
The three immediate geographical elements of our lives—land, water, and sky —which we consume and get consumed by play an important role. These three elements pose as witnesses of one’s history, struggles, possessions, and conflicts. Physically and metaphorically, they are powerful spaces! They also question my notions of belonging, often through the lens of gender and the ecosystems we inhabit. The resistance in the voice is the carrier!
AA: Bastard's Callings to Her Last Inheritance Home performance is suggestive of a mythic tale but deeply entrenched in 'concerns'.
MB: During my participation in the Kochi Biennale, someone enquired about how to perceive my performances? I resolve the query by asking them to check and peel off the photos and to find yatra underneath!
The Bastard's Callings to Her Last Inheritance Home is a controversial title, which attaches to all possible conflicts and that is how I have portrayed my performance. The performed space is a disputed land parted in two by barbed wire between power and people (praja/republic as created). Viewers are part of that conflict, too. It is a constant debate between the performer and the audience where one cannot hear a complete sentence. For the first time I worked with this kind of layering in the act and I had wanted the theatre to work because it was a very fast action. Nowhere do you get time to indulge. And, yes, it is mythic. This sense of staging/ object work/ theatricality in my work always carries the same but it also has to be unseen.
Bastard's Callings to Her Last Inheritance Home, Performed at Sakshi, Mumbai, 2019
AA: So, is choreography a good idea to convey inherent meanings?
MB: I had done this performance with a graph of so many highs and lows. This performance was never practised or rehearsed. Also, I had a vague outline of the assembly. Besides, that space was very thoughtfully crafted, but the actions were never precisely pondered upon. It is important to keep it like that for me because according to what I think, the preconceived reproduction eventually loses its soul. Then, it is not a performance! In this work, the player’s idea was intentional.
Technically, there is no such thing as a ‘woman bastard’— it is always a male bastard. And, in the traditional setup, women do not have the right to demand inheritance. The character is constantly finding her own identity, traversing the territory, digging the space to grope for belongingness. Then she finds a home that is a symbol of warmth and care and keeps them outside the border. The ‘associated feeling ’ is very satisfactory, succeeding in claiming the inheritance and flaunting it confidently.
AA: You have been a teacher at Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies (KRVIA) for six years. What are your comments on art education in India?
MB: In my final year, J J school conferred me with the 'best teacher' award on Teachers’ day. I had mentored final year students to perform and create in a variety of media, using different concepts. Since 2012, I have undertaken workshops and modules, which eventually triggered my career as a teacher for the long run. Although I am currently working as a part-time faculty at KRVIA, I have taught at many schools and colleges in the past, which adds to my experience of art education.
Looking at the present scenario, I have realized that there are no art schools! Whatever a small number of art schools we have in India stand at two extremes—either like JJ school, which is content with its traditional pedagogy or private schools where the entire discourse is limited to only certain values, catering to the so-called contemporary art, class, and society! But the question, worth asking isin: 'do we need art schools to produce artists?' In the last decade, how many artists have exhibited on international platforms and in well-curated shows!
Over the years, we (artists) have failed to create a viewer who does the job of perceiving! Sadly, we developed a culture of viewing art as a translation of a language and not the language in itself. I believe our education is stuck somewhere between this gap! In one of the articles in the NY Times, the author explains how the museums' (curators) are pre-handed with the political suitability of looking at art, which has eventually narrowed the wide range of artistic expressions and their reach to larger audiences.
The 2020 Covid19 pandemic has brought a distinguished share of profits and losses for the artists. So, I asked Mansi about her thoughts on the sustenance of the art community. She shared that there is an urgent need to see many alternative calls and grants opportunities for artists. Although the creation of art does not depend on the changes in the art market, a certain support system will uplift their practice in such lean times.
Mansi Bhatt’s concepts do not revolve around political stance, rather they are deeply engaged with the socio-cultural milieu and their constantly changing dialects. They do tap the overview along with the intricate movements, which will never stop to reformulate and thus they cannot be registered permanently.
All Images Courtesy of the Artist, Mansi Bhatt