Since the conceptual art created a furore in the realms of expression, there has been no dearth in expressing the minutiae of natural as well as artificial phenomena, personal or global. And, artists have left no stone unturned in delving on the values and concerns that could either subvert the existing and rampant stagnation or provide an alternative as a clue to the possible transformation. Valay Shende, during his debut exhibition at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai in 2007, presented the figure of Buddha in a mudra that stops a Ferrari car. It was simple imagery, enough to provoke a tiff between capitalist and socialist ideologies or cohorts or individuals. The idea garners an indelible interest in realising social diversion. How have human beings come to play a dual role of culprit-victim, affecting the scale of Anthropocene as well as also suffering from the very acts by them!
“I feel an awareness of and observation about our surroundings is very important—because of this vigilance I am able to express my thought through my art.”
Valay Shende, a sculptor, and an alumnus of the reputed Sir JJ School of Art impregnates these prevalent concerns of society, world and life. Aashna Abrol enquires about his formative years, work and beliefs in devising ideas as well as the framework to convey the same.
AA: What is the idea behind repeating these small stainless steel discs? I have seen brand icons and logos inscribed on them, too.
VS: Stainless steel discs represent atoms and molecules. From the human body to our surroundings to the cosmos, everything is made up of atom and molecules. In all of my work, the spectator sees his reflection and becomes part of the artwork itself. Execution of your thought mostly depends on choices of medium and material. I try to execute a variety of subjects harnessing a myriad of mediums.
AA: Your sculptural installations portray a common man in glitter and shiny surface. It feels like you are creating a contrasting or contradicting character by these figures.
VS: Human beings are the central point of my creations. Also, human behaviour is the base-subject of my artwork because it is the reflection of the culture we adopt or follow. And, I feel an awareness of and observation about our surroundings is very important because of this vigilance I am able to express my thought through my art. Stainless steel discs are shiny as I want spectators to see their own reflection, it’s kind of a mirror-reflection of your contemporary time.
Sir JJ School of Art carries a legacy that is held with pride by its alumni. However, with the passing of time, and redundant syllabus it is constantly met with rebellion by the students since more than a half-century. Steeped in traditional pedagogy, it is indeed difficult to express with liberty in the campus, while neo-classicism begins to tire the minds of young artists. Valay Shende graduated in 2004, but he was met with a scathing comment from the authorities on demanding the essential change. On a positive note, the school now sees many changes in the campus and curriculum to instil modern and contemporary values.
AA: I see that repetition has recurred in all of your sculptures. Did you work in a similar style back in JJ? Could you tell us about your work during college?
VS: Most of my artworks are made from stainless steel discs, which is my signature style. I desire to freeze my contemporary period in my creations so that the coming generations can study them appropriately. I experiment with several mediums like video, video installation, performance art, you must have observed.
I have perceived art as freedom of expression and choice, medium as well as concepts. However, the academic or art education is outdated and we had limited choices of material to work with. I could not accept it. During my second year in JJ, I recall I had made videos relevant to Godhra genocide, which I had exhibited in an international exhibition. Upon request one of the professors to display the same in the school premises, I was simply denied because they did not believe in showing such art or rather provocative subjects.
Now, to raise the voice against this limited learning, I bought red and white enamel and a big bag of nails. My friends and I created a stencil-text called ‘Thinkers are not allowed’ in capital letters. We painted all the seating arrangements spread on the campus in red and nailed them using two-inch-long nails. JJ also has saree and tie day. So, the next day, observing this discomfort all over in sitting spots, they agonised. Dean called and enquired to which I expressed my concern regarding the restrictive measure in the art curriculum and freedom of expressions and to which I was met with an ultimatum warning. I strongly believe that art syllabus should be modern and regularly updated.
“The object of representation might be common but the concept and thoughts behind any expression indeed vary.”
Overlooking the Haji Ali promenade stands a 14 feet tall, stainless steel disc sculptural installation called Dabbawala. Representing a thorough sense of dabbawallahs, who would everyday cycle carrying lunchboxes to the various offices and commercial centres in the entire Mumbai. It is a common sight early dawn and dusk when they ride to collect and return the tiffins. The subject has been a common element in many artists of Mumbai, built through their personal language.
Valay Shende has contributed monumental public sculptures to multiple venues in Mumbai, which include Palladium mall, too. Concerning the similarity in external appearance, he, discussing stalwarts like Anish Kapoor, Andy Scot, Anthony Gormley, Jeff Koons, Yue Minjun, among others, asserts, “The object of representation might be common but the concept and thoughts behind any expression indeed vary.”
AA: Have you felt the urge to move on to some other kind of external appearance or medium or sensibility?
VS: I draw socio-political, economic, environmental and religious concerns through a variety of mediums. For my 2009 solo, I researched on farmer suicide, which was rising alarmingly. I visited a remote village in Vidarbha, Maharashtra. One of my french friend, a filmmaker, documented the same and titled it as Bite to Dust.
In the procedure of research, we met the deceased farmers’ families and offered possible financial help. I collected the ashes and soil of the region. So, I made an ornate silver dining-set with eight brocade upholstered chairs. It reflects the wealthy society of our country. The salt and pepper shakers, I had made, contain ash and soil, respectively.
In another work, I made a woman figure in a burqa of barbed wire. And in the place of eyes, I placed electronic-tablets to show the video-excerpt of Sita’s agnipariksha in Ramayana. I made an attempt to portray the status of women in Indian society since ancient times.
Yet another work with a different medium, I represent onion as a metaphor to tears. It was a satirical depiction of prevalent disharmony due to social and political instability in the world. So, the peels of onions had a map of the world drawn.
“I am thankful to people who supported me in this course, there is a long way to go. This is just a beginning!”
AA: What are you presently working on? How is pandemic working out for you?
VS: Of course, I miss my studio practice but this is the best time I can spend with myself to churn out new ideas and concepts. There was a solo show planned in New York but pandemic cancelled it.
AA: How does it feel to be the youngest artist in the top 50? Congratulations again!
VS: I feel the journey has been challenging until now. I am thankful to people who supported me in this course, it is a long way to go. This is just a beginning!
Valay treads a back and forth journey of mimicking the ecological elements while retrospecting and introspecting possible and viable original ides. What we see are glimmers of impending concerns, whereas the world seeks answers and so does the artist.