Into the mind and soul of Vibha Galhotra’s massive art practice

Updated: Sep 18, 2020

Who Owns the earth? Installation Mixed Media. Land Art Biennial. LAM 360.

‘Land of the Eternal Blue Sky’ Mongolia is especially vulnerable to climate change due to its reliance on traditional knowledge systems and weather forecasting techniques, which have been rendered redundant by climate change. By asking who owns the earth, and subsequently, who owns the water, Vibha Galhotra turns our attention to the consequences of climatic changes on Mongolia’s fragile ecosystems, pastoral animal husbandry and rain-fed agriculture, which has led to desertification, decreased water supply and natural disasters in the region. Vibha Galhotra’s art is now more important than ever. Through her large scale works, often created on land and water, she raises some fundamental questions – Where do we come from? Who we are? Where are we going? Why do humans claim ownership over nature? Her work is a reaction to her observations of human behaviours - our sociopolitical, cultural and economic structures, and our relationship to the environment around us. Vibha Galhotra is a conceptual and land artist. She grew up in Chandigarh, studied in Santiniketan and later migrated to Delhi. Each of these cities had a profound impact on her artistic perception and practice. “Chandigarh, which was designed by le Corbusier, influenced me not just because I spent my early life there, but also because of its contribution to my visual vocabulary and aesthetic”, she says. Le Corbusier’s architecture and spatial planning, geometrical forms and the balance between natural and manmade structures influenced her early works in charcoal. While she studied printmaking in Santiniketan, she also got to explore the vast expanses of nature around her. At the time, she was beginning to understand the indispensable co-relation between natural and human sustainability. She later migrated to Delhi, a city with many problems and few solutions. She’s spent a few decades in India’s capital and constantly drawn inspiration from the seemingly continual processes of construction, repair, and expansion work in the city as well as from its mighty and murky Yamuna river. She has created installations and land art in numerous places across the world (some of which we will get into in our conversation below) and has widely exhibited in galleries and museums globally. I speak to her about her use of material, the impact of her works on the viewer, and how she manages to keep optimistic in these times. Aashna Abrol (AA): When working on something temporary like land art, how do you reconcile with the fact that it’s going to disappear one day, probably soon? Vibha Galhotra (VG): Land Art, in which the artistic intervention is carried out in the natural environment using natural elements and materials post which the final work is left behind in nature which may preserve the work or cause it to perish, is ephemeral in most cases. Permanence, I believe, is a myth. Therefore, the urge and joy of creating art should not be guided by the fear of losing it. For me, art is a constant journey and experience, without the need to preserve it. As with all of my practice, the process remains intuitive wherein I believe that the material speaks to me after which I, as an artist, transport that energy to the viewer through my work. In the case of Land Art, the space I am in and the materials available on the land guide me and it becomes a meditative interaction between the land and myself. In the broader respect, the work is influenced by my meditations on beliefs, knowledge systems, socio-political structures and cultural practices of the place.

Flow 2015, Installation Nickel Coated Ghungroos, Fabric.

Aashna Abrol (AA): When did you switch over to more permanent materials and installations such as your signature material ghungroo? What is its role in propagating your message of environmental conservation?

Vibha Galhotra (VG): I don’t think of the move from ephemeral to more permanent materials as a switch. Being fixated on any material or form is stagnation and I enjoy the process of constant experimentation and the flow of creation.

For me, the choice of material is intuitive and the work or idea guides me towards the material. It is imperative that the material not only synchronizes with my thought process but also conveys my concerns to the viewer. Since my work deals with the human relationship with the environment - their interdependence and antagonism; the dying social practices; and the clash between beliefs and realities, old and new, construction and destruction, and other such environmental juxtapositions, I like to work with materials in a way that brings forth these dichotomies.

Ghungroos, which are used in traditional Indian dance to create sound, are silenced in my work. I play around with this irony extrapolating it to highlight the absurdity of the situation wherein, we humans destroy the resources that sustain us in the first place. Through my work I raise the fundamental questions of WHERE DO WE COME FROM? WHO WE ARE? WHERE ARE WE GOING?

AA: Tell us about the transition from idyllic Santiniketan to a city like Delhi.

VG: Delhi is immensely different from both Chandigarh and Santiniketan in all aspects, be it in social, political or economic terms. I, too, was no longer a student but rather a migrant to a new city in search of work when I first came to Delhi. Subsequently, as seems natural, I faced many adversities to survive. The transformation within me translated into my work which evolved with my new experiences and understanding of an urban utopia. I was perturbed by the lack of space not just on a physical plane, but also the indifference towards bio-networks wherein people turned a back towards everything that did not befit capitalistic motives. The maze of structures in modern society has created a vast gap between the natural world and us. The web is only getting thicker and it makes me wonder till when we will be able to sustain it, or rather, when will we understand that we can’t.

AA: Your show Beyond the Blue (2020) is on interplanetary migration. What inspired this topic?

VG: Beyond the Blue is a body of work that I started researching and working on in 2016, continuing my work on the new age problem of Anthropocene or human-impacted climate change. My work was both inspired and informed by literature from researchers, scientists, activists, eco-warriors and other practitioners about the rather dystopian capitalist and other compromising socio-political structures we operate in.

Building on this research, I started exploring the new-age ideas of inter-planetary migration to escape the ecological catastrophe on our own planet. The idea of migrating to Mars has in fact fueled a space race between the so-called superpowers of the world as if the country or person who finds water first will get to colonize or claim ownership of the planet. This kind of ideology and modus operandi can propagate further inequalities in society, going so far as to unsettle or even displace the existing structures that sustain us.

AA: You are known to do extensive research on your topics. Can you illustrate with an example how you translate this into your art?

VG: Reading and researching is the first step in the inception of a new body of work. The literature helps me understand the causes and consequences of the problems I observe. Intuition has a limited role at this stage and I go through the data and research, allowing time for it to brew inside my imagination till ideas start evolving. The works then emerge from within as an abstracted amalgamation of the knowledge I acquire and the reality I experience.

The Black cloud Project, 2015 | The aim of this project which completed its pilot run in 2015 is to form a black cloud of paper kites in the sky. This is a reflection of the world's dwindling air quality wherein outdoor air pollution has became a client killer, which is largely ignored and seldom recognised.

AA: Can you tell me a little about how The Black Cloud Project came together and the people you involved in it?

VG: Black Cloud is a project that is really special for me. While I did a pilot version of the project in Bikaner, I feel that the project is yet to actualize till its full potential. In Bikaner, I carried out the project with the help of local kite-flying clubs. I heard about the latter through a friend learning during the two trips to the city that the sport took place on a day-to-day basis.

The actual project was planned as a performance with 500 people who would fly black kites that would collectively create the shape of a cloud in the sky metaphorically symbolic of the air pollution that is choking us all. The pilot was intended to understand the physics of the project including aspects like the air speed required for implementation as well as the distance requirement between people and body movements so that people do not bump into each other.

The actual pilot involved 65 participants and on the third day of the trial somewhere in July of 2014 on a day when the temperature was 50 degrees Celsius and the air speed was 8mph, the project pilot was finally completed successfully. The pilot gave us an understanding of the requirements to implement a scaled-up version of the project, which would require a minimum air speed of 5mph. In addition, the participants would be required to sign an agreement to reduce their carbon footprints. The large-scale iteration of the project is yet to take place.

AA: What kind of impact have your works had on the spaces a