Distracted by the frenzy of today’s hyper-connected world, many of us can easily overlook the everyday incidents that encourage smiles or offer simple affirmations of life being lived.
The India-born artist N.S. Harsha, however, thrives on such observations. As his solo exhibition at the Mori Art Museum demonstrates, Harsha’s work celebrates such moments in all their wonder, ambiguity and, at times, absurdity.
“N.S. Harsha: Charming Journey” is a step forward in the Mori Art Museum’s efforts, following its 2008-9 group show “Chalo India,” to familiarize the Japanese public with contemporary art from the Indian subcontinent. With more than 75 of Harsha’s major works — mainly paintings — the exhibition provides a comprehensive introduction to the artist’s career.
A number of the pieces, such as the depiction of a bulldozer knocking over a snake charmer from the 2006 series “Charming Nation,” address the rapid social changes confronting a globalizing India today, yet they often do this with a sense of ambivalence.
During an interview at the museum, Harsha tells me that rather than making statements about the morality of a given situation, he prefers to simply “observe the poetics of it.” To illustrate his point, he talks about how villagers near his home in Mysore came out in droves to watch new planting and cutting machines when they were brought to nearby agricultural regions. Any threat to their livelihoods, it seemed, was outweighed by what they saw as a “fantastical event.”
Harsha may be more worldly, but he shares the villagers’ sense of wonder. He mentions how a few days earlier, he deliberately got off at an unfamiliar train station in Tokyo just to see what he would discover, and it is this kind of curiosity that is a strong force in his art.
“I feel it’s just a matter of your consciousness, whether you can touch that humanness in that simple activity or incident,” Harsha says. “As an artist, I look for a chance to grab that.”
The repetition and variation of simple gestures is a key aspect of Harsha’s work. His 2008 work “Come Give Us a Speech” presents rows of Indian people seated on cheap plastic chairs, but part of its effect lies in the sharp observation of their varied mannerisms, such as the surprising number of different ways the subjects fold their arms or find other ways to keep themselves occupied. As with many of his works, Harsha here delves into the realm of the fantastic. While some in the crowd cradle a baby, or fiddle with their hair, there are other more surprising inclusions such as people holding bows and arrows or dressed as superheroes.
There is a serial quality to much of Harsha’s work, which could be traced back to the artist’s childhood love of comic books (some on of which are on display in the exhibition) as much as to monumental Indian temple carvings.
Similarly structured, is “Showstoppers at Cosmic Data Processing Center” (2015), with its sari-clad women peering through telescopes to gather data from space, some of them milking cows at the same time. While this may seem an absurdist scenario of the future, Harsha says the painting was inspired by news that NASA, faced with collecting unimaginable amounts of data on space matter, had begun outsourcing the task to workers in rural India. Part of the humor and humanity lies in the way Harsha brings out the incongruity of the situation, depicting the women carrying out their new work seated cross-legged on the ground.
“I am also interested in the way we all adopt — and adapt — technology to fit our own situation, and our own bodies,” Harsha says. He further grounds this technology, indicative of increasing Westernization and globalization, within the local context through the omission of buckets for the milk, which flows freely into the earth in a manner reminiscent of Hindu ritual. Where the celestial data will flow to, and what exactly it will be used for, remains a mystery.
Outer space is also the subject of one of the key pieces in the exhibition “Again Birth — Again Death” (2013), a huge canvas that takes up an entire wall and portrays something akin to the universe opening up in a giant brushstroke. Although Harsha painted in a free expressionistic manner earlier in his career, these days he allows for few “accidents.” He may describe the work as a “nonhuman size scribble” but this, like his other pieces, had to be meticulously planned and executed.
From such huge macro splashes to his observation of micro gestures, many of Harsha’s works have no real center of focus, leaving viewers to enter and leave at any point that captures their eyes. This openness also means his art refuses to be tied to a single interpretation. When asked about this, he replies, “The more you pin things down, the more the paint wants to flow around the pin. I wish none of my paintings will become just one thing — I feel they should be flying, having the liberty to speak to anyone and everyone differently … triggering all kinds of things inside them.”
“N. S. Harsha: Charming Journey” at the Mori Art Museum runs until June 11.; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (Tue. till 5 p.m.). ¥1,800. www.mori.art.museum/eng