By Atul Mital
* Pooja and GR Iranna talk about what the Covid-19 pandemic has taught them
The works of artist-couple Pooja and GR Iranna adorn the walls of modern galleries and homes. The 50-year-old Delhi-based artists are feted in India and abroad for their distinctive styles. In Pooja Iranna’s art, there is hardly any sky to be seen; the high-rises she depicts through concrete, metal and plastic are a portrayal of human density and blind consumerism. GR Iranna’s works include The birth of blindness (2007), a spectacular installation in fibreglass, wood, iron and cloth, depicting life-size, nude, male figures, all kneeling, their faces hidden and eyes covered. In times of Covid-19, the two artists talk to BL ink about what the pandemic has taught them. Excerpts:
How are you dealing with Covid-19?
GR Iranna: It’s a very bad time. After two months homebound, I started going to the studio. The city looked haunted. The roads were empty. Everybody had disappeared. I felt unhappy. There was seemingly no spring in me or any energy. Now I am better and relaxed — but not so great either. I am scribbling on pads. It is time to do experiments. I am trying to do new work. I am going into the abstract. There is an echo of that coming out in my new works.
Pooja Iranna: [On how her work deals with dense concrete jungles that come at a human cost] Everybody has realised that human cost [of the pandemic]. I’m not encouraging the density of settlements through my art. I’m making my audience realise that what’s happening is wrong. Through a variety of synthetic materials — from concrete and metal in my sculptures to drawings in plastic sheets — I play with the audience perception until they feel suffocated.
I’m doing a lot of drawings using ink and plastic sheets. That’s very relevant at this point of time. I recently worked on a project where I hung large acrylic [plastic] sheets with drawing of construction lines. The distance between each acrylic sheet was just enough for you to walk through them. When you walk through the big sheets, and see them one after the other, you actually feel the suffocation and feel the nature of our plastic existence.
I’m not giving alternatives. Society has to find alternatives and that is only possible when you’re taken to the edge. Through my art I’m just taking my audience to the edge.
Do you think Covid-19 is such an edge?
PI: I think we have reached that stage. Covid-19 has made us segregate ourselves and question ourselves. We have reached an edge where there are minimal chances of coming back [even] if you wish to. Society was not getting a chance to introspect. Everybody is so ambitious, so busy. There is no end to desires.
The last four months have given us a chance to heal ourselves, heal nature, to discover what pace we should go into. If we don’t use this opportunity to rethink our actions then, as a human race, there’s something wrong.
Are there moments you’ve been through these past months that you want to freeze and preserve through your art?
PI: I want to preserve this [experience of the lockdown]. My whole idea has always been to show cities without people, to express the emotion of the common man without showing human beings. During this pandemic I saw strange sights of cities with no people. If you had stepped out during this period, you would realise when there are no people on the streets, how much construction lies waste and purposeless. There are buildings and buildings which are empty which we have just created in the name of progress. You are just cutting mountains and making concrete out of it and now you want to enjoy the mountains but there are none!
From an artistic point of view if the economy has to be booming or for growth to happen, it requires us to constantly construct and deconstruct and produce things that aren’t needed, as opposed to merely preserving beauty. It’s a vicious cycle.
I want to preserve the philosophical side of it — where you have to be content with things.
These pandemic learnings will, eventually, reflect in my work.
What have you learned from this situation?
GRI: You always learn! You try to bring the idea out. Certain meanings, memories, a novel or a poem we have grown up with open upwith all their layers. I am a Kannadiga and read [Kannada philosophers] Basavanna, Allama Prabhu, Akka Mahadevi, DV Gundappa. I am reading them again. I find a new dimension; my imagination changes. The situation teaches us more than the schools we go to.
Was there any couple art born out of this pandemic?
PI: Not really (laughs). That might come later. People might think we’re both artists, and the same, but we’re actually saying very different things. He is towards nature, very much connected to the people and to philosophical world views. For instance, he talks about the density of emotions through his trees. I’m just the opposite. I want my audience to feel the suffocation of our plastic lives when he talks about breath.
Atul Mital is a freelance journalist in New Delhi