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Collective Body and Soul: An Interview with Kiran Chandra

Gabriel de Guzman, Curator of Visual Arts, organizes the Sunroom Project Space and coordinates topical exhibitions in Glyndor Gallery, exploring the many facets of our relationship to the natural world.

Wave Hill’s Sunroom Project Space is a venue for emerging, New York-area artists to show site-specific work in a solo exhibition. Kiran Chandra’s Interpenetrations is the first project in the 2015 Sunroom series. We held a Meet the Artist event with Chandra on Sunday afternoon, May 3rd, to a crowded room of general visitors, friends, family,and other supporters. What follows are excerpts from my conversation with the artist.Kiran-Chandra-Artist-Talk

Gabriel de Guzman: The inspiration for this project might not be obvious to those looking at the abstract shapes on view. Tell us about the 1925 book The Soul of the White Ant by Eugène Marais and how it sparked the idea for this project.

Kiran Chandra: I read The Soul of the White Ant in 2005 and was fascinated by the intersection of ecology, biology and literature, as well as Marais’s whimsical account, which borders on science fiction. I found out about the book from two other artists, both South African women who go by the name Rosenclaire, and whom I consider mentors.  In South Africa, everyone knows this book. They recommended it, and I was moved and excited by Marais’s ideas. I had always wanted to create something around this text.

GdG: The book is about termite colonies and intercommunication within the colony, presenting the idea that all of the termites in the colony work together as a collective organism. Your project is clearly not a literal representation of the topic of the book. The images and shapes in your work might not remind viewers of termite colonies at all. How did this abstract representation come about?

KC: Marais observed termites his entire life, but he was also a journalist, a poet and a lawyer. So he was really a Renaissance person. In the course of observing termites he wrote this book [Soul of the White Ant], and he writes very evocatively about ideas of the group soul and the group psyche. His theory is that the entire termitary itself is actually one organism so that whether you have a worker termite, the queen or a soldier, they function as one composite body. For example, the human body has different organs, like the heart and the liver. Each has its own function, but the organs all work together to form one higher being, one sophisticated organism. That idea of interconnectedness really spoke to me.

And Marais writes in such a quirky, quaint, wonderful way that it wasn’t strictly observational but also metaphorical; it speaks to the soul, not just the body. Because I’m interested in that aspect of his writing, I did not want to make illustrative drawings of the text. What I took away were these ideas of interpenetrations and the interconnectedness of a world where thinking in binaries is not important. And I contemplated how to be an individual while functioning in a society without losing a sense of self. I tried to translate those ideas into drawing and sculpture, infusing the materials with Marais’s concepts.Kiran Chandra installation shot

GdG: How do those ideas play out in visual form?

KC: In the drawings, for example, I started by making a stencil of one shape. It was intuitive. The shape stands for the individual. And then I traced it. And I wondered what happens when that shape overlaps and shifts and fuses with its own kind. Through these fluid shifts you get new forms, new shapes, new behaviors. How does one shape multiply and evoke the collective? The drawings are very simple—done in ink and pencil—and there are just three colors: black, gray and white. One drawing has only one shape. The second drawing has two shapes. And the long one has three, so it allowed for more play and new forms to occur.

The drawings led me to think of creating the sculptures in both translucent and opaque materials. I used acrylic panels in the same colors: black, white and gray. The logic of the sculptures is similar to the drawings. Both sculptures are made of three basic shapes, but they hinge and connect and overlap.

GdG: The project has evolved quite a bit since the first time we discussed it during our studio visit back in the summer of 2014. It was perhaps more literal at that stage. Can you talk about how it developed?

KC: Well, I have a confession. [laughs] It was just a proposal at that point, and I did not really know what it was going to be. I don’t honestly work much in three-dimensional forms. My work consists mostly of drawing, writing and image-based collages, and I really wanted to make a sculptural piece that would take up floor space and engage the space, as well as the ideas I was working with. I was excited about Marais’s book, so I proposed these sculptures that would look like termitary pods. But I decided to move away from that strict representation and focus on Marais’s ideas about the termitary instead.

GdG: Given your emphasis on the social versus the individual, were you thinking at all about any particular political ideologies or philosophies?

KC: You can’t help it. There was a point at which I wanted to take this project in a different direction. I wanted to collect images of people who had come together in solidarity across the world—from Egypt to India to Palestine. I was thinking about that idea of the individual and the collective, people coming together—like for the Occupy movement, even if it wasn’t around a single idea, but everyone was coming together. I wanted to print these images. My plan was to order termites and have them eat into the images. And then I was told, “No way! You can’t bring an invasive species into a public garden.” So I had to change my plan. [laughs] I thought about how parts communicate and interact—speaking of societies.

GdG: Why was it important that your sculptures be interactive and that you give the viewer a more active role in the way they experience your pieces?

KC: I have made interactive art before. My thesis project had a level of interactivity. I try to follow the logic of the project I am working with. In this case, the tactility, and asking people to touch and move the piece is specific to the project. You need two or three people because the sculpture is made of very fragile panels, and the piece is gangly. If you pick up one part of it, the other part falls, so you need to be in conversation with someone in order to move it. I thought that since that is the space I’m creating, then perhaps I should be comfortable with people touching the work. We live in a world that gives so much importance to the visual, the optical, that smell and tactility don’t get much attention, so I thought I would let visitors touch the art.

GdG: Do you see yourself developing work that pushes the social practice aspect even more, where the participants or a whole community is directly involved in creating or even conceptualizing a project from the early stages?

KC: I don’t necessarily think so. I think all art is political, whether you’re working in a studio or going out into the street and speaking to people and making something from those interactions. But I do feel that social practice or engagement, if you want to call it that, comes into my work. I participated in a collective, called Temporary Agency, an artist-run alternative space. It was a collaborative process. My process is one of allowing the conversation to happen.

GdG: You were not really interested in representing every aspect of Marais’s book. One departure you made is with the idea of free will. In his book, Marais describes the queen as being the brain of the termitary; she controls the other termites in the colony. They don’t really have a choice but to follow her commands. But in your piece, you allow people to manipulate the panels and change the form, which gives them a certain amount of choice, or at least decision-making power.

KC: That’s interesting because I don’t really see it as choice. I was thinking of it more as allowing people to become participants in the interaction that is important for anything to function. For this sculptural piece not to break, three people need to work together. And to prevent it from flattening out or to create a different form, you have to be in conversation with the other people. That interdependence is more important to me than the idea of choice or free will.

Top, Kiran Chandra discusses process pieces for her project, Interpenetrations, during her artist talk in the Sunroom Project Space on May 3, 2015. 

Above, Kiran Chandra, Interpenetrations, 2015. Installation view, Sunroom Project Space. Ink and pencil on paper; acrylic and metal. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Stefan Hagen. 

The installation is on view in Wave Hill’s Sunroom Project Space through May 31st.


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