Art News & Views

Flights Recounted: Sonia Khurana

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by Sonia Khurana

She shifted from drawings to performance and video. When she did a ‘sonic’ piece of art there were no curators to take it further. But that was not the end of the road for her. Sonia Khurana continued her experiments with cutting edge mediums and became one of the few women artists who could transcend their training to different planes incorporating changing mediums and technologies. In this first person narrative, Sonia Khurana spells out her journey through and with art so far.

I used to draw and paint, and I was doing it quite successfully. The shift between mediums of expression came gradually. Soon after I finished my MA from Delhi, in 1993, I stopped painting, which was somewhat suicidal because I had had a ‘successful’ solo show, won some awards and the works were even selling. But I knew I had problems with my work and I was afraid of complacency setting in, among other things. So I felt I needed to stop painting and yet find ways to continue working. I was questioning myself but my questions were clumsy because I was not armed with a discourse. It took a while to find some clarity.

It was at this point that I went to England – I had won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London. It was 1997 and I had bought my first ‘serious’ camera. I remember I stepped into the painting department, smelt the oil paint and said, "That’s it, I’m not going to be painting here". I felt I needed to begin at the beginning and at the same time to hide from the world most of the time. So the darkroom there became a good space for me.

Prior to coming to Royal College of Art, I had become increasingly aware of the materiality of my own body vis-à-vis my practice, and the need to invest this in the work. As a natural extension of this, I began photographing myself. Soon after I moved on to video. The elements of time and duration felt important and video was a more ready medium to explore those things. However, it took me three or four years to feel comfortable with it.

I have performed in different ways and in many places, sometimes with a camera and sometimes without, but the point has rarely been to frame it as a performance or invite an audience to see something. To an extent I was, investigating the audience which became a part of what the camera was picking up. I feel equally involved with several ways of making art and prefer to resist labels.

I made Bird while I was still at the Royal College of Art in London, pursuing my Master’s degree between 1997 and 1999. The implications of being there were significant. My context, and its coordinates were changing rapidly, I had moved from Delhi to London and in my work, I had traversed paths from painting to making traces and marks, to an interim period of photography and then to the moving image. The first set of moving image works were very much to do with phenomenology and one’s body as a site of experience. At the time I was thinking about the enclosing nature of self-image and one’s need to strive for corporeal eloquence. Bird is essentially about being a body and is primarily about an encounter with failed flight.

If you ask me how I perceive cutting edge art, I will go with the straightforward meaning: State of the art, the highest level of development as of a device, technique, scientific field; the position of greatest advancement or importance; the forefront. I suppose I do cutting edge art [during the moment when I am feeling bright and optimistic and sparkling, which, mind you, is not all the time] and too much software does not turn me on [pun intended].

As you mentioned, I had done ‘sonic’ art and it was one of the first in this field. In the year 2000, Wailing Well seemed a stand-alone work, as there were not any other projects at the time that dealt with sound and sonic properties. Perhaps because of the context and manner in which it was installed and the emotional impulse it carried, Wailing Well is very well remembered by those who experienced it even today, eleven years later. And yet, ironically, it did not become a ‘curator’s pick’ work, nor has it been commissioned or collected by ‘cutting edge’ collectors.

Even today, I do not have any idea whether there are too many cutting edge collectors. Collecting in India still remains at a very nascent stage. Museums have a very long way to go, as we all know.


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