On Death and Dystopia
by Shubhalakshmi Shukla
Shubhalakshmi Shukla speaks to Yardena Kurulkar, who deals with death and decay through her installations and videos while keeping her interesting in ceramics art going strong. Breaking the mold of the old mediums could be one way of creating cutting edge art, Yardena’s works prove.
In the history of world art there have been diverse representations of ‘death’ which mark significant socio-historical or political stand points. Death of Socrates painted by Jacques Louis David in 1787, is one such poignant example. Socrates was condemned to death by drinking hemlock, for the expression of his ideas against those of Athen's. In the painting Socrates’ left hand points towards the sky in the reverence of the gods and his fearless attitude towards death. The painting communicates complete expression of Socratic wisdom only as one reads through the dialogue between Crito and Socrates as Socrates is about to drink hemlock. The dialogue is set in the Athenian prison between the trial and execution of Socrates, written by his disciple Plato.
In Plato’s Phaedo Socrates explores various arguments for the soul's immortality in order to show that there is an afterlife in which the soul will dwell following death. Phaedo tells the story that following the discussion; he and the others were there to witness the death of Socrates. Socrates had the choice to go into exile (and hence give up his philosophic vocation) or be sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. Socrates chose death, as he believed that such a flight would indicate a fear of death, which he believed no true philosopher has. In her journey Yardena Kurulkar integrates similar philosophic investigations. Her language emerges from years of reflection around journey of Life and Death layered with her close knit association with the medium-clay, which often behaves like skin. Kurulkar became closer to the medium a few years ago during her residency in Canada. During this period she experienced deep insights into her work with context to the alien snow-covered grey landscape, the extreme temperatures that sometimes reached -30 degree C and their physical effect on the material. Clay would freeze and crack in corners of her studio and she would spend several moments inspecting the cracked surfaces with fascination. She has been always fascinated by decaying and petrified surfaces.
‘At some point I gave up fighting the eventuality of the change that the material was going through. I stopped making it soft and workable. I started contemplating deeply how clay responds to external forces, how it shrinks, it dissolves, it dries and cracks. This threw up a fascinating insight; how similar clay is to flesh. And then on probing further I discovered how close to life it is…. Questions about identity and mortality began to appear. Every process of creating with clay was deeply connected with these fundamental questions. Soon the identity of the material and my own identity began to merge. The thin line that separated my work from my own life dissolved and every form that clay was taking threw up further questions about my own mortality… My intimate engagement with the material during this time found me face to face with deep inhibitions and fears. Having closely encountered death as a child my journey began at this point in time to confront my fears.’ Yardena Kurulkar
For Kurulkar clay became the metaphor of Life, her work inscribes a premonition of death and a struggle to overcome. According to Kurulkar the fear of death has to be recognized and confronted as a transitory phase or an inevitable stage of Life. This would happen only when we recognize the transient nature of death, than perceive it as terminal. Kurulkar believes that Death is an indispensable component in the cycle of Life. Yet, beyond is a new beginning. The circle of life never ends the very reason this suite of works are titled Transience. In her video title Five Seconds Later one observes her body cast dissolving and disintegrating submerged in water. The video is timed with gaps of five seconds to map the slow transformation. Kurulkar’s method of exploring the metaphor is subjective, autobiographical as well as post-structuralist. While investigating herself she delves into the chemistry of the medium and vice versa-to allow disintegration and begin a new cycle again. Life continues. This is indicated through her conscious approach to placing the video in a loop.
In The Gap in the Void Kurulkar has constructed an iron rack displaying in a laboratory like manner ceramic casts of her own sculptural heads. On closer observation, one gets a feeling that the heads are holding the breath…fighting death. The heads vary in postures signifying diverse stages of the fight. The glass boxes enclosing the heads are sealed off with water and a layer of oil. Kurulkar explains that these heads are cast from a single mold but treated differently every time. The totality of the work is experientially close to the video Five Seconds Later wherein the slight shifts in postures of the heads, slight movement appears to overtake and the life begins again. ‘The features are blurred in some, defined in some, wrapped in some and dented in others. One has journal writings carved on the surface, while another may have a mask on it. Every head attempts to capture a feeling, that of fear and hope.’- Yardena Kurulkar
While Kurulkar’s work is introspective, it is quietly autobiographical. Kurulkar is strongly contemporary in negotiating her language through videos evolved from ritual based performances to explicate her metaphoric-philosophic association with the medium of clay and evolves sculptural installation as a significant part of her works. Kurulkar studied Ceramics from the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, UK where she was the recipient of The Charles Wallace Award for post-graduate studies. Since 2002 she has been exhibiting her work at Group shows in London and Cardiff in the UK, at Toronto, Canada and Australia.