Swansea

N. S. Harsha, Reclaiming the Inner Space, 2017, aluminum composite panel mirror, aluminum, acrylic paint, carved teak wood elephants, found cartons, steel hooks, pellets. Installation view. Photo: Polly Thomas.

N. S. Harsha, Reclaiming the Inner Space, 2017, aluminum composite panel mirror, aluminum, acrylic paint, carved teak wood elephants, found cartons, steel hooks, pellets. Installation view. Photo: Polly Thomas.

N. S. Harsha

Glynn Vivian Art Gallery

In the room-filling Sky Gazers, 2010, a mass of multicolored faces greeted us from the floor: those of a brown-bearded man, a lady in a burka, a redheaded boy, and a blonde woman. These upturned visages, painted onto the floor, were also reflected in a mirror that had been fitted into the ceiling over our heads. So, as I gazed up at them, I saw myself reflected in their midst. Who was the viewer and who the viewed? N. S. Harsha’s looking-glass world contains many such curious conundrums.

After all, the South Indian artist’s largest show in the UK to date was called “ᖷacing”—the reversed F of the title warning visitors not to take at face value anything in the paintings, sculptures, photographs, and painting installations that in whimsical ways overran Swansea’s flagship museum. Some works were tiny, sitting neatly on walls, even as they prompted celestial imaginings. For instance, in the small watercolor Jumping over a puddle of unknown depth!, 2012, a nimble youth leapt over a pool of sapphire-blue water that resembles a glowing, star-spangled sky. Others were life-size but just as delicately detailed. Freedom at Midnight, 2008, a man-size painting set on the museum’s marble floor, depicted a figure curled up in sleep, covered in a gossamer-fine sheet. The painting’s title is that of a 1975 book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, an account of how India gained independence from British rule in 1947. Yet seeing the poorly clad man slumber and smile, one might reflect that the freedom referred to in Harsha’s painting is not political but personal: The gent has escaped into the nightly world of dreams.

Harsha often treads the uncertain territory between social commentary and metaphysical speculation. In this show, the most compelling of his offerings was the site-specific Reclaiming the Inner Space, 2017, a nearly forty-foot-long wall-mounted installation composed of mirrors, flattened cardboard boxes, and a herd of hand-carved teak elephants. Stepping up close to the wooden animals, we spied minute painted planets and shimmering stars whirling around them. These were painted onto the cardboard so that the beasts seemed to be taking a magical meander through the cosmos. Perhaps Harsha meant to evoke the transmigration of souls, each seeking its own salvation. Or was he suggesting the mass movement of refugees? Maybe his idea was more cynical. The mini mammals came from a market in Mysore, where they are made for tourists to take home as souvenirs. Was Harsha making a tongue-in-cheek reference to his own role in the art world—as a token Indian artist trotted out for Western audiences?

If that was the case, the venue could not have been better chosen: In 2008, Harsha won the Artes Mundi prize, Wales’s most prestigious art award, which helped make him a globe-circling star. Yet despite his peripatetic lifestyle, Harsha always adapts his art to its surroundings. “ᖷacing” did not look out of place in Swansea, the once-bustling, now down-at-the-heels port that its homegrown poet Dylan Thomas hailed as his “ugly-lovely town.” Harsha’s pilgrims, vagrants, and strangely knowing Styrofoam monkeys (did you see the upward-pointing animals, grinning from steel girders?) appear at ease whatever their milieu. Humble, humorous, and hopeful, they quest for us all.

Zehra Jumabhoy