Gyan Panchal

18 Jan – 03 Mar 2012

This is to reach the highest thing,
that Heaven perhaps will grant us:
not admiration or victory,
but simply to be accepted
as part of an undeniable Reality,
like stones and trees.

Simplicity, Jorge Luis Borges 


Paris-based sculptor Gyan Panchal spent three weeks in India preparing for this show in Mumbai. Seeking encounters with a city that is both familiar and distant to him – he has visited before and has family here – Gyan explored Mumbai, with his senses alerted to spot the unexpected in the quotidian. It was not an easy quest. At first, little seemed completely unrecognisable in Mumbai. This is perhaps the peril of living in an increasingly homogenised, modern world. But after some time and much looking, the banal finally agreed to shrug off its banality and Gyan found what he had been searching for in places that we rush past everyday, unseeing of their curiosities and uncaring of their silences. This exhibition of sculpture marks Gyan Panchal’s debut in Mumbai. 

In the 1960s, a group of Italian artists responded to the political instability and socio-cultural churning of the decade by developing Arte Povera. The term was coined by the critic-curator Germano Celant and translates literally to “poor art”. Celant was making a reference to the strongly conceptual nature of the movement, which sought to include everyday materials in the realm of art. From live animals to wool and humble vegetables, artists used unremarkable bric-a-brac from lived reality to create their artistic monuments. For the Arte Povera artists, art didn’t belong in a rarefied space; it came out of and reconnected to the world we live in, complicating concepts and notions that we have held as fixed and unchanging. 

As a movement, Arte Povera was simultaneously short lived and long lasting. Chronologically speaking, it fissured and fell apart within a few years, but ideologically and aesthetically, Arte Povera has had an enduring effect over the decades. In recent times, the movement’s concern that modernity threatened to numb our perceptions has tremendous relevance as eager, developing cities across the world seek to transform themselves into homogenous sky-piercing metropolises, drawing their imagery and aesthetics from mass-marketed concepts of progress. Arte Povera’s assertion that the mundane may be transformed into the truly artistic has held greater resonance than ever in the twenty-first century for artists like Gyan Panchal.

The seven pieces in Gyan’s Mumbai show are a display of quiet elegance crafted out of seemingly inelegant raw materials. The granite seen on kitchen counters, the khadi cotton that is a symbol of austerity, a curling bark that has been rejected by even the tree – to these homeless, abandoned items that are no longer of any use, Gyan bestows the poise of ancient monuments. Prai may actually be two throwaway bits of granite, but Gyan reveals a striking geometric grace by aligning the curves and angles perfectly. Go up close and see the ridges, the smudges of ink – it’s a miniature landscape that is a reminder of the human history of using tools to master the elemental as well as what we reject with our modern fixation for utility.  Pelom 2 stands strong, jagged and richly coloured, a monumental bit of marble. Look carefully and you realise the colour is fake. It’s green paint that has been applied with a bit of cloth whose trail remains on the stone, along with the fingerprints of the painter. 

Some of the raw material has been subtly treated by Gyan to reveal the delicacy and complexity of their forms.  Wedhneumi, for example, is made up of the bark of a palm tree (he found it on the grounds of Sir JJ School of Art), paint and paper. The paper has been made to look aged and weathered. The bark, cleaned and lightened with paint to an almost fleshy tone, reveals grooves and patches that make it look like skin. In cicami, one of the three pieces has an edge brushed with chalk to highlight the lines left on the marble by the machine that cut it. 

At first glance, the titles that Gyan has chosen for his works may sound like poetic gibberish, like a secret language or code. In a manner of speaking, they are. While Gyan was working to put the show together, there were certain words –  ‘before’, ‘whiter’, ‘surface’, ‘link’, ‘murmur’, as well as phrases like ‘go away’ – that repeatedly came to mind. The titles of the works in the show are the Proto Indo-European translations of those words. Proto Indo-European is the root language for much of what is spoken across Asia and Europe, although over time speakers have added meanings and inflections to the words so that the links between languages are visible only to linguists. Similarly, Gyan has taken the materials in his show from their origin, broken and stripped them of their ostensible functions and refashioned them to create completely new works that nonetheless contain leftovers of their past. 

One of the most surprising pieces in Gyan’s show is cicami. When you first turn the corner and see the work, it looks like four disconnected bits of marble. One looks particularly out of place as it rests against a large, blank wall. It’s easy to pity its solitude and dismiss it. Come close enough to pelom 2 to see the fingerprints, notice the soft flutter of mrmrajo (the Proto Indo-European root for ‘a murmur’), and then turn around. You’ll find that the one, solitary piece of marble has been framed by the other three pieces. Once you do that, you’ve completed the work of art that Gyan started. That is the power of perspective. 

Gyan says of his art that his intention is to articulate the language of the element before it got standardised. But in that moment when you shift your perspective, step away from the expected path through the gallery and see how four seemingly random pieces are actually tied together with beautifully-balanced geometry, there’s magic. It’s not a coincidence that cicami means ‘go away’.