Down, To The Crossroads- Adil Writer’s Hunt for The Good Stuff
“If I said anything sacrilegious, please quote me.” This was Adil Writer’s sign-off to me as I took off on foot out of Dana Community in the dusty afternoon light, after an interview that shed more light than I’d ever hoped on the creative process of one of India’s most interesting and innovative artists. Within an art scene that is all too often mired in the self-consciously provincial, Writer’s work ethic and ‘outsider’ personality offers both a refreshing change of pace and a sense of clarity that is often lacking elsewhere.
Adil’s latest work is a fifteen feet-tall ceramic mural/installation at a private residence in Bangalore. Entitled Treasure Hunt, it spotlights jars, vases and other creations embedded- some ready to fly off, some drowned- in a cubist sea of blue-green tile. Quite monolithic in scale, it strongly evokes his origins in architecture, yet the flavor of the work lies in its intimacy- its ability to sectionalise itself under scruple, isolating small parts to communicate directly with the viewer before bringing them back to the ‘surface’. It’s a fascinating effect, but these are not snapshots in time and space like Rauschenberg’s ‘combines’ or Cornell’s boxed assemblages, where each individual element has its specific meaning (often more than one). For Writer, the name was arbitrary; the assortment of materials scattered in all directions at the site led him to the title naturally. The installation started with a celebrated interior designer in Bangalore, Shernavaz Bharucha, showing him a pixelated photo of a small assemblage and saying she’d like “something similar but more dense, only magnified to cover a large wall”. With this to work from, he created a work made up of modules, individual pieces which together would form the mural. “It’s not just ceramics, it’s also about architecture,” he muses. “With this monumental scale, we decided to break up the wall into modules- ‘we’ being me and my colleague, Tosha Parmar, who also has a recent past-life in architecture. When I was an architect in Bombay, I had several issues with artists who were supplying murals & installations to me, because many didn’t know how to install something that they had made… and now that I am on the other side of the fence, I know what the architects face, so I make it easier for them!”
Writer’s architectural background drives this utilitarian side of his work, and it’s this side that makes it so unique and multifaceted. Upon first viewing the mural, my initial reaction was both deep and rather specific. In its name, its peculiarly fragmented quality and the way its flatness is betrayed by the ‘depth’ implicit in the submerged pottery, I found it brought me very close to the feeling of raw memory, of those recollections that are called up from seemingly nowhere and often barely scrape the surface of the conscious mind. Adil considers this before making himself clear.
“Thing is, in most of my work, I’ll give it a title that’s really very ambiguous. I don’t want to lead you into something, I don’t want to call something ‘Sunset’ or ‘Meditation’ or some corny thing like that, you know what I’m saying? I leave it to you to decide, you work it out. Everyone has their own way of seeing, and it’s not for me to lead them there. It’s up to me to see where they are and get them to tell me about it. I like that feedback.” This is the architectural side of Writer’s work, the feeling of concrete, physical reality. Sure, there’s abstraction here, there’s symbolism, there’s pure ideas aplenty- but at the end of the day, the essence is in the object itself, in its form, its scale, and the natural Dadaist bent of clay as a medium.
“I don’t think I have stopped being an architect. I’ve just stopped doing those kinds of jobs and moved to ceramic work which is very architectural. So many of these smaller things…” He sweeps his hand around the studio impatiently. “This is still architecture. You blow it up and it could be a monument… So, you never really give up something you’ve studied and worked on for so long, it’s always there inside you. It just has to manifest in different ways.” For Adil, these different ways include his unfired-clay paintings, as well as both functional and architectural ceramics. I personally first discovered his work in the form of a painting in Sante Clinic while waiting to get blood drawn; the way the early afternoon sunlight hit the speckled canvas and altered the colours from every angle produced a remarkable centering effect on the senses, even driving my fear of needles (temporarily) out of my head. Now, talking to the man behind the canvas, I can see where that wave of serenity came from; here is an artist who does not distinguish between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, functional or sculptural ceramics. This disregard for both archaic and contemporary boundaries within the arts is one of the factors that makes Writer’s work feel so constantly fresh.
“In Sanskrit, there’s no separate word for ‘art’ and ‘craft’. It’s the same word, kala. This ‘arts and crafts’ nonsense came to India with the British. They had ‘art’ classes and ‘craft’ classes. If you did something pretty in an art class, the teacher put it up on the notice board. But if you made a really nice paper boat, it’s going nowhere besides the rubbish bin! From that point on, as a kid, you’re led to think that art is ‘ART’ and crafts are just …crafts, which is ridiculous.”
Writer’s chess move against this persistently dogmatic mindset, is his ‘Crusade’ series, where he makes “ceramic panels- two-dimensional, very painterly- then I fire them, and match the sizes with canvases. Then I paint the canvases to compliment the fired clay, and combine the two as collages. So, until you touch it, you don’t know what it is. That’s my crusade. People will pay exorbitant amounts for a painting on a wall, but for the same thing in clay they’ll say ‘this is just mud.’ That attitude is just so wrong.”
As for Treasure Hunt, like most of Adil’s work, it blurs the line between art and craft, architecture and utility; there is something ancient in this aesthetic, one that revels in its own existence without caring for the reason why. The ‘raw memory’ impression is bolstered by fitted blocks of ceramic colour and the bits and pieces of pottery that are integrated in its surface. Much like his clay paintings, the textural aspect of the work is created by a mixture of chance and composition. “I can never just sit down and sketch something and say ‘I’m gonna make this today,’” he says. “What happens, happens. There’s always something in your mind which you are working towards, but I can’t sit and plan that out. It should just happen.” The size of the installation itself required a rearrangement of both conception and technique, and one that I found particularly inspiring.
“It had to fit together; I didn’t want a connected mural, where it’s just one tile connected to another, but I also wasn’t interested in going completely random… Think of it like a mosaic- if one piece is broken in the middle, you can fix it if it’s a painting, but you can’t always make a matching piece with clay.” Writer’s modular answer to this dilemma gives his work a musical sense of mobility that is very unexpected from a piece of such magnitude, with the varying shades and surface heights interacting with its sheer scale to create a strangely intimate effect that is incredibly appealing- in both a traditional aesthetic sense, as well as on a more guttural level. It’s something you can touch and feel, even if you’re not right in front of it.
In his intensely provocative commentary on the state of postmodern art, The Painted Word, writer Tom Wolfe described the end goal of late-twentieth-century art as “to become nothing less than Literature plain and simple.” This goal has persisted and grown into our millennium. A great deal of art takes this approach- interminable chains of associations from different avenues of life, linked together to create a commentary; whether it be a celebration of diversity, a statement on inequality, or an argument detailing the absurdity of trying to create something as inane and subjective as ‘beauty’ within a global capitalist dystopia. The keyproblem here then becomes a spatial one. The three main branches of art each lay claim to a particular way of dealing with space that the other two can only approximate- music creates it, literature occupies it, and the visual arts are it. A painting or sculpture cannot make a dingy storefront church into a cathedral, as some of Bach’s organ works can, nor is it able to set up shop in one’s brain in the same way that the ghosts of Rimbaud and Burroughs could. It is however, the most divine and productive form that physical space can take while in the hands of mankind. In Treasure Hunt, as in much of his work, Adil Writer shows that his architectural background is key to his dizzying conception; this is not art that is self-referential or that requires a ‘trained eye’ to look at. Our world now turns more and more to art as a societal tool, vacillating between using it as a mirror and an antidote for Life and our increasingly cyclic, repetitive existences. Yet here, at the crossroads of sculpture, painting and architecture- of ‘art’ and ‘craft’- we find a secret third option; using our surroundings to simply bring Life and Art a little closer together. With that in mind, we may be dealing with some glorious sacrilege after all.