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Cloud songs on the horizon getting installed at the Barbican Centre, London

Suspensions of disbelief

Installations by the Indian sculptor hover harmoniously amid plant life — but with a warning about our need to respect the environment

By Rachel Spence

In a world riven by social division and environmental disaster, the Conservatory of London’s Barbican Centre feels like a refuge for hope. On a sunlit August afternoon, the 2,100 sq metre space is in full glory, with its palms, ferns, blossoms and hanging vines. Against a soundtrack of water splashing into carp-filled pools, trumpet flowers glow like fiery teardrops, while an explosion of coral-pink bougainvillea draws the eye up to windows in the roof. 

Yet the very existence of this mega-greenhouse, the second-largest in London after Kew Gardens, within this brutalist cultural complex will come as a surprise to many. Built in the early 1980s to screen the fly tower — used for transporting scenery down to the Barbican’s theatre — since then it has been chiefly sequestered for corporate events and weddings, with visits bookable only by appointment. 

Now, however, the conservatory is about to host its first genuinely public exhibition of contemporary art in the form of Cloud Songs on the Horizon, a solo show by Ranjani Shettar, which will be open and free to visitors every Sunday, late on Friday nights and at other times bookable in advance.

As I peer through the light-splashed greenery, I spy an ethereal creature suspended in mid-air. Articulated in ancient, desert-warm colours — pomegranate, terracotta, honey and sand — its leaves, tendrils, stems and spikes curl, entangle, probe and unfurl in an abstract choreography that owes something to animal, vegetable and mineral. Entitled “In the Thick of the Twilight”, the sculpture seems at once interloper and indigenous inhabitant of this tropical utopia, an ambiguity echoed by its creator.

Born and based in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, Shettar says she feels “at home” in the conservatory because many of the plants are native to her region of India. “Look, there’s coffee!” she exclaims pointing at a lush, pointy-leaved bush as we stand beneath her creation. “Many of these plants are familiar to me, even if I don’t know all their names.”

 Even when not surrounded by friendly flora, Shettar, I suspect, is usually at ease in her skin. A slight, fleet-footed figure in a sleeveless mint-green polo neck and darker green skirt, she is as delicate in her manner as her art. Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate her strength. As I researched her career before our meeting, I came upon a video of her chipping away at a hefty tree trunk in a clearing. “I taught myself to chisel,” she explains to me now with a smile that frequently illuminates her face.

That commitment to the work of her own hands has accompanied Shettar as she has carved out a career as one of south Asia’s foremost sculptors. Since graduating in 2000 with an MA in sculpture in Bengaluru, Shettar has had solo shows at venues including New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne and San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. Biennial appearances include Lyon, Sharjah and Sydney.

Given that many sculptors outsource their work to fabricators, why does Shettar do so much herself? The artist grins as she shepherds me over to “Above the Crest”, an aerodynamic wing of teak suspended over a fish pond as if in flight. “It’s the cake!” she says, laughing. “I don’t want to give that to someone else. I want to have it!” 

Even when obliged to use technicians, as with “In the Thick of the Twilight”, which has a frame of stainless steel, she stays with them as they work. “I’m always present. It’s an active process.” 

As soon as the steel for that piece was done, Shettar covered it in hand-spun muslin dyed in pigments including pomegranate seed and madder root. That painstaking manual work is when she feels “most alert and active”. It’s also the time “when epiphanies happen”. Eyes shining, she elaborates: “When I am working on a piece of wood or fabric, there may be a moment that will swing the entire work’s direction completely. I don’t want to miss those opportunities.” 

Shettar was enthusiastic about making work for the Barbican Conservatory, but the journey hasn’t been entirely plain sailing. She first visited in December last year. “Everything felt great,” she recalls but, of course, when she returned this summer, “the plants had all grown! It’s a different thing now. It’s much fuller.”

The logistics would have tested artists with weaker nerves. After we’ve perused the conservatory, I join Shettar and Barbican head of visual arts Shanay Jhaveri, who curated Shettar’s show, in the Barbican Brasserie. 

Over cold drinks, Jhaveri explains how — as Shettar worked in her studio in a remote rural region of Karnataka — he himself was deep in conversation with “the riggers and abseilers” who were tasked with fixing the cables on which the sculptures are suspended. Shettar’s decision to abandon city living illustrates why she is the right artist for this job. Although she is inspired by “everyday life”, it’s her profound connection to nature that underpins her vision. 

“We are all hunter-gatherers,” she says. “It’s only in recent times that we lived indoors. I feel at home outdoors. I like to carve under trees.” Often she resolves “complex design problems” by “looking at little insects, birds’ beaks, elephant trunks.” She pauses. “I don’t think we can remove ourselves too much from [nature].” 

Shettar’s organic, non-didactic art places her a world away from “eco-artists” with their doom-laden messages. “My art is apolitical in one sense,” she says. “I don’t like to preach.” Nevertheless, she takes pains to minimise her own carbon footprint; her studio is zero-waste and the wood she carves is recycled from “old architecture”.

Of her responsibility as an artist, she says: “If through my artworks I can cultivate an appreciation of nature, then I have done my job.”

Yet politics still intrude. The Barbican, for example, has been rocked by accusations of racism and censorship in recent years. Meanwhile, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, which sponsors Shettar’s show, has been swept up in a controversy over its decision to sack a curator who critiqued the institution’s links to India’s nationalist and allegedly Islamophobic government.

Shettar remains equanimous when I ask if she had qualms about the patronage. She praises Kiran Nadar, founder of the private museum that has locations in New Delhi and Noida, for being “generous in sharing her collection [of contemporary art] with the people. Her work has touched millions . . . It’s a private museum and a private individual. I think it’s between them.”

Others will beg to differ. Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam pulled out of a show at Nadar’s Noida museum and made comments critical of her after the curator’s sacking. But Shettar reserves her fire for the wider socio-economic crisis: “We have something so urgent to deal with that is going to affect us all,” she murmurs. “It’s a bigger politics than left, right or central. Land is scarce. The population is more. It’s not all romantic, nature. It has a fury.”

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