Threads of Time – The material memoirs of Puneet Kaushik
December 3, 2021 – January 29, 2022
Artworks in Exhibition
Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women,
I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them,
and I will fill them in return.
(Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”, Leaves of Grass, 1855)
As an artist-anthropologist travelling across the Indian subcontinent for the past three decades documenting art and craft practices, his reflections on artisanal communities, and their cultural histories, Puneet Kaushik excavates and exposes these socio-cultural layers by capturing in his work the undulations of his inner life and the collective struggles of creative and physical labour in his contemporary arts practice.
In this brief essay, this author draws from multiple studio interviews with the artist on what the author calls his inner journeys, his quests – formal and social, his identification with traditional craft techniques, labour, material, and the transitional nature of the turbulent self and his absolute refusal to conform to the conventional measures of gender, sexuality, morality, and stereotypes.
Gleaming with remnants of tangled memories -both personal and collective- of clandestine lived encounters, and of sensuous pleasures of the material, the body of work on exhibit is in a sense biographical. It weaves the collective and personal histories of a generation born into a world of the displaced, in urban spaces, mindful excesses, economic inflation, an increasing rural-urban divide and the ever-widening chasm between the contemporary eyes that see only the surface, and the traditional fingers that have worked since time immemorial, in layers.
The choice of abstract subjects, traditional craft techniques and a contemporary treatment of mediums signal unconventionality in Kaushik’s refusal to be bound by the existing parameters of art reception and the restrictive notions of contemporary art practice. To him, “doing nothing or merely tweaking the status quo means certain death for the arts.”
To render cultural history visible in a contemporary practice, an artist must be conscious of the twists and turns of the medium, and the technique’s history, mythology, and cultural meaning. All that the world impressed upon him, Kaushik reconstitutes in his studio in a plethora of mediums: paper, flower, vegetal matter, metal, leather, skin, hair, threads, textiles, marble, glass and ceramic. The term “impresses”, like “stitches”, “weaves”, “cuts” and “inserts”, holds value in Kaushik’s installations as he incorporates material alien to his primary medium, creating a mesh of fibre, stitches, nails, stains, embroidery and crochet, thus infusing, embedding and layering the final product with new meaning and form. The final installation, though intimate and visceral, disrupts the viewer’s understanding of the linearity of time, history and lived experience.
Kaushik’s recent works on paper reflect upon the notion of Time and its effect on “paper-like skin”. Often, the paper is stained, embedded, stitched, sculpted on, and sometimes filigreed with lines to form a universe of their own – each complete in their redefined abstract form. On these visual testimonies of Time, the artist pairs the dead with the living, remains of nature with drawn or stitched lines, his dreams with history. He hunts down sensations that are already there, as yet unnamed, such as the impulse that makes him create.
For the artist-anthropologist, to be able to respond to the realities of life is as crucial as remaining alive and being attuned to sensuality and cultural wealth. On the one hand, his work is a celebration of all that is rich and nourishing in art-making and, on the other, it presents the harsh social and economic challenges that the artisanal communities face today. While Kaushik refuses to partake in conventional dialogues on identity, he does express his cultural and “quieter self” to be in a constant state of flux rather than in a defined state of becoming. The paradox of fragmentation into multiple and layered identities is tempting to dwell on. The artist treats his art as a tool for giving “expression to the thoughts” he doesn’t have words for:
“It’s always as if a silent surface has…turmoil beneath it….and if the eruptions are at the surface, there is a quieter self – waiting to be discovered. (…) Nothing exists as it appears: there are layers above and below; in reference to its context and understanding.”
To manifest “layers above and below”, the artist often retrieves old works and reworks them. Memories and images, real or imaginary, that follow him all the way from the past, are steeped and stained into paper or fibre, layered and bathed in a light that is theirs alone. Kaushik has, in this author’s humble opinion, found a phrase “the one that, once found, when silently repeated, helps one continue to work and live.”, and made it his own– “I create so that the eye can see what the inner eye knows.”
 Ernaux, A (2008), Les Années, Éditions Gallimard, Paris.