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Indian artist Yardena Kurulkar’s visceral images portraying the elusiveness of human life wins the prestigious Blake Art Prize
Mumbai artist Yardena Kurulkar has put India on the map and caught the attention of the art world here in Australia. Her work Kenosis fought its way through 594 entries and 80 finalists to win the 64th Blake Art Prize, which is highly esteemed for sparking conversations about religion and spirituality through art.
Named after the poet and visionary William Blake, the prize is committed to contemporary art practice, as well as cultural diversity and human justice. Its finalists range from leading contemporary art practitioners to emerging and self-taught artists.
In Kenosis, Kurulkar uses a terracotta replica of her own heart and, through a series of 3D prints, explores its dissolution in water, depicting the ephemerality of human life in general. In Christian theology, ‘kenosis’ is the self-emptying of one’s own will and becoming entirely receptive to God’s divine will. The importance of the heart is noted through the fact that it is the first organ to develop in a foetus. Kurulkar uses water (as seen in her earlier works) to portray the passage of time and also as an agent of purging.
“I let the viewer see what remains of this union – a heart-shaped something, a mere lump of clay,” she tells Indian Link.
As one pauses to reflect on the visceral connection with these 3D images and the ephemerality of life portrayed through these, “the erosion, resurrection and elusiveness of human life” becomes clear.
“These images are taken in specific moments in time. Water is poured. Things start to move, they begin to change, but never go back to their original form. That’s the time to consider.”
“The transience of all things that are not material” is an important and recurring motif in Kurulkar’s works, where she creates moments of confrontation between the two extremes of life and death.
Her performance piece 5 Seconds Later, sculptural installation Gap in the Void, and monochromatic drawings Death of a Marker, have all served to illustrate this.
5 Seconds Later is a performance piece in which a clay mould of the artist’s body was laid in a white box. Twelve loud gongs were sounded and at the last dong, the box slowly filled with water. In the next few days, the clay mould dissolved and lost its shape, with the process recorded through ink-jet prints.
In Gap in the Void, Kurulkar makes us come to terms with the feelings of fear and inevitability that surround death. The work consists of an iron rack on which tanks are placed. Each tank containing ceramic casts of the artist’s head submerged in water, holding its breath, is sealed off with a layer of oil. This work portrays “various states of struggle to survive as each face is contorted in the fight to draw breath and not give into suffocation, in spite of it being a losing battle”.
The Death of a Marker is an abstract drawing made using a permanent marker across multiple sheets of paper until it dries up and can draw no more.
Kurulkar concludes, “You could say my works are, in the final analysis, acts of surrender to the inevitability of an end, and are presented as part of a cycle of continuous regeneration, whereby I am discovering my own mortality and contemplating on our collective fear of death.”
A graduate from the prestigious J.J. Institute of Art in Mumbai, Kurulkar went on to do a Masters in Ceramics at the University of Wales in Cardiff, where she was the recipient of the Charles Wallace Grant. From Cardiff, she moved to Toronto in Canada for three years to do an artist’s residency at the Living Arts Center in Mississauga.
It is in Canada that her tryst with clay began. The harsh climate accelerated the evaporation of moisture from clay giving it a cracked and fractured appearance. “This unintentional, and unstoppable decay sparked comparisons in my mind with human flesh that allowed me to address a long-standing preoccupation with death,” says Kurulkar about her choice of material. The use of clay has struck a chord in the hearts of viewers as well.
The director of Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (where the Blake Prize exhibition is on display) Kiersten Fishburn notes, “There is something primal and rich about the use of terracotta and the form of the heart. For me the work has many allusions from the Venus of Willendorf and her fecund life giving form, to our common and universal understanding that eventually, for all of us, our corporeal form decays and ends. The work is a moment of both life and death.”
The artist’s name Yardena borrows from the Hebrew word yarden meaning ‘descend’. True to her name, she makes us descend into reality and come to terms with our own mortality by embracing it.
Her works remind one of the motifs of construction and deconstruction prevalent in Hindu rituals and festivals, in which the idols of Hindu deities are fashioned out of mud and clay and immersed in water at the end. Kurulkar’s installations are very visceral and demand exclusive attention and connectedness. Her art practice is autobiographical as she draws from her history and experiences, which makes her work more personal and immensely powerful.
The judges for this year’s Blake Prize were Reverend Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision Australia; artist Leanne Tobin; and Professor Amanda Lawson, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Law, Humanities and Arts at the University of Wollongong. Damien Shen won the Emerging Artist Award, which is $6000 for the acquisitive prize for On the fabric of the Ngarrindjeri body, and Robert Hague won the inaugural Blake Residency program for his work This Messenger.
Kurulkar, who received $35,000 as the winner, plans to use the cash prize to fund her ambitious projects in the future.
The Blake Prize exhibition is presented free of charge and will be open to the public until 24 April, 2016 at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre.
Photos courtesy Yardena Kurulkar