Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On the Wednesday afternoon before October break, visual artist Chitra Ganesh spoke about her work at the talk “Breathing Between the Lines.” Born in Brooklyn to Indian parents, Ganesh explores and breaks down the distinction between high and low culture in her art.
Ganesh graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Comparative Literature and Art Semiotics and received her M.F.A. from Columbia University. Ganesh has exhibited her work around the world, including in India, Spain, and Germany.
Ganesh became interested in art because of the lack of contemporary Asian art. She noticed most artistic depictions of Asia were created and seen through a Western lens. Ganesh pointed to Steve McCurry’s photograph, “Afghan Girl,” as an example of this phenomenon.
She felt that this style of art represented a dissonance between Asian identity and Western perceptions of Asia. She wanted an Asian artist’s perspective on the matter. As such, much of her work seeks to supply this often unheard voice. In her work, Ganesh seeks to create “a visual lexicon specific to me.”
Ganesh examines the relationship between high and low culture on multiple levels in her art: from the overarching concept of the piece down to the materials she uses.
Growing up, Ganesh was exposed to mainly “low culture” art. She takes inspiration from Hindu iconography. Ganesh compared a party invitation and a piece of “high culture art,” both depicting the Hindu goddess Kali. Ganesh was intrigued by the “resonances” between the images.
Ganesh explores these differences through her choice of material. For one of her pieces, she reimagined and recreated the armor of 19th century warrior queen Rani of Jhansi. Although the armor appears realistic and resilient, Ganesh created it out of duct tape, tin foil, and a Frisbee. She described her methods as recontextualizing everyday materials in order to play with the distinction between “high” and “low” culture.
She compared her resourceful technique to a child’s style of art: children use whatever materials they can to create art. Ganesh’s desire to build Rani of Jhansi’s armor came out of a desire to “use that gap where history ends and myth begins.”
Ganesh values the ability to directly convey an idea into art. Though originally a painter, she gravitated towards drawing because of its immediacy. She recently began experimenting with animation.
During the talk, Ganesh showed “Rabbithole,” a three-minute animation she had drawn entirely by hand. The animation depicts a woman undergoing a dream-like physical transformation. Unsurprisingly, Ganesh found the process of creation exhausting but was pleased with the results.
Ganesh believes that in some ways, animation is more accessible to her audiences than other art forms. “Most people know how to look at video and film in a way they don’t know how to look at contemporary art,” Ganesh said.
Ganesh’s use of comic books is another example of her employment of media familiar to the general public. In her piece “Tales of Amnesia,” Ganesh uses a comic book format to tell a story that quickly diverges from a typical plot structure. She enjoys exploring the semiotics of comic books and the act of reading.
“The combination of text and image is something I find really powerful,” Ganesh said. Her digital collage “Sugar and Milk” depicts an assortment of images under text, which reads, “And so they merged, like sugar and milk […].” To Ganesh, the mixing of sugar and milk is reflective of the mix of cultures she experiences in her life.
In her installation art, Ganesh is conscious of the effect scale and size has on the viewer. She creates figures that are larger than life in order to engage the audience physically, as well as visually. Much of her installation art is impermanent and ends with the exhibition. Ganesh enjoys this aspect of her work and takes advantage of the “freedom that comes with ephemerality.”
Ganesh uses photography in some of her more personal work. In one of her installations, “How I Found Her,” Ganesh recreates the moment she discovered her mother’s dead body. The installation featured the clothes her mother had been wearing, various household items, and seven Polaroids in which Ganesh poses as her mother. Ganesh used Polaroids to contribute to a sense of immediacy.
Some of Ganesh’s work is overtly political in nature. In the web project “The Guantanamo Effect,” a collaboration with Mariam Ghani, Ganesh seeks to catalogue the proceedings and injustices in Guantanamo Bay that are largely undiscussed.
“The Guantanamo Effect” is an interactive website that allows viewers to learn about Guantanamo Bay by searching the digitized archive. Viewers are encouraged to explore for themselves omissions or hypocrisy in the dispensation of information about Guantanamo Bay.
Through her work, Ganesh seeks to blend seemingly disparate concepts: high culture and low culture, the East and the West, image and message. Her work thrives in the schisms between these ideas while also showing that they ultimately are compatible, like sugar and milk.
Photo courtesy of zimbio.com