The first time Sunil Gawde had a major exhibition in Dubai, it was part of the 2007 DIFC Gulf Art Fair, the forerunner of today’s Art Dubai. Blind Bulbs consisted of a series of 4-metre-tall matt black fibreglass lightbulbs that were positioned on Jumeirah Beach, within sight of the Burj Al Arab. Their installation required a crane and a team of workers, whose efforts in positioning the artwork were captured for posterity by none other than the Magnum documentary photographer Martin Parr.
At the time, the image was viewed by a cynical public as a metaphor for the hubris driving Dubai’s attempt to position itself as a major player in the international art market. Popular opinion, Dubai and Gawde have changed in the intervening decade, but as the artist’s new show at Alserkal Avenue’s 1X1 Gallery proves, the years have also been marked by a remarkable degree of consistency, especially when it comes to Gawde’s intellectual and aesthetic preoccupations.
In 2009, the Mumbai-based artist became one of four artists chosen to represent India at the 53rd Venice Biennale, where he exhibited an enormous two tonne kinetic artwork, Alliteration. Like the earlier Blind Bulbs, Alliteration was part of sculptural trajectory that Gawde has pursued since 2005, one which also characterised his participation in more recent international exhibitions such as Finding India: Art for the New Century at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, in 2010 and 2011’s Paris-Delhi-Bombay at the Centre Pompidou in Paris – and now in Id-od and other dimensions… .
The show, Gawde’s first solo in Dubai, features kinetic works from the artist’s sculptural id-od series alongside older works, the ‘other dimensions’ of the show’s title. The phrase comes from the world of engineering, where id-od is used as shorthand for ‘inside dimension - outside dimension’, measurements which most commonly appear on drawings to show the difference between the internal and external dimensions of an object, most frequently a pipe.
Gawde became familiar with the concept during the years between 1980 and 1995, when he worked for the government-owned Bombay Port Trust, the corporation that has run what is now Mumbai’s deepwater commercial port since 1873.
(Sunil Gawde, Id-od-5,2014-15, FRP body, motorized mechanism fixed on M.S.plate iron chain and hooks, FRP self-standing pillar,47 x 45 x 198 cm)
The distinction between id and od is the kind of detailed observation that Gawde demands of his audience and gets to the heart of his distinction between looking and seeing, something he explains using the metaphor of an opaque and perforated sheet that stands before a viewer. “Unless one makes the effort to find the peep hole with the intention of looking beyond the opaque sheet, the only thing that is in sight is the opaque sheet,” the 58-year-old explains.
“For me these opaque sheets represent the various layers that cloud our perception. These layers are influenced by culture, traditions, history, philosophy, ideals, upbringing etc.,” he continues.
“The acceptance of this foggy version of the subject at face value is looking. It is our conditioning that allows us to accept foggy versions of the subject. One can only truly see past all these layers if one makes an honest effort to find and align the peep holes. This for me is the difference between looking and seeing.”
The result in id-od and other dimensions…- which runs until October 31 - is a series of works that, whether they are kinetic or not, embody a poise and a sense of balance between movement and stillness, literally in some cases, from which details emerge that are designed to test the viewer.
Whether it was in the form of an oil painting or more recently in his sculptures, Gawde describes his thought experiments as ‘visual haikus’ that are arrived at, like moments of clarity, through a process of physical and mental editing. “In the early years of my practice, I would spend a generous amount of time meditating on my idea until I found clarity. Thereafter, layers and layers of thick oil paint were added to my canvas and then I would use tools to scrape the paint in order to edit and chisel my thoughts on my canvas,” the artist explains.
“In the process of execution [for the id od series], I have had to source various materials, objects, craftsmen, fabricators, vendors etc. This process for me is additive [but] then I worked on fine tuning the artworks by eliminating everyone and everything that I do not add value to it.”
At their best, Gawde’s works demand a discipline that’s all too rare in an age of likes, swipes and clicks but despite all their deliberation, the works often read more like one line gags than a series of carefully considered syllables. Which is which? The only way to find out is to play Gawde’s game. Don’t just look, see, and pay attention.