He won’t allow you to call him an artist. He won’t allow you to define his work. Or even explain it away. Because, he says, it has no artistic message. It makes no comment. Passes no judgement.

But the 38 year old artist is willing to put his neck on the line, and his entire weight behind the body of his work. Literally. For a soon-to-be-unveiled exhibition, Sudarshan will mount busts of his head and hang them on walls, like trophies. A life-sized sculpture —  in bronzed fibreglass — of him pointing to the sky, will make its way into the viewing space of ‘It’s The Good Life’. It’s an exhibition in which the onlooker will have the choice of being the conductor of an interactive experience. ‘It’s The Good Life’ will have hands scratching at walls lying cheek-by-jowl with mirrors that will not only distort the image but actually look back at you. Dark glasses will emerge from two six-foot mirrors to give you the evil eye and then retreat. An old Fiat 1100 will open and close its doors when you stand on a platform in front of it. Three boats, 12 feet long and 3.5 feet wide, and suspended in mid-air will whirl at different speeds. Tall yellow chairs placed around a table will sprout wings, poised to take flight.

And yet, a few months before the exhibition was to open in Mumbai, Sudarshan’s airy, wooden studio inside the Eastern Metal Works compound in Mumbai’s mill area was strangely tranquil. Like someone had taken away the ‘Work-in-Progress’ sign and replaced it with ‘Do Not Disturb’. The whittled-down Fiat — diminished by nearly 15 inches — lay in the centre of his studio, gathering dust. The boats were piled higgledy-piggledy, one on top of the other at the entrance of the studio. His golden winged chariots looked unfit for even a feeble flutter. But these objects really do not have to bear any weight —it is the artist’s imagination that will help them soar. “What you are trying to say is more important than how you are doing it. How you live it through is more important.”

It is this conviction that led this commerce student — ­who was always good at art and inspired by film hoardings — to join the J J School of Art, Mumbai. It led him away from the affected style then prevalent in his school of art toward using painting “more as a convention and less as an art form”. But Sudarshan still feels he has nothing to say. He prefers it that way. “If you had something to say right in the beginning then it would end there. My approach is more a way of discovering how things come together. The way I put two things together will have a rigour speaking through it, and some strands of how I’ve been working. But if I work with all that I know already, then I won’t have created an experience beyond what I know. Even for the onlooker.”

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The Strange Silence Of Sudarshan Shetty, MW archives

This sense of seeking for the self informed his first solo exhibition ‘Paper Moon’, held in 1995 in Delhi and Mumbai. In one of its most striking installations, a house rode a horse that stood on a boat. The life-size horse was covered in garish pink kite paper. Titled Paper on Wood & Fibre Glass & Glass Marbles, the three objects merged and yet stood apart. “How it comes together creates a certain sense of drama but, at the same time, all three objects are themselves.”

As is the artist. “My work is not about issues at all. It has to be a personal communication. I am against the idea of beginning with a general issue. If personal issues become larger, that is okay. Each work is not a piece of a message. The message has to come through an artist’s life.” So far Sudarshan feels he has only been the messenger. ‘It’s The Good Life,’ he says, is not any sort of comment on socio-cultural issues, but an “intellectual response”. “Art not for myself alone. Getting people involved is my sociological concern. That is what most artists are concerned about. Art is a fringe activity. How do you bring it to the mainstream? We want that — at least in terms of showing people that art is an important factor in the development of society.” So, from being the outsider looking in, Sudarshan has stepped in to invert the whole process.

At the moment Sudarshan is dealing with step one of the game: marketing. He does this by turning everything into a product. Including himself. “I use sculpture or painting as conventions. They are all products for me, which I put together. More and more I have let go of the idea of skill within art. Of mannerism, which is often mistaken for skill. Now, I look at things as an extension of my own hand. If someone sculpts better than I do, then I get him to make a figure for me. My skill is in just putting things together. This allows me to reach many corners, touch many aspects of the life I may lead.”

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Sudarshan’s evolution is most evident in the treatment of his art. “The kind of work I do makes it really difficult to buy. I am looking at other ways to brand it. It’s just another way to appropriate the culture we live in. I’ve become worldy-wise. I have developed ways to market myself. If you cannot sell, then how do you survive? I don’t depend on the art market alone. More and more there is no space for alternative culture.”

Inspired by Warhol’s ‘Factory’ Sudarshan hopes to disassociate his name from his work and replace it with of ‘Ministry of Art’, the company he has formed, so he can market a pure product.

His schedule for the year 2000 is as chaotic as it is controlled. In February, he will spend four months in The Arts Space, Bristol, UK, on the Charles Wallace award. In June, he will be designing a stall for Second Skin, a part of ‘Expo 2000’ in Hanover. And towards the end of the year, he will orchestrate a Ministry of Art event at which he will play sartor to the installation of design: he plans to work on the convention of a fashion show in an art gallery space. Following a show of clothes designed by him, he plans to have them photographed and catalogued, and will then hold an exhibition of clothes in acrylic boxes. Everything will be turned into a product that people can buy. “I want to walk on grey areas — is this fashion or is it sculpture?”

Whatever the answer Sudarshan knows he‘ll be in fashion.

This story was first published in April 2000

Image courtesy: Harsh Man Rai, Shutterstock

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