For Heartbeats of a Cave, Somnath Bhatt returns to metaphors that are unseen but can be felt
The multidisciplinary artist and designer talks us through his first solo show in China that uses metaphors of the cave to express our deepest desires.
- Alif Ibrahim
- 25 August 2021
Somnath Bhatt consistently delivers one of the most intriguing bodies of work today, each piece populated with compelling symbolism akin to finding a script that sits between the ancient and the alien that’s begging to be decoded. His images hint at the familiar but is ultimately unique as he focuses on an alternative genealogy of images. Since we last wrote about him, Somnath has been freelancing between looking for his own place and a new city to move to. In the meantime, he has also been working on a solo exhibition titled Heartbeats of a Cave (洞穴的心跳) at IS A Gallery in Shanghai, a show curated by Moad Musbahi.
“I am fascinated by spaces that symbolise the unknown – outer space, the ocean and caves. The first human acts of art-making and music-making occurred inside caves – perhaps the first ever act of meaning-making may have happened within the stone lips of a cave too,” Somnath tells It’s Nice That. “The oldest human instrument, a conch shell, was found within a cave. Hearing this sound not only struck a conceptual chord but a deeply emotional one. Caves to me are like the unconscious – on the inside formless, continuous, made up of speeding thoughts, desires and images. The space to go to if you long to understand the heart in the deepest sense.”
Somnath mentions how humans go into caves to transform and be enlightened in many Indian fables. For this exhibition, Somnath drafts and redrafts his pieces until his “eyes catch fire.” Through his work, he interrogates the distance between fiction, memory, rituals, incantations and the fluid shift between the deeply sacred and incongruous. Heartbeats of a Cave not only is an exploration of these concepts but also represents a new step in his artistry. “I seek to build compositions — a constellatory work filled with incomplete dreams, defiant longing, fragmented narratives and secrets. Trying to be more expressive and painterly with colour was another attempt. I employed a palette that was no longer restrained by a formal technique, and this enabled me to develop a more saturated contrast within the works. I think these chromatically hold together a field of an acute experience that I am trying to convey.”
In 1994, as a six month old infant, Somnath took his very first trip to China with his grandmother. “It feels appropriate to have her present again when I am about to have my first solo show in China as well,” he says. Those who are fortunate enough to see the show in person will hear his grandmother’s hum accompany these pieces. Somnath found a few symbols and metaphors that he returns to constantly: a hand, a spiral of a conch shell, an eye, a figure opening up its heart and sine waves. “For me these do not represent what they are but what is quieter, softer, contemplative, complexed within them – unseen but yet very much felt,” he says. “I enjoy cultivating the porosity and duality of metaphors and vitality in the power of repetition that a symbol can hold. It’s my quiet way of trying to interplay with the things I deeply admire from the past, things I find pleasures and love in, and to see how they might continue to exist. To use the history and past not as support but as illumination.”
Many of the works in this exhibition are printed on textiles. Somnath says that this initially came from a desire to create a long continuous scroll, an intention that he previously described to us back in 2019. “However, that format felt constricting to me. Instead of a one continuous scroll – I was wondering if paintings could be in multiple parts. Hence more scattered, fragmented placements – hung at different heights, only some of them near eye level, I hoped it would put the viewer in an unaccustomed position where they had to encounter the works,” Somnath says. “I am looking for a sense of an overwhelming scattering like the way the night sky with all its constellations are.” The focus on textiles also came from the time that he studied at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum in Thimpu, Bhutan back in 2011. There, he briefly studied Buddhist painting called Lhadri and some residual remains of that training stayed with him. “Prayers were printed by hand on fabric to be carried by the wind. I also wonder what wind would do if they were made as suspended fabrics to my pieces,” he adds.
You can find more information about Somnath’s exhibition here.
Somnath Bhatt: Arose (Copyright © Somnath Bhatt, 2021).
About the Author
Alif joined It's Nice That as an editorial assistant from September to December 2019 after completing an MA in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing often looks at the impact of art and technology on society.