Of Monument and moment: Huma Bhabha's Cinema of Decay

November 1, 2009

            Huma Bhabha often cites the influence of Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais, a work that, like her own, achieves its dramatic effect by joining monumentality and spectacle. Just as there are many ways of seeing Rodin’s tragic yet heroic burghers, Bhabha’s sculptures and installations defy fixed perspectives, their narrative fluidity forming, in almost cinematic fashion, a continuous loop of representation and association. Combining the formal concerns of Modernist sculpture with the expressive dynamism of film, Bhabha serves as both maker and director, creating skillfully edited pieces that entangle the body and eye in a conundrum of permanence and dissolution, monument and moment.

Allusion to cinematic enactment might seem contrary to an artist whose formal rigor and thematic ennui can be linked to Alberto Giacometti and Constantin Brancusi as well as to Rodin. But these Modernist masters, like Joseph Beuys and Robert Rauschenberg (all of whom Bhabha references), also deploy the temporal, the material, and the experimental to involve viewers in their work. And, like Bhabha, they direct their own narrative discourse, mixing together myth, manipulations of scale, disparate and abject substances, and modern media, including photography and film.

The Janus-faced enigmas behind Bhabha’s conjoined monuments and moments unfold in large, room-scale installations such as …And in the track of a hundred thousand years, out of the heart of dust, Hope sprang again, like greenness (2007). Bhabha originally installed this piece, whose title quotes a line from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, in the opulent Upper East Side townhouse space of Salon 94 in New York. Set on a low platform littered with debris, a pair of two-sided figures gives rise to a dialectical series of contradictions and interpretations. Fashioned from recycled materials such as chicken wire, clay, and Styrofoam, the two “bodies”—one standing totem-like, the other seated on a wheelchair-like throne—shift in perspective, axis, and allusion as the viewer moves around them. The hollow mask-head of the sphinx-like seated figure bears an appendage that could be construed as a beard, a gas mask, or an elephant trunk. Referencing war, patriarchy, and perhaps the Hindu god Ganesha, the indeterminate, unfinished nature of this head and body admits many possible readings while authorizing the editorial and interpretive agency of the viewer’s eye.

Meanwhile, the other side of the same figure demurely contradicts the pervasive authority of its anterior, suggesting a new, even contrary perspective of gendered opposition via a curvilinear torso with shapely legs sketched on wood and topped by a small block head. Across the platform, from still another vantage point, a curvaceous figure with a clay head echoes its neighbor, only now the mask-like torso is pierced with see-through holes. When viewed from the back, it becomes a Picasso-style face within a box. Isolated in a desolate field of debris yet contextually juxtaposed, these strange figures, like the sets and actors from some post-apocalyptic horror film, seem suspended between forming and disintegrating, awaiting the experience of our viewing for narrative and meaning.

Cinematic devices such as repeated takes, multiple viewpoints, and distorting lenses often occur in Bhabha’s work, as do certain motifs, which, along with her found materials and collage aesthetic, appear to undermine the immediacy and permanence associated with monuments. Focusing on discarded and overlooked materials caught between production and decomposition, Bhabha’s sculptures allow the evocative potential of imagination and memory to circulate and confound interpretation.

For Bhabha, heads and feet—sometimes joined together in the same piece, but without the intervening torso—allude to the expressive possibilities of surface and fragment so celebrated by Rodin and Brancusi. Earthen red clay and blue Styrofoam bound together with chicken wire suggest a bust-like form in Museum without Walls (2007). Here, profile gives way to a skeletal or perhaps mummified face, provocatively demonstrating how description, portraiture, and even commemoration are but fractured and fleeting moments in the multiplicity of time. Similarly, large lumbering feet, like those of the overscaled Untitled (2007), create a range of correspondences. Fashioned out of clay, Styrofoam, wood, and wire and painted with ink, the forms suggest charred archaeological relics as well as the relentless, plodding trudge of everyday life, offering a meditation on time and human frailty.

Head and feet recur in Bumps in the Road, a site-specific work created for Bhabha’s Emerging Artist Award exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in 2008. For this piece, she added rusted car parts, wood, burlap, newspaper, metal studs, sand, and ash to her usual range of materials. Set on a low, blackened plinth, a zombie-like head mounted on a wooden stool stares hollowly outward; next to it, two upright pieces of wood joined by a cross beam labeled with the words “front” and “back” form a pair of striding legs balanced on metal feet. While the words cast doubt on possible meanings, the forms themselves simmer. Circling the plinth, one observes the relentless coming and going of this nomadic odd couple that Bhabha has associated with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, their endless quest repeating itself like a cinematic loop.

Alluding to the past and to genocidal moments of the present, these mutant figures challenge the viewer to find transcendent beauty within their grotesque and skeletal abjectness. Yet even as these cast-off materials are imbued with the aura of death and timeless remembrance, their humble, handmade assemblage accents the transitional and improvisatory. Con­structed from materials found in dumpsters or at construction sites and often held together by wire or glue, many of Bhabha’s pieces initially look to be unfinished and slapdash. But closer examination reveals their careful construction and strong sense of design and color. Focusing attention on the conditional by exposing structural elements, Bhabha admits to a certain reflexivity that, like a Godard film, makes viewers aware of how a piece is made and their own role in the production of its meaning.

Time and memory are important components in Bhabha’s ongoing meditation on the cultural relevance of the heroic and monumental within sculpture’s impossible détente with entropic reality. Repeating themes and motifs, she exploits the evocative potential of her formal repertoire while disrupting its associative meanings by changing the context or the medium. Thus The Orientalist (2007) might resemble the enthroned figure of …And in the track, but this isolated, archetypal figure recalls the colossal statues of ancient pharaohs, focusing attention more directly on the fallacy of ambition and remembrance.

In Untitled (2008), which shares a similar concern but takes a different approach, Bhabha juxtaposes the crown of Western kingship with a mask-like head formed from a skull, chicken wire, duct tape, Styro­foam, clay, and burnt wood. Suspended on a rebar pole, the shifting planes of the face meditate on transience while alluding to history and colonialism. The effigy simultaneously questions the purpose of commemoration and the legitimacy of heritage.

Bhabha has also photographed her foot works, in different settings across her native Pakistan (she is now based in Poughkeepsie). Captured with lowered horizons, in early morning or late afternoon light, these strangely nomadic images, sometimes filled with half-built structures but bereft of human presence, make it difficult to discern the scale of Bhabha’s humble yet seemingly monumental constructions. Drawing on her printmaking background, she also makes photogravures of her sculptural pieces “in situ,” as well as hand-colored photographs, drawings, and prints, all provocatively exploring ideas about documentation, verisimilitude, and multiples. In these works, Bhabha, like Dziga Vertov in Man with the Movie Camera, turns the camera around to reveal the illusion that we are all watching.

Although she draws on cinematic tropes to explore the nature of spectatorship and its relation to modern experience, in the end, Bhabha seeks to jar the viewer out of the complacency and passivity of looking. Indeed, her installations are always performative experiences. Only through interaction with her sculptures can viewers animate the forms, activate the gaze, seek emotional and psychological completion, and discover meaning. Without participatory spectatorship, Bhabha’s sculptures slip back into simulated ruin where, like the final pan of Charles Foster Kane’s crated treasures in Citizen Kane, they reveal the grand delusion of human pretension and the never-ending decay of form and meaning.

-Susan Canning

Susan Canning is an art historian and writer. This article was first published in Sculpture magazine, a publication of the International Sculpture Center.