The Barbican Conservatory hosts first public exhibition of contemporary art

Ranjani Shettar's Cloud songs on the horizon brings visions of Karnataka to the London space

Ranjani Shettar's Moon dancers on view at the Barbican Conservatory. Photo: Barbican Centre / KNMA / Ranjani Shettar
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The Barbican arts centre in London is known for its multidisciplinary arts programming and imposing brutalist architecture. Unbeknown to some however, it is also home to a large residential estate, a music school, a lake and gardens and a 23,000 square foot conservatory filled with about 1,500 plants – a rarity in this built up part of the city. Rather surprisingly perhaps, this amazing urban jungle has been relatively hard for the public to access in the past.

A project commissioned jointly by the Barbican and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in India has changed all that. Cloud songs on the horizon (2023) is a site-specific installation by Indian sculptor Ranjani Shettar that is free to visit and comprises five handcrafted sculptures made by the artist in her studio in rural Karnataka that appear to float above the conservatory’s greenery.

“This is the first time we have had an artist specifically respond to this space,” explains the Barbican’s head of visual arts Shanay Jhaveri, who is keen to open up the Barbican site to a wider audience that may not usually visit the paid-for exhibitions and events but that come to the centre to study or have a coffee.

A work titled On the Wings of Crescent Moons. Photo: Barbican Centre / KNMA / Ranjani Shettar

“It’s also important in the context we are in, where there is a funding crisis and economically things are not very good that we create more free access to art,” he continues.

When Shettar first visited the conservatory to do research for the show she realised how “unique it was to have this green space in a concrete jungle” and how many people “loved to get inside this space” but found it difficult to access.

“I wanted to respond to the space and make the artworks as site specific as possible in terms of scale and form,” she continues. Four of the five pieces in the installation are made of handwoven muslin cloth stretched and moulded over stainless steel and suspended at different heights in distinct areas.

Ranjani Shettar at work. Photo: Ranjani Shettar / Talwar Gallery

The forms bring to mind foliage, flowers and tendrils but also playful surrealist mobiles and more fantastical abstract entities, while the sinuous timber piece suspended low over the conservatory’s koi pond was hand carved out of a reclaimed teak pillar and contrasts beautifully with the brutalist geometries of the windows in the background.

Some of the techniques Shettar uses were inspired by the traditional Kinnala toys, a relatively unknown art form from Karnataka “in which sawdust and glue is used to make a form and fabric is stretched over it” – though she says the final result bears no resemblance to the source.

“I like to create environments that look like part of nature, but I chose contrasting colours so the pieces would also stand out.” She is referring to the lacquered apricot brown tones and deep reds and pinks, created with the use of madder plant and natural pomegranate dye, of the muslin-and-steel works.

Ranjani Shettar's Cloud songs on the horizon floats over the Barbican arts centre's conservatory. Photo: Barbican Centre / KNMA / Ranjani Shettar

Working amid such lush greenery was a very different experience from displaying work in a “pristine white gallery” says Shettar. For one thing, the space was far larger and more rambling. “It was daunting when I thought of the size, but I broke it down into smaller pieces. For example, the pond at the back felt like a little gallery space of its own, as did other areas, so I turned it into a journey of discovery for the audience.

"Some pieces you will see bang on when you enter, but others are tucked away. By the time you have seen the five pieces, you've also seen the conservatory and spent time in it, paused and slowed down.”

Another difference from working in a white cube is that the works “throw shadows when you light them in a gallery”, an effect she likes to make use of in terms of aesthetics. The conservatory didn’t allow for this but the works will nevertheless appear to shift and change during the day as the sun, clouds and daylight from the overhead glazing hits them at different angles.

At night a “really dramatic lighting design” will completely transform them again, she says excitedly. “They almost look like other artworks, it’s that different.”

Cloud songs on the horizon is available to visit until March 2024. Access is free but time slots must be booked online.

Updated: September 19, 2023, 10:54 AM