Artes Mundi, one of the most lucrative art prizes in the world, opened in Wales last week and one of the favourites is an Indian artist who uses tar drums in her work.
Walk through the Doric columns that dominate the facade of Cardiff’s imposing National Museum and the first exhibition space reveals a strangely comical symmetry. Four cylindrical tar drums sourced from Indian road workers stand atop each other, echoing the stone structures outside. But they are far less permanent – or sturdy. A gallery assistant looks at them and shakes her head with a grin: they’re petrified someone will lean against this temporary column and the whole thing will come crashing down, the drums rolling out the entrance.
But then, the Indian artist responsible for this thought-provoking installation probably wouldn't mind one bit. Sheela Gowda's sculpture, Kagebangara, is meant to be abstract. Other drums snake along the ground. Flattened barrels are hung flat along the wall next to bright yellow and blue tarpaulin, instantly inviting comparisons with Mondrian's famous grid-based paintings. The only concession to realism comes with a small compartment constructed of more flattened drums – suggesting connections with the simple dwellings the road workers shelter in.
“It’s strange,” says Gowda, from Bangalore. “When I looked at the homes of street builders, these mobile shelters made from flattened tar drums, I was very conscious of not wanting to make a superficial social comment about these workers. And yet that’s the first thing viewers jump at. They think that the use of ‘poor’ material, especially coming from the Third World, is a comment on the marginalised.
“Actually, I was fascinated by the use of materials they work with daily in the construction of their homes – it’s the dimensions of the tar drum sheets that determined the size of these small shelters, not the human body scale and its needs. So I wanted to see what I could create using these same materials and restrictions.”
Kagebangara is one of the stand-out works at Artes Mundi, an art prize that doesn't quite have the profile of the Turner Prize, but is possibly more significant. Financially, the rewards for winning are certainly greater (about Dh235,000), and entry is not limited to British artists. The seven finalists this year come from Sweden, Cuba, Slovenia, Lithuania, Mexico, the UK and, of course, India.
“It’s important for me because it’s meant that I can converse with and exhibit alongside artists who are both mature and different in the way they engage with the world,” says Gowda.
And Gowda's engagement with the art world has certainly taken her in interesting directions. She started out as a painter, training at the Royal College of Art in London, but in the early 1990s began to investigate using completely different materials; incense sticks, cow dung, spice and even human hair have all featured in installations for art biennales at Lyons and Venice, and solo exhibitions in London, Oslo, New York and Bangalore. In 2009, the Sharjah Biennial welcomed two of her contributions, including the mesmerising Drip Field, where her stretch of water, in between two buildings, was inspired by the emirate's special link to India past and present.
Despite regular assertions that her work has a consistent political dimension, if only because it uses unconventional materials loaded with meaning, it's a categorisation she resists.
“Honestly, I don’t make comments on India,” she argues. “I’m not trying to change the world through my work – although of course, it does keep my engagement with it alive. I work in India so naturally I take up materials and imagery that are around me. But it is always used towards a larger reading.”
What that larger reading is, Gowda will not say and she is clear that she is an artist first and foremost. But it is a triumph of her work, in a way, that it can be so readily and widely interpreted – even if she herself doesn’t necessarily agree with the viewer.
On Thursday, she will find out whether the assembled judges’ interpretations – whatever they might be – are enough to win her the Artes Mundi prize. Let’s hope the tar drum columns stay upright until then, at least.
The other six competitors for Artes Mundi in Cardiff
Miriam Backstrom (Sweden)
A huge tapestry hung in an arc, the fragmented scene is a comment on public and private faces.
Tania Bruguera (Cuba)
Simultaneously the most intriguing and frustrating work, Bruguera investigates the lot of the immigrant... but not in the gallery. It’s a poster campaign across Cardiff.
Darius Miksys (Lithuania)
Miksys deconstructed an essay on his work into search terms and then looked for those items in the National Museum Wales collection. The result is a room that has a stuffed bird, ornate painting... and a ticket for the cricket.
Teresa Margolles (Mexico)
A powerful exploration of death; water used to cleanse dead bodies in a morgue drips from the ceiling on to hotplates, which then evaporate with a hiss.
A slide show of anonymous holiday snaps, pets and private moments, inviting the viewer to construct narratives of unknown lives.
Apolonija Sustersic (Slovenia)
The crowd-pleasing entry; a video installation looking at the past, present and future of the Cardiff Bay redevelopment.
Artes Mundi is at National Museum Cardiff until January 13. Visit www.artesmundi.org