The Pirelli HangarBicocca is a daunting venue for any artist. Once a manufacturing plant, since 2004 its 15,000 square metres have been turned into one of Europe’s largest exhibition spaces. The vast arena is split into three sections – the Shed, the Navate and the Cubo – each retaining the original rough walls and functional beams and pillars Pirelli inherited. Exhibiting artists are forbidden from using walls to divide up the space they are allocated. As if that were not enough of a challenge, half the Navate space, screened off with black curtains, is permanently occupied by Anselm Kiefer’s monumental site-specific installation, The Seven Heavenly Palaces 2004–2015, commissioned by Pirelli to mark the foundation’s opening and setting a tone of unimpeachable grandeur and seriousness.
With ‘Remains’, however – which opened in the Navate during this year’s Milan Art Week – the artist Sheela Gowda has convincingly made the space her own. It helps that since the 1990s Gowda has worked increasingly with everyday materials. On show here are works constructed from tarpaulin, cow dung, human hair, wooden door frames, metal tar drums, red cotton, ash – materials whose functional resonances she sounds out in her formally sophisticated installations. They are at home in this industrial space. Even so, the journey Gowda and the show’s curators have created here, through work spanning nearly three decades, ranging from installations and sculptures to prints and watercolours, and including a new work conceived specifically for the occasion, navigates the architecture on easy terms, seizing the opportunities it offers for expansion and dialogue.
Gowda was born in Bhadravati in the southern state of Karnataka in India in 1957. She trained in painting at the famous M.S. University of Baroda and Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan. On her return to India in 1984, after postgraduate study in painting at the Royal College of Art in London, she began to move away from working with oil on canvas, turning instead to the materials around her, to excavate their meanings – historical, ritual, psychological, political – through her artistic labour.
The show offers a series of high points in Gowda’s career. At the entrance we are met by a large canopy of bright red cotton with a zigzag outline like bunting. In this amalgamation of two earlier works, And That is No Lie (2015) and It Stands Fallen (2015–16), the metal poles the fabric is insecurely tied to surge up into the darkness, gesturing to the magnificent architecture the structure inhabits, while metres of fabric lie collapsed on the ground. The canopy is intended to evoke a shamiana or pandal, temporary tent-like structures put up in India during secular and religious events, here surging upward but also tumbling down, dismantling, spilling a sea of red.
The second installation, Kagebangara (2008), looks like a deconstructed modernist painting, with two blue and one yellow tarpaulin rectangles hung on a metal wall playing against an arrangement of rusted rectangle metal sheets. These frame a small house-like structure made from beaten metal, outside of which the lids of tar drums are used as bowls containing sheets of mica, a building material, which also suggests water. In front are two columns of stacked drums. Metaphor and abstraction are in exact balance with the material facts of a building site.
Tar drums have become a core material for Gowda, recurring here in A Blanket and the Sky (2004), Chimera (2004) and Darkroom (2006). Inspired by the way road workers turn the tar barrels into shelters at the side of the road, Gowda has constructed her own towering structures, which visitors can enter, and pierced holes in the roofs to create a starlit sky. The installation What Yet Remains (2017), meanwhile, presents an array of blue, red, yellow and green painted, recycled metal drum sheets, many of which have eight-inch-wide circular holes where metal discs have been punched out. The metal discs have been beaten into bowls called bandlis, used for carrying building materials.
Close by is Stopover (2012), a site-specific installation conceived for the first edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, composed of around 200 traditional spice-grinding stones, once considered sacred, which Gowda saved from abandonment on the streets of Bangalore. Once again, their formal qualities sing in counterpoint with their cultural significance.
In the Cubo, the only space with natural light, Gowda has placed three works in dialogue. A new work, In Pursuit of (2019), presents two giant black squares constructed from around 15 kilometres of rope, woven from human hair and hung against the walls, echoing the stern geometry of the environment, while also paying homage to the Hindu tradition of sacrificing hair to the gods. Black Square (2014), a small work made of natural black rubber from the Amazon and black paint, framed, is an overt reference to Malevich. And inches from the floor on rows of low metal tables, Gowda has laid out Collateral (2007) a landscape of shapes made from incense burned the opening evening of the exhibition. The air is thick still with scent, but also with the multiplying resonances of the materials and forms of Gowda’s work.
‘Sheela Gowda: Remains’ is at the Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, until 15 September.