Roadtrip departure is happening today, but I still wanted to squeeze in a Fertilizer Friday.

Fertilizer Fridays are interviews with artist friends. It’s about honest, casual conversation, sharing ideas + busting myths about being an artist/making art.

Let me introduce a good friend and awesome artist, Varsha Nair. We met a few years ago in Myanmar, during the 2nd Beyond Pressure performance art festival. Since then, we’ve collaborated on a project and sent each other lots of emails – about art, life and everything between.

Varsha was born in Uganda, studied in India and now lives in Bangkok. She’s travelled wide and made alot of art. So settle in and enjoy her insights on feminism, collaboration and charting your own path…

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Performing When Two Words Fell at National Art Gallery of Malaysia during Buka Jalan Performance Art Festival in 2011. Photo by Raphael Olivier. 

Just like everyone else, artists have good days and bad days. Could you describe what your working day is like, a good one and a bad one?

a) GOOD:

When things happen unexpectedly, totally unplanned and you don’t even know where or which depth of one’s self something emerges from, but you feel the excitement building deep within. Ideas fly around and perhaps one of them gets put down as a small drawing or scribble.

Or, when I experience working collaboratively – like when Karla [Sachse] and I first talked about the Meridian | Urban project, Monday2Monday with Lena [Eriksson], receiving your initial note about developing our recent proposal, Shore Lines and having that set my mind racing – literally thinking and voicing (or writing) on my feet/on the spot, just letting it emerge from the gut. I guess it’s a day when I am totally absorbed by the process without being aware of it.

And, if something has been swirling in your mind for days, months or even years, and one fine day it materializes, comes together. That’s a great day at work, I’d say, because some sleeping seed has become strong enough to germinate.

b) BAD:

When ‘other’, ‘outer’ workings of the art world shake one’s belief in oneself, even slightly, and I let that preoccupy my mind, it can throw you off the path for days. It’s not easy, and it takes time to right one’s balance again. 

A day when one tries to force things, to make work, is a bad one. You always have these forced ‘objects’ hanging around – in your sketchbooks or wherever, and then you come across them later and you think – “ugh”. That’s yet another bad day experienced – a double cringe-whammy!

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A Proper Place, 2007, collaboration with Jerome Ming, Ryllega Gallery, Hanoi

You recently moved into a new studio in Bangkok. Having a studio seems central to being an artist – even people who might not have a clear idea of what I do are always curious about my studio. Tell us about some studios you’ve had.

Years ago, I had this mental picture of a large, high-ceilinged space that was light and airy, nestled amongst lush old trees – a little island of my own. It was a bit romantic, but it recalled the art school where I studied in Baroda; our shared studios were cavernous spaces and the campus has many old trees.

The reality of spaces I’ve had is quite different – from an apartment, a brief stint in a lovely old building at the edge of China town in Bangkok, to my current space which is above a café on a main road near my house. These spaces are very much part of the din and dust of the city. The view outside my studio now is a jumble of electrical and other wires – if I lean out the window far enough, I can touch them. No tree in sight. 

From the time of being a student to now, the idea of a ‘studio’ has also changed. A modest sized room works well enough. It is primarily a space to think. 

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LOOC: Line Out of Control, 2009, performance collaboration with Lena Eriksson

I get this question all the time: ‘what kind of art do you do?’ It makes me really anxious because I don’t have a specific medium. Looking at your work, you’ve done so many different things over the years – performance, sculpture, video, installation. It doesn’t fit into a neat box. Varsha, I’m trying to get over this crazy anxiety about ‘what kind of art I do’! What do you think is causing it? How do you answer that question?

It always throws me when people ask that and I find myself thinking, ‘Yes. What sort of art do I do?’ My reply is usually, ‘oh, a bit of this and a bit of that.’ If I add that I ‘play’ mainly, people look confused. 

Sometimes I have this strong urge to say: ‘Art? I don’t really do that…’, because definitions fix things. People have certain fixed ideas about ‘art’ and ‘artists’. But I often say that I do a lot of drawing, and leave it at that. People can make what they want from that, from their own understanding of drawing. Essentially I think that’s what I do – drawing – whether it’s on paper or explored through performance and installation. It’s open to various interpretations.

Are you a feminist?

As a woman asserting my way of being, claiming my space and ‘freedom’ to think and do what I want, rooting for women to make/get their own way in our male dominated world (and I say ‘world’, not just India/Thailand/Asia) – if that’s what it means to be a feminist, then I am.  image

Drawing from September Quick Fix, a dual show with Jerome Ming at Conference of Birds Gallery, Bangkok in 2009

You and I have had some heated conversations about the power imbalances and lack of accountability in the art world. The issue with greatest impact on me is galleries and collectors consistently delaying payment for works that have been sold. I’ve chosen to focus on that, and I’m now collecting data to help me take the next step. If you had to pick a specific problem you’ve encountered professionally, what would it be? What can be done to improve the situation?

The main problem is lack of (or withholding of) support from some people in the art world, accompanied by a kind of sneaky-ness. I’ve experienced a 2-tiered way of working in large shows, where some artists get all and more (in terms of help and finances) and some get little or nothing. There is no transparency, of course, so one learns about these ‘things’ later and it drives me mad. It’s highly unprofessional and, I think, insulting. It’s like they have set a criteria to judge you by, of what you are worth. 

The other issue I face is this. I have lived in Thailand for a long time now, since 1995, and been part of that scene. I always felt, or indeed was ‘included’ in the past. In the last few years, with some players from ‘outside’, from foreign lands, starting to curate, write and somewhat define things in the Thai art scene, I am suddenly regarded or judged as an outsider. As a result, I am often not considered or left out of things. Ironical, isn’t it? 

With both of the above points, the one way to improve things is to have more transparency – via debate and discussion. Also, people could do more research when they curate or write, and really go into detail rather than skim the surface. Both transparency and engaging in proper research are seriously lacking in the environment I work in. The skimming of surfaces, as it is, simply makes people look and feel ‘sexy’, or ‘with it’.

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An Elixir Realigning, 2011, collaborative performance in Berlin with myself, fellow artist Karla Sachse, curator Deeksha Nath and students Lilian Kim Lukas, Aaron Schwagerl and Simon Troll.

A lot of your work comes from collaborating with other people. When I was in university, I was forced to do a collaboration unit. Students from different creative departments were thrown together and asked to ‘make something’. It was a nightmare, and incredibly unproductive. We’re taught to think collaboration is automatically good, but what are some of the pitfalls? What makes some collaborations useful and others not?

I love working collaboratively. Mainly it’s been with other artists, but I’ve also worked with people from other fields – an architect, botanist, etc. Each one adds different expertise and knowledge into a mixed pool, and it’s not only useful for a specific process but is also exciting to explore. The pitfalls, or I would rather say ‘challenges’, are many. 

Here’s an excerpt from a paper I wrote recently, which focuses on multi-disciplinary collaborative practice. I talk about working with artists and community-based projects:

Engaging in collaborative processes requires commitment, trust, and ability to let go and negotiate with the other(s), whilst keeping an open mind to explore interests, be they shared or completely new ones. 

Furthermore, collaborations between artists fall into somewhat a grey area, and, as I have experienced first hand, the act of collaborating is often not fully comprehended by art professionals including artists, gallerists, writers and, at times, even curators. 

Along with questions of ownership and individual authorship, working collaboratively presents many challenges including willingness to pool skills and ideas, and, most importantly, considering a plurality – the larger picture, rather than individuality.

And, in terms of collaborating with communities by placing one’s own practice firmly within a network of social and working relationships, the artist’s preparedness to let go of control and allow for outcomes to evolve, and to accept that their role as artists may somewhat diminish, is essential to enter into and establish meaningful discourse.

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Free Parking, 2002, collaboration with Savinee Buranasilapin at the 7th floor Art Gallery at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. The space was marked all over with architecture plans that turned it into a car park. 

I remember whining to you about how I felt I was not doing enough to further my art career, in terms of networking, getting shown by the right galleries, meeting the right people, etc. ‘The Hot Young Artist ship is sailing by and I’m not on it!’ You told me to keep doing what I was doing. It was good advice. Where do you think this insecurity comes from? Why is it important for an artist (or anyone, really) to ‘keep doing what they are doing’?

Which ship and according to whom is it sailing by?? Why should one be on it? Today’s ‘hot young artist’ is tomorrow’s….. what? Of course, I thought about this and still do at times, and decided I’d rather chart my own path.

The way [the art world] is today, and you and I have discussed this, I do not want to be ‘managed’. I’ve felt the effects of ‘being managed’. In one of my collaborative works, my collaborating colleague ‘belonged’ to a hotshot gallery in Mumbai. These so-called important people in the art world had, and still must have, zilch understanding of collaborations, and they ‘managed’ me pretty badly. I don’t need that, as I have always managed, to use the word again, to show and be part of things by getting to know others, via my own network, which is mainly made up of like-minded people. So, one can always find a way to show one’s work, or even establish our own ways of showing. 

After a very long time I am now facing the next few months ahead without an invitation to show or to be part of a project. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I wonder if this is bad, should I panic? On the other I look forward to ‘doing’ – tinkering in the studio, maybe inviting an artist or two, or a designer who I spoke with recently, to come do something in the space. The ‘doing’ can also be ‘doing nothing’

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You’ve worked in the arts with people from all over the world, from all walks of life. What is power?

… feeling rooted within one’s self.

What’s next for you?

‘doing’….. ‘nothing’ :) 

Thanks, Varsha.

Everyone, please check out more of Varsha’s work on her website.

imageimageDocumentation from 2011 community project NR1 Wadhwana, a 3-way collaboration between art + community + science. Workshops were set up in seven schools in the villages near Wadhwana Lake. Children and teachers took part in activities that observed and recorded the ecology of the lake. For more info on this project, go here!

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Fine Print: Images are Copyright Varsha Nair 2002 – 2012. All Rights Reserved. Wouldn’t hurt to ask before using. But if you’re taking them anyway, credit correctly!