In 2002, L.N. Tallur created Made in England: A Temple Designed for India, a six-meter-tall, phallic-shaped inflatable shiva temple, which placed him in the league of India’s leading sculptors. With a long red slit down the front that forms the temple entrance—suggestive of female genitalia—and a red inflatable cow sitting on a black cushion facing the opening. Made in England takes a comic jab at the historical relationship between colonizer and the colonized. Tallur has developed this particular brand of wit in subverting India’s markers into his signature style.
Tallur has continued to expand his repertoire of materials, displaying a proclivity for natural substances such as jute, silver and wood as he revisits his Indian heritage by appropriating religious icons and monuments. “Placebo,” Tallur’s recent exhibition at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road gallery continued the theme of the usurpation of Indian culture by globalization that Tallur had developed in his solo exhibition “Anitimatter” last year at Arario Gallery in New York. Comprised of five sculptures and one installation, “Placebo” was spread out almost 4,000-square feet of gallery space separated into four connected viewing spaces, which allowed for an intimate encounter with each of Tallur’s objects.
Viewer’s first came across Untitled-Lamp 2 (2009), a freestanding, life-size sculpture of an artificially aged, traditional bronze temple lamp, which has been partially embedded in a cracked concrete gridded-iron structure. Sweet-scented oil filled the rim of the lamp; the devotional object, here used as a metaphor for national identity, resembled an archaeological discovery undergoing reconstruction. Or was the lamp—as a signifier of Indian identity—being deconstructed? Tallur left this up to the viewers.
The next work in the gallery, Vajikarana (2009), is a low-lying, burnt-wood massage table of exaggerated dimensions, nearly ten feet in length. Semi-opaque silicon is smeared across the table’s surface, and a generous dollop of the hard, whitish substance is deposited at one end. Vajikarana takes its name from the popular Ayurvedic treatment –fashionable at the tourist-oriented spas throughout South India where Tallur is from—that supposedly heightens sexual libido. With the introduction of the synthetic material of silicon, Tallur’s Vajikarana poses the question: are Vajikarana’s healing powers placebo-like illusions?
Positioned at the far end of the room, the kinetic objects Digesting System (2008) emits a distinctive rhythmic hissing. Arranged on three separate platforms, a dual-motion metallic feeder—stainless-steel bowls connected by chutes—is smeared with black silicon mixed with wood and wire mesh. Plastic toy animals painted in black silicon dance about on the chutes and eventually fall into the bowl. Every so often, a toy is ejected and ended up on the gallery floor; viewers can place it back in the bowls. Tallur, in Digesting System, seemed to be creating a microcosm of existing hegemonic structures, represented by the monstrous machine, with the cheap, plastic toys serving as stand-ins for individuals. But despite the piece’s impressive production value, Digesting System’s self-evident conceit left viewers wanting more.
The most ambitious work on display was Souvenir Maker (2009), an installation housed in a spacious room divided by a raised, carpeted ramp. On the left side was a large steel machine that noisily cranked out barbed wire. Two dim light bulbs created a dark, dingy setting, sparsely illuminating the pools of finished barbed wire that lay stacked up in the corner. On the other side of the room was an elegant and well-lit setting where, on a raised table, Tallur arranged three near rows of 200 tall glass jars. Inside of each jar was a 17-carat-gold specimen of barbed wire, and printed on the outside is a text that reads: “Designed in America, Conceptualized in India, Made in China, Sponsored by Korea, Yes…we are conditioned to think under flags.” National anthems of 40 randomly chosen countries and Indian national anthem Jana Gana Mana played in the background. Souvenir Maker proposes that geo-political boundaries—signified by the barbed wire—are like any other souvenir: a carefully engineered commodity for global consumption. Tallur’s implication is that nationalism persists even in light of larger global systems. However ambitious in scale, concept and design, Souvenir Maker is loaded with so many elements that it struggles under the weight of its own rhetoric.
In spite of some of its shortcomings, “Placebo” added up to more than the sum of its parts. Though he titled his exhibition after nothingness, the commentary his works incite prove to be anything but empty.