Small Tower, 2014-19
Home: The Place Where We Dwell
Dr Eddie Chambers
British sculptor Permindar Kaur occupies a special and important place in narratives of British art from the late 20th century to the present. She emerged at the beginning of the 1990s, a decade preceded by the 1980s. I make mention of this obvious chronological fact as it has an art historical bearing on how we might read particular – and I would suggest, widely underappreciated – aspects of Kaur’s work. While being careful not to caricature art practices of the 1980s, it is very much the case that the decade produced, and is remembered as producing, a new body of British artists whose work was characterized by new articulations of cogent messages oriented towards the social sphere. Artists beyond number, including painters, sculptors, printmakers and others produced compelling bodies of work that spoke of and to a slew of questions and concerns. Chief among those were matters relating to identity politics, manifestations of diaspora, cultural heritage and the challenges of artists, many of whom came of age and developed their respective practices at a time when they and the communities from which they emerged believed themselves to be particularly vulnerable to the worst of what the 1980s had to throw at them. The nature of that decade brought forth a range of innovative artist practices that above all, spoke of and to, the nature of the times.
Kaur’s work from the early 1990s onwards was however decidedly different from the practices that it had in many respects come to dominate. There was in her work a pronounced, determined and we might even say refreshing sense of play that existed in marked contrast to the earnest, serious and worthy aesthetics with which many artists of that period were associated. While large numbers of artists were seemingly intent on ensuring that social messaging was a pronounced aspect of their practice, Kaur, in evident dissimilarity, was instead responsible for producing work of altogether contrasting orientations. It is difficult to do justice to descriptions of Kaur’s work, as to describe it as playful, or other than serious, implies that a certain frivolity or mannered amusement lay at its heart. This was most assuredly not the case. Its playfulness, if indeed the word is appropriate, relates to its profoundly open-ended yet simultaneously highly charged social and cultural readings. Certain manifestations of humour and wit distinguished Kaur’s practice, although again, language might let us down, as humour and its associations with merriment are decidedly not what her work evoked. Not then and not now. The subjects of Kaur’s work must of course be appreciated as being particularly entwined with the technically challenging and highly skillful ways in which she made her work. Thus, Kaur’s work achieved the improbable: nuanced, open-ended cultural, visual and aesthetic enquiries made tactile by breathtaking, challenging and almost audacious technical skill and resolve. In sum, a certain enigmatic, intriguing and boundary-pushing use of materials and subject matter was what set Kaur’s work apart from so many of her contemporaries.
One of a number of key works that declared, as well as defined, Kaur’s singular sculptural unorthodoxy was the scaled-down community or village of six plate glass, cubed homes she constructed and exhibited in 1991. Measuring in the region of 180 x 150 x 150cm, these were structures (each one structurally differentiated from the other) that could be seen into, as well as seen through, and which elicited no end of fascinating readings. Much more than a collection of modernist, architecturally fascinating structures, these sculptural forms exuded a profound sense of both cultural and familial identity. Each build contained an assortment of terracotta objects and implements that we might associate with the domestic sphere – cooking utensils, pots and other earthenware that spoke to viewers of the ways in which lives, families and people are nurtured and sustained. Yet Kaur does not so much present as re-present the domestic objects that we identify with ‘home’ or the family. At times, her intensely considered placing of objects points to, and animates, a pronounced sense of disquiet, unsettlement and insecurity, even as on other occasions her work exudes the antithesis of these things – quiet, settlement and security. It is a measure of Kaur’s profound skill as an artist that her work is able to simultaneously manifest an unsettling duality – because just as much of Kaur’s work gives original and unusual sculptural form to our comforting notions of sanctuary, safety, solace and domestic contentment, it might in equal measure, disabuse us of our inclination to reach for these associations. As sportive as Kaur’s work might be, when we are confronted by it, it is simultaneously capable of arousing the previously mentioned associations with, and feelings of, disquiet, unsettlement and insecurity. For the past three decades I have been intrigued about the ways in which Kaur’s work could be described as playful yet unsettling,
Tellingly, a number of the objects that transformed Kaur’s otherwise clinical plate glass structures into homes pointed most enigmatically to the artist’s own cultural heritage and identity. Symbols and signifiers of faith and its expression were a recurring feature within these cubes, seen most intently and recognizably, through the Khanda, the widely identifiable emblem of Sikhism. Seen most frequently adorning the gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship, the Khanda represented a vertical double-edged sword with its blade surrounded by a circle and its hilt intersected by the crossing hilts of two single-edged swords. Thus, within Glasshouses, 1991 Kaur declared herself adept at creating the nuanced, open-ended cultural, visual and aesthetic enquiries referred to earlier, and such elements continue to characterize her practice.
Time and again, Kaur finds herself drawn to investigations of the domestic sphere, and each new body of her work contains pointers to enduring signifiers of the home. Indeed, as Home is the title of this new exhibition, there are multiple manifestations within the show of the symbolism and the objects we associate with the place where one might live permanently, especially as a member of a family or household. As such, Kaur’s work reflects and embodies a preoccupation that takes the form of her renderings of beds, chairs and tables – the sorts of objects without which a home might not really be thought to exist. In an email communication to me several months ago, Kaur stated succinctly: ‘Most of the work is going to be furniture or about sleeping.’ The artist has a particular gift for poignant understatement, even as from time to time her work reaches ambitious manifestations of scale and is oversized, or bigger than the usual size.
Perhaps one of the most consistent ways in which Kaur’s work improbably yet consistently achieves its nuanced and open-ended cultural, visual and aesthetic enquiries is through her use of scale, which has occasionally become a dominant manifestation in her practice. While some of her sculptures are imposingly grand in scale and others are intriguingly diminutive, she has made manifestations of scale an important aspect of her work. This exhibition gives its audience an opportunity to see again, or perhaps see for the first time, work such as Tall Chairs from 1996, which consists of two fabricated steel chairs, both well over two metres in height. And while chairs for one tend to be taller than their width and depth, Kaur takes the dimensions of her Tall Chairs to sculpturally exaggerated degrees. Their 225 cm height is further accentuated by their 35 x 35 cm width and depth, and yet what gives a work like Tall Chairs its decisive singularity are the curious, bizarre creatures sitting, gathered in on themselves, at the top of each chair. It is delightful to read the ways in which art critics and other people describe the creatures that regularly make a variety of appearances in Kaur’s work.
They vary of course from piece to piece, or from installation to installation, but they share a particular constant of embodying the unsettling and disturbing characteristics we might apply to toys we believe are capable of wayward, independent and deviant actions and behaviour. There is though, nothing the least bit conventional about these forms. Some resemble ‘small creatures, teddy bear-ish or catlike, with pointy ears and a soft fleece.’ Others are described by another critic as ‘small vagabonds.’ The forms that sit atop Kaur’s Tall Chairs fit neither of these descriptions but are instead yellow, mischievous constructions with rounded ball-like bodies and limp, flat heads, arms and legs, folded in on themselves. It is perhaps a measure of her skill as an artist that in looking at the work I find myself asking, not ‘why has Kaur created and placed these structures on the top of her Tall Chairs?’ but instead, ‘how did they get up there?’ or ‘how will they get down?’ In this regard and others, Kaur achieves that which is as remarkable as it is improbable: she sees to it that we transfer our feelings of insecurity and vulnerability or associations of naughtiness, to creatures that have taken on lives of their own, even though we know or ought to know fine well that the artist has fabricated them in her studio.
In writing about the creatures that populated Kaur’s Interlopers exhibition at the University of Hertfordshire School of Creative Arts in 2016, Richard Cork wrote:
Wherever we glance in this surprisingly lofty location, teddies seem to have taken over. But they appear to be far removed from the cuddly playthings so loved by little children. All black, they are devoid of facial features apart from inquisitive ears curving upwards. Instead of lying back and waiting to be fondled, they look surprisingly active. None more so than the teddies visible in a very large piece installed near the panoramic gallery window. All attached to gleaming copper chains, they seem to pause in space before resuming their epic climb. Resolute, plucky and united by this group endeavour, they could hardly be more different from passive toys.
As we make our way round this fascinating and unpredictable show, Kaur makes sure that the teddies convey a very wide range of emotions. Take the narrow gap in a wall, reminding us of a tiny cupboard and stacked with teddies who appear to be climbing on each other. Although they might be involved in a game, these creatures could equally well feel claustrophobic. The teddies at the base of the cupboard look as if they are in danger of being injured or even crushed. Kaur invites us to explore the ambiguity nourishing this work, caught halfway between the bleak possibility of imprisonment and a far more reassuring sense of fun.
Thus, the artist who fabricated steel and plate glass structures is the same artist who stitched bizarre-looking felt creatures that were so effective in their construction and resonance that they pretty much took on lives, characteristics and associations of their own. Perhaps Kaur herself wishes us to comprehend her creatures not so much, if at all, as inanimate objects, but rather as things capable of assuming verb-like or human-like characteristics. Perhaps that’s why the exhibition described above by Cork was titled Interlopers, and an earlier outing of Kaur’s figures was called Dudes. The artist was certainly on to something when she gave her cohort of teddies the plural name of people who become involved in a place or situation where they are not wanted or are considered not to belong. Or when she described her advancing blue and red crowned figures (an installation made for the Port of Tyne International Ferry Terminal, Royal Quays, North Shields in 2002) as Dudes. The colloquial expression, an informal, somewhat admiring term for a stylish, urbane male individual seemed to encapsulate very well the figures’ human-esque attributes. Furthermore, there is a wondrous attachment to materiality in her work. It has about it copious evidence of the highly skilled use of her materials and it is this, which in part at least, accentuates the unnerving, disconcerting and above all, highly engaging dimensions of her pieces. From stitching to welding, from carpentry to fabrication, her processes of production ensure a profoundly transformative gallery experience for her audience.
The sense of vulnerability previously referred to is abundantly manifest in Small Tower, 2014-19 – a stack of seven chairs, each one smaller than the one on which it rests and that form a tower well over two metres high. The work strikes me as a sort of temporal Tower of Babel, the biblical tower built in an attempt to reach heaven. Perhaps not so much a structure through which to reach heaven, but more of a structure by which to escape some impending earthly calamity. But while God was said to have frustrated the tower by confusing the languages of its builders so that they could not understand one another, to me, Kaur’s Small Tower evokes feelings of insecurity and perhaps vertigo. What starts off at ground level as being solid, secure and capable of bearing weight, arouses in me feelings of uncertainty with the addition of each subsequent, smaller-and-smaller chair. It is perhaps then, a measure of Kaur’s skill as an artist that in looking at the work I find myself asking, not ‘why or how has Kaur created this work?’ but ‘how will I get up there?’ or (when or should I need to) ‘how will I get down?’
Time and again, I find myself drawn to the belief that the more personally invested we are in our readings of Kaur’s work, the more the work reveals itself to us. This alone makes Kaur one of the leading and most fascinating artists of her generation.
Dr Eddie Chambers, ‘Home: The Place Where We Dwell’ HOME exhibition catalogue, 5, Howick Place, London, SW1P 1WG. Curated by HS Projects 12 December – 2 July 2021