Like the Ben Day dot was to Roy Lichtenstein, the bindi is to Bharti Kher. Since 1995, the London-born, Delhi-based contemporary artist has made the stick-on dots (used primarily by South Asian women as decorative accessories) to 'paint' 2 and 3D artworks. She sticks bindis on painted board to create pixelated-looking geometric or abstract landscapes, adheres thousands of bindis on to monumental sculptures (like her well-known, life-size elephant creations), and more recently applies them to salvaged architecture and decorative furniture.
In her current show, on view at Hauser & Wirth Gallery in New York - located in an Upper East Side townhouse - Kher uses the intimate domestic setting to play with motifs that frequently show up in her work, including cultural and gender stereotypes, the politics of space, and mythology.
'In Asia and India, the house and domestic space constitute a female domain and this is where women are able to truly assert more "self" within space,' Kher says. 'But a house is also fraught with social, economic and sexual excesses that can obscure or even threaten to obliterate the spiritual connections that are our greatest resources.'
Elements that would be found in a typical home are present - stairs, mirrors, heating devices - however they are altered to a mythical or magical state with the use of her decorative embellishments, circular or sperm-shaped bindis.
The exhibition’s title ‘The hot winds that blow from the west’ takes its name from what is called the Loo: a fierce and dry afternoon wind that blows over northern and parts of western India on summer days. 'We think of winds as harbingers of change, carrying voices of transformation,' Kher says.
In the work of the same name - installed in a light-filled back gallery - a dense cube of stacked radiators, which the artist sourced from the US, are now rusted and obsolete, stripped of their utilitarian function, evoking the sense of the west’s glorious yesteryear and declining future as a region of innovation and power. Embossed brand names, steam valves, and the rusted ribs of the cast iron skeletons feel ghostly and sepulchral.
In the front gallery, an abstract landscape titled ‘A view of the forest’ comprises hundreds of overlapping bindis in various shades of earthy greens—what becomes, at close view, an abstracted landscape of the very scene the title describes and, from afar, is an elegantly dizzying pattern.
The central ground floor gallery features a 17-ft staircase climbing from the floor to the ceiling. The structure, salvaged from an Indian home, is splattered with red paint and speckled with sparkling sperm-shaped bindis. Titled ‘A line through space and time’, it evokes the classical architecture in an Indian home and, leading nowhere, the confinement of domesticity in this space.
Upstairs, a gallery is filled, salon-style, with gilded mirrors that are striped with bindis of various sizes and cracked violently yet elegantly at the same time. In the cracked reflection, viewers are incorporated into the work; the work is titled ‘Reveal the secrets that you keep’.
And finally, her figurative sculpture ‘The Messenger’ is a more recent development in Kher’s practice. Nude and without bindi embellishments, the fibreglass hybrid figure - part female, part mythological figure - evokes the Hindu goddess Dakini, who is said to be an agent for revelation and transformation. Like how Kher sees the bindi as not a decorative accessory but a third eye that links the spiritual and real world, this figure delivers a similar message.