Seen and Unseen  : The Net Sculptures of Janet Echelman

Summers in Ahmedabad  can be unbearable, but the evenings are unusually pleasant. As a child I remember the pleasure of sprinkling water in the garden at sundown. After that the beds were made there amongst the Asopalav trees. The mosquito nets were dusted and tied to the four poster iron beds, making each bed look like a square room of transparent white net. Later, there would be a cool breeze and after dinner it was a pleasure to creep into the net-room. Mother would tuck-in the loose ends and one could weave stories and dreams uninterrupted….in the cocoon of the mosquito net, with the fragrance of mogra and Raat-rani. In my net-room, I assumed I was not seen, but I am sure, I was.  This is the feeling one gets when one sees Janet Echelman’s sculptures, currently openly suspended in the open corridors of the National Institute of Design, looking very frail and delicate against the backdrop of a fresh green lawn.

Here, I seemed to regain the fragment of objects from the past. But, would I have ever thought of making a sculpture out of our very own mosquito nets? Perhaps not.

India has a rich tradition of sculpture, seen inside and outside on temple walls. Also, contemporary sculpture is made in many materials like wood, stone, terracotta and fibreglass and more recently, artists are experimenting with installation art.

The normal conditioning of most of us is to see a sculpture on a pedestal. Not that we do not know Calder’s sculpture and more recent trends across continents. Granted, it is difficult to articulate a new sculptural language, especially in India, where one doesn’t really have to look for installations in galleries, since they are all around us, like paan-bidi kiosks, tool boxes, offerings of coconuts to trees or the colourful quilts drying on trees.

Janet Echelman has succeeded in taking objects from India’s daily life….like the mosquito-net, the brass lamp, the fishing net….and used them with imagination and innovation to create a subtle, personal visual language which crosses all boundaries.

She encountered mosquito nets at a friends house in Ahmedabad and was stirred by the bells at a Jain temple in Kutch.

She remembers the pure whiteness of the marble flooring and the ringing of bells. Both these forms have been recreated as installations, which are suspended from the ceiling and have an inviting feeling which seems to say, “enter and feel the space.”

In this context, there is a touch of spirituality in Janet’s work. It is like an Indian prayer. Hands folded, eyes closed and the inner self communicating with nature – in silence – which transforms into the transparent space around the spirit within.

Here transparency becomes a game between the seen and unseen. Like the artists lamps. One could almost brush past them, hear the sound and not know what they are all about. But, look closely and see that it is the world of the visible and invisible which extends to the net sculptures.

The first bronze piece, Bell with Nine Nipples welcomes the viewer into Janet’s world. It elicits ancient memory : the Mother Goddess, Mother Earth, Nature, Prakriti, the female element of nature. The other bells are shaped like a thorny cactus plant, hard and formidable from the outside, yet full of milk.

The bell forms combine the male and female principles of nature as Shiva’s Ardhnareshwar form. This erotic mixture of both elements exhibits a strange tactile quality. The net sculptures are held with metal wires and flow from squares to circles or the other way around, rather similar to the complete form of the Shiva-Linga.

At times these forms resemble flapping tents or mother’s skirts under which children like to protect themselves, an image from pre-verbal memory. By suspending the forms, the viewer gets an opportunity to look upwards or rather inwards. Perhaps these creations invite the viewers to find their own place-space. Or just be themselves once inside. This is best seen in Playpen and in More than you can chew, Janet uses black and white textiles from Bali, which signifies the balance between evil and sacred. Third Eye has an interesting form composed with three breasts, almost like a child’s view of an older woman’s breasts, huge, sagging yet comforting.

Through the net, one can see other colours and forms like the vertical Yellow Bellied Button, which has an inner form of a black bandhani fabric which looks like a flimsy yellow form. These forms seem to spill out of the base of the sculptures. In fact, they emerge from the transparency and expose themselves like the passionate blood red bandhani fabric – in – Red Hot Dripping Bellsy.

The final piece is composed of eight bronzes sensuously shaped bells at the end of the corridor, you can ring them by striking each other as it suggests the interaction between people.

In totality, Janet’s work is based on the human experience of the seen and unseen, forms emerging and disappearing and yet bringing into focus the limits of the horizon line, a meeting between art and an unusual flight of imagination.

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