This interview, published in Art India in mid 2011, is the only one I have ever conducted by phone. It's an ABC piece, but provides useful information for anybody interested in Kiran Subbaiah's background. I was afraid Kiran would take the entire thing as a lark, but he provided straightforward, considered answers, with just enough of his characteristic tongue-in-cheek remarks to enliven the conversation.
You studied at Santiniketan and Baroda. How did those very well known schools of art influence your practice?
Going to Santiniketan from Bangalore was a big cultural change. I went there when I was only fifteen and it was not difficult to learn a new language at that age. Learning Bengali gave me access to its prolific culture. I spent six years in Santiniketan and at the end of it I was actually thinking in Bengali. The art history side was strong in Santiniketan, we had a good art library and inspiring teachers like Kanchan Chakraborty, Arun Pal and Siva Kumar. But six years was a little too long… Rabindranath Tagore invented all those elaborate festivals with song and dance for every season, and it was like a movie that repeated itself every year.
How was Baroda different?
The problem with the art and general ambience in Santiniketan, at least in my time, is that it was still stuck in its Revivalist time warp, and a complementing space wrap of its location. The institution was conceived around an ideological context of nationalism that existed before Independence. Going to Baroda felt like returning to contemporary India.
Usually when one looks at the work of graduates of Santiniketan or Baroda there are features in the work that locate them as artists who studied at those institutions. That’s not something I have noticed in your case.
When I was in Baroda, a lot of my motifs and aesthetics had affinities to other Baroda artists. But that changed after my first trip abroad. My dilemmas were always with aesthetics; not about what I painted or sculpted but how. Seeing the work of Post Avant-Garde artists like Mark Manders and Theo Jensen in Holland I realized I didn’t have to deal with aesthetics at all. I could make real things rather than representations of things. And that continues, in the sense that I don’t really deal with aesthetics, though of course aesthetics gatecrashes into art someway or another.
Your work has very little that’s identifiably Indian about it. Is that something of which you’re conscious?
Yes, there’s nothing intentionally Indian about it. During my art school days in India there was a strong emphasis on, and I would say even demand for Indian-ness in contemporary Indian art. I found this un-necessary, at least for our time. There was no need to try to be Indian when you are Indian. The Internet was where I first found my first real sense of liberation from Indian-ness. Net.art and its audience were by default ubiquitous. I found many Net.artists from different corners of the world expressing their weariness towards issues of identity, nation and so on.
Indian artists often first gain international exposure through shows where they are grouped with other Indians. In such shows quite often, subject matter counts for a lot. Do you feel the reception of your work has been affected negatively because it does not check the relevant boxes in terms of national or political content?
I used to have an issue with curators who visited saying they were planning a show of Indian artists. Then, people like Thomas Erben explained to me that it was an important first step for Indian artists to be presented in the context of Indian art, after which there was a possibility of breaking out. I no longer have a problem being presented in such a context. Besides, I don’t think my work is not Indian. The Indianness in my work is like the Indianness in my accent. I’m not conscious of it, but it’s there. People who are not Indian tend to recognise something Indian in my work.
Taking off from the mention of accent, you have a great facility in language that is apparent in your work on video. The commentary accompanying your videos is always amusing as well as poetic. When did you first become aware of this talent?
I’ve never considered myself particularly good with language. It doesn’t flow for me the way it would for a writer. I spend a lot of time making changes, constructing the commentary of my videos. I may have learned some big words, because back in the 1990s there was a trend of using big words to construct long complicated sentences in art writing, and I really wanted to understand what critics were saying. But when I looked up dictionaries to find out what the words meant, I realised the same thing could be written in much simpler language. In my work I try to use the simplest words and, very rarely when there’s no option, I’ll use something complicated.
You construct not just the commentary, but every aspect of your videos carefully. They’re polished, finished products. How did you become adept at using video?
Many art students in my time fantasised about making films. Video cameras became affordable in the 1990s, and the school I went to in England had a Hi8 camera. Initially I used it to document kinetic sculptural work, then started cooking up scenarios for video. I watched a lot of video art at the time, since we had a good library of it.
Was there some specific training involved?
Not really, if I had questions I’d find answers for them on the Net or from friends. I did once join a professional film school in France, but soon realised that my kind of video making didn’t require that level of study.
You obviously have a feel for technology; teaching yourself video, working from Net-based instructions. And you’ve built a number of machines like the robot...
Again, if I have an aptitude for technology, it isn’t something I felt growing up. I wasn’t fixing radios as a kid or anything like that. Building machines myself was something I got into thanks to Kees Reedijk, a technical advisor at the Rijksakademie.
You are primarily trained as a sculptor, and I’d like to speak about that a bit. I’ve described your sculptures in a blog post as ‘one-trick pony artworks’. Is that a characterisation you’d contest or accept?
People have called my art one-liners. I accept that and don’t think it’s a problem. Early on, I tended to put too many things into one work and everything became a jumble, and the viewer was not sure where to enter. There’s a tendency among artists when they’re unsure about what they’re up to, to stuff too much into one work and convolute it. It was a process of enlightening for me to learn to simplify things down to a bare minimum that can still be enigmatic.
Apart from being a sculptor and a video artist and Internet art you’ve evolved an alter ego, antikiran. Can you speak about this persona?
It started with trying to find an email id. The ones that would have been more appropriate were already taken. So I tried some random short prefixes to my name and just hastily settled for ‘antikiran’ to get my account working. I had to cook up a less obvious persona to go with it… other than ‘anti-everybody’ or ‘anti-myself’. My friend, Sunil Abraham proposed the reference of matter and anti-matter … that’s the one I adopted.
At the Khoj Marathon earlier this year, you got Hans Ulrich Obrist upset with your unwillingness to communicate.
I don’t think he was upset. I was sitting right next to him, and I didn’t get that vibe. I think upsetting him was what the audience wanted me to do.