When artist Arunkumar HG’s son orders pizza, he doesn’t throw away the box it comes in. Instead, Arunkumar uses it to make paper pulp. This is then mixed with cement to create sculptures. In Arunkumar’s work, materials have their own history and often become the vehicle to highlight the cost of consumerism. Said the artist, “I don’t throw things that can be reused.”

Arunkumar’s approach is manifested in the five-foot-tall figure of an elephant. Its body is divided into small squares and it is modelled on the elephant statues found in the temples of Mahabalipuram. Titled Impinged 1, it is a comment on the unapologetic appropriation of natural resources by humans. The squares are reminiscent of the pattern in which large farms are broken down into smaller tracts. The temple reference is a tongue-in-cheek pointer to the duplicity of humans who worship these animals on the one hand, but destroy their habitat on the other.

Impinged 1 is part of CON-struction, Arunkumar’s new solo show at the Gallery Espace in Delhi. It offers a glimpse into the sculptor’s mind and process, and highlights his penchant for using a variety of materials to create pieces that are not only aesthetically appealing but also make a strong statement.

'Consumed 1'. Photo courtesy: Gallery Espace.
'Consumed 1'. Photo courtesy: Gallery Espace.

Visitors to the gallery are greeted by the elephant, a photograph of migrants printed on wood, and a tree made with repurposed pine wood, all arranged in a triangle.

Titled A Homage to Hendrik van Rheede, the tree appears to have been inspired by origami. It is an ode to the 17th century naturalist who served as the governor of Dutch Malabar from 1669 to 1676. Rheede wrote Hortus Malabaricus, a 12-volume book in which he describes over 740 plants in the region. Homage is also a lament on the loss of indigenous species and biodiversity in the Western Ghats. Arunkumar has screen-printed pages from Hortus Malabaricus onto the geometrical leaves of Homage as a comment on the paucity of research materials on the Western Ghats.

Homage is also a fine example of Arunkumar’s experiments with materials on two levels. Arunkumar often makes art with materials bought in junkyards and from kabadis – the ubiquitous unorganised recyclers of India – as an act of conservation. Homage is no exception. The artwork is made with recycled industrial packaging material that Arunkumar procured from junkyards in and around Delhi. The tree, meanwhile, is made with wood that originally came from a pine tree in the mountains. This wood was converted into generic packaging material, and Arunkumar has tried to preserve the markers printed on it, including destination stamps and lot numbers. “It has a history,” he said. “I am interested in that.”

'A Homage to Hendrik van Rheede'. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana.
'A Homage to Hendrik van Rheede'. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana.

Cement, second-hand packaging cardboard and recycled paper pulp are only some of the materials Arunkumar has been using in his sculptures. “I don’t like to use new material,” he said. For instance, the photograph of migrants is printed on used packaging wood. Titled From The Other End, it depicts erstwhile farmers, who are likely to have quit tilling the land when ecological imbalances started hurting agriculture. “Maybe if this tree [the source of the wood on which this photo is printed] hadn’t been cut, some of these workers wouldn’t be here [in the city looking for work on construction sites].”

Arunkumar’s experiments also add another layer of meaning to the works. Wood always has a positive connotation – natural materials enjoy an upper hand in the hierarchy of elements he uses. Cement is often superfluous: Arunkumar does not rely on it to support the weight of his sculptures. Where cement does appear, it’s often stripped of its association with strength and durability. His animal figures, even half bodies made with charred wood – such as Consumed 1 that depicts a rhinoceros – have a commanding presence. A black muscular figure, Consumed 1, was made by scorching blocks of wood with a blow torch.

'Within Without'. Photo courtesy: Gallery Espace.
'Within Without'. Photo courtesy: Gallery Espace.

When human figures do appear in the show, there is a vulnerability to them. In the series titled Vulnerable Guardians, Arunkumar has photographed human subjects affected by ecological imbalances: farmers whose land is getting depleted, and security guards who work in cities with their families left behind in the villages. In Construction 1, a 107-inch male figure towers over everything else in the show. But it is hollow and needs to be buttressed heavily.

The choice and treatment of material is carefully considered: every knob and mark on the wood, and every stamp on the packaging wood Arunkumar repurposes for his sculptures, is preserved as a layer in the continuing history of the material. For example, Within Without – another elephant figure made with reclaimed industrial packaging wood – bears a stamp on one flank. It is a coded message from the material’s past – PL 10 020 – a throwback to its previous life, perhaps as a wine case or shipping container.

Detail on the packaging used in 'Within Without'. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana.
Detail on the packaging used in 'Within Without'. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana.

Turning back time

The Western Ghats have had a champion in Arunkumar for just over 13 years. The engagement began in earnest around 2005. Arunkumar, who has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in sculpture from Baroda’s Maharaja Sayajirao University, had been working in Gurugram as a toymaker and artist for close to a decade. When he took a sabbatical to go back to his family home in Karnataka’s Shivamogga district in 2005, he found the natural surroundings had noticeably deteriorated.

Things though had been on a slide even before Arunkumar left for university in 1989. By the time he returned home, forests in many places had given way to plantations. Farmers who had traditionally depended on the forest – for firewood, for land for grazing animals and for the rotting foliage and animal manure to fertilise their fields naturally – no longer had access to these plantations. “They started overusing the forest around their own land,” Arunkumar said. “Imagine slowly consuming the forest that naturally feeds into your farming. Eventually you have to rely on chemical fertilisers. And if you can’t afford them….”

'From The Other End'. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana.
'From The Other End'. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana.

The 2005 trip marked the beginning of Arunkumar’s engagement with the themes of ecological destruction and agrarian crises. In 2006, they were the motifs of Feed, his first solo show. CON-struction traces its lineage to this show. In 2010, Arunkumar quit his job as a toymaker and deepened his engagement with ecology and art with a new show called Tract. He also started travelling to Shivamogga regularly. “I wanted to move out of the studio and into the field,” he said.

Arunkumar HG with 'Construction 1'. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana.
Arunkumar HG with 'Construction 1'. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana.

For the last four years, Arunkumar has been building a knowledge-cum-conservation centre on the ecology of the Western Ghats. The centre, called SARA or Sustainable Alternatives for Rural Accord, is being built on his family property in Shivamogga district and is nearly complete. Arunkumar believes that research and collecting data is the first step to arresting the problem.

Among the resources that will be available at the centre is a copy of Rheede’s Hortus Malabaricus. “It was difficult for me to find a copy,” he said. “But anyone who comes to the centre will be able to see it.”

CON-struction is on at Gallery Espace, New Friends Colony, till September 22.

Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana