George Chakravarthi, AUM, billboard installation at Bethnal Green Nature Reserve, 2022
George Chakravarthi has always been his own muse.
In life, and professionally as an artist since the mid 1990s, Chakravarthi has been creating provocations around historical, contemporary and emerging notions that narrativise from a queer perspective, his own and community experiences of gender, race and sexuality, through his live and visual art works. Previous works have also explored religion and spirituality informed by his Hindu and Catholic upbringing.
Chakravarthi was invited to respond to the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve (BGNR) as an artist in residence during 2020—22, a period now unforgettably characterised by the global Coronavirus pandemic, that significantly and uncomfortably exposed the extents and nuances of social injustices, insecurities, and restrictions still oscillating beyond the heights of the event.
With pre-knowledge of this underseen strand of his work which consults ancestral, spiritual and botanical knowledges, an invitation felt timely to formally ask the artist to consider BGNR and the communities taking care and living near the site, as a context to respond to, and share his work.
Stemming from an interest in indigenous Indian tree rituals, AUM manifests as a multimedia interpretation of the sacred sound ‘a-u-m’ recognised as the first sound and vibration of the Universe in Hinduism. Chakravarthi meaningfully explores and unifies this connection through self-portraiture, and topographic studies of the land, and flora found at BGNR.
The digital photographic compositions and films render a merging of the artist’s body and the natural world, and work further to unite Chakravarthi’s interests in numerology and the sacred geometry of Vedic belief systems, which inform and structure the aesthetics and experience of the works themselves, available as limited edition prints, digital video triptych and a site-specific billboard poster.
Adelaide Bannerman, Curator
We Speak In Tongues About The Thing(s) We Love
AUM, digital video triptych, 9 mins, 2022, © George Chakravarthi
The three videos represent and unify the philosophies of the Trimurti, the Supreme Hindu trinity of the deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Each video orally guides a visual and aural meditation around each deity and the specific areas of the tree they are renowned to represent.
Brahma the Creator represents the earth and roots. Vishnu the Preserver the trunk of the tree, and Shiva the Destroyer the outstretched branches.
The following conversation opens up a trajectory of Chakravarthi’s visual practice that was precipitated by illness, and followed by a process of recovery, introspection, and renewal. An embodied philosophy, indebted to ancestral, esoteric and botanical knowledges, underpinned Chakravarthi’s approaches and responses during his residence at Bethnal Green Nature Reserve (BGNR) which occurred during the height of the pandemic.
Adelaide Bannerman (AB) 2015...
Let’s talk about that particular year, and why it was pivotal?
George Chakravarthi (GC) Briefly, just to put that into context, in 2012, I became very, very ill and almost paralysed. I couldn’t walk or even stand for longer than 10 seconds. I lost a lot of weight because I couldn’t eat without throwing up. I had rashes all over my body. My skin had turned grey, the left side of my face was severely swollen. I had been reduced to a weak, thin ghost of my former self with sunken eyes and a decaying body with no explanation. My husband and I thought that it was the big C because nobody could diagnose the condition or, we thought, keeping us from the truth. All the medics were saying it’s either this or it’s that. It’s nothing, it’s an allergy, it’s an infection etc and fobbing me off with painkillers, antibiotics and antihistamines.
It took about three months for a doctor to suggest going to my dentist! That was how absurd this thing was, it was now apparently a dental issue. We went to the dentist and he couldn’t see anything either. He took an X-ray, and another and he finally said, ‘You need to go and have an MRI.’ So when we got the MRI test results they basically showed that I had a very fine, hairline crack in one of my teeth going all the way into my jaw, which was causing the swelling on the side of my face. The infection on my left side of my jaw was spreading and poisoning my entire body.
I needed to go to the dentist and have this tooth pulled out straight away, as that’s what was causing all this pain and all these severe side effects. Within just a week there was a difference. The swelling had started going down and I could get out of bed, stand and dress myself. It was a very slow process and took a long time, about three months, for me to get my weight back to normal. My skin started to clear up as well and I was able to walk and eat etc. During those months lots of things started happening to me, it’s really hard to articulate and I resisted calling it an ‘inner awakening’ or a ‘rebirth’ but that’s what it was. I realised lots of things about myself: my body, mind, my life, my relationships and my family. So lots of very deep seated realisations took place and even though I’ve always been very spiritual and very much inclined towards the divine and the esoteric, that aspect of me, which had been lingering became all encompassing… One’s read about near death experiences, people become either very religious or spiritual, with life taking on a whole different meaning and purpose…
Clichéd as it as it sounds, I think that’s kind of what happened to me. I had spent most of that period bedridden and horizontal because I couldn’t do anything else. We had a walnut tree in the garden, which was the only thing I could see through our bedroom window and it became my sole focus of attention, a portal and my focal point of meditation, even though I didn’t even think of it as a meditation at the time.
But it was the only thing I could see and the only thing I could relate to. It was during autumn, so the leaves were falling, adapting to the climate and cyclical change and preparing to regenerate, a bit like myself. I didn’t even think about these things in any particularly meaningful way, but the tree just became a reflection of what was happening to me.
When I think about it, it brings on an overwhelming emotion of gratitude, I can feel it, I feel that place and it centres me, especially when I’m stressed about everyday mundane things in life. As one often does after trauma, I tried to slip back to the familiar, into the life that had been on hold six months earlier. I had a couple of pieces of work to finish and make and went back to work. I carried on as normal but everything just felt completely pointless and empty. It was like, what’s the point of any of any of his? Why am I doing this? What does it mean? How does it relate to who I am? I’ve always kept a diary, but I couldn’t keep it consistently during the trauma, but there were a few entries that I had to write down. These were mainly to do with my physical frailty, decay and disability and from the perspective of how much I’d invested in the presentation of myself and my feelings about my body and the way it inhabits my work, my body the source and canvas for my work to live on.
AB You have always been your main source of material…
GC Yes, and I’ve never ever thought about my body and the image of who I am in such specific depth, albeit with the awareness that it’s an integral part of my work, but those strategies no longer applied, they no longer had any relevance to the person I’d become in those six months. It was like my body isn’t limited to this, artistically or personally. It’s about so much more and though I’d always known much of this instinctively, I hadn’t allowed myself to commit to those areas of thoughts… there was a moment of surrender. I had to get on with making the projects I had been working on, which had nothing to do with what was going on with me at that point in time. It was like being on autopilot, just continuing in the familiar terrain by meeting everyone’s expectations.
I did that from 2013 until about 2015, although alongside of this, I was kind of making lots of notes, just to myself, about what I might want to do and how I may integrate some of my recent experiences in my work, if I even continue to be a visual artist. The result was The Ambidextrous Universe (2015), a series of photographs looking at the nature of the body, death and birth, sacred geometry and other spiritual philosophies. It felt like I’d made something that really made sense and felt authentic.
George Chakravarthi, The Ambidextrous Universe, 2015
I had to put myself into therapy and gone through a bit of soul searching, laying a few demons to rest, because they all came up at once and refused to leave. I didn’t know how to move forward and was grateful for some guidance. I didn’t know how to manage the emotions that just kept haunting me, unbearable, buried issues from childhood to my present situation that I couldn’t avoid anymore. Therapy really helped with a lot of that mental and emotional pain and to create a path back to my authentic self.
The Ambidextrous Universe was the first opportunity to present that work of transition in public, but without much verbal language or opportunity to really talk about it in any depth. This was partly because I didn’t have a language for it. I just had the instinct to make the work and I just followed some mystical guidance. As you know, one has to make the work accessible in some spoken or written language and this conversation is the first time that I’m doing that. It feels like I’ve come a long way to arrive at this place, where I’m able to give some context and history. You saw those images in 2015, didn’t you?
AB Yes, I did, and the Gond inspired paintings that you showed me when you were in London. I was aware of how different it was to what you’re known for doing, and what you’ve been creating since. What responses did you receive?
George Chakravarthi, Mata Bahuchara, acrylic on paper, 2016
GC I had a strange sense and feeling that I was disappointing people, because I wasn’t giving them what they had grown to really love about my work. It also felt risky to change direction, especially from a career perspective. So I carried the feeling of uncertainty with me, but continued regardless, all the while thinking ‘Oh, I’m going to lose my audiences and maybe I shouldn’t risk some of those consistent aspects in my work.’ A combination of that, along with discovering how uncomfortable people seemed to be when talking to me about the new work, because the work I’d been making up to that point was so much about the visual exterior and familiar issues about identity.
Having suddenly gone into an internal space made me realise how comfortable people are about talking about the external world, external self. When you start talking about the internal world or the inner workings of a body and mind, people are either deeply uncomfortable or incapable of going there. I think that’s partly because they don’t know where to start or where to go, or they think they’re going to have to become as vulnerable as the work to have that dialogue, which is probably somewhat true. That wasn’t particularly a great problem to me, just an interesting observation.
It’s amazing that people who have found interesting things to say about my work, even relate to some of it, seemed to struggle to meet the work on this visceral level. They suddenly felt displaced from previous presentations of my body, encapsulated in exploring some form of beauty or ‘other’, aesthetically recognisable from art, queer history or race politics. It was now an unrecognisable form of myself, sometimes just visible and though still aesthetically rich, I am seen contained under layers of botanical mesh.
We’re also not used to seeing images like that very much in our visual culture. It’s one thing looking at me dressed as Marie Antoinette (Let Them Eat Cake! 2016), for a performance or as the thirteen suicides across Shakespeare’s plays (Thirteen, 2011), because there’s a context and you can get it straight away; but when you look at some of those images from The Ambidextrous Universe, you don’t quite know where to start because there’s no familiar reference point, no door. It doesn’t let you in unless you’re able to shed some of your own inhibitions, it’s not just about me, it’s about all of us, and that’s the beauty and the discomfort and a really interesting comment about how we feel about our own inner, natural and supernatural worlds. The fact that I’m naked in them brings intrigue but it’s not a generic queer male nude body. It’s a complicated, mesh-like and internal.
AB Visually the reading is that you’re birthing yourself. Where else does one start? At point zero, with nakedness?
GC Yes, but the naked body in Western culture has predominantly been associated with gender and sexuality, whereas I’m suggesting a form of renunciation of that and a return to essence identity.
Alongside that, I’ve really committed to a spiritual practice, which, again, is very hard to talk about because the word ‘spiritual’ is so misused and overused, I don’t like using it anymore. But for the sake of this conversation let’s use the word. There’s always been that aspect of my practice where, in ambiguous forms, my life becomes art and my art gives me catharsis. I’m still talking about identities, I’m still asking the questions: ‘Who am I?’ ‘Why am I?’, and ‘Who could I be?’ Those questions I’ve been asking from day one. And I’m still asking those questions, but looking for answers in a different place. The focus now is much more internal, that’s the only difference and partly why I started painting.
Painting for me is meditative. It requires stillness, patience and contemplation. The subject matters in my past work generated a predominantly academic response because it tackles racism, trans culture, queer culture and gay identity.
These works have been confrontational, good research material and bookish, and there’s great value in that, but a lot of the spiritual and ethereal has been overlooked in most of the works; like, The Last Supper (1998), Shakti (2000), Thirteen (2011/12) and even, An Indian in a Box (2021). I think you probably need to be tuned into a different source or have an affinity with the divine, or just curious about it.
AB One shouldn’t expect to be 100% clear about a process that’s psychosomatic, ongoing and transformative in its process adapting you’re approach to your work, and where you feel you are in your work, which has shifted. Thinking back to when you first presented The Ambidextrous Universe, was there any moment where those who had been following your work attempted to discuss these changes with you?
GC No and I was, I have to say, kind of relieved! Because I didn’t know how to communicate these concepts without going into, you know, my health records. I’ve never been in that position before, I’ve always made very personal vulnerable pieces of work but have always been very comfortable speaking about them, but I really didn’t know how to talk about this work. Western culture is mostly spiritually and emotionally constipated and tends to steer away from anything too personal or confessional, especially if it’s non-white and queer, unrelatable - unless of course the dominant culture feels that it has some authority over the matter or it has the power and possibility of appropriating it.
Maybe the work just needed to speak to whoever it speaks to, in whatever language without me giving it any kind of context. But I do want and need to give this aspect of my work some context, I do. It’s really important to think about the body beyond gender and sexuality. It’s important to know and experience what happens to the body when it turns against you and then what happens to the mind, then what happens to the heart… and then what happens to the people around you, and your world view. It’s a knock-on effect, and pain can be really transformative if we accept it and love ourselves into healing, it awakens you from the trance.
The privilege of being an artist is that you can find ways in which to share some expression of these ideas. It also serves as an immense and valuable contribution to conversations about the body, nature and about aligning the body with the natural cycles. I felt like that’s what my body and my mind were doing, going through a really severe cycle of change and transformation. It’s made me a calmer person and I’m kinder to myself, I’m gentler, more compassionate with myself, you know, these are things that I’ve struggled with for years having been incredibly punishing and hard on myself. And as a result, I’m much more compassionate with other people. I’m now much more motivated by the light instead of the dark.
I’m not saying that those characteristics have completely left me, but my awareness is incredibly high, and that level of awareness changes the entire dynamic.
So, when this commission came up, it felt like this specific commission already comes with a context, so even if I don’t talk about illness, I can talk about nature and the body. I didn’t think I would be thinking about The Ambidextrous Universe, Sacred Portals (2017, ongoing) and The Ancestors, (2018, ongoing) because part of me thinks it a phase and I needed to just get back to ‘work’. But the more I thought about it, it was like, no, it is connected to those works and it is going to look like that work, and I might as well unpack those boxes and utilise some of that history.
George Chakravarthi, The Ancestors, digital image, 2018 - ongoing
AB Given what I knew of those past works, the invitation felt like it was the right offer to make to help unpack that.
GC Absolutely. And there aren’t many spaces that give you that kind of scope to imagine things outside the formal setting, particularly during the height of the pandemic. It was also a chance to reconnect with that inner world, which is complicated to address in words but offers some outcome through art. Even though I’ve carried on making this work, without any public showing, or any kind of conversations like this, it does feel like it’s time and there should be something that has some clarity and reaches people. A lot of this is really about finding the language too, for and beyond the personal. The visuals should be allowed to communicate and touch you as well.
AB It gives us moments to reflect.
GC I’m also aware that in the last couple of years, especially since COVID, that people have really started jumping on environmental politics and inner wellbeing, which is a great thing if authentic and informed, because they’re really important issues. This commission is not a platform for me to do that, to add to that noise. I’m not talking conventional climate change and other environmental issues, all very valid and desperately important stuff, but this is a very personal journey. Besides, if we consistently lived with compassion, our planet would not be in the state it’s in, but that requires a lot of self-awareness, individual work and awareness of all things around us. Intention is everything.
George Chakravarthi, Sacred Portals, digital image, 2017 - ongoing
AB How have you found working at Bethnal Green Nature Reserve and your research on trees?
GC It was challenging in many ways because of the restrictions in the space. It’s not a very large, wide space that the camera can just openly capture whatever it needs. It’s a dense acre of land distinct and limited in size and shape. Surrounding it there are flats, pedestrians and traffic. It was a challenge to be intensely focused and much more selective in what I wanted to film, and from very particular angles. It’s been restricting in that way, but in a way that restriction has been really useful as well. It’s meant that I’ve had to be more selective about what I’m shooting than I would be in a larger space.
I gave in to the elements and restrictions and just sort of found interesting angles on pieces of nature and fully evolved trees, and according to the light, set up and shot things a number of times. I would then look at the footage once I got home, editing in the way I’d visualised the work.
So much of the restriction made me zoom in and be much more specific about the subject. I also had to imagine (while filming) how I would edit particular pieces of footage. So, while I was filming I was also thinking about where I could draw the central line and what that might look like when it’s opened up, like a butterfly and seen symmetrically. That became really crucial and, in a way, I’d been much more controlling of the footage by making certain decisions based on predictions, but even when editing, there were surprises. Sometimes it wasn’t exactly what I imagined the edit would look like, and other times there were lots of interruptions around the space that I’d forgotten to crop out. I tried to do that in the edit if possible or went back to re-shoot again.
The filming took much longer and of course the weather was a factor to consider. The weather has been so erratic. There were days when the mornings had been great for filming and it just changed all of a sudden and drastically so! I’ve had to stop filming and leave and come back again several times. It’s been a challenge. But I did manage to get some really good footage, eventually!
AB The weather becomes a collaborator or a hindrance to what you want to achieve. You’re talking about refinement, in the way in which you’re looking through the lens pursuing all those aforementioned possibilities. Has it given you other ways of seeing the space?
GC You mean, the impact of the weather?
AB Not just the impact of the weather, but how you’re selecting particular aspects of the site and what information it might yield?
GC I’ve found myself looking for a ‘feeling’, I can’t quite define that mood. There are certain trees and plants that you feel very drawn to and intrigued by. I’ve just kind of gone to things that I felt attracted to, for whatever reason, and sometimes it’s literally about how the light is falling on a particular plant as opposed to the other life around, a specific plant or tree, or the shape of the earth it thrives on. The age of that plant life can do that too, if there’s something that kind of comes through because of its fragility, endurance and strength.
So, looking at it with emotional eyes, a sense of spirit and not relying too much on ‘bulk filming’ and chance. In many ways being very, very selective about exactly what I’m looking at and why. What’s the shape of this and how is it going to fill the lens, the screen, and will that emotion and aesthetic translate on screen? What actually happened is that I started looking less at trees and more at the details of the many smaller pieces of life because I wasn’t expanding widely to capture a whole tree by standing way back and looking at this vast, open landscape. That way of filming is very different to home-in on the breath and pulse of a collection of shrubs and vines, like putting your ear on someone’s chest to hear their heartbeat. I found myself squatting quite a lot while filming and staying very close to the camera and the subject. It became a very intimate experience.
AB Numerology and sacred geometry are other aspects that have been influencing your work?
GC I’ve always been interested in numerology and for this project I’m working with the Trimūti, the supreme Hindu Trinity that is Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva: the creator, sustainer and destroyer. I wanted everything to have the element of 3 throughout the project, to create a vibration as referred to in Vedic texts. There are nine postcards, divided a series of threes in the limited edition of three and there are three screen pieces and obviously the accompanying sound which has three syllables, A U M. The number ‘3’ became a thread or ‘Sutra’, which connects everything all the time. Every-thing has happened in threes in this space, even working with Michael and yourself, we are three! The numerology of three that I’ve tried to bind and underpin this project with has been a challenge to stay consistent with but has also become a sacred mantra within the works.
AB Defining the structure of A U M?
GC It frames everything within the number 3 and the Trinity. I’ve been working with sacred geometry certainly since 2012. Looking at geometrical shapes, mainly the triangle or the Yoni/Goddess dimension and the Yantra, which is basically something that you hang in your home or you meditate with because they vibrate a certain sound and energy. A U M postcard images are all square and symmetrical, illustrating and conjuring the essence of sacred geometry. They could be seen as Yantras — circuit boards if you will.
They also kind of reflect religious buildings and spaces. If you look at temples and churches or most spiritual architecture, they’re often symmetrical because they create a subliminal trigger in our brains about equality and equilibrium, there’s something very powerful about symmetry, which kind of creates a balance in your mind. That balance, or it’s sacred geometry, symmetry, are very important aspects of this work. You can see and experience that everywhere in AUM, from the postcards to the films and the sound.
AB What is the specific significance of the Trinity to you?
GC The Trinity, in spirituality seems to have a lot of significance across many religions and spiritual practices such as Christianity and Judaism. I’m specifically coming from the Hindu, Sanatan Dharma, perspective and it became especially important because I was working with trees. There are numerous philosophies around sacred trees and Hinduism. The basis of that philosophy is that a tree represents the three supreme Gods who gave birth to the universe, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The roots of the tree represent Brahma, the trunk Vishnu, and the branches which are in a flux of between withering and regenerating, Shiva.
So, I really liked the fact that I could assimilate some Hindu philosophy into my interest in trees and botany and share something sacred in the works. The aesthetics of these works seek to unfold a unique way of seeing the natural world through supernatural means. The films especially reveal hybrid images and images of deities, evoking perception and union with all sentient beings. This project aligns my spiritual life with my life as an artist and when they both meet, they manifest something extraordinary. They make sense to me.
AB Do you feel that you’re closer to understanding what these works you’ve been making over the last few years are about? It’s been a journey, right?
GC Yes, It makes more and more sense because it’s made me have an external dialogue about that work and my practice in general, which is still finding words because before this project happened, it was just an internal dialogue, this has been a unique moment to unpack all of it and make it understood to another and share that information.
Doing the research and making the work accessible to an audience has been really challenging but ultimately a great opportunity for growth. It’s given the work a platform with context to address many complex concepts and images. It’s also brought a lot of clarity to my process and personal and artistic position.
AB Has this made an impact on other areas of your practice?
GC That’s a really good question and it’s a question I’ve been asking myself actually. I think it is having an impact on my other work – but then again, it’s not or I’m not allowing myself to answer myself, because to answer it feels that I might be limiting myself. So, I’m telling myself to just make the work, I’m really drawn to making. I don’t think it’s as easy as that, because I am still expected to make a certain type of work, which I’ve spoken about already, which has less personal significance. The impact of the last seven years and the process of making AUM has had a profound impact, which is undeniable and unstoppable. I think the recent piece, An Indian in a Box is also really connected with this work because it’s recalling some of my ancestral history and ultimately my Hindu heritage, albeit in a very different context and through the live medium. It’s shown me the possibilities of continuing making works across these many mediums, which I love doing.
AB It may manifest in different ways, but have you noticed attitudinal shifts in what people request from you?
GC Now that’s definitely happened. I think this project is overtly about that shift that’s been bursting to be visible and spoken about. AUM is a real statement piece because I feel like I’m really ‘coming out’, you know, the angst and curiosity and questions and stuff that has been going on since 2015. It’s the first time that I’ve really talked about it in such depth and alongside the work. I feel very proud and gratified about being able to create a diverse collection of artworks, which encapsulate the body, botany and spirituality. I think a lot of what I’ve been making and speaking about here are testaments of things to come.
AUM signed limited edition folio box featuring artworks titled Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva (2022):
~ 9 printed artworks (210 × 210mm), printed on German etching paper, hand-mounted on 2mm board, × 1 printed text sheet on ‘wallpaper’ grade inkjet paper, digital print, 210 × 690mm.
~ Handmade box and cover sheet, 230mm square box with clamshell lid 25mm thick, no inner wall. Brown book cloth outer, orange book cloth inner, foil-blocked in gold on the lid and spine.
~ £600.00 plus postage & handling. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
Artist's website: George Chakravarthi
Supported by Arts Council England & the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve Trust.
©2023 Bethnal Green Nature Reserve Trust