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Vishal Joshi's wooden sculpture

Vishal Joshis wooden sculpture

At the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat centre, Director Sunit Tandon stood at peered closely at the wooden installation that opened the exhibition 'Contours' which is open for public view until October 31.

"The striking charcoal hue feels at once ancient and modern," said Tandon and you could not disagree. Hung on the wall was the enveloping matte darkness burnt wood and the glittering primordial obsidian of subtle bronze toned spirals. As autumn set in the pathways of the capital city of Delhi, this single image emerged as a dark and startling, wonder almost as though it was dipped in charcoal and oil. Vishal plays with its opaque blackness, a shade that seems to absorb all the energies that surround it, acting as a backdrop for the mood changes that can entice viewers to peer closer. It references Japanese techniques too.

An increasing number of Western architects and designers all over the world these days are dabbling with shou sugi ban, a centuries-old Japanese – technique for preserving and finishing wood by charring it with fire. The treatment – which leaves behind a dense, carbonized layer of blackness — has been around since at least the 18th century, though earlier examples exist.

Interestingly, while it is no longer as popular as it once was in Japan, it's found new life in the West. Shou sugi ban is the Westernized term for what is known in Japan as yaki sugi-ita (or just yakisugi), which translates loosely into ''burned cedar board.'' To achieve the effect, planks of wood are treated with the heat on their outward faces only: Traditionally, three boards are tied together lengthwise to form a triangular tunnel. The interior is then set on fire and the scorched surface cooled with water. The work also reminded me of the Korean artist Lee Jaehyo. It is the life-blood of his art and it courses through all the animated objects that he creates. The man-made nails that he drives into calcified wood, on the contrary, exhibit his concern for death and destruction. The two sides of his nature represented in a living, breathing wood fashioned into ergonomic forms, and blackened, cosmic shapes onto which silvery patterns and meanings are articulated in silvery spikes.

Burnt wood is becoming avant grade as a texture and a trend. While the practical aspects appeal to contemporary builders, the deeper roots of the trend no doubt lie in our current collective hunger for all things artisanal – for creations that contain the visible, sometimes-raw, but always an original touch of the human hand. Like reclaimed wood, this burnt charred ember has a homespun appeal. Vishal reflects his yearning for this aesthetic as it points us to a general act of treating materials in traditional ways.

It also points us to the dynamics of creating installations that are small and quaint, to an adoption of principles that are fundamental to design: simplicity, and the use of natural materials to create a work that echoes sensitivity to the surrounding environment. But arguably it is the elegant beauty of charred wood — at once elemental, enigmatic and modernist that lends an imposing aura of intrigue and depth: It's like antiquity visiting a white cube as it passes through the sieve of time.

Uma Nair

Uma Nair

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