Worlds Meet in Dhanjal's Art

Nature confronts industry in the Sikh sculptor's work - reflecting his own experience

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AVTARJEET DHANJAL tells the story of the Czechoslovakian Jew who, after much struggle, obtained permission to emigrate to Israel. But when he had been some months there, he decided to come back to Czechoslovakia. Later, he once more returned to Israel. And then he came back again. But by the third time, he was asked somewhat quizzically where did he want to live? Dhanjal quotes his reply: ``Honestly speaking, I don't like Czechoslovakia, and I don't like Israel. I like coming and going.''

In a cultural sense, that too is this Punjabi-born artist's position: What he likes, he says, is ``to have the option'' - the option of two cultures. India is no longer his home. Along with other Sikhs, he feels increasingly a sense of being homeless, but neither does he know ``how much'' he can ``give ... and take from this country.''

``This country'' is Britain, where he has lived since 1974, with forays abroad. At present he has a house and studio in Ironbridge in the Midlands. Although he is surely the only turbaned artist living and working in this small town in the Severn Gorge, there is something definitely apt about his having come here - even if it was, as he believes, ``by chance.''

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Ironbridge boasts the world's first cold-blast iron bridge, cast in 1778. Now a tourist attraction, the bridge is a symbol of the Industrial Revolution, as this whole area is. Here, if anywhere, is industrialism's cradle. Dhanjal's art of today explores the confrontation of nature and industry, and that is a symbol of his dual life experience - of ``third world'' meeting ``developed world.''

Born in 1939 into a peasant family in a village, he has developed into an ``avant-garde'' artist in Western terms. Much of what his art addresses or expresses is this contrast between two very different environments. He has espoused modern art, but he is far from forgetting his roots.

He has an adept way with industrial materials. In the 1970s, he made a series of kinetic sculptures at an aluminum factory near Birmingham. The reason he used aluminum was not because it was an industrial material but because its character opened up the possibility for him to make sculpture that swings like trees and vibrates like leaves. He wanted a kinetic sculpture which was responsive to air, not ``fitted with complicated mechanical gadgets'' or ``programmed.''

SINCE then he has made a number of sculptures in which highly finished and polished metal structures buttress or cage hunks of rock. Though from the quarry, these rocks seem largely as nature intended, with little or no carving or cutting.

Dhanjal sees such works as presenting an ``open question.'' People from towns, he says, tend to see the rock as something wild trapped in a cage. People from the country are more likely to think the metal structures are protecting the rock. Yet another view might be that out of brute rock emerges the manufactured metal.

This last is certainly in line with Dhanjal's ideas about materials. His aim, he says, is to ``understand the qualities of a material'' - and like some other sculptors in Britain and elsewhere, David Nash, for example, and Andy Goldsworthy - he is versatile in the materials he uses.

Fire he finds magical. ``It holds you there; it stops you'' he says. He has introduced fire into a number of works. In ``The Other Story'' exhibition last year, devoted to Afro-Asian artists in post-war Britain, he showed characteristic slate-rocks, though in this case carved with small such details as steps and ridges. They also sported little wax candles, which were lit at intervals during the day.

In 1990 - enlarging on an event he first staged on a lake in St. Louis (USA) in 1985 - he lit 5,000 small floating candles in Sao Paulo, Brazil. One-thousand people came to see it; a flautist played; It was an idea shared - he doesn't at all object to someone saying that a specific work belongs to ``a lot of people'' and not just him. For him ``fire as quality'' is what matters, not fire as symbol. But, inevitably, fire and candles are universally symbolic, even religious in significance. And he has ideas about art in the service of peace.

Fire ... and water ... and earth - each material has its essence. With water, for instance, he tries to understand its liquidity, its transparency, its wetness, how it behaves, the way it flows to the lower place. ``Then I can use it.''

With earth, he understands first how it reacts to heat and cold and rain, how long it can sustain a shape, how time will effect it. His village upbringing meant he was particularly close to the earth. For one thing, in India most of people's lives are spent outdoors. And then there is his inherited ``man-from-the-village'' irony, a gentle but humorously down-to-earth outlook.

In the same way, he may use technology to make some of his sculptures, but their atmosphere relates to the village.

Dhanjal relishes the story of what happened when the head ranger at the park initially showed him the site. Why, he asked, when the place was already so beautiful with trees, hills, water, wildlife - why make a sculpture?

Dhanjal replied, ``Let me do what I want to do. At the end, if you don't like it, I'll take it away.

``I went there after six months,'' Dhanjal recalls with a smile, ``and he said that's his favorite seat, on the top there. He had the idea ... of a modern sculpture as an inhuman kind of thing.''

But that is precisely not Avtaarjeet Dhanjal's idea of modern sculpture.

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