The Complexities of Human Experience: Bharti Kher’s Plaster Works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and DHC/ART

July 5, 2018

On the 4th floor of the Met Breuer building on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, surrounded by classically inspired sculptures – stark white in colour and ideal in form – sits a plaster sculpture of an older woman. She is in good company: the other sculptures in her presence include a Roman copy of a major work attributed to Greek sculptor Polykleitos of the god Hermes; a sixteenth-century marble sculpture of Bacchus, the god of wine, by Italian sculptor Domenico Poggini; and a Neoclassical marble sculpture by American Hiram Powers entitled California, representing the Goddess of Gold after the Gold Rush in the mid nineteenth century.

On the other side of the older woman are more contemporary works: American Charles Ray’s Aluminum Girl from 2003, painted in white, moves away from the classical use of marble, but shows a rather ideal (if occasionally exaggerated) depiction of a woman not on a pedestal, but sharing the floor with the visitors; and finally, American Fred Wilson’s The Mete of the Muse, 2006, depicts bronze copies in black and white respectively of Nephthys, Egyptian goddess of death, and the Greco-Roman Venus/Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty.

Among these depictions of gods and goddesses, youth, beauty, and “perfection”, is the seated figure of our interest: her hair is pulled back in a simple, tight bun, her eyes are closed, her shoulders are hunched. She looks serious, solemn, with lips in a slight frown. Her brow is furrowed, and her stomach bulges just a bit over her legs – as stomachs do, with age. Her veins are visible, as are the creases on her face. She sits on a modest wooden stool, which itself rests on a modest wooden cart. Simply entitled Mother, this work from 2016 depicts British-Indian artist Bharti Kher’s mother in as realistic form as possible, the plaster capturing every crevasse and crease, every wrinkle, every fold. One cannot help but notice (and hopefully appreciate), a departure from the idealized form and an emphasis on something more real – sagging breasts, protruding veins, and all.

It makes perfect sense for Bharti Kher’s work to be included in this exhibition, entitled Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body. The exhibition combines over 120 artworks covering the past 700 years, and examines the relationship between sculpture and the human body. Kher’s interest in the body is far-reaching, and her use of plaster to capture the likeness of her sitter is striking. It seems as though her plaster works are in fact living bodies, just sitting down for a well-deserved rest amidst their hectic lives.

It is interesting to view Mother among the company described above, compared to the experience of viewing Kher’s work currently on view at DHC/ART. Six Women is shown on the 4th floor of DHC/ART’s main building. It is the only work on the floor, surrounded by white walls and wooden floors. The work is comprised of six sculptures of aging women in the nude, seated just like her mother in the work at the Met. Their hair is in buns, their eyes are closed, their bodies are just as accurately depicted. In fact, it seems like it wouldn’t be a stretch to add Mother to the row of Six Women, call the work Seven Women, and be done with it.

Only this wouldn’t work at all. The women in Six Women are all prostitutes who work in Sonagachi, the red light district of Kolkata. Kher selected the women, brought them to her studio, cast them and paid them. While the steps in the casting process were the same with her mother, the context could not be more different. Kher reflected on her position in the transaction between bodies and money, and wrote about her discomfort in her journal:

“What then makes me different from the client… in this and most cases the man? Does my empathy count for anything? Does my work as an artist give validity to the role I play in the circus of meaning? […] Why is my art even important to someone who needs money and that’s why they give me their body. Is it important that they acknowledge my intention so I feel justified?” [1]

Kher’s grappling with her role in this work is deeply set and important – as is her decision of what to call the work. There is so much to a title. Would we react differently if the title of Mother was Woman, or if Six Women was instead Six Prostitutes? Perhaps the prostitutes are mothers, in which case, the work could be called Six Mothers. Every different iteration calls on different emotions, different preconceived ideas, and different reactions. Kher is astutely aware of these limitations in our perceptions. But she is more interested in the layers of lived experience than in labels and pigeonholes. She says, “I don’t really want the women to be one thing, I’m not interested in the one thing. I’m interested in the complexities of human experience.” [2] By using the signifier Six Women as opposed to Six Prostitutes, the lens is widened, and the women are seen as simply women, not defined by their profession, or anything else.

By referring to the work of her mother as such, though, Kher begins to influence and shape our interpretation. One can imagine the relationship between mother and daughter: the love and the bonding, or perhaps the tensions and the struggles that may accompany such a close connection. Viewers may refer to their relationships with their own mothers as a point of reference in interpreting the work from a personal perspective.

What Bharti Kher gives us with her plaster works – regardless of how much information we receive through their titles – is a taste of life: a depiction of a natural body that has lived, of women who are complex and multifaceted, comfortable in their plastered skin, and full of memories, experiences and stories. Viewing Kher’s works is almost like looking at someone who is sleeping or meditating: one can’t help but wonder where they are in their minds, where they have been, and when they are coming back.

Amanda Beattie
DHC/ART Education


[1] Prerna Singh, “A Journey in Energy,” Bharti Kher: Matter, Daina Augaitis and Diana Freundl, eds. (Vancouver and London: Vancouver Art Gallery and Black Dog Publishing, 2016), 125 – 6.
[2] Robin Laurence, “Bharti Kher’s hybrid vision merges humans with animals to address politics, sociology, and love,” Georgia Straight, Arts Section, July 6, 2016. Accessed on June 28, 2018. https://www.straight.com/arts/730576/bharti-khers-hybrid-vision-merges-humans-animals-address-politics-sociology-and-love


Photos: Installation view, Bharti Kher: Points de départ, points qui lient, 2018, DHC/ART. Six Women (2013-2015). Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Image © DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, photo: Richard-Max Tremblay. Detail of Bharti Kher, Six Women (2013-2015), photo: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin.

#amanda beattie
#bharti kher
#dhc/art education
#Sculpture
#the met breuer