Hetain Patel: From Identity to Being. A Discussion with Paul Goodwin, 2012
[As part of exhibition catalogue for Patel’s solo Exhibition AT HOME, touring to:
New Art Exchange, Nottingham 2012
Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai 2012
mac, Birmingham, 2013
Pump house Gallery, London, 2013-4

Paul Goodwin (PG):
Hetain, I want to begin with some of your early work and influences. You’ve said that as a young man you were embarrassed about talking about your cultural heritage and identity with friends and people in general and that painting, drawing and sculpting were ways of dealing with this sense of unease or embarrassment . I’m interested in how art can be a kind of a salve for identity, or how in your case, art seemed to play a vital role in your own personal development. Can you elaborate on this?

Hetain Patel (HP):
I guess this didn’t really come into play until probably towards the end of my foundation course and then starting my degree at art school. And I think probably the reason it didn’t – amongst other reasons – was because it was only at that point when I discovered that art, for me, was a place to think. Before that I had thought about art solely in terms of craft: crafting some sort of skill – drawing, painting, sculpture etc. It was in my art school education where I felt really liberated to feel that art provided me with a space to think. Initially I didn’t want to talk about heritage, identity and things like that but my tutors encouraged me to use art to experiment with ideas. They said, ‘Just try it and if you don’t like it, then that’s a useful thing for you to know.’ And I tried something in a really naïve way by making an object that had something to do with identity, I think it was a coconut. I applied some paste to it and some text and I photographed it. I couldn’t stand it at first and I dropped it, I let it go. So I went back to writing again – in which I had been always been interested – and then somewhere along the line, maybe in the subject matter of that writing or in not being quite able to put something across, I was naturally drawn back to the object. Once I was drawn back to it and started making work about it, it felt like it opened something up and I needed to just go full steam ahead into it. I became fascinated. Art became this space where I could think about the things I had had difficulty talking about – heritage, identity – and question them, much more so than you would in your day-to-day life. So I think that’s the point where art came alive for me. It was just a space to think. Before I studied art, life was just ‘life’: the way that you are, what you’re given. It can be uncomfortable or whatever. This was a new idea to me that it was something that could be thought about, talked about, discussed and written about in a creative way. So yes, it was a whole new dimension to my life that I’d never come across before.

PG:
Were you aware at that time in your studies of Bruce Nauman’s work? In discussing his early interest in art Nauman famously remarked that he was not interested in adding to a collection of things that are art; but what he was interested in is investigating the possibilities of what art may be .

HP:
I actually came across his work multiple times during art school, although in quite a frustrating way I have to say. Usually because I developed ideas for works in my sketchbook and then had tutorials, I’d feel really great about them. I would tell my tutors ‘I’ve just developed this new idea,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, you know, you should have a look at Bruce Nauman, what he was doing in 1967.’ And I’d go off, tail between my legs and look at a Bruce Nauman book and think, ‘Oh God, it’s been done years ago!’ It felt like this happened all the time, tutors telling me ‘Go and look at Bruce Nauman,’ with the same result each time. Sometimes it was in conceptual terms and sometimes it was visual. When I first started marking myself I was led towards his video: the art make-up piece . But the thing that stuck with me throughout all of it was Nauman’s ideas around thinking through art; what in the quote you mentioned about thinking what art can be. He made me realise that in terms of making art my interest in cultural heritage was that I was interested in thinking about it and not just what in it is, but what it could be, the way you could frame it, the way you could see it or where you could experience it. I loved that he did this about art. My most vivid memories of him are seeing those videos of him in his studio, walking around in an exaggerated manner or you know, bouncing his body in the corner. He initiated all of these actions with this idea that art could be any activity, actually, that an artist does in his studio. This proposition blew my mind! I was still very much in the early stages of trying to think about what art was. I didn’t even think about what art could be. It was never in my mind to think about art in that way. I actually was interested in adding to the history of objects, and the idea of questioning that was really new to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I feel like that experience of engaging Nauman’s work really stimulated my questioning of how and why I make art.

PG:
You soon started writing on your body. What made you turn to the body and how was this linked to your investigation of identity?

HP:
Quite honestly it feels like it was an accident. I was writing on paper a lot and one of the other things I got from writing on paper is a feeling that I could never write enough. I was endlessly writing and asking myself “what was it doing?” It didn’t quite feel cathartic. It wasn’t really achieving anything. And then it literally happened. After a night out I was kind of hung over in the morning and I was supposed to be in the studio working that day. Without getting out of bed I got hold of a pen – a silver gel pen – and started writing onto my hand. I really liked the way that it looked and I just kept writing. And then I kept writing over my arm, most of my torso etc. until the pen ran out. I took some pictures of it, just on my own with what I think what was probably the same camera – a wind-up camera – that we went out with that night and that was the start. Even when I saw the pictures, I wasn’t convinced by them but I had one of those intermediate crits at college, where you had to show something and talk about it. So I just put those up and they immediately enlisted a lot of interest and a lot of debate and questions. I was quite surprised by that, to be honest but that’s what started it. After that I took it a bit more seriously and started to do it more purposefully: looking at the framing of it, looking at what I would write, what pen I would use and so on. I’ve actually not done anything else like that since then.

PG:
You could say it was a defining moment – a eureka moment – in the sense that your body became the centre of your work from that point on. I wondered how aware you were at that point of how central the body would become for your art? Were you thinking about the body as a site for art making at that time? Were you reading and thinking about the body in artists’ practices, or was it quite an intuitive process?

HP:
Probably a bit of both. We were reading texts on the body at that time, in relation to questions of identity for example in feminist texts by writers like Judith Butler. But I think – with hindsight – my interest in the body developed because it felt like it was the first time I was able to step outside of myself: seeing a picture of yourself and some of the things that you write about being embodied just by the image of that brown body in that frame even before anything is written on it. I became fascinated by that image and how it’s read: how I read it or how anybody else reads it. So I think that was probably the defining moment. I think from that moment of feeling I was able to step out of myself and discuss an artwork which was about ‘me’; an image of me. To be engaged in that felt very different from engaging with objects that I had made out of text and sculpted something. This was an image of me. It felt like I couldn’t hide behind it.

PG:
Let’s talk about your exhibition at the New Art Exchange, Hetain Patel: At Home. In the exhibition you have enlarged the scope of your art from a focus on your own body to include other family members – your father, your mother, your grandmother and your wife, Eva. There is a focus in many of the works on the domestic environment as the title suggests. In fact, the furthest you get out of the home is the street, literally just outside your front door! Why did you decide to broaden the focus of your work and do you see this as the first stage in a kind of ever-broader circle of artistic investigation: the home, the street, the city, the world etc?

HP:
Well this broadening, it felt like a very organic move to make because it feels like I’m still progressing down the same path, if you like, of learning about and researching being. It seemed like the natural way to investigate this question of being in the world. The next stage of researching this question is by looking outside of myself. So rather than focusing purely on my own activity and setting up my own rituals, I decided to engage with people that I take influence from or who have influenced me and for me to interact with them in some way. This might happen by me directly interacting with them or through using found film footage that I had with my dad, for example, or through my collaboration with my wife or by videoing my grandmother. In all these cases I’m still learning about myself. From a very selfish perspective this process has helped me to think more clearly about who I am, how I think about things and how I interact with others who make up part of me. But I never sat down and thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do; I’m going to do that.’ It kind of happened and I felt like it needed to happen. The implication of your question is correct: I think that the progression of this work certainly feels like it’s moving beyond the close circle of family, advancing more into the street outside of my house. It has also made me reflect on the problematic having a ‘brown‘cultural identity. Although many questions in my work do start with the autobiographical – sometimes with culturally specific questions – when I get into them and start making the work and thinking about them – engaging with the formal aspects – they become about something much wider. As you begin to delve into existential questions about being the quest goes much wider than the self. For example when I first showed the work To Dance Like Your Dad (2009), I loved that everyone at the preview would come up to me and tell me stories about their dads; and not necessarily talk to me about the work. It indicates to me that the work is making connections on a broader level beyond the surface aesthetic. This was a new experience and it really struck me. It feels like if you ask the right questions in the work – and in the making of the work – then you’re also possibly questioning lots of other things within it at the same time. It becomes a matter of finding the right questions to ask and so it feels like that’s the path for me to follow. This is also why some of these wider pop culture references like Spiderman and Kung Fu are coming in to the work. This, for me, is a form of reaching out; of doing what you describe; of moving outwards.

PG:
Mamai (2012), a five screen video work focusing on your grandmother’s daily ritual of reciting songs and prayers, is a work about cultural preservation. It also reflects your interest in repetition and cultural transmission – transmission from one generation to the other – a theme that comes up in many of your works. How did you go about researching this work?

HP:
It involved an intense process of observation that I think is slightly connected with your last question, in that I’m observing a lot more things on a broader scale now. Over time I have become much better at observing things and a lot of the things I observe has come into the work. This is the case with Mamai. I visit my parents from time to time and my gran is there a few months of the year so I try to overlap the visit to see her. It also coincided with when I got my camera and I’d take pictures of my gran alone in the living room. I observed her daily routine and I can remember saying to Eva, ‘This would make beautiful video footage.’ And she said, ‘I was about to say the same thing,’ It was this kind of this process happening under our very noses.

PG:
The observation process you mention is evident in the way that this work is framed and composed almost as if in reference to classical traditions of portrait painting. There are open windows and light flooding the room. Did historical Dutch and Italian portraiture, for example, have any influence in this work?

HP:
I’m interested in how historical movements in art, for example traditions of portraiture, are so heavily copied and replicated in popular culture now, in IKEA magazines, fashion and rap videos, and I guess I connect to it through that way. So I’ve probably been influenced by one of the many copycats that pop up throughout history! The influence that I’m most conscious of goes back to my A Level painting days. I was so seduced by – and still am so seduced by – the way Caravaggio deployed light to sculpt bodies in his painting. I was very aware of this when I was making my Mamai piece.

PG:
I was also struck by the level of detail in the work particularly in relation to your grandmother’s repetitive actions and daily rituals: coughing, rocking back and forth, touching her blanket, being attended to by your mother at the same time each day. Signs of domesticity are also prominent: chocolate wrappers on the floor, clothes lying about etc. Multiple screens enhanced this. How were you working with notions of repetition and ritual in this work and what were you trying to reveal about the process of cultural transmission?

HP:
I was attempting to locate different forms or places where rituals can exist in contemporary society or in current thinking so that ritual and repetition doesn’t become an exotic thing that exists only in this old Indian lady’s body. I wanted to show that it exists in this setting of her sweets on the floor, for example or in a coat rack in the corner of this place. I wanted to show that this ritual inhabits this space and that this is not weird. It’s in fact completely normal, domestic and real. I’m absorbed by the fact that that prayer for my gran comes from nearly 100 years ago and that’s its hard-wired into her body. And I relate it to things that I’m learning at the moment, so for example, when I learn Kung Fu now, I wonder if it will stay in my body and sit there, dormant. Maybe 20 years from now, if I try it again, I’ll see if it’s been activated from that same hardware; the same store of memory. But I’m a different body shell and so something else emerges. I enjoy thinking about my gran’s rituals and repetitions in this way. The multiple screen arrangement for me shows the different ways these rituals and words in her prayers emerge from her body. So how she walks now and how she sits every day and how the prayer comes out of her, changes in each scene. In some scenes she’s not on the floor, she’s kneeling; she’s sitting on the chair; she’s fiddling and she’s cleaning her hanky and she’s distracted, but these words are still coming out. I’m interested in this dislocation. So there is something the same, that repeats every day, but that is a reflection of what her body is now in this week, whereas the words she sings every day are from another time… a strange and compelling dislocation for me.

PG:
In terms of the different screens, you placed them on the floor instead of the wall, almost like pictures located in a domestic setting or indeed, even like canvases lying about an artist’s studio. What was your thinking here? Were you thinking about engaging with the audience in some way? Perhaps humanising the technology of display?

HP:
Initially I wanted to take the formality away from placing a nice, slick flat screen on the wall, screwing it up there and it feeling like this ‘thing’ just nailed to the wall. By putting it on the floor, a screen against the wall, it introduced a sense of vulnerability in the work. Because they’re flat screens and not these big TVs, it felt like you could just pick them up and walk away with them. I was interested in how people would relate to this when they see the work. How would they relate to these portraits of my gran? Would they stand there and watch them or crouch down, come to the floor with her and sit with her. I also liked the fact that the video references a ritual act of touching the feet of an older person as a sign of respect, and so these screens are placed by your feet partly in reference to that.

PG:
In the film To Dance Like Your Dad (2009), the issue of cultural transmission again surfaces, this time in the form of a film of yourself in a studio imitating in a quite uncanny manner movements of your father that you earlier filmed in his workshop. The two films are juxtaposed in the installation. Is your interest in ritual and cultural transmission in this film coming from your research into traditional cultural forms or does it emerge from modernist forms of repetition in modern and contemporary dance or even conceptual art?

HP:
It stems from more traditional sources in terms of thinking about why traditions have repetition and ritual. What I mean by that is these processes start with the body and what the body can learn through repetition and what it can transmit by inheritance and generation. I’m fascinated by the fact that my gran learned that prayer by heart, having never read it. She learned just through song and repetition and this is how it gets passed on over generations. It’s the same with Kung Fu that I’m learning now and the same with the way my dad learnt about how to build cars. It has to do with the body’s ability to remember this process and to create something out of that. I enjoy taking things on through repetition and imitation and what I get from performing it or enacting it or repeating it – and then what I also get from teaching it to somebody else. So I think it’s all of that traffic that goes through the body and what it does to that body in terms of the learning process. But of course, having said that I’m also naturally drawn to how those things are performed and presented by other artists in artworks and theatre.

PG:
In the installation there is a contrast between the industrial working class setting of your father’s workshop and the relatively smooth performance space of the artist’s studio where you imitated his movements. What do you think this says about the evolution of class identities from father to son over generations? Is that something that you’re investigating in your work?

HP:
I guess that piece was consciously re-enacted in that dance studio rather than using my dad’s space because I wanted to juxtapose his place of work – the factory workshop – with my work space – the white walled dance studio – to show another part of that dislocation I spoke about. However the attempted connection point is in the performance of the body: in the repetition and the dedication of my body to his. Effectively it’s an act of me extending out to my dad or wanting to highlight the key importance of what the body is doing in the exchange process. So what I put my body through or what I go out and learn because vital to highlight that. Because those places are different socially, as you describe, it feels like, yes, they are in a place together in this work and the physical act – the performance – shows my desire or my need to connect to this body, this place or that social place across the divides of class and generation.

PG:
Moving on to Eva (2012), in this new work, a number of things happen. There is a focus for the first time on the relationship with your wife; a return back to body art and adornment which you previously engaged in; a dialogue in speech bubbles around marriage and Bruce Lee, and this is conveyed with quite a lot of humour in the work. What inspired this work and what was the role of the often slightly dark humour?

HP:
After recently getting married and with my work being about states of being in terms of a connection to heritage, this notion of what I would share with my wife was a natural one to come up. I pondered this idea of me passing on something to exchange with my wife, but I asked myself what of myself, of my being, would I be able to pass on? Could any of that be Indian? And my immediate response to that was negative. I don’t have an authority to do that. I didn’t and still don’t feel confident to have a grasp of that ‘Indianess’ in order to be able to directly pass it on. So that was a starting point for this project: this idea of if I was to pass something on to my wife culturally, it would be almost be something false. I used henna, the traditional adornment material that gets put on the bride’s hands and feet before the wedding. At the same time, however, I couldn’t bring myself to do the traditional form of patterning. So I used text and writing, about marriage or the Spiderman imagery. It’s really in these speech bubble texts about things that are part of me or that I consider I can posses much more than I can claim it to be from these Indian elements. Then the work is further complicated by my wife’s presence in it because this engages a whole history of male artists and their wives and partners and questions about the objectification of the female body. This relationship is even further complicated by the fact that as a curator herself this adds an artist-curator dynamic to the tension in the piece between husband and wife. Throughout the whole process of making this piece, my discussions with Eva about placement, content and dialogue were central.

PG:
So in some ways these are a collaborative piece?

HP:
I want them to be a collaborative piece, but I still, I feel like I’m on a learning curve in relation to that. I would say they become increasingly collaborative as you move from the black and white photos to the Spiderman image and then to the Bruce Lee part. I’m learning how to have more of a dialogue with her and to bring more of her thoughts in to the work

PG:
And yet, one could argue that from a feminist perspective in these photographs Eva is effectively still mute…

HP:
Yes.

PG:
… and that it’s really about you. Of course this is a very long tradition – male artists using women’s bodies to chart and map their own desires and anxieties.

HP:
Yes absolutely! This is something we discussed about with each other as we were making these pieces. Some of the decisions we made were a negotiation; a to-ing and fro-ing about things like for example, showing her naked back and not showing her face. And then when I came to the Bruce Lee speech bubble images, the dialogue emerged out of an actual conversation between us, albeit a comedic one. It’s true to say that we found that quote together. To my mind this work could evolve into an on going collaboration where the next project in the series might be her deciding what the text is or devising the scenario. In a way this is why I’m not addressing the kind of ‘natural feminist’ perspective in what you see in those pictures; because I almost want people to be able to see them in terms what will come from them as they develop as part of this collaborative process between my wife and I.

PG:
The final work in the exhibition is The First Dance (2012) is a split screen video work that juxtaposes yourself rehearsing a complex Kung Fu routine in your house (and in the street) with a key romantic scene from the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. What were you trying to achieve in this work?

HP:
The starting point for this work came from the passion many people, including myself, have with Kung Fu and the kind of affinity you have with Kung Fu figures growing up as a youth I was especially interested in the attire. So it was not just the idea of beating people up and defending yourself and beating up bullies, but from the attire of wearing the Indian formal suit and hating it as a kid. You are victimised and it feels flimsy like a dress. The pants might fall down and you get all the things that a young boy growing up is scared to hell of; and you can identify with it. It must be in your genes! And then when you start to see figures on TV wearing this kind of attire – Kung Fu masters – there’s this little bit of you that goes, ‘Wow, they’re wearing a bit like what we’re wearing and yeah, it’s cool!’ There’s this fantasy thing in your head then from then on of feeling, ‘OK, I’m a Kung Fu warrior.’ But you know, you don’t say it to anyone because it’s embarrassing. You just think it in your head. And then those ideas from my youth start flooding back as I’m starting to try outfits on for my wedding! So I started looking at footage from all different Kung Fu movies that I could imitate and replicate and this scene was almost the only one I could find that didn’t have back flips or wire work or splits or things that. It was a bit of footage that if I tried hard and stretched it a bit, I might be able pull it off. So I obsessed over this piece of video and I learnt how to do the moves. As I watched the video, it just seemed so fitting with my marriage, to have that female character in there and for it to be about love.

In terms of attire there are similarities between Kung Fu costumes and those kinds of outfits that you see in the Hindi weddings we have now. Also the relationship between male and female figures is very much like in the Crouching Tiger unspoken kind of ‘don’t go there’ kind of thing. So you know, I loved those things that were kind of crossing over in there; I loved the idea that in a Hindu wedding, one of the frustrating things is that you don’t get a first dance as you would in a church wedding. It’s not a part of the ritual. And as it turned out, even after our church wedding, things got so crazy, we didn’t even have a first dance then! We really liked this idea of putting one in a work and thinking about, in some ways, the arbitrariness of the ritualistic aspects of wedding ceremonies. The work developed from these kinds of different cultural entry points: starting with the Kung Fu and how it relates to attire and feeling a particular way within this. And then also coming into my own wedding and how it related cross-culturally with the romance of that scene from Crouching Tiger.

PG:
Finally Hetain, your work deals with cross-cultural identity issues yet it seems that you deliberately avoid the issue of conflict by deploying humour as a tool or seducing the viewer with the beauty of the surface image. Compared to an earlier generation of artists who directly explored conflicts around cultural identity in the UK in your work, that seems to be largely absent. Is that a fair assessment?

HP:
Yes, I think that’s fair. I’m not interested in conflict and I want the viewer to look at and engage with the work. I’m desperate to eliminate barriers between the viewer and the work – and it doesn’t even have to be a barrier through conflict; it can be a barrier of otherness. So this is one of the reasons that humour exists in the work. I’m striving towards a universal aesthetic or understanding or engagement that articulates in a very crude way the idea that we are not so different. My work is about attempting to communicate beyond the obvious layer of statements such as: ‘This is about something other,’ or, ‘This is about cultural identity.’ It’s about wanting to have the viewer engage with the other layers art in relation to the notion of being. For me, my art is about being human. It’s about being in a relationship. Ultimately it’s about loving. So it feels like I’m taking conflict out, putting the humour in, making the aesthetic like a magazine and putting the domestic background in. It just feels like these are kind of methodologies to be doing some of that. To really engage the question of being in the world.

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Paul Goodwin is a curator based in London.

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1. Hetain Patel in conversation with Skinder Hundal, New Art Exchange, 21.04.12.

2. Quoted in Coosie Van Bruggen (1988) Bruce Nauman, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. New York,

3. Bruce Nauman, Art Make-Up: No. 1 White, No. 2 Pink, No. 3 Green, No. 4 Black, 1967-68, 4 x 10 min, color, sound, 16 mm films