The first question I ask Tallur L.N. — the artist whose exhibition, “Interference Fringe,” is on view at Grounds For Sculpture through January 5, 2020 — is how to use his name with a courtesy title. Is he, for example, Mr. Tallur? Mr. L.N.?
Just Tallur, he says. Tallur (pronounced “tahl-loor” with the accent on the second syllable) is the name of his ancestral village in India. It would be like calling a native of the township in which Grounds For Sculpture is sited “Hamilton.” Further investigation reveals that L.N. stands for Lakshmi Narayan and the village of Tallur is in Karnataka.
Asked if he thinks in English or his native dialect, he shakes his head to both. He thinks in art.
“Interference Fringe” includes 27 sculptures in a range of media: found objects, appropriated industrial machines, carved stone and wood, cast bronze, and works embedded in concrete and coated in bone meal. The show is billed as Tallur’s first and most significant survey exhibition in the U.S. — he has had solo exhibitions in Germany, South Korea, India, and China.
Grounds For Sculpture Executive Director Gary Garrido Schneider, who curated the exhibition, first discovered Tallur in New York, and the museum subsequently purchased his sculpture “Obituary Note” for outdoor exhibition.
“Obituary Note” incorporates a replica of a bronze dancing Shiva, with burned wood typically used in a funeral pyre and taking the form of a globe. It is typical Tallur, employing a replica of a traditional work from art history that is now sold as a trinket in souvenir shops along with a contemporary material that plays off of the replica. “With its references to global capitalism, it fills a gap here,” says Schneider, who has devoted both the Domestic Arts and Museum buildings for this exhibition.
Along his journey toward becoming an exhibiting artist, Tallur earned a master’s degree in museology, and the study of how to exhibit works in museums informs his own work. One installation is on scaffolding — museum-goers can climb on it and interact with the work. He compares it to a contemporary display case, a cabinet of curiosities, dynamic and utilitarian, allowing a viewer to look both forward and back. “It allows us to look but does not box us in.”
“The scaffolding interferes with our ability to look at a single sculpture and upends typical standards of museum display,” says Schneider. “Its architecture challenges us with obstructed views and partial access. This intervention tempts us to climb upstairs to an observation deck and take in multiple vantage points but simultaneously prevents us from getting too close to the objects. Much like the works it holds this clever staging device deliberately makes it difficult to decipher the symbols the sculptures allude to and subvert.”
Tallur responds to classical works of art, as well as stereotypes, in an amused and contemporary way. He looks at the ways nails are used in world cultures. For example, he says, a yogi sleeping on a bed of nails is a typical Indian stereotype. There is also the symbolism of nailing to the cross in Christianity, and we often talk about being nailed down, or nailing it down. Tallur includes a nail making machine, as well as his own take on a sculpture of an angel he saw exhibited at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, carrying a nail (signifying crucifixion), alongside a yogi on a bed of nails.
He is interested in money and the value we place on it: the greed common to many cultures. Coins can be found embedded in his works and suggest the monetization of religious icons and art history. In another installation, “Apocalypse” (2010), viewers must squeeze through jail-like bars and are invited to deposit coins into an industrial polishing machine. Following Tallur’s careful instructions, the coins become “civilized” and are polished with little nails to the point of denuding their value. “As we are grinding away, eroding, we are building and finding a new way of adding on,” says Tallur. (A sign lets viewers know they can place an order at the front desk to get their denuded coin back, “civilized,” and mounted on a mirrored plate.)
Another work, “Chromathophobia” — fear of money — comprises a wooden log over a concrete Buddha that has been stamped “Made in China.” Adjacent is a wall of hammers; viewers are invited to hammer coins into the log. On opening weekend visitors flocked to find a spot in which to hammer their money into an already coin-encrusted piece of wood. “It’s very good therapy — it makes people think about money,” he says.
In “Enlightenment Machine” he offers viewers kitsch replicas of the Statue of Liberty and invites them to grind them on a grinding machine. We create cheap replicas of these antiques, he points out, mass producing them and becoming complicit in degrading them.
Tallur “employs” termites to be participants in the creation of some of the works, causing the accelerated erosion of the wood. One work, “Alzheimer’s,” is particularly haunting, the wooden figure eaten away just as memories of a person with the disease can be. This particular wooden sculpture is a “bhoota” figure, typically carved and sold near village temples around Karnataka, a ceremonial prop that is typically used to ward off evil. With Alzheimer’s, there is also the cultural memory that is lost, he notes.
He also employs termites in “Bulimia II” and for “Milled History.” For the latter, Tallur used the termites to feed on a wooden copy of a temple figurine, then digitally scanned the remains and milled them into sandstone that mimics the wood grain of its original state. He compares everyday acts of consumption and digestion to the gradual effacement and loss of culture. “Museums are repositories of history, but whose history?” he asks. “We put objects on a pedestal to show our shared humanity.”
It was through his interest in museology that he learned how termites are used at the Museum of Natural History to erode controlled sections of wood and to apply them toward his own goals.
Perhaps the most frightening piece in the show is “Panic Room.” The viewer stands inside a square of burlap sacks that inflate and rise around her, trapping her inside. Depending on one’s frame of mind, it can feel like a cocoon or make you feel claustrophobic, unable to escape. Tallur calls it an exercise in understanding human nature.
The sacks themselves evoke the sacks of grain that are dropped by helicopter into areas where food is scarce, or the sandbags used to help mitigate hurricane and tsunami disasters. “Wealthy people have panic rooms for protection, but your wealth can lock you in,” Tallur says. He compares it to his work “Apocalypse”: “Does money get you in the cage, or out of the cage?”
It took him a year to figure out how to link the bags in a way that kept them air tight so they could hold the air. He got the idea for “Panic Room” after reading news of how after the tsunami in India, when the government gave food packages in burlap sacks like these, it was never actually distributed to the public.
“Fringe” (2019), a towering 18-foot-tall site-specific installation coated in bone meal, bone char, and crushed bone, was inspired by historic Indian temple fragments in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (also shown). The figure appears to be eating its own leg, observes Tallur.
Bone is not a mainstream medium, says Schneider. “Yet bone is now a popular additive to smoothies and broth. We grow crops with it. It gets cycled back into the food system.”
“Interference” is a mesmerizing slow-motion video that shows the smoke-like plumes of dust being beaten out of a historic rug from the collection of the Junagagh Museum in Gujart, India. In essence it is a portrait of historic dust. The 18th-century carpet existed before Indian Independence and the dust being beaten out comes from the time of British rule. The dust being set free makes its own music, with sounds like splashing waves.
Born in 1971, Tallur splits his time between his rural family home in Karnataka, India, and the industrial urban city of Daegu, South Korea, from where his wife, a translator, originates (they met in India). Tallur’s father, a government clerk, was frequently transferred, and the family led a peripatetic life. He was unaware that one could make a profession out of art until he discovered a newspaper cartoonist. He earned a bachelor’s degree in painting from Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts (1996), and after not getting into a graduate program in painting he pursued an MFA in museology from Maharaja Sayyajirao University (1998) and a master’s in contemporary fine art practice from Leeds Metropolitan University (2002). But his best education came, he says, from visiting other artists’ studios and learning their systems. “Watching a skilled person teaches a lot — it’s how I learn. It’s all about observing.”
To complete his exhibition at Grounds For Sculpture, Tallur has traveled back and forth numerous times over two years, spending the last month and a half in residence. “Grounds For Sculpture gave me so much flexibility and time to improvise,” he says.
Indeed, his idea for a mega installation with tractor wheels flinging mud all about the gallery walls and windows was welcomed. The filth-making contraption makes us question what we value as beauty, what we expect to see in a museum. With hammering and coin grinding and statuette grinding and mud-slinging, this is not a quiet exhibit. This is not a non-violence show. Nor are the times in which we live; we are living through a crisis and need to re-examine our former notions. And yet the dust emanating from that old rug does have beauty, the beauty of emancipation.
Although he was forthcoming on the day interviewed for this story, Tallur says he speaks not through words but through his art. “With art you can say what you can’t in words.”
Interference Fringe, Grounds For Sculpture, 126 Sculptors Way, Hamilton. Through January 5, 2020. May through October hours, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. $10 to $20. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.