To find meaning in the mundane is an art form in itself, but to reorder it is a skill that sparks sheer wonder. Artist Sahej Rahal does just this as he assembles sculptures and characters from objects he finds in the most unlikely places. Bathtubs, discarded doors, fake fur and a didgeridoo made from tree branches and a PVC pipe all weave their way through Rahal's art, trailing behind them their personal histories to create a rich and complex capestry that at times transcends time, at times misplaces space, and always defies logic. As a performance artist, he haunts subways and skywalks in the guise of the otherworldly – shaman, warrior, fakir – accumulating a mosaic of mythologies from different regions and reigns, casually strolling through public places to the amazement and amusement of those lucky enough to catch a glimpse. For this is the function of art: to raise out of the ordinary and to lift the viewer up with it. And this is the function of confusing identities, as in the theatre: it creates an eerily comic narrative on the wonder of living within the body, even as the heavens spin above us.
The Fuchsia Tree: Tell us a little about your recent Gasworks residency, and about what you are currently working on, or scheming to work on…
Sahej Rahal: Gasworks was an amazing experience! I got to make work in a really different environment, but London did feel strangely familiar to home, in terms of how different periods of history embody it at the same time. It also felt like going back to art school in a lot of ways, because I got to learn and work on my skills with help from the other artists who were working there. I'm at Khoj right now, working on a film about a Mughal observatory/hunting lodge in Delhi; the film stands somewhere between sci-fi and documentary.
TFT: You work primarily with 'found objects'. Tell us the story of one of these objects, real or imagined.
SR: Something I'm really intrigued by right now is the Pir Ghaib observatory, built by Feroz Shah Tughlaq. According to some very muddled historical records the place was a hunting lodge as well, and it has this strange little cylinder on top called a Zenith Tube, which the astronomers would look through to chart stars. The thing is, the hole they would look through is really just a tiny speck on the ceiling.
TFT: Right. That is the periphery of our perspective. How much of your art lies in the intention behind it, and how much lies in the interpretation?
SR: I constantly feel like a viewer, in that I'm always trying to negotiate with and figure out these things that I'm finding.
TFT: When you embark on a new project, do you have a clear idea of the trajectory it will take, or does it shape itself along the way?
SR: As far as the sculptures go, I've never had a clear idea of what form the work will take, but I do look for objects that have a sense of history that can be played with. The performances act in a similar way in that they are always in the process of becoming, and take on meaning from the space itself, and the way the audience reacts.
TFT: What's the most memorable reaction to your art you've experienced?
SR: During the first Bhramana performance, there were these kids who were wandering on the skywalk, and they stepped in during the performance and started body-popping and doing cartwheels, which was really awesome! It became this collective ritual that we were taking part in.
TFT: Your Brahmana Series in particular is reminiscent of performance artist Joseph Beuys, whom you cite as an influence. Is there a larger philosophy at work here?
SR: Beuys is a huge influence, but the performances themselves are more about misplacing these characters in time and space, rather than bringing about some form of social change.
TFT: What roles do Time and Space play in your work?
SR: I feel like I'm constantly trying to negotiate time and space in the work, both physically and conceptually. I think the work itself is this atemporal patchwork that borrows from history, myth and pop-culture.
TFT: What goes through your head during a performance, right from the act of assembling the costume on your body to the act of disrobing? Is there an internal shift in perspective, or does your identity remain essentially the same?
SR: I do feel like I'm of stepping out of myself a bit, in that I'm doing things I wouldn't usually do. I don't know if that's an internal shift in perspective.
TFT: Tell us about your relationship with layers, and the process of layering.
SR: There is the layering of the physical kind, but I guess I also work with layering in terms of figuring out how to work with things that have sometimes conflicting histories.
TFT: How does the faculty of wonder play into your work?
SR: I think of wonder being associated with the idea of the absurd, of things or even histories that don't fit.
TFT: Your performance art alludes to the mystical and mythical, but evades being tied down to a single culture or mythos. What is achieved by this element of uncertainty?
SR: I think it opens up the space for multiple readings of the work.
TFT: What's your favourite myth or story from your childhood?
SR: I'm a HUGE starwars fanboy!
TFT: Do you believe in magic?
SR: Not really, but it's fun to suspend belief every once in a while.
As told to Simone Dinshaw a writer who would rather be a mythical being from a different culture.
Sahej Rahal is an artist whose body of work is a growing narrative that draws upon mythical beings from different cultures and brings them into a dialogue with the present.
You're born, gurgling and pink, bright white light in your eyes for the first time. Beyond the blinds are trees, moving in the wind, lime green and lush. And there's a sky--it rained as you entered--that is spotless except for a mustache of cloud in the corner. You grow up with nature, a kind of raw material for habit. When you move, you act, you transform from one state to another, creating. You create by walking, by waking up and going to sleep. You make, from nature, art.Read More
By Simone Dinshaw, Issue 23, Wonder: Between Nature and Art.