An artist’s expression of agony

by Ekatmata Sharma
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Singapore-based artists of Japanese and Indian origins Sunaina Bhalla Sachio Sharma have come together to create a conceptual installation inspired by the Japanese concept of Ma at Japan Foundation. Ma in Japanese culture refers to space interval defined as void. The thought-provoking homage to Ma explores the impermanence of life, evanescence of life forms, emergence of calmness from trauma of life-threatening conditions using materials like woven linen paper, cocoons, gold and silver threads, cotton cord, bandages, and pins, through intense contemplative processes. Artist Sunaina Bhalla shares the idea behind expressing her pain and agony in the artworks.
What is the inspiration behind the Ma Project?
‘Ma’ in Japanese is defined as ‘the space in between’. The idea behind this body of work is focusing on the transitory nature of the very existence of life, through sensations such as calmness, pleasure and pain. In chronic life threatening health conditions patients as well as caregivers go through a gamut of emotions and pain, physical as well as emotional. However, there is always a pause in this seemingly endless ‘ritual’. It is this ‘pause’ that is addressed through this body of work.
Your works are minimalistic, yet evoke varied emotions in the viewer. What does the viewer take home after seeing your works?
Through these series of works I hope the viewer gets a sense of the rhythm of pain and relief in chronic health conditions. The acceptance of health conditions gives way to a certain degree of calmness and peace. In spite of the gravity of the health condition like Diabetes, Cancer to name a few, there is hope of relief. And that’s the backbone of coping with the stress of constant pain.
What was the process that went behind making the artworks for the Ma Project?
This project started with a conversation between Sachiyo and me about our artistic practices. She works with weaving tapestry with paper and I work with varied materials like bandages, fabric and block printing. We each decided to work within the concept of “Ma”. Sachiyo’s focus is on nature and transience and mine is on the various sensorial experiences of the body and healing. Each of us researched our own field of interest and the materials we want to work with and spent a year creating these artworks in our studios, keeping a constant discussion and exchange of ideas during this period.
I used the traditional method of block printing to print on bandages and then embroider on it. The ‘Tally’ mark is an important ‘motif’ in my work. It alludes to the constant counting of time, medication, procedures, food etc that goes into caring for a Diabetic patient, something that I am very familiar with in my life.
There is a strong undercurrent of pain in your works. What is the background behind manifesting agony and pain?
I have recently been through Breast Cancer. This disease is life threatening and extremely emotionally draining for me as well as people who have cared for me. In addition I also have to care for my young daughter who has chronic health conditions. The constant care that is needed is very difficult and this automatically manifests itself in my work. To address the conditions of the caregiver is extremely important to me. Everyone focuses on the patient without realising the pain the loved ones go through to protect and help the patient with the condition. However when the condition is lifelong one has to take a more pragmatic approach to it to sustain oneself. My personal journey through this constant swing of emotions has led my work to move from extremely aggressive and sensual (in my last exhibition last year) to extremely quiet, a vital state to be in for long term survival
You have used mediums like woven linen paper, cocoons, gold and silver threads, cotton cord, bandages, and pins, what impression does these mediums have in your mind, while you use them for your artworks?   
The bandages allude to the constant recurrence of medical intervention in my life. It’s not escapable. I have used pins to prick and poke the fabric alluding to the numerous needles that have to be injected daily for a diabetic patient. The neutral material of the cotton ropes and fabric are a constant reminder of the ordinariness of these conditions, which tends to make it less important. It is because Diabetes and Cancer have become so commonplace now that the gravity of the disease gets negated to an extent. The sensation that is evoked when one is injected is recreated in the poking of the material and the rope. I have experimented a great deal with various materials before finally using these particular ropes and fabric, for their ordinariness and hence the tendency to overlook the ordinary.

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