In Conversation With Performance Artist Sahej Rahal As His Installations Pop Up All Over Liverpool

In Conversation With Performance Artist Sahej Rahal As His Installations Pop Up All Over Liverpool

Sahej Rahal’s  artworks are as much science fiction and fantasy as they are weird and wonderful. Using absurd characters and beings that glide past like phantasms, all playing parts in a larger mythological narrative that is constantly expanding; Rahal’s creations seem like a collision of the past and present,  a seemingly foreboding future, as you questions your understanding of time and space. Working with film, performances and installations, Rahal’s eclectic style has created waves both across the Indian art scene as well as internationally as he travels the world telling tales about everything from history and culture, to religion, science and fantasy.

Born and brought up in the sprawling Mumbai metropolis, Rahal graduated from Rachana Sansad Academy of Fine Arts, trained in painting but branched out into other mediums of artistic expression. “I moved away from it in my final year and started using found objects,” he tells us from Liverpool where he is currently putting up installations of clay sculptures in multiple locations, including historic sites such as the Liverpool town square known as Exchange Flags, Tate Liverpool and a disused Art Deco theatre, among others. But Mumbai has always had a special kind of influence on his artistic style. “To me Mumbai is built like bricolage--you have Victorian architecture next to Art Deco, which is next to a postmodern mashing of glass and concrete, and it all looks like it’s been around since yesterday and strangely also forever, at the same time. I try to echo that in my process, like the absurdness of the past and the future colliding into each other,” he explains.

‘FORERUNNER’ by Sahej Rahal on Vimeo

Rahal works primarily with objects he finds in his wanderings around the world, which he then transforms into tools used by the absurdist beings in his performances as part of rituals in public spaces. There are two reasons he gives for using found objects, the first is pretty straightforward--it’s free and Mumbai is always full of stuff to use, but it’s also not as simple as that. “I feel like we leave behind entire histories in these objects when we throw them away. It became a bit of a game for me where I’d start looking for crazier things to find every time I’d step out, and then come back and try to make sense of the mess I’d collected,” he says.

“Over time, I’ve found broken sitars, burnt furniture, and train parts, and I started making costumes and weapons out of them. Before I knew it I had this whole set of crazy things that looked like they came out of some fictional civilisation, so I just kept going...I usually go with whatever I find, sometimes it’s a weird looking piece of furniture or train handle that looks like it came out of one of Jorge Luis Borges’ stories, or something out of a space opera, and then I’ll cook up my own tales about what those things are.”

When you think about any kind of artistic expression in public spaces, especially in India, you can never ascertain the reaction or reception, more so when it’s something that everyone cannot fully grasp at first. But Rahal enjoys never knowing what to expect. “I feel like a viewer or participant in a collective act of meaning-making during the performances, rather than a performer who is separate from the public,” he says. In Liverpool, Rahal is making a series of  ‘ruins’ spread out all across the city, he made the objects with scrap metal and wood that he found and covered them in terracotta clay, “making them look like forgotten artifacts from lost civilisation,” he says.

His favourite work, so far, he tells us is a video he made back in 2012 called Saras. Finding a broken Saraswati idol under the Andheri flyover, he carried it back to his studio to work with. “I crawled inside it and animated the idol, making it appear like it was trying to breathe. It still freaks me out every time I watch it,” he says. As we made our way through the maze of his work, however, it quickly became apparent that a lot of his works have an unexpected impact on its viewers, making them particularly powerful. For this reason, and many others, Rahal’s voice is a continuously important one both in and around the spaces that define today’s art world.

‘Saras’ by Sahej Rahal on Vimeo

Click here to view more of Sahej Rahal’s work and follow his incredible artistic journey. We’re posting below images of his latest installations in Liverpool, courtesy of Sahej Rahal. 

Feature image courtesy of Sahej Rahal and Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai.