Altars to Alterity

by K. Malcolm Richards

The work of Binod Shrestha may be situated within an array of conceptual frameworks, broaching questions about memory, place, spirituality, and identity. At first glance, a framework of contemporary aesthetics could be imposed on his work. In particular, his restraint in materials, colors, and forms offers terrain that could be mapped in relation to the concerns of minimalist art, while his emphasis on process and performance, making and unmaking, could be set in relation to other strains of 1960s and 1970s artistic practice.

His willingness to move from medium to medium could also mark his work as bearing some debt to the polyvalent practices and theories of postmodernism, though Shrestha's work is fairly devoid of the ironic. Unlike postmodernism, the void bears little irony in his work, just bearing on marks of identity, marking presence with absence and absence with presence. Shrestha's work, however, not only relates to concerns from Western aesthetics, but also relates to Eastern aesthetics, linking his forms and practices to other concerns and experiences, even the experience of otherness.

Such an experience in its most radical form, the spiritual, opens the way into another framework that could be placed around Shrestha's work. Yet, if a spiritual framework is used to view his work, one needs to be attentive to the complexity of the spiritual within Shrestha's work. The spiritual is not simply something abstract, a graceful presentness, but, rather, something marked by material traces pointing to an experience once had.

His installations, for instance, are temporary works, altars to alterity bearing a number of meditations during their brief existence, from the process of making to being experienced by the viewer and to the unmaking of the work by artist and/or temporal erosion. In approaching spirituality, he asserts the materiality of his work. He does not offer an image of the spiritual, but, rather, a path from the material to the immaterial through his use of materials. The materials, such as sand, salt, and pigment, are simple and primal. They do not try to represent. They try to make materially present the immaterial.

The forms and materials for his work also bear relation to memories, offering another frame through which to discern the significance of these visual encounters. Drawing upon memories rooted in Nepal, Shrestha creates works articulating the contradictions of memory, of making the past present, of making memory into matter, of making memory matter, even if it is a matter of re-presenting an experience from a distant past. Such experiences are often marked by a sense of displacement, of evoking experiences not only taking place in the past, at a temporal distance, but also experiences marked by a great physical distance from their place origin, a longing that marks any sense of be-longing to a place.

Identity, moreover, is not just a matter of place and memory. It is a matter of body. The body figures in Shrestha's work not as the bearer of some homogeneous presence, but, instead, as a shell, as a husk housing a void. No permanent resident, the self occupies a body that is unique only through its marks of temporal and physical difference. At times, Shrestha uses the thumbprint, a mark of identifying difference from passports to mug shots, identifying an individual through a mark of the body, identifiable, but only in regards to some other's eyes. The thumbprint, unique to each individual, testifies to an identity, but only by being different, through difference. Identity, however, is not just a mark, a body, but something more, a consciousness, a self-reflection, re-membering, transcending, experiencing presence, a cosmic perception or even a self housed in aesthetic contemplation that can be experienced by all simply by just looking. All these modes and modalities of trying to frame the work of Binod Shrestha are never able to fully domesticate the nomadic practices marking his artistic production.

© Binod Shrestha