23 October 2020


Neha Kudchadkar "Handjob",  2018, Image © Stashia D'souza for Mumbai Art Room

Neha Kudchadkar works at the intersection between ceramics, installation and photography. While in the making she often uses her own body as a tool, she also implies it as a site of investigation with materiality, spatiality, identity and otherness. Neha Kudchadkar’s ceramic work Handjob will be featured in the exhibition “Love Letters: Stories of Distant Proximities” at Horse and Pony, Berlin, from the 24th of October until the 22nd of November, 2020. The curators of the show, Lea Schleiffenbaum and Marie DuPasquier took the opportunity to discuss with the artist on her work presented in the show, her process, and her thoughts on intimacy, touching and caring in times of social distancing. 

Lea Schleiffenbaum and Marie DuPasquier: Can you describe the individual tools in the tool box of your work “Handjob” and explain their function? 

Neha Kudchadkar  “Handjob” is a tool-kit for loving. The ten individual tools serve various real and fictitious functions. They can be used to caress, nurture, groom, and love, and come with an instruction manual to direct – maybe control – your acts of intimacy. 

Neha Kudchadkar "Pinch Your Thumb and Three Fingers," Installation View, Image © Stashia D'Souza For Mumbai Art Room

LS & MDP: These ceramic prosthetics bear your fingerprints and were made at your own measures, but they are reproduced in an industrial casting process, as if they had the ambition to become fake universals. Can you talk a bit more about the specificity of the material and its relationship to the work as a whole?

NK: I think the universality of the tool box stems from how extremely personal it is. Each ‘digital' tool was modelled as a prosthetic directly on my finger, in response to a particular incident from the day. A mould was then made from it, and it was slip-cast, to make the 5 editions of the tool-kit. The slip-casting was integral to the process. It felt important to use an industrial, almost impersonal technique, to manufacture the final tool-kit. The work itself rides precariously between the deeply private and seemingly distant, and this quality certainly contributes to the process. To the skin, the coldness of the fired ceramic body presents a very different, unexpected kind of sensuality. It is very different from bodily touch, but luscious and sweet in its very particular way. The slip cast clay also offers a certain fragility, which informs the way it is approached and handled when used. 

Neha Kudchadkar "Pinch Your Thumb and Three Fingers," Installation View,  Image © Stashia D'Souza For Mumbai Art Room

LS & MDP: The objects have a very performative quality to them, calling for direct use. On display in a contemporary art exhibition, however, they are sculptures. How does the context inform the work? What function do they have for the audience?

NK: The questions underpinning a lot of my practice are, for example, if it is possible for my body to become sculpture. Or, for my sculpture to become my body? And these questions inform the process of thinking through and making the work. Maybe it is possible to extend that to the question “can gesture become sculpture?” The reason that these objects feel performative is exactly because they are. It IS a call for action from the audience. I want sensual engagement with these tools. I want people to wear them, to use them. And I am interested in the experience of a sort of intimate, private play on the public platform of an art exhibition. How would that change the work, and the exhibition space? 

The pieces may or may not fit everyone or be comfortable, of course, since they are made to the dimensions of my body and to its specific experiences, and that is a secondary conversation that the pieces allow. It is a constant underlying dialog between my body and the body of the person holding the object. 

Neha Kudchadkar "Body"

LS & MDP: “Handjob” is complemented by a very beautiful film you made. It shows hands performing different gestures. Can you say a bit more about the different gestures shown in the film and how they came about? Are they connected to the individual pieces in "Handjob"?

NK: The film is a performance of gestures of care and of play, of ownership and of release. With the absence of the other body on which one expects to /longs to /is forced to enact this play, the gestures become abstract, incomplete, almost meaningless – but not quite. They still hold space for gentleness, and for reciprocity. They live on as fragile traces of intimate encounters. So, in a way the film is about the ephemerality of intimacy. That said, somewhere, the film is also me critiquing the basic premise of “Handjob”. It is a visual play on the phrase empty gestures, for all the times I have wondered if all this mediated loving is even real. 

Neha Kudchadkar "All That is in This Thing", Installation View, Image © Chroma Istanbul for Display

LS & MDP: You conceived these pieces back in 2017, while participating in the residency Stadttöpferei at Künstlerhaus Neumünster. At that time, you were away from your closest maybe and not always able to care for them as you wished. Your pieces have a particular resonance in the current situation. How do you look at these pieces right now? Would these tools for physical communication be the same and designed the same today?

NK: Yes. That was a tumultuous time personally. From Neumünster, I was tending to my critically ill mother, a new romance (in Bombay) and a pregnant sister (in London) virtually, because that was the only way to be with all of them at the same time. Handjob was made to explore the emotional power of touch, and that of mediated touch. To look at ideas of interdependence and mediated dependence. It was a way to look at technology driven changes in gestural language. And it was the only way I could make sense of everything that was going on. 

I understand why the work has a resonance in this current, incredibly complex time. Across the globe, people have had to resort to technologically mediated intimacy.  We are also becoming aware, that this is not only intimacy mediated by technology but also, with our devices and with the technology. And we don’t know where this new relationship might take us. Could we eventually bypass human touch to fulfil our needs, even the need for touch itself? The pandemic has brought about a new type of awareness and grounding of our bodies in the physical space they occupy, and in their relationship to other bodies around them. And that is also something extremely interesting. Importantly, it has also highlighted  somato-political privileges and prejudices of some bodies against others. I think if I was making the tools today, I would not be able to ignore all these new realities. The toolbox would have to expand to accommodate tools for protection (political and physical), for distancing (social and physical), tools for self care and for self destruction. One thing I have been wondering about a lot, in these unpredictable days is what happens to the tools if the relationship dies or after those people you have loved die. Do they become defunct, or might we just refresh and move on? 

Neha Kudchadkar "MOLT 1"

LS & MDP: How can we care for each other without touch?

NK: I understand care as an emotional and sensual response to the other and to our own selves. In this definition there is the scope to access and satisfy the needs and desires of all of the various senses. We can express care with a smile, with a warm, nutritious meal, with a song, with fresh flowers on our work desks, with introspection, or by just hearing someone out. This is the opportunity to reconfigure the materiality of care and value the sensorial experience of care beyond physical touch. Touch itself is multi-sensorial. We are all synaesthetes. We can be touched by a beautiful sunset, or by the plight of migrants walking across a country. And we could not be more aware of our fragility. To continue to coexist we have to be mindful and care-full.

LS & MDP: The title you chose leaves room for many associations: handicraft, handmade, handjob, blowjob... Can you elaborate on the title and how it came about?

NK: You are correct in making these connections. I think these associations make the work richer. “Handjob” was made from a very difficult personal space, and it was important for me not to impose that darkness on my audience. The title assumes a playfulness and brings accessibility to the tools and at the same time it does suggest openness to vulnerability, a certain intimacy and comfort with oneself.