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Karthik Pandian’s art is not static, it is fluid

Danforth Lecture Hall’s cozy interior slowly filled with people for the first Art Lecture Series speaker of the spring semester, Wednesday, Feb. 1, to present multimedia artist Karthik Pandian, for a talk on his creative process and art work.

Pandian graduated from the Arts Center College of Design in 2008, and has gone on to be featured in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Rhona Hoffman Gallery and other notable institutions both nationally and internationally. He has worked in film, sculpture and, more recently, dance.

He started off his lecture by sneezing.

“I’m really interested in a physical reaction to a stimulus,” Pandian said. “Something where we can’t quite separate the involuntary from voluntary.”

Like a sneeze, he considers his art to be a physical reaction to an outside stimulus. When delving into the process behind his work “On Earth,” he described when he first saw the Cahokia Mounds in Missouri, earthen structures from prehistoric times, and uncovered the layers of history that surrounded them. The visual impact of the mounds struck him. 

“I need to have this moment of enchantment tinged with suspicion for me to get into it,” Pandian said.

From there, he researched, noticed connections between the sun’s path and the mounds’ architecture, and attended an exhibit on the Cahokia Mounds. He incorporated archaeologists’ pink thread and grids into his ideas, and then tried his hand at making a square pillar of compacted earth.

“I almost never know what the hell I’m doing in the beginning, and I love that,” Pandian said.

He found some free dirt on Craigslist and set up shop in his friend’s parking lot, ramming earth inside a wooden mold.

Pandian went on to show pictures of the first iteration of his exploration of the Cahokia Mounds, the second and then the third. For each show, he would build and then subsequently destroy each pillar in the gallery room.

“On Earth” was not his only project. He introduced his love of film in his exhibit called “Darkroom,” and his new direction into choreography in “Atlas Revisited.”

“It all began with ‘Darkroom,'” Pandian said. “The two [shows] in between represent the high point after ‘Darkroom.’”

His lecture called on many themes, including questioning his own art, freedom, the ever present ‘un-freedom’ as he calls it, and layers of thought and history. Supplemented with pictures and videos, Pandian’s lecture conveyed a sense of peace, but also, paradoxically, a sense of constant questioning, never completely settled.

“I keep bothering the work – I can’t leave it alone,” Pandian said. “I get obsessive and I also radically want to move on.”

Freedom and the possibility of not having it anymore is inevitably tied to the present. Pandian keeps both in mind when working, believing that freedom itself is tied to constraint. 

“One thing I try to remind [people] in my work is that un-freedom is nearby,” Pandian said. “If we acknowledge and honor that tension, we could live freedom instead of go on about it in speeches.”

Catherine Wagner, a professor of studio art at Mills, first saw Pandian’s work about two years ago. Since then, she invited him to speak at Mills in the Art Lecture Series.

“I was fascinated by how formally beautiful [his work] was and how intellectually rigorous it was,” Wagner said. “He was a high-level example of how process becomes part of the medium.”

Something Pandian continually came back to was suspicion of his work; as he questions the world around him, he also questions himself, but he continues to produce art.

“There is a contact with ecstatic truth, when you’re learning something new,” Pandian said. “My motivation is to keep digging into the well, and the other is to share it.”

Studio art major Juli Lopez attended the lecture and found Pandian’s artistic development for each show fascinating.

“A lot of people think of art as precious, but he thinks of it as a process,” Lopez said. “He lives in his art. He is so in tune with everything around him.”

Currently, Pandian is working on “Atlas Revisited,” filming camels performing Merce Cunningham’s choreography in collaboration with his friend Andros Zins-Browne.

The Art Lecture Series is organized by the graduate MFA students in studio art, and continues through the spring semester. Please check out the MCAM website for more information.