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Visual Arts

Insights: Parvathi Nayar

Approaching sustainability through sculpture


Published: 31 May 2022

Time taken : ~10mins

The practice of Parvathi Nayar is concerned with understanding the world that we live in and engages with pressing issues like sustainability and global warming. Nature is an endless source of inspiration and motivation for her art. Her exhibition BreatheWater at the Theatre Street Cones explores the existence of diatoms (microscopic organisms that are found in the oceans) as a means of examining the impact of climate change and pollution, topics which have become more urgent in recent times. In this interview, Nayar discusses her interests in sustainability, our relationship with our environments and how these are manifested in her artistic practice.  

Your practice is concerned with the intersection of art and science, using the latter as a prism to explore such themes as sustainability and man's relationship with nature and the environment. Could you share on the genesis of "BreatheWater" and what led you to explore this topic?

Interesting things happen at intersections, when the accepted paths of things are diverted and new forms are allowed to emerge. For me, when art and science intersect, it is a meeting of two value streams: a rigorous way of examining the world through what can be observed and an equally compelling way of describing the world through what can be imagined. There is a deep truthfulness in both.

I have been working with diatoms for a while, as you have mentioned, in the spaces of sustainability, water and man’s relationships to the environment. The commission from Esplanade offered an opportunity to explore an experiential artwork based on these ideas. In a related sense, single diatoms are not visible to the naked eye, and this was a way to show how the truth of the world can change when the lenses of perception change. Da Vinci’s dictum that “everything connects to everything else” is actually quite a provocative and intriguing way to look at the world. 

You are known for your notable experimentations with "drawn" sculpture. Could you tell us more about this form and how "BreatheWater" builds upon this?

The project that came to be called BreatheWater was conceived as a way to reinterpret my drawing in three-dimensional form, within the context of my work on water and the environment. Working closely with Esplanade’s visual arts team, I explored several sketches, forms, materials and structures based on my drawings of diatoms. It was a very intensive and unusual process of observation and reflection upon my own drawings with a view to how they could be interpreted—and eventually, abstracted, while remaining true to their original conceptualisation. In the end, BreatheWater’s sculptural forms are realised as linear drawings in space that carve out volumes where they can swim and float, establishing relationships with each other and the spaces they occupy. 

There is a fascinating relationship between your triptych of drawings and the site-specific sculptural installation. What are your thoughts behind this dialogue between these two components of the exhibition?

What was particularly rewarding for me with BreatheWater is how the drawn forms of the triptych and the sculptural forms of the three Cones dialogue so perfectly with each other to create a single installation.

Both elements are conceived as tripartite structures, and there are deep resonances between the two, which complement each other in the experience of scale. The detailing of the drawings invites the viewers to come up close and receive the minutiae of the subatomic world. Its patterning is recalled in the giant forms of the sculptures of the Cones, which you have to step away to experience.

It is, in a sense, an interpretation of the idea of fractals, that allows for the complexities of patterning to repeat in micro-and macro-scales. Patterns are ways of understanding and storing information. On a holistic level, I think of the appearance and reappearance of patterns as ways that the rhythms of the universe are trying to teach us or communicate with us. Fractals are never-ending patterns that describe both the predictable unpredictability of phenomena and a certain interconnectedness of the world. Mandelbrot’s fractals, for me, are an inspirational point of reference when thinking of shapes and systems that repeat to create patterns of scale. 

My art does not preach or proscribe; it suggests, it proposes.

The Theatre Street Cones is a special space to situate your installation and one which we had extended conversations on. How do you see the site and installation working in concert for this exhibition?

BreatheWater is an installation that has evolved over two years, and I think that richness is seen in the final realisation of the concept. As forms and ideas developed, so did ideas of the spaces these “drawn diatoms” would occupy—On the ground? In the air? In a cluster? Floating free? Moving?

The sculptures of BreatheWater answer these questions very well in how they are situated in the public yet mysterious spaces of Esplanade’s soaring Theatre Cones. Though the sculptures do not have a kinetic mechanism, for example, they are yet kinetic in the sense that they move, based on the flow of people through the walkway of Theatre Street. I think of the sculptures as part of an oceanic installation where the viewer is positioned on an ocean floor looking up, immersed in a certain oneness with the waters. I am reminded of how Romain Rolland famously came up with the phrase ‘oceanic feeling’ in a letter to Sigmund Freud, which refers to some sort of expanded consciousness beyond the body, and a sense of limitlessness that comes from identifying with nature as a whole.

As the largest body of water on our planet, the ocean is a place of power, life and mystery that fascinates me. Not least because of its role in the biosphere’s carbon cycle and carbon sequestering that involves diatoms. Oceans cover over 70 per cent of our planet—giving it the moniker of the Blue Planet—and are intrinsic to our lives. My roots in Kerala, a state in India which is a large tract of land by the ocean, were influential too, as well as the large amounts of time I have lived in coastal cities, especially Chennai and Singapore. United Nations declaring a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (the “Ocean Decade” from 2021 to 2030) perhaps sharpened this pre-existing focus. 

Installation view of <em>BreatheWater</em>, Parvathi Nayar, 2022.

The message behind "BreatheWater" is poignant and one which comes at a time that could resonate meaningfully with audiences. How do you see this work speaking into our current milieu and what we are experiencing collectively across the world?

Climate change and its consequences are no longer a matter of ‘if’, but rather a matter of ‘when’. Especially as an artist and a mother, I do think deeply about the planet we have inherited and the legacy we leave behind for the next generations. While the prognosis is grim, it is important to remind ourselves of the beauty, wonder and interconnectedness of what we are aiming to preserve. BreatheWater, I hope, has the ability to draw attention to the urgency of these subjects in a way that is thoughtful and experiential. My art does not preach or proscribe; it suggests, it proposes.

See BreatheWater at the Theatre Street Cones from now until 24 Jul. 

About the artist

The practice of Parvathi Nayar (b.1964, India) unfolds through complex and intricate drawings, video, installation, text, and photography. Her art talks about the environment, urban memory and sustainability, with water as a consistent theme. She often utilises science as a prism to excavate microscopic and macroscopic perspectives that explore her deep fascination with the philosophies of space. Nayar has participated in numerous exhibitions including Chennai Photo Biennale 3: Maps of Disquiet (2021/22), We Are Ocean by Artport_Making Waves – Marseille, Berlin, Venice, (2019-2021), DAMNed Art Show, Goethe-Institut Chennai, India (2018), Whorled Explorations, Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India (2014) and Pulp Friction, Singapore Art Museum (2001). She is a founder-member of The Hashtag#Collective.

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