Samdani Art Foundation
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Rathin Barman, Landscape From Memory (Situation 1), 2014. Commissioned and produced by the Samdani Art Foundation for the Dhaka Art Summit 2014. Courtesy of the artist, the Dhaka Art Summit and the Samdani Art Foundation. 

Indian artist Rathin Barman was born in 1981 surrounded by Bangladesh on three sides. Tripura, India’s third smallest state, shares close historical ties with Bangladesh. These close ties cause strife between the regions, and trade was recently suspended due to protests against tariff hikes. Barman’s parents, as well as many other people he grew up around, are originally from Bangladesh and fled the country post the riots of the 1950s and 1960s. When thinking about the relationship between India and Bangladesh, the artist reflects that “people in my village can speak several Bangladeshi languages. Apart from political issues things are almost same. So, I assume, it’s the same land which is just politically divided.”

Tripura is geographically cut off from the rest of India, and due to the economic disadvantages of its isolation, many youth people from Tripura such as Barman have to migrate to cities like Kolkata to make their way in the world. The artist has experienced first hand the transforming effects of globalisation, and looks at it with a close lens in his work, which while seemingly contradictory is both site-specific and universal. Despite his young age, Barman likes to look deep into present realities, shifting his gaze to the foundations for the issues we experience today.

Rathin Barman had initially been trained to become mechanical engineer, but soon with the help of his brother, abandoned his courses to join the University’s Fine Arts department. Barman has used his engineering knowledge how to create ambitious structures that break moulds and force the audience to look at the world in new ways. He creates new structures, but ones that are primarily based on structures that had been put together in different ways by someone else. His practice has focused on this fascination with old buildings, and their fate after their redevelopment,in rapidly changing urban spaces in the subcontinent and other parts of the developing world. Similar to building new structures, Barman explores building a new mold out of a material that once had a different use, such as his corrugated paper works employing removal boxes, now re-assigned to creating entire living rooms to illustrate the ideas of quick and mobile living which forgets roots. This lifestyle often comes at the expense of historical buildings and Barman tasks himself with documenting the old buildings of Kolkata, imagining what will become of them after their scheduled demolition.

One body of work which has earned Barman international acclaim is his series of sculptures transforming iron reinforcement bars and found rubble into structures which comment on the constant pressure for urban development - rural areas are transforming into urban centres, much like his own. Barman made his international debut at the Frieze New York Sculpture Park in 2012, curated by Tom Eccles, with Untitled, currently on view at the DeCordova Sculpture Park, Massachussets, USA, making Barman the first sculptor of Asian origin to exhibit at the park. DeCordova describes Barman’s work as both universal and site specific. While the iron reinforcement bar structures travelled from India, the rubble that fills the sculpture must be collected from the local area where the work is being exhibited. When the work was shown at Frieze New York, the rubble came from New York City, when the work was shown again at DeCordova, the rubble was collected from Lincoln, MA. Urbanisation is a universal and increasingly homogeneous issue, but the crumbled residue beneath new developments shows the breadth of history that developers are paving over.

While previous works highlighted the distinctions between different urban centres through the physicality of the wreckage filling his structures, for his commission for the Dhaka Art Summit, Barman expects the rubble he finds in Dhaka to be strikingly similar to that which he finds around his studio in Kolkata, pointing to shared history between the two Bengals and paving over the differences in between, which become fewer and fewer through globalisation’s effects on both urban India and Bangladesh.

The form of this work draws the viewer into the sad reality of many cities in urban South Asia. The desire to expand and grow overrides the need for adequate urban planning and building codes; entire cities are being built in ways that defy any idea of a sustainable urban landscape. Recent disasters, such as the highly publicised Rana Plaza incident, as well as other incidents with less media attention in Mumbai, Kolkata and elsewhere, speak of the high human cost of industrialisation gone wrong. Methods and planning behind many new buildings in the region are questionable and Barman’s work uses the language of development and the debris of its past, to raise these questions.

In Landscape From Memory (Situation 1), the mammoth iron and rubble structure stands as a monument that bears the memories of several tragedies that are marked by architectural evidence of poor urban planning and civil negligence. It is a tragically ordinary urban visual of failed dreams of transforming space. While the way in which this work pierces space and calls to mind Chris Burden’s Beam Drop, Landscape from Memory (Situation 1) critiques the liberties that builders subject the public to, rather than celebrating freedom from the modern urban grid. Many developers in South Asia want the look of the grid without properly planning for it, and this is where many of the region’s problems arise. Like the work of Lida Abdul, Barman’s work provides hope that we can rebuild from the crumbling ruins around us, and heal and progress without repeating history’s tragic mistakes.