Transparent Studio: Interview with Priyanka Dasgupta – Part 1

Born in Kolkata, India in 1979, Priyanka Dasgupta has a MA in Studio Art from NYU/ICP (2003) and a BA in Literature from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi (2000). She has participated in the Aljira Emerge with Creative Capital (2007) and AIM Program (2005). Dasgupta is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award (2004). Her video installations have been exhibited extensively in the US, Europe and Asia including The International Center of Photography, Wagner Gallery, Galleria di Piazza San Marco,
Shrine Empire, and Seoul Art Space . Dasgupta’s work belongs to several prominent collections. She lives and works in New York, NY.

Anita Sharma: Can you describe the conceptual framework for your residency at Bose Pacia’s Transparent Studio Program? Has working in the space enabled you to explore new dimensions of your drawing, video and sculpture practice?

Priyanka Dasgupta: The privilege of an actual physical space in which to conceive and build my installations was just a pipe dream until I was accepted into Bose Pacia’s Transparent Studio Program. It is an absolutely amazing feeling to be responsible for going somewhere every morning, where one’s sole priority is to focus on making art. I could definitely get used to this!

My first days in the space, I will admit, I was quite nervous and lost, unable to imagine how I would do justice to this opportunity, as I have become so accustomed to working in a corner, editing on my computer by the window in my living room, conceiving of multidisciplinary installations in my head and translating them into tiny drawings in my notebook. The opportunity to physically realize these, if ever, for the first and only time, have been in an exhibit, leaving little or no time for exploration. The Transparent Studio Program at Bose Pacia is ideally suited for my practice, and perfectly timed, as I have a specific project that I am working on and a real need for the space to build it. The residency embodies that perfect balance between private studio and public space – the ‘transparent’ provides a much-needed discipline, and the ‘studio’, a physical, space, to explore, build and experiment with one’s work. Although the idea of having one’s studio in what is essentially a store front, was a bit awkward at first, DUMBO is perhaps an ideal neighborhood for it, as it is quiet and the people that have stopped by and asked questions, have expressed genuine interest in the work and process.

Working in the space has given me, above all, an unparalleled opportunity to actually live with my work, allowing it to emerge from the computer screen while still in its initial stages, and develop in an actual physical space. Along with sharing my process with the public, I too, for the first time, am an audience to it.

AS: What is the inspiration behind your mechanical shadow puppet installation?

PD: Over the years, I have witnessed my grandmother’s failing health cause her to withdraw from her family, replacing us with objects that remain her only close contacts. These objects, which include a transistor radio, saltine crackers, a hand-mirror and a mysterious tin box, each covered carefully with a pristine handkerchief, have been promoted from the dressing table to the bedside table to the actual bed, where they currently remain at all times, by her side.

The large, mechanized, shadow puppet is inspired by my grandmother, and visualizes her dependency on these few precious objects, in order to cope with her deteriorating health. The puppet’s, almost comical, jerky, frantic movements, are attempts to maintain control over these objects, and parallels our own tendency to seek harbor in material attachments, playfully exposing the futility of this popular coping mechanism.

In the course of the residency, I plan to complete the construction and mechanization of the puppet, enabling it to physically interact with its audience, in an immerse environment of video projections, that visualize my grandmother’s memories.

AS: Storytelling and narrative traditions often form the backdrop of your work.  When did you first begin working with the technique of shadow puppetry? 

PD: My parents bought my brother and I our first puppet (that I can remember) when I was ten. I remember playing with it for hours, narrating imagined stories, making it dance, watching my brother manipulate it in a series of very amusing poses, being completely fascinated by how animated and alive it became. I’m pretty sure I’ve been subconsciously obsessed with puppets since then. Even earlier than that, I remember being taken to a puppet show somewhere in Delhi, where a Polish puppeteer cut many puppets out of paper, strung them together and then set them on fire! That memory probably explains the morbid nature of my work, even though, even today, I still find it immensely amusing!

I first began collaborating with puppets, more specifically their shadows, about seven years ago, when I used the shadow of a puppet my brother had given me, in a video titled ‘havaldaar imaandar’ (earnest policeman). Subsequently, I created other videos with shadows as protagonists, most recently in a collaborative work with fellow artist Karla Carballar, titled ‘Not Ungrateful, Just Planning Ahead’, in which we adapted and visualized a scene from the book ‘Damage’ by Amrita Kumar, entirely with shadows.

I have, for quite some time, felt the need to incorporate physical, sculptural objects in my video installations, but did not actually start making puppets myself until last year, for the installation, ‘Dreams of In-convenience’. I created three puppets for this installation. Each, a protagonist in the work, is a physical embodiment of the inner conflicts addressed in it, and guardians of the resulting immersive environment.

AS:  Your characters inhabit liminal spaces which are multi-layered and often reveal complex dialogues. Can you talk about this in relation to the project you are currently working on?

PD: The protagonist in my current work, is an old, spidery-armed female puppet, floating cross-legged, that jerks and twitches away from her audience, possessively clutching at objects she holds dear. Inspired by my grandmother’s frustrations and frantic attempts to cope with her fading memories, the puppet will embody the center of a larger installation involving multiple video projections, that house her memories and incorporate her flailing shadows, within them. Ultimately, I hope to fill the entire space with projections, transforming the studio into an interactive, shadow box, where the audience is inadvertently incorporated into the artwork, their shadows becoming part of the projections, immersed in these constantly evolving, imaginative spaces. The engagement of the audience with the work is essential to it – they become stand-ins for those that my grandmother is rejecting, replacing with her objects, as well as create room for a larger dialogue around our own preference  of material objects, in place of real, unpredictable, often turbulent, human relationships.

AS: Can you tell us about your upcoming collaborative projects?

PD: I believe that every one of my works is the result of a collaboration. My husband, who is immensely patient with me, is a constant source of advice and feedback. In addition, I am hoping to collaborate with a programmer, to write the program that will enable the puppet to react to its audience, to achieve the kind of mechanized movements I am hoping for.

I am also hoping to collaborate with members of the band, Mon Khmer, who will compose music for the completed puppet, and perform this during the Dumbo Arts Festival in September.

Another collaborative project that I am involved in, separate from the puppet, is with performing artist and director, Soriya Chum, of Billy and Company. Our collaboration involves the direction and creation of an immersive, visual environment within which we will stage his adaptation of August Strindberg’s, ‘A Dream Play’. We plan to share the first act of this play with the public in the studio space in early October.

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