A distinguished architect and an artist renowned for seamlessly blending innovative architectural designs with profound artistic expressions, Ankon Mitra is making strides in paper art. At India Design ID 2024, Mitra curates a first-of-its-kind paper exhibition in the country, in collaboration with Apparao Galleries, where he showcases works of over 70 artists.
How did you become a paper artist? You are also an architect.
While studying architecture, I loved the idea of being a landscape architect; of being in nature, working with nature, shaping nature’s living and non-living materials to curate and create gardens and stunning outdoor spaces. While on that journey, I discovered folds in nature all around me, in me. I became passionate about learning more about the technique of folds. Origami was an easy and accessible initiation into the practice of folding, and paper was the most abundantly available material to start this in-depth research. A lifetime’s journey of evolution began by folding paper.
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your work?
Mother Nature. I also include the Universe and the Cosmos in this definition of ‘Mother Nature’. Artists who have dedicated their lives to folding are also influences; Tomoko Fuse and Ruth Asawa are two such icons. Other architects, sculptors, engineers like Dhanraj Bhagat, Umberto Boccioni, Mrinalini Mukherjee, Pierre Luigi Nervi, Eladio Dieste, Felix Candela and Erwin Hauer are names that come to mind. My mother taught me creativity and my father, dedication, discipline and fortitude. The Upanishads teach me how to live my life dedicated to my craft. My son teaches me the importance of imagination – how to forever remain curious and to never grow cynical, jaded or frustrated with daily tribulations.
Your work challenges the standard notion of form…when did this process of questioning start for you and how?
All forms come from nature. My mother is a very spiritual person and she taught me to recognise my smallness in the cosmos, but to also understand our abiding connection to the vastness. Humans cannot invent anything new. But we don’t need to. We can unearth / discover forms that pre-exist in nature by a process of curiosity, careful observation and visualisation. We are limited by our physical existence in a three dimensional world. The conviction that higher dimensions exist, and that I can understand them one day, keeps me forever excited. I gravitate towards forms that dance tantalisingly close to that conception of the higher dimensions. I know in my soul that they exist, but that we cannot ‘see them’ with our conventional eyes, just as infrared and ultraviolet lights exist but lie outside of our spectrum of vision. These intense conversations with Mother Nature – of what is not yet visible but can be – is my endless fountain of creative energy.
What’s your process when you start new work?
In the studio, we always start with a sketch. Our ‘sketches’ are paper models or maquettes; sculptures ‘in the round’ that we can look at from all six directions: north, south, east, west, top and bottom. The intense iterative process of making the sketch unites form, light, structure, material and detailing into a single cohesive entity.
What do you see as the strengths of your chosen material, visually and conceptually?
As an architect I work with a lot of materials like textiles, concrete, wood veneer, plastic, ceramics, glass, stone, copper, brass, steel and so on – folding and moulding them through a process of intense and unique dialogues with these materials. But paper remains my first and abiding love. Paper can be very fragile and also super strong. It can be short lived and very long lived. It can make contortions that many other materials cannot even dream of. It can be cut, pulped, wet-folded, sculpted, beaten, reassembled, glued, painted, thickened, thinned, combined with other materials and worked with in a dizzying variety of ways. It can be opaque or opalescent, structural or decorative, massive (like a house made of paper tubes) or tiny beyond comprehension (like chits the size of grains of salt). It is one of the most ancient and versatile materials invented by man, it is a supreme joy to be able to play with paper on a daily basis.
What is the idea and the intention behind ON PAPER OF PAPER?
Following from the versatility of paper as a medium and material, it naturally follows that there would be talented artists everywhere working with and reinventing paper in their own unique ways. Artists tend to operate in their ivory towers, isolated and engaged in meditations within their practices. But since the last 5-6 years, as I have been participating in global exhibitions and art events that celebrate paper (the Shanghai Paper Art Biennale, Art on Paper New York, the Lucca Biennale in Italy, and so on), I started observing that globally there is a strong recognition and respect for paper art, sculpture and installations. Coming back home from these places, I also began to sense that a critical mass was emerging in India as well. From my observations over the last decade, I am now aware of many brilliant paper art practices in our own country (many still working quietly away from publicity and the arc-lights). There is as yet no unified platform which celebrates paper art, design, sculpture and installations at a significant scale. This initiative “On Paper Of Paper” is the first tentative step to kindle the possibility of creating a network and community around these diversity of practices which are immersed in making with paper. I am hoping this exhibition will seed the idea of an Indian Paper Art Biennale/Triennale.
What can we expect to see at your curation at ID?
The broad theme is Dashavatar – the ten avatars of Vishnu from ancient lore. As a metaphor, the energy of the cosmos evolves from a simple fish, to a turtle, a boar, then a man-lion, onwards and upwards to more and more complex beings. This exhibition looks at the simplest use of paper to most sublime effect, to its most complex rendition as a material of thinking and making. Visitors will be intrigued, surprised and awe-inspired to see the mind-boggling things that artists, architects and designers can do with paper. From that humble flat white sheet, of weak inert material, springs forth a cosmos full of possibilities.
How is paper art doing as an art form in India? What hopes do you have for it?
Conventional gallery ecosystems are waking up to the possibilities of paper art and sculpture. Many of the prestigious galleries now include paper artists in their annual programs of group and solo shows, giving them support, a platform to exhibit and also sustain from building careers around making with paper. There is of course still apprehension and ignorance, genuine concerns on longevity in our dusty and environmentally varied climate. But every technical challenge has a technical solution – and artists are also inventing ever new ways of overcoming those barriers. Following the success at the Lucca Biennale and Arte Laguna in Venice, the scale and audacity of paper installations in my own practice have challenged all conventions and preconceived notions over the years (my practice turned 17 this year), so I am very hopeful that exhibitions like these (and more) will go a long way in opening the public’s eyes and intellect to the magic of paper art and expression – beyond origami boats and paper-planes, and beyond watercolours, oil pastels and print-making on paper. The idea also is that paper artists and practitioners engage and learn from each other, collaborate and grow together through bonds like the invisible fibres that mesh together to make paper what it is.
Visit ON PAPER – OF PAPER, a unique paper exhibition of 70+ artists from across the country, curated by Ankon Mitra in collaboration with Apparao Galleries, at India Design ID 2024.Where: NSIC Grounds, Okhla, New Delhi. When: Feb 15-18, 2024.