Rudolf and Bambi

Rudolf and Bambi
acrylic, felt and vinyl bindis on fiberglass
69 x 44 x 14 in. (175.3 x 111.8 x 35.6 cm.) Rudolf; 31 x 47 x 12 in. (78.7 x 119.4 x 30.5 cm.) Bambi
Executed in 2002; Two sculptures
Bharti Kher, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, 2007, pp. 194-197
Kolkata, Center of International Modern Art; New Delhi, India Habitat Center; Mumbai, Coomarswamy Hall, Sidewinder, 2002
Hvikdden, Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, The Tree from the Seed: Contemporary Art from India, 2003
New Delhi, Nature Morte, Hungry Dogs Eat Dirty Pudding, 2004


One of the leading figures in Indian Contemporary Art, Bharti Kher is famed for her innovative sculptures that assemble, juxtapose and transform found and casted objects. Re-contextualising the bindi as a metaphor for seeing the world has been an ongoing concern of the artist. Commonly worn on the forehead by Indian women and associated with marital rites and ritual practice, Kher has turned the material into rich source of language that confronts and questions multiple narratives.

According to Kher, "The bindi has always been a representation, a sign for me. It marks time and place, moment and action. Its typography and a text and they are as much about geodesy as they are microbiology. It's a language that I have created I suppose and developed over time and practice to make sense and question my ideas in the work, I make both as a figurative and abstract artist."

Gayatri Sinha further elaborates, "The meaning of the bindis themselves is I suspect submerged in their highly tactile beauty. But seen over a decade, they contain the energy of migration as they cover, occupy and crowd into space much like the migratory energy of our time. The feel of the exotic, the low tech production of bindi' and their deeply feminine associations mark the reading of these works of the play of an aesthetic both private and socially gendered [...] In Kher's words, they may be read "as letters or codes or maps that lead you home [] attaching themselves like a trace or a smear to staircases, cabinets, mirrors and most powerfully to sculptural bodies, a dramatic cast of characters" (G. Sinha, Seven Contemporaries, exhibition catalogue, December 2013, p. 80)

In Rudolf and Bambi Kher's iconic motif is the form of serpent-shaped bindis applied en masse to the skin of the two deer. For Gavin Jantjes, the Director of the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Kher's repeated methodological application of bindis metaphorically chants a "hypnotising contemporary mantra that emphasises the idea of the individual in the mass". (G. Jantjes, "The Tree from the Seed: Contemporary Art From India", in Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, The Tree from the Seed: Contemporary Art From India, Oslo, 2003, p. 15)

Although identical, each bindi is independently placed and intrinsically important to the building up of skin on the surface of the animals, stressing the importance of the identity of the individual. He writes,"Kher strategically uses animals as her subjects, and in Rudolf and Bambi, selects two specific deer, celebrated in children's popular culture but each from entirely unrelated narratives. Kher has inverted this truth by making a spectacle of the male of the species, leaving them to express themselves in a silent cacophony, a device through which questions of male identity arise with force. Deer are delicate in build as it is, but Kher has deliberately selected to portray the androgynously youthful Bambi and seemingly highly strung Rudolf with overtones of the comic rather than as majestic and heroic bucks, the Kings of the Forest. This exploits the scopophilic part of sexuality in which other people are taken as objects and subjected to a controlling and curious gaze. (Freud, Fetishism, pp. 345-357)

The gaze that these male animals are subject is part of a game of power, in which they are objectified in the same way as women often are in Indian society. Rudolf and Bambi on first appearances seem to be simply another male-female pairing as with the dogs, after all Bambi as a very young deer does not yet possess antlers and exudes a doe-like quality of meekness. Indeed in the film Bambi, the deer with his long eyelashes and gambolling skittishness looks like a girl but in fact is a boy. In reproducing the stereotype with such accuracy, I feel that Kher simultaneously manages to question both the notion of the essential subject and the viewer's unconscious or conscious adherence to it. I think she is asking us to both take stock of the power of visual images to fix ideals of identity in the unconscious and for the viewer to realise this trait in themselves. It should be noted that clearly the pairing of Rudolf with Bambi is not quite right because reindeer are a subarctic species who would not naturally occupy the same environment as a forest deer. This incompatibility could be taken as a clue that there is something artificial and contrived about the composition as well as a metaphor that criticises the essentialist fixity of race and gender as inherent in 'nature' rather than constructed politically in culture and society.

"To capture the essence of her work one needs to see beneath the surface layer the enchanted skin [...] because in Bharti Kher's work it is the second skin that speaks the truth." (Z. Ardalan, Bharti Kher, Parasol Unit, London, 2012, p. 20)

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