For the Love of Buildings: Avantika Bawa Interviewed

Avantika Bawa, A Pink Scaffold in the Rann, 2019–2020. Installation view. Painted scaffolds, dimensions variable, Kutch, India.

Avantika Bawa is a Portland-based artist who creates minimalist site-specific installations. I first encountered her work when I walked into the decaying, darkened Astor Hotel in Astoria, Oregon, where she had installed a golden scaffold for the 2016 Oregon Biennial. Uplit, with an eerie soundtrack of phantom construction sounds, the scaffold told the story of the building’s bygone era, tracing its arc from resplendence to ruin. The scaffolds she uses in her installations compel us to take pleasure in the rhythm of their repetitive, rectilinear lines as much as they draw the eye to the places that surround them. When I saw a photo of the enormous pink scaffold she installed on the salt flats in the Thar Desert of her native India, I reached out to ask if we could chat about it and the rest of her practice. We caught up over Zoom about the serendipitous events that gave rise to that installation, her love affair with buildings, and the influence that basketball has on her work. —Jennifer Rabin

Jennifer Rabin I’ve been following your work for years but haven’t had a chance to ask you where the idea of scaffolds came from.

Avantika Bawa I’ve always been interested in construction sites and the language of building. As an undergrad in India—before my work became so formal and clean and almost minimal—my subject matter was always informed by construction sites. Fast forward to 1996, I move to Chicago. I’m very much awed by the grid of the city and the urban planning and the architecture. All of that started to inform my work too, so I got more interested in architecture and working with buildings, cityscapes, and a language that was very geometric. 

JR Do you have a seminal memory that awakened this in you?

AB In India when I was doing my undergrad, the program was kind of formal but we could also choose what we painted or drew. A lot of my colleagues and classmates were very interested in the human figure. I liked drawing the human figure when it was just about the human figure, but placing the figure in a landscape was of little interest to me. It was more fun getting out to construction sites and hanging out with people who weren’t artists—whether it was the laborers or the people whose building was being reconstructed—and just hanging out in people’s yards as a bit of an intruder. 

Avantika Bawa, Mineral Spirits, 2016. Paint, scaffolds, looped audio, 68 x 43 x 23 feet. Astor Hotel, Astoria, OR.

JR So instead of allowing yourself to be indoctrinated by the formality of art school, you started making work in response to something inside you.

AB Yeah, and while traveling it allows me to see how buildings are constructed in Paris versus in Moscow or back in New Delhi. Some technologies that inform construction in the West are very different processes than you see in India. I remember when I started at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, I had a workshop orientation for a 3D class. The instructor said, “Do this with two-by-fours,” and I said, “What’s a two-by-four?” And everyone looked at me. I was thinking, “How do you know it’s a piece of wood if you’re coming from another country?” I felt like a bit of an idiot asking that question, but in India we don’t have such standard units of one-by-twos and two-by-fours. 

JR And it’s all ridiculous because a two-by-four isn’t actually two by four and a one-by-two isn’t one by two.

AB Exactly! But for me everything about construction building materials has always revealed so much. There’s an honesty in their utilitarian quality. I remember my first few years in the US, going to Home Depot was more fascinating than going to Anthropologie because of the way things were stacked and organized. I was like, “This is cool.” 

JR You’re a woman after my own heart.

AB I’m a little mad at Home Depot, though, because I just ordered scaffolds for a show I’m doing and one of them is bent.

JR The scaffolds in your work are prefabricated?

AB Yes. In India, in the past, they were made of bamboo. And people still use bamboo, but I like the ubiquitousness of the industrial metal scaffolds. 

JR When did you start using scaffolds in your work?

AB The first time was for a show at Gallery Maskara in Mumbai. I wanted to work with construction material and maybe build a fake wall and have some rebar exposed with different stacks of bricks. The curator asked, “Why are you complicating it?” I will give him credit for putting the idea of a scaffold in my head. They were repainting the space and he said “The scaffold is here. We can rent it.” First, I thought, “Oh, no it’s a dirty scaffold and I don’t want the nostalgia of the history of the scaffold and the chipping paint.” But the curator responded, “If something’s dirty we can clean it up.” So, then I started looking at the scaffold as this thing that stands for construction, this beautiful monolithic structure in itself. 

Avantika Bawa, A Pink Scaffold in the Rann, 2019–2020. Installation view. Painted scaffolds, dimensions variable, Kutch, India.

JR How did the scaffold on the salt flats in India come about?

AB In 2018, when I got the Hallie Ford fellowship, I was in Pendleton driving back from Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts to receive my big chunk of money from the foundation. My uncle in India said, “What are you gonna do with all this money?” I responded, “I’m gonna go build a big ass pink structure in the middle of the salt deserts or in Iceland.” I just said it like that. And then I stopped and thought that’s a damn good idea, so I’m gonna just make it happen.

JR: And then, a year later, you did. It’s like you spoke it into being.

AB I wanted a big white landscape, I have one right in my backyard back home on the Rann of Kutch, which are the salt flats in the Thar desert on the border between India and Pakistan. While I was planning the trip, I wrote to two friends from school who were cousins asking if they still had family in Kutch. Both said, “Yeah we have an uncle. Do you want to see if he or his family can help you out with this thing?” So, I land in Kutch and called him. Turns out the family changed the economy of the landscape many years ago. The grandfather figured that by extracting bromine from the salt flats that he could create a factory. And the grandmother took it upon herself to save this dying art of embroidery from all these nomads in the region—so handicrafts were prospering. Suddenly I’m sitting in a boardroom with ten men who said, “If you want to do this properly, we’ll help you.” I landed on the biggest jackpot, and they were such humble people. When I spoke to my friends later I said, “You didn’t tell me that your family owns the town and are the biggest industrialists in the area.”

JR That was a very happy accident.

AB A very, very happy accident! 

JR Something I want to go back to that I heard you say—which I was a little surprised by—is I heard you refer to your practice as “almost minimalist.”

AB Yeah, I know. In looking at the hardcore minimalists, their work is so stripped. Sometimes I feel like that. My scaffolds are minimal. But my drawings of buildings have a bit of a building narrative. I want to reach a stage where the work is so stripped down, but right now I like that it has a little bit of a reference to a building in the drawings. 

Avantika Bawa, Coliseum 16, 2017. Graphite on paper, 40 x 60 inches. Collection of the Portland Art Museum, OR.

JR Can you talk a little bit about the difference between your 2D and 3D practice?

AB I’m a hyper extrovert and that extroverted behavior is satisfied when I meet people and especially when I’m installing scaffolds in educational institutions. Hanging out with students is great, and I love having them help me install and paint. I also love talking to preparators and getting their input on things. I like the physicality of 3D, sculptural work: holding a scaffold and walking from point A to point B, my whole body is involved. But there are times when I don’t want to depend on people or I want to go into my studio, shut myself off from the rest of the world, and have this more solitary and monastic practice that drawing allows me to do.

JR Do you see the drawing practice as separate from or an extension of the installations?

AB My drawings are often in conjunction with the installations, but lately they’ve just been very stand alone. The whole “Coliseum” series was independent of other projects. I was struggling with this because it was the first time I focused on one building and I studied it for, like, three years. Before that, it was a little flirtation with a building here and a building there. The “Coliseum” was like a long love affair. I won’t say that the relationship is over but it’s kind of on the back burner. And after that I started this affair with the building in Atlanta and I worked on that throughout the pandemic, which resulted in a show. And then I was working with 432 Park Avenue, which is that skinny building in Manhattan. I want to do a show called Buildings Are My Boyfriends.

JR This makes me want to ask you about your drawings of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland. What attracted you to that building? 

AB The geometry, the symmetry, the simplicity, the fact that it was also a little bit under controversy. There was a petition to tear it down because it’s not really being used and it needs a lot of remodeling. But it’s such an important space. It’s now on the historic register thanks to Friends of the Memorial Coliseum. It’s a building that is the size of three or four park blocks on just four columns! It’s basically a skyscraper lying down flat. And it’s also a circle in a square. I can make a drawing of a square and put a circle in it and that’s the building. So, I like how it can be reduced.

Avantika Bawa, Coliseum 01, 2016. Graphite and pastel on paper, 24 x 36 inches. Collection of the Portland City Archives, OR.
Avantika Bawa, Coliseum 21, 2018. Graphite on paper, 22 x 30 inches.

JR Did the Blazers used to play in the coliseum?

AB Yes, that’s where we won the only championship we ever did, which is a huge deal. I bet I’m being more cautious talking about it because a critic said I only love the building because of the Blazers.  The Blazers definitely add to it, but at the core I love the building for its structural complexity and also simplicity.

JR I don’t believe that what happens in a building is any less important than a formal appreciation for the building itself.

AB I agree with you, but I think when this little piece of writing came out it just hit a nerve. They didn’t understand that there are so many reasons I love this building, and I don’t want them to take away from the fact that I love it for what it looks like, too. It’s both the form and the content of it.

JR It seems like the basketball aspect makes it more accessible for some people.

AB People don’t want to talk about art because they don’t think they know about it, but no one’s going to hesitate if they’re even remotely interested in talking about basketball, even if they don’t play it. By using sports as a lens to enter my work—not as a calculated means—I think I’ve had more conversations. It’s really opened up the ability for some audiences to understand what I do or at least just converse with me, which I think is great.

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