SINGLED OUT : Conversation with Ashiesh Shah

by Abhay Maskara 

Max Streicher, Putti, Floating above the staircase. Image courtesy: Ashiesh Shah.

You could describe Ashiesh Shah as a young collector of contemporary art but that would only be scratching the surface. Not one to be swayed by the fashion of the moment or the success of signature artists, his collection more than adequately reflects his personality, his lifestyle and above all his confident eye. This is more than what can be said for many an art collection that feels like a clone of that of the latest celebrity collector. Over the past seven years, Ashiesh has unhurriedly built an art collection that lives in his cozy but stylishly designed duplex apartment in south Mumbai. We chat about his art, his work and his philosophy over French macaroons and homemade dhoklas. The combination is as charming and unconventional as the art that surrounds our conversation.

Abhay Maskara (AM): How did art come into your life?

Ashiesh Shah (AS): Ever since I was a boy, I have been enthralled by the beauty found in nature’s artistry. My room was always filled with little objects I lovingly collected – treasures from the forests, fields, and seashores. To this day I still prize pebbles, rocks, or old pieces of wood almost as much as I value art. For me stones are living souls with a spirit that resonates for millions of years.

AM: What do you look for before deciding to add a particular work of art to your collection?

AS: I am particularly intrigued by the similarities between the works of monks from the Himalayas and the Andes in South America. These were craftsmen who probably gained their sense of proportion by looking at the stars – people who used minimum material with love and care for maximum results. I look for the same spirit in the works I buy today.

AM: How has living with art impacted you, besides its aesthetic appeal?

AS: A passion for unusual objects led to my fascination for unconventional and avant-garde art. To this day, Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale has greatly influenced my thinking. After the terrible destruction following two world wars, Fontana posed the question “what can I now paint?” He felt the need to start again from the beginning. The response was his spatial concept – slashing the canvas to create an endless void that was cosmic, a third dimension from which everything would be reborn, by a minimalistic act. It was through my understanding of this concept that I discovered the relationship between art and space. This was a very important revelation for me.

AM: You are an active art collector and also a practicing architect. How do these roles interlace?

AS: Since my early years I have always found the belief that all beauty is imperfect, incomplete, impermanent and as transitory as life itself very compelling. Even in my early work I was exploring boundaries through controversial visual polarities often referred to as ‘design dialogues.’ This includes analogous comparisons such as rustic country pieces paired with baroque furniture or medieval sculpture contrasted with modern paintings – marrying the historical with the contemporary. My art, my work and my life are thus tightly interwoven and intrinsically connected.

AM: What personal philosophies inform the way you assess works of art?

AS: As an architect I am highly influenced by the Wabi philosophy which I stumbled upon years ago in a book by Vervoordt. Wabi is borrowed from the Japanese term for something that is in its simplest and most natural state; the beauty found in objects that are humble and unassuming. My own personal concept of Wabi has been fashioned by the ability of the Japanese culture to seek inspiration and harmony from nature. Wabi celebrates the beauty of imperfection and incompleteness – qualities that I have come to treasure more and more as I understand their significance.

The insight I gained through many different art forms, have made me intrigued by the theory of ma, an equally elusive premise that refers to the defining space surrounding an object. Ma can be best described as the interval or the ‘space-between’ that creates a dynamic tension to heighten our appreciation of the composition. As the silence between musical is critical, the brevity and empty space present in art is just as important to magnify the intensity of expression. I am drawn to this idea as it is closely linked to the terms mu and ku that refers to nothingness or emptiness – a primary tenet of Buddhism.

AM: Can you give a few examples of works from your collection that reflect these philosophies?

AS: Sakshi Gupta’s Untitled work from 2010 made with resin and sand evokes a sense of eternal tiredness at the end of a long and arduous journey. The emaciated donkey seems to be surrendering to the amalgamated experiences of life and the daily negotiations and mechanisms inherent in it. Its fatigue is further highlighted by the ashy grayness of the sand used as its skin. At play in the work is also the eventual comfort found in ‘acceptance,’ it being the first step towards knowing the self.

Putti, the Max Streicher baby made with nylon spinnaker floats up in the air, just above the staircase that connects the two floors. With arms and legs stretched it looks directly at the viewer. The life giving air duct suggests the umbilical cord giving it a human identity. Yet, it floats above us in an angel-like pose. It is present as a physical body and reminds us that life is both miraculous and ephemeral.

AM: In the living room I see drawings, painting, sculpture, video installation and photography by both emerging and mid-career artists. You also have international art. How do you choose the artists whose works you buy?

AS: I have some pointers that help me decide on the kind of art I want to place in the collection, irrespective of the region or medium it belongs to. I feel a collection has to have a thread, a spine that runs through them. Material, politics, sexuality are just some of the issues I tend to favour. This does not mean that I bracket my collection. More often than not, I tend to be attracted to simplicity of form and humour. A bit of quirk helps, maybe kitsch… Art for me is infinite, not only in concept but in material as well. I am open to new possibilities like video and documentation of performance. As an architect, video art gives one the freedom to turn the space around without changing much. It is almost like changing the meaning of a space by the press of a button.



Abhay Maskara is the curatorial director of Gallery Maskara, Mumbai and an independent writer on art. He published his first book Collecting Art – An Insider’s View of the Indian Art World in 2012.


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