Vibha Galhotra (b. 1978, Kaithal, India; belongs to Chandigarh, lives and works in Delhi, India) is conceptual artist whose multimedia oeuvre―including sculptures, installations, photographs, videos, site-specific work and public art interventions―address the shifting topography of a world radically transformed by climate change, consumerism, capitalism, and globalization. Propelled by the constant negotiation between humans and the ecosystem, Galhotra’s practice is rooted in intensive research and intuitive imagination that investigates the social, economic, and political implications of humanity and the environment. She draws from varied disciplines including art, ecology, economy, science, spirituality, and activism to evoke a poetic visual response to the environmental changes and restructuring of culture, society, and geography that occur in today’s world.
A fundamental tenet in Galhotra’s work is Yat pinde tat Brahmande―whatever is in the microcosm is also in the macrocosm. In other words, the five fundamental elements, traditionally believed to constitute all matter, exist in every human being. Therefore, the destruction of nature inevitably implies the extinction of all life. Using found urban detritus that Galhotra collects from her hometown Delhi, she creates multi-sensory works that blur the boundaries between belief and reality, public and personal, science and spirituality. Her visual vocabulary aims to critically examine humanity’s socially constructed systems through the negotiation of materiality, process, and symbolism. Each series of works begins by questioning the existing ecological condition of the world, and materializes in objects that often engage traditional practices and labor-intensive manual craftsmanship. Her signature use of ghungroo, a material specific to India, shifts from small metallic bells into a metaphor that renders landscapes by adding volume and texture to her sculptural works. Inspired by seeds worn by ancient people who used them for ornamental reasons, Galhotra uses these musical anklets to create works that mimic sprawl and tactile surfacing. Her ghungroo works undergo a metaphysical transformation through coloring, that mimic the mapping structures of algae or termites growing over natural surfaces or urban debris expansively covering landscapes previously dominated by the natural world.
Tradition-based beliefs about the environment motivate Galhotra to critically engage in questions about how the age of Anthropocene―viewed as the current geological age during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment―will inflict more damage on the lives of the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised. Galhotra’s research ranges from the critique of empirical experimentation and her methodologies zig-zag social practice, relational aesthetics, environmental activism and systems theory. In its entirety, her work explores, dissects, re-examines and re-envisions spaces of coexistence in the so-called built and unexplored worlds. Neo Camouflage (2008) is a 53-foot mural comprised of a dense accumulation of images of various overcrowded, overbuilt urban neighborhoods in New Delhi.
Seven militaristic mannequins dressed in uniforms made from a fabric whose pattern mimics the urban camouflage of the mural, stand like police sentries in front of the backdrop. Using visual satire to draw attention to urban destruction the installation evokes an ironic scene where camouflage of the natural world is replaced by that of a city irreparably transformed by endless development. Similarly, in a recent photographic series, The Final Feast (2019), Galhotra takes reference from the Leonardo da Vinci’s, The Last Supper, to reveal a world plagued by social, political, economic, and ecological chaos.
Through her careful theatrical staging of the characters in a rather dystopian setting, Galhotra depicts a moment marked by late capitalism and neo-liberal values, where insatiable human greed is palpable and the power to take important decisions for the planet still rests with a few elite policy-makers of so-called developed nations. The photo series thereby offers a voice of dissent against a “New World Order” that threatens to become a totalitarian one.
Ultimately, Galhotra’s practice is deeply committed to engaging with the question of what one can do as an artist. Her questioning of social structures goes as deep as dissecting what current education systems produce as they prioritize teaching skills to meet consumerist demand over a humanist worldview that integrates critical thinking as one of the most powerful tools a young mind can absorb. Galhotra continues to nurture a child-like curiosity to understand and question the changing world around her and society in general. Her work both embodies the anxieties that haunt the present and the future generations, while evoking the poetry that is found in the natural world as the primary source of inspiration.
Galhotra earned a BFA in Graphics from Government College of Arts, Chandigarh,1999 and an MFA in Graphics from Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharti, Santiniketan, 2001. Major solo exhibitions and projects have been organized at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York (2020); Asia Society, New York (2019); Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi, Chandigarh, India (2019); Land Art Biennial LAM 360°, Mongolia (2016); MK Search Art Gallery, Italy (2013); Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem, NC (2012); Centro per l’Art Contemporanea, Piazza Cavour, San Giovanni Valdarno, Italy (2012). Select group exhibitions include, We Do Not Dream Alone, Asia Society, New York (2021); Down to Earth, Gropius Bau, Berlin (2020); Zero Waste, Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig (2020); Delirium // Equilibrium, Nader Museum of Art, Delhi (2018); Facing India, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany (2018); Water + Wisdom, RMIT Gallery, Melbourne, Australia (2018); The Darkened Mirror: Global Perspectives on Water, San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CA (2017); Piece by Piece – Building a Collection, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City (2015); and Space Invader, Aicon Art Gallery, London traveled to Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai (2009).
Her work is in numerous public and private collections including Kiran Nadar Museum of Arts, India; The Margulies Collection, Miami; Pizzuti Collection, Columbus, OH; Casa Masaccio Arte Contemporanea, Italy: Gates Foundation, LOCATION; Singapore Art Museum, Singapore; Essl Museum, Austria; Devi Art Foundation, India; Casoria Contemporary Art Museum, Italy; Gut Gasteil, an open-air Art Museum, Austria; Saga Art College, Japan; and Europas Parkas, Lithuania. She is recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including Asia Arts Future – Asia Arts Game Changer Awards India 2019; Asian Cultural Council Fellow (2017); the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio residency (2016); YFLO Women Achiever of the Year Award (2015); Inlaks Foundation Fine Arts Award (2005-06); the National Scholarship from the Human Resource Department, Government of India (2001-02); and the Artist Under 30 Award, Chandigarh State Lalit Kala Academy Award (1998).