Indian American artist Amit Desai's work encompasses photography, publishing, and installation.Read More
Amit Desai was born in New York. He spent most of his childhood in Gujarat, India and later returned to New York for his secondary school education. Desai studied at Tufts University, Massachusetts; New York University Tisch School of the Arts; and Goldsmiths College, London.
Amit Desai began his artistic practice following 9/11. After the attacks, the artist embarked on a ten-year journey across the U.S. to create fictional photo-journalistic and documentary images exploring a 'lost world'.
In this work, Desai blends elements from Western narratives, such as texts by Walt Whitman, with Eastern metaphysical thought. Desai did not exhibit photographs from this period publicly and instead compiled his research into a trilogy of books.
The first of his trilogy, America Sutra (2012), is a seven-volume study on the changing American psyche, referencing American literary transcendentalists. Desai utilised a varied range of photographic techniques for his images, including shooting digitally and using 35mm, 120 medium format, and Polaroid film. In these books, he includes photographs of people and landscapes he encountered during his travels, as well as his own drawings and collages.
The first exhibition of American Sutra was a website curated by a computer algorithm, and was accompanied by Possible Psalms (2012), a film composed of behind-the-scenes footage from the project.
Dear God (2013), the second in his trilogy, integrates Desai's photographs with his own poetry to create seven modern illuminated manuscripts. Like America Sutra (2012), Desai experiments with several printing techniques, including stencils and photograms. This project was made during an intense period of spiritual crisis faced by the artist, and its narrative follows a journey from darkness to light.
The trilogy's finale, Songs of the Road (2014), is a soundtrack of original text spoken and sung by the artist.
Upon returning to New York following his journey, Desai had plans to stop taking photos altogether. However, witnessing the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis encouraged the artist to continue his practice. For his 'Transcendance' (2010) series, Desai created makeshift disco sets in his father's pill-coating factory as it faced bankruptcy.
Rather than emphasising the documentarian narratives of the trilogy, 'Transcendance' instead highlights 'human energy' through the ethereal and expressionistic dance moves enacted by his subjects. One of his photos, Annie (2010), captures a woman wearing a silk robe. Both her position and the blurry surroundings of scene imply movement, while a warm light envelops her figure. Desai's photographs in this series capture surreal performances that foreground a bleak period in contemporary history.
Taking inspiration from the Hindu ritual Kapal Kriya, which involves the piercing of a skull before cremation, Desai features lightbox photographs of human skull fragments, zeroed in and barely recognisable. In doing so, these bone fragments resemble planetary bodies and asteroids, crafting a narrative of death that implies generativity and immortality.
Ancestors (2016), Desai's commissioned video work that accompanied his bone pieces, is a speculative prehistoric narrative focusing on the first meeting of the primordial man and woman. Through these works, the artist contemplates on and destablises Western thought through non-dualistic Eastern practices in order to interrogate human and cosmological time.
Amit Desai's work has been published by Stephen Cheng. He has held solo exhibitions at Empty Gallery, Hong Kong.
Arianna Mercado | Ocula | 2021