Bharti Kher thinks big. Really big. The British-born contemporary artist has occupied some impressive space, from London's Saatchi Gallery to the Pompidou Centre in Paris. And she's occupied a lot of it, her dizzying sculptures and installations looming on a massive scale. "I don't do things in small measures," Kher says down the phone from New Delhi, the city she now calls home. "I can take a really long time making just one piece and I often work on many different pieces at once while they're at different levels of production."
One of the most recognisable examples of this is The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own (2006), a life-sized elephant in a slumped position and adorned with thousands of bindis, a decoration worn on the forehead by South Asian women, and a symbol that Kher often incorporates into her work. The sculpture fetched US$1.5 million at Sotheby's in 2010 - the highest price at auction for a contemporary work by an Indian female artist.
And while Kher says it was a long labour of love - the piece took almost a year to complete - it was a worthwhile investment of time as the sculpture propelled her onto the international stage. "The elephant was a turning point for me. It also linked me to bindis. I was attracted to the cultural significance of the bindi - a sign of marriage as well as a symbolic third eye that links the real and the spiritual worlds. For me, the bindi has become a theme, a language, a sign that talks about mapping and the people."
In An Absence of Assignable Cause (2007), Kher gives her interpretation of a blue sperm whale's heart (there is little scientific documentation about the mammal's anatomy). Made from fibreglass, bindis swarm the enormous organ and its arteries like a second skin. "A lot of my inspiration came to me after I moved to India," she says. "You can see in much of my work how I incorporate many signs and metaphors from the country."
While the bindi has become her trademark motif, Kher has also featured Indian glass bangles as well as saris (she wrapped the fabric around poles and chairs). She also zooms in on the role of women in traditional Indian society in works such as And All the While the Benevolent Slept (2008) and Lady with An Ermine (2012), where crockery such as tea cups and teapots are placed on top of life-sized sculptures of women.
In her hybrid series, Kher's love of the macabre is most obvious, her works combining animals with human body parts to create freaky female figures that exude both sexuality and monstrosity. "These women are kind of corrupt - they are urban goddesses who mock you and laugh at you. They do not inhabit their own skin but are infested."
While much of Kher's work makes references to her adopted country, she says her approach to art is quite Western - not surprising given her background.
Born in London in 1969 to Indian parents who joined the diaspora in Britain in the 1960s, Kher graduated from art school in 1992, a rarity for someone from the British-Asian community. "The people we knew growing up as Asians - friends, cousins - are doctors, accountants, lawyers. This is what Asian children did. The first generation in Britain had to be professional."
Kher says she decided to move to India after travelling there in 1992, a trip that opened her eyes - and her heart. "It was a huge culture shock. It opened my eyes very wide, but at the same time I felt blind."
A few weeks into the trip she met her husband, artist Subodh Gupta (the couple now have two children). Like Kher, Gupta has carved an impressive reputation on the contemporary art scene, turning icons of Indian everyday life such as kitchen utensils into artworks, with many of his installations on as grand a scale as his wife's. It's no wonder the local media can't resist the label "Delhi's No1 art power couple".
Today, Kher's love for her adopted country runs deep. "Delhi's such an exciting city - the people are so sharp and bright."
Also running deep, however, is her criticism of the local arts scene. "Sadly, India is woefully inadequate as far as mapping its culture. I've been here 20 years and the arts scene, while small, is very vibrant," she says. "Unfortunately it is not well supported. I'd love to see a shift in the visual culture scene in India … even if the audience is laughing at what they see, at least they are looking."
For now Kher is focused on exhibiting around the world. In January she staged an exhibition at Shanghai's Rockbund Art Museum, her first major solo show in Asia, charting 15 years of her artistic career. "I was so happy to do that show. It was an amazing space in a natural history museum and I really had so much freedom to show what I wanted to show."
She's also psyched about her upcoming visit to Hong Kong - for creative and culinary reasons.
"I'm excited about seeing Hong Kong again. I showed there in 2012 [at Central's Galerie Perrotin] and I try to return to the city at least once a year. I love the food in Hong Kong. I could eat all day."
Asia Society's second annual Art Gala honouring contemporary artists Bharti Kher, Liu Guosong, Takashi Murakami and Zhang Xiaogang, May 12, 6pm, Asia Society Hong Kong Centre, 9 Justice Drive, Admiralty. Inquiries: email@example.com