Bharat Sikka, The Sapper

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Fw:Books (here). Paperback with cloth spine, 23.5 x 28 cm, 192 pages, with various black-and-white and color reproductions of photographs, collages, and sculptures. Includes an essay by Charlotte Cotton. Design by Hans Gremmen. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As photographers mature and their parents move on to older age, it is often the case that an artistic project coalesces around documenting the life of an aging parent. Many of these projects are tender personal studies of the smallness of life, the durability of individual personality, and the tiny routines that fill the days of our elders, almost in an effort to build a store of visual moments and memories before the loved one disappears.

Other parental projects are freighted with more emotional baggage, as if careful photographs of a father or mother could help a photographer understand the questions and confusions of the past, or at least continue an effort to grapple with lingering feelings, memories, and histories of absence, criticism, cruelty, indifference, or misunderstanding. Such studies are invariably filled with an undercurrent of invisible searching, each portrait an attempt to uncover (or resolve) something which has been hidden.

Bharat Sikka’s photobook The Sapper finds a smart balance between these two opposing conceptual poles, drawing on each while still leaving room for the creation of new connections and insights between a father and son. The subject is neither simply the aging father, nor the son’s desire for better understanding, but both, with a liberal dose of open collaboration, that makes the father see the son, the son see the father, and the two see themselves, with more clarity.

The “sapper” in the book’s title refers to Sikka’s father’s role in the Indian Army; he was a structural engineer, designing and constructing bridges, roads, and fortifications, which kept him away from home for long stretches of time during Sikka’s childhood. And it is this arm’s length vision of father as engineer that stands at the center of this project – Sikka comes at this singular personal mythology from various photographic and conceptual directions, always trying to understand who the father was or is, and which parts of that man (or myth) he can see in himself.

Over a period of three years, the father and son collaborated on a series of portraits in a handful of different locations, from houses in New Delhi, the seacoast of Goa, and Darjeeling, to the mountainous area near Leh, Ladakh, near the Chinese border, where the father had frequently worked. Intimate images capture the father combing his hair, stretching on the bed, and sitting shirtless in shadow, and show us the sock patterns on his calves and the wavy tangle of his windblown grey hair; these are then interleaved with various facial portraits (looking through a fogged window, sitting in an undershirt wearing eye coverings, standing in an outdoor shower, looking down while wearing a trench coat) and moments of more wistful thought – in his business suit, holding his old army uniform, and playing the harmonica. Together, these images give us the hints of gesture and body that start to sketch in a personality.

Sikka then goes beyond this kind of ephemeral episodic documentation to engage his father in more collaborative setups, where he takes him out into the desert, the dry grassy plains, and the sandy seaside to enact (or re-enact) various scenes. Are these the father’s memories being re-staged, or the son’s imaginings, or new creations concocted by the two together? We can’t know, but the fact that the answers are largely interchangeable makes the scenes more layered. The father tosses stones into the ocean, examines dirt in the desert, stands by a ladder and a trompe l’oeil painted wall, lies on the snowy ground, looks down a dusty road (perhaps one he has built?), gets wrapped up in a plastic tarp, curls up in a sleeping bag, hangs over a drainage canal, and disappears into a dust storm. In performing the role of himself (as seen by the father or the son), the father nests himself in his own personal history, creating modern approximations of resonant moments or stylized versions of the past.

The themes of construction, design, and engineering run through The Sapper in many forms, and while the interests of the father may have been the starting point for these ideas, the son has liberally taken them as his own and incorporated them into his own artistic practice. A few images undeniably document the father’s hands tinkering with paper constructions, holding up some stencils, and tossing marbles into the air, but many more of the improvised sculptures and collages have authorship that is far less clear. And some of the ideas, like piles of plastic tubing, unfinished plastic snap-together cars, and arrangements of rulers, likely connect back to Sikka’s childhood and his father’s attempts to get him interested in engineering.

But other sculptural arrangements of piled chairs and lawn chaises, a sagging measuring tape draped through tree branches, tall sticks in the desert, a rephotographed ladder of images of greenery, and a breach in a chain link fence tied together oscillate between seemingly found and obviously staged. And in still other interventions, like yellow sticks among rough brickwork and a yellow tape pulled across a pile of rocks, someone has clearly created these interruptions, but whether it was the father, the son, or some other builder, we are once again in the dark. In a sense, Sikka has taken a broad view of the idea of a “construction site”, and it seems likely that many of these engineered images were made in collaboration between father and son in some manner. Sikka then takes this idea of tinkering in yet another direction, with a series of collages, wood frames, and photocopied works (shown on thinner paper in three short sections) that reuse images in scraps and layers, creating modified iterations of seeing, measuring, and arrangement.

Themes of masculinity and nostalgia are also veined through this photobook, filling out some of the usual wavelengths in father-son relationships. Even before The Sapper, Sikka was artistically interested in the idea of Indian manliness, and here he takes up that same concept in the guise of his father. Images of pinup girls, whisky shots, and a briefcase hit on familiar tropes, but the father’s physicality, even as an older man, is a more persistent model for the son, who then intentionally balances it with feminine images of flowers in various forms. The passing of time also creeps into the project in various ways, particularly in some of the collages, where older family images are repurposed in shadowy snippets, and in pictures of family recipes and shrines. A few images near the end of The Sapper seem to hint at a point of closure, with pictures of frames turned away, speakers unplugged, items covered, empty hangars in a closet, and a hand held recorder taping the last few comments. The photobook ends with an image of a trestle bridge leading off down the strict receding lines of perspective, encouraging us to keep walking down a path engineered perhaps by the father.

What I found intriguing about The Sapper is the way that it intentionally cuts across the idea of a simplistically airtight portrait of an aging man that we’ve seen so many times before, however sensitively and intimately seen. Sikka sees his father with complexity, probing not only his past and present, but the influences, echoes, and reverberations he sees in himself that have come down from his parent. In this way, The Sapper is a patient study of legacies, of an artist indirectly investigating himself through the lens of his father, who has actively collaborated in the effort. That vantage point makes this photobook far more contoured and complex than a typical (and predictable) father’s portrait. There is more sharing going on here than initially meets the eye, leaving nearly every photograph in The Sapper with the potential for being interpreted at least two different ways.

Collector’s POV: Bharat Sikka does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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JTF (just the facts): Published by Aperture in 2024 (here). Softcover with dust jacket (17 x 22.5 cm), 124 pages, with 80 color and black-and-white reproductions. Includes a conversation between ... Read on.

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