Visual Arts: Heat and dust

Stephen Cox has been creating sculpture in India for 10 years. Once criticised for neo-colonialism, and attacked by Muslims, he is now feted in New Delhi. By David Cohen
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The Independent Culture
Countless Western artists visit India as tourists and go home richly inspired. What is special about Stephen Cox, and the reason Indians have taken him to heart, is that he has stayed for 10 years, working with Hindu temple masons in Indian stones. Now the New Delhi art establishment has pulled out the stops for the British sculptor. To celebrate his Indian decade they have given him three substantial exhibitions in the capital. The centre-piece show, sponsored by the haulage giant Tata, comprises six major new works which are installed in the gardens of a national monument, the tomb of Jamali, the Sufi poet, and his brother Kamali. There has been generous press and media coverage for this and his other shows, at the newly refurbished gallery of the ICCR (the equivalent of the Arts Council) and at the leading commercial gallery, Art Today.

But Cox's Indian adventures have been marked as much by controversy as plaudits. In the past he was accused by the former BBC India correspondent Mark Tully of "neo-colonialism" because of his use of Indian assistants. Tully appears to have made his peace, warmly embracing Cox at a high-profile reception in his honour at the British Council. Now, though, the sculptor has a new set of critics. Muslims, incensed at the proximity of his sensuous carvings to an historic holy place, threatened to tear down the offending sculptures unless they were re-sited.

The Jamali-Kamali Gardens, which are managed by the Archaeological Survey of India, are situated in Southern Delhi, near the great 13th-century tower, the Qutab Minar, one of the capital's defining landmarks. The Gardens have never been used as a contemporary art venue before and, because of the sectarian sensitivity the exhibition has aroused, informed sources now question whether it will be again. By coincidence, Cox is also the first contemporary sculptor to exhibit at Kew Gardens in London, where several of his Indian carvings can be seen until the end of May.

When the idea for using the Delhi gardens was first put to him, Cox responded warmly because of the complex layers of history at the site, the tangible evidence of one culture built upon another. At the nearby Quwwat-ul-Islam Masjid (the Might of Islam Mosque) built in 1193, the Sultan Aibak appropriated ornately carved columns from two dozen Hindu and Jain temples which he had destroyed. Inadvertently, Cox is, in his non-sectarian way, correcting that injustice by siting works overtly Hindu in their inspiration and iconography in this Mogul setting, although there is nothing theological in the way he describes his initial enthusiasm for the gardens. "It seemed to me a perfect example of the Kiplingesque over-grown ruin."

The romance of archaeology runs right through Cox's aesthetic. Works comprise fragmented shards or else are roughly hewn idols which look knocked about by the centuries. He is obsessive in his search for materials and processes with historical resonances: in Italy he set out to work in all the stones described in Vasari's renaissance treatise on technique, collaborating with artisans working in the same tradition. His sculptural journey has also taken him to Egypt where ancient mines of imperial porphyry were specially opened for him.

When he was selected to represent Britain at the 1986 India Triennale his interest in unusual stones and classical carving traditions led him to the Government College of Architecture and Sculpture at Mahabalipuram, where he prepared his exhibition. An hour's drive south of Madras, the coastal town of Mahabalipuram is one of the great art centres of India, active continuously since the sixth century and still producing traditional temple carvings for Hindu temples around the world. The fragmented wall relief he produced on his first visit, Rock Cut: Holy Family received the gold medal at the Triennale, and went on to form the centre-piece of his Tate Gallery exhibition in 1986. Cox has maintained a studio just outside the town ever since, sometimes employing dozens of artisans on such projects as his pair of megaliths in black Indian granite, Ganapathi and Devi, 1988, which now graces the Broadgate Development in the City of London.

Are his Hindu deities not as culturally displaced at a Muslim shrine as they are in a London office complex? Cox himself sees nothing contentious in his show. "My show is about sculptural values and materials. I would be worried if it generated friction, but anyone can provoke that through the smallest ambiguity." The religious complaints, which came from the son of India's leading Imam and a Muslim MP, focused on two sculptures sited at the entrance of the disused mosque: sensuous but androgynous figures, one of which, the 15ft Patra has a hint of cleavage showing through his / her gossamer drapery. "Patra" is sanskrit for vessel, the shape of the clearing in the drapery. Curiously, the detractors were not bothered by the most voluptuous of his three figures, her massively pregnant belly suggestively echoing the mosque's dome. Cox, disappointed by the climb- down of the authorities, finally agreed to re-site the pieces.

The show deserves to be remembered not for its sectarian frictions but for Cox's enticing and original forms. Several pieces were made especially for this show. Sea Pod is a major stylistic departure for Cox, consisting of catamarans, made by Mahabalipuram fishermen, he has mounted on steel bases and strung together with rope. Catamarans on Granite Wave has stone- carved boats tossed about on a schematic representation of turbulent water, a columnar arrangement of tapering splices of soft light granite. Another piece, called Cell, is a lingam of lingams: dozens of pestles arranged in a cylindrical tower. Spare pestles were used around the park as sign- posts, decorated with bright-coloured pigment and spice.

n Stephen Cox's sculptures, Jamali-Kamali Gardens, New Delhi, to 31 March. Several of his Indian carvings are on show at Kew Gardens until end of May