Joshua Vettivelu is an artist working within sculpture, video, performance and installation. Their work seeks to explore how larger frameworks of power impact and manifest within intimate personal relationships. Recently, their practice has been looking at the relationships of labour and consumption that occurs when personal experiences are mined for the production of art. Vettivelu currently teaches at OCAD University within the faculty of Continuing Education and is the Director of Programming at Whippersnapper Gallery.
I really like working at Whippersnapper Gallery because we care about what we’re doing, and the ways in which we’re doing it. There’s a context for the gallery’s mandate, and us as ethical humans, to interact and respect the histories of the community. Because we’re located in Chinatown, we put Chinese translations on all of our signage because we understand that there’s a community around us that doesn’t always feel comfortable coming to an art opening full of art students.
Every day, I see people from the community stop to read the wall text or sit on a bench across from us if we’re screening a video. It makes me a little bit emotional about the gallery because it engages an audience on their own terms. You can come in, and leave, and not feel obligated to the space in anyway.
Because I’m the director of programming, it’s difficult to spend time working on my art practice. There’s an idea of what a productive artist looks like. You are suppose to keep making physical objects. However, what I’m doing at Whippersnapper is a different type of production. It gives me the permission to inquire about questions that I couldn’t answer as an artist: What the fuck are we really doing with art? What are the material consequences of art, in terms of gentrification? And, if I’m constantly going to be dubbed as a political artist because I’m brown and queer, what is politics in art and what does it look like?
What happens when you want to refuse identity politics as part of your art practice? And what do you do when the art world doesn’t take that refusal? It’s a prepackaged deal that doesn’t come with any nuance. For example, people might see me as “Brown Queer Artist. Oppressed. Probably sad and angry. Probably worried about diaspora.”
All of those assumptions are not really my concerns at all. When I make artwork about death or family, these big univeral things, it’s automatically filtered through the lens of how people view my body.
I was at an art party and this white gay painter dude asked me what I was working on and I said, ‘Oh I’m in the process of writing my first Canada Council grant,’ and he was like, ‘Honey just slap on that you’re brown and queer—they love that shit. You’ll get the money.’ In that assumption, there’s both a critique of neoliberal politics and a misunderstanding of what art can be produced in that sense. Yes, I think it’s problematic that on every art grant application you have the option of identifying as marginalized person.
It puts the onus on marginalized artists to do the labour of disclosing why their art matters. Why don’t we, in the grant system, make the white straight art bros explain why their privileges should let them have state money? I don’t think that will ever happen but as a thought experiment: what would that actually look like?
By constantly highlighting minorities we are always increasing the invisibility of privileged positions of whiteness, heterosexuality, maleness, cisgenderedness. By highlighting one, we increase the power of invisibility of another so you get people who never have to consider these things and then they get the entitled aesthetic of getting to make art about anything. They can make art about death and no one asks them if it’s really about diaspora.
When I was in Glasgow, I showed a film with me throwing rocks in the water and it was about my relationship to the ocean in poetic stupid sense— whatever I hated the work—but I was specifically saying, ‘This about emotions that are personal to me’ and the first question that was asked was, ‘Where you thinking about the slave trade’ and I was like, ‘What the fuck.’ First of all, I’m not even black.
The art world is constantly asking artists of colour to do the labour of accounting for their culture’s giant history on top of whatever intentions their artwork is actually coming from.
Right now, I’m working on a project using a casting of my grandmother’s hands. I made the casting when I was visiting her in Australia for a big family reunion. I’m making thousands of these hands in beeswax and cinnamon. Cinnamon is used to colour the hands and there are, sigh, cultural reasons for cinnamon. Cinnamon was one of the reasons why Sri Lanka was colonized in the first place. That’s a big art theory idea: colonization. However, I’m more interested by how that big idea created a personality like my grandmother and a personality like my father and a personality like me.
The hands will be in a gallery on heating plinths made of plexiglass so as the wax melts, they’ll slowly fill up the plinths that can hold other structures. The personal experience will evaporate and the smell will be very Western Christmas nostalgia. I’m interested in the ephemeral ways that our personal narratives get consumed. I’m also pushing back against the really male linage of sculpture making that can be archived. The only record of this piece will be the smell on the gallery walls, and you can’t document that.
Every time I go to my studio I’m losing money and damn, I’m really making sure that no one can pay me for my art.
I made a bronze sculpture once. Bronze make me angry. It’s such a long drawn-out process and then you have this metal object that will outlive you and you’re like, ‘Ok, wow, mortality—rude.’
It was a bronze casting of my head and I was going to turn it into a bell thing but then I was looking at it and feeling very uncomfortable that I made it at all. The piece turned into a performance called ‘Rubbing One Out’ and it was about the narcissism that’s involved in creating something like this, or even in creating art.
I turned the head over so it was a bowl form in my lap and started hand polishing. It’s this object that’s forever going to be there, but I’m slowly wearing it away. Every so often I pull it out, to rub one out, and then I collect the bronze stuff that comes off it. I have a one inch vial that’s a quarter of the way full and that’s after 70 hours of polishing.
I started documenting the performance on video. It basically looks like I’m jerking off in front of a camera. I’ve been trying to host it on Xtube but they won’t validate my account. How do they know that I’m there to troll? Getting on Xtube is the end goal. I love the idea of someone getting down to get busy and they find my video in the masturbation category of Xtube and they’re like, ‘What the fuck am I looking at?’
—Joshua Vettivelu, as told to Studio Beat
Photos by Jazmine V K Carr