The popular idiom, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, has proven to be sacrosanct in Haribaabu Naatesan’s case. As the Mumbai-based artist rummages through scores of electronic scrap, he builds a world of recycled discoveries. At his ongoing exhibition in Delhi, Equilibrium—The Irreversible, he upholds the overarching idea of his art philosophy centered around mukti or salvation. He believes when reprocessed goods reach his busy work station, it should be their final destination, a kind of liberation. The cycle of repurposing comes to an end, promoting the concept of irreversibility.
The things that a common person mindlessly discards, 43-year-old Naatesan diligently collects. Floppy disks, cassette tapes, hard disks—all find their way into his green art. But this consciousness about environmental responsiveness wasn’t his nature to begin with. It was a slow process of deliberate nurture. “At first, it was purely spontaneous to work with scrap. It was easily available and accessible and didn’t cost a lot of money. But once I started working with it, I realised the novelty of the medium, as back in 1999, not a lot of people were using it,” says Naatesan.
Thus, the idea of utilising scrap into art soared instead of putting it in landfills across the city. Motivated by his endeavours, the artist initially organised an exhibition titled Fossils in 2008. Naatesan got a lot of positive attention, especially by the media, but not one work of art was sold. He was surprised but not shocked. “It was an unusual material, after all. I knew time would change, making people aware of environmental damages caused by metal scrap and, they would one day appreciate its use in the form of permanent environmentally conscious art,” he reminisces.
All 18 of his artworks at Gallery Art Positive in Delhi are compositioned around the overuse of technology. The material used are mostly obsolete tech products of the 90’s. His images are thematically futuristic in the way it shows design inspired by space ships, futuristic cities (not smart cities, he specifies), and science fiction. This thought process supplements his work as electronic waste and the theme of technology are both future-driven. He uses whatever else he can lay his hands on. Instead of putting it in the dustbin, he puts it on the canvas. Feathers, discarded paint, leaves and more, all have been incorporated cleverly into the artworks.
The uniqueness in Naatesan’s work is derived from the usage of scrap in its original form without bending, melting, twisting or breaking it. When he finds the right shape in a given material, he places in the centre and then extemporaneously puts the other pieces together. It’s like a puzzle that reveals its meaning only in the end, after much thought and effort.
“For instance, I recently used a discarded petrol tank to make the body of a flamingo bird without disturbing the medium. Other scrap artists would have typically broken down different materials to achieve the exact form they required. I don’t do that. This allows a certain kind of organic-ness to exist in my constructions,” he says.
Conscious living is not just a part of his art but has also become part of his personal life. For the last two years, Naatesan has not bought one plastic water bottle. He carries his humble metal bottle everywhere he goes. He fills it up with tap water wherever he travels, even at railway stations. “Drinking out of a metal bottle is not only good for your immunity but also good for environmental stability, that each one of us is responsible for,” he says.
He doesn’t accept plastic cups for beverages either and uses only glass bottles. “Our consumption of non-biodegradable products is worrying. It’s one thing to talk about it and quite another to make concrete lifestyle modifications. It may not be easy but it is necessary,” he highlights about his way of life.Naatesan’s large Goregaon East studio in Mumbai has become a haven of creative alchemy. He is the scientist of this laboratory of ingenious experimentation that disposes of nothing. Trash after all is his most valued treasure.