When Hardeep Pandhal first visited Mull, he heard a story of how a wooden statue of a highland warrior pointing passers-by towards a heritage centre had been physically defaced. The image seemed to tie in with a childhood memory of growing up in a Sikh community in Birmingham, where Pandhal remembered another image of legendary warrior and martyr Baba Deep Singh, who continued to avenge the desecration of the Golden Temple by the Afghan army while holding on to his own decapitated head.
With a burgeoning interest in Victorian satirical cartoonist and original illustrator of Charles Dickens' George Cruikshank thrown into the mix, the end result is a four-metre high sculptural reimagining of the Cruikshank cartoon which greets visitors outside the Comar organisation's Tobermory-based An Tobar centre and gives the show its name. In the original, an animated guillotine takes flight to chase a government on the run. Recast as the sort of seaside attraction which holiday-makers could pose with for postcard style snapshots by poking their own heads through the holes that saw them become cartoon characters, the bloody blade above them that threatens to reform them here gives Pandhal's show an extra edge.
“The significance of decapitation in culture is the key to the exhibition,” he explains. “As a child I was always estranged from that sort of Sikh imagery, even though it was part of my heritage, then at some point I came across the philosopher George Bataille, who took things even further, and there was this thing about trying to re-enact the soul of the guillotine. There's this idea of anger as well, of losing your head in the heat of the moment.”
Now living in Glasgow following graduation from Glasgow School of Art in 2013, Pandhal was selected to appear in Bloomberg New Contemporaries that year, and produced a public art commission for the 2014 Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art on the site of the city's former Camp Coffee factory. More recently Pandhal has been selected for the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh's Satellites programme for emerging artists, while a solo show as part of the Asian Triennial in Manchester has already caused a stir.
“There was a lot of concern about my depiction of decapitation,” Pandhal says, “which I can kind of understand, but this sort of imagery with displaced heads has been around for centuries, but what I like to think I'm doing is making something without a historical context.”
Also featuring in A Neck or Nothing Man! will be a hood knitted by his mum for a statue of St Columba that sits in An Tobar's cafe, as well as new video work and collage-based pieces. All of which embraces the immediate surroundings it sits in while recognising where it's come from.
“In terms of coming to Mull,” says Pandhal, “there's that escapist idea of getting away from things that drives people, and that becomes another metaphor for losing one's head.”
The List, March 2015