The body as a transparent scar: an interview with Joshua Vettivelu

One of the best things about working on ISSUE Magazine are the connections we get to make, and the people we get to talk to and get to know.

Toronto-based artist Joshua Vettivelu saw one of our submission posters for the theme of Light on Tumblr and reached out to us via email. He shared these delicate sculptural drawings that were only visible when backlit, and we thought, “Perfect.” Then we clicked the link to his website that he also shared, saw his body of work and decided to ask him some questions.


His answers are below, as part of a short but insightful interview concerning the preoccupations behind Joshua’s work and why he is an artist. We touched on the burden/importance of cultural identity in artistic expression, as well as the use of light in art and what it achieves (among other things!). We hope his work and our conversation with him can provide illumination in more ways than one.

Thanks so much to Joshua for his co-operation, his generosity and his thoughtfulness. You can see his complete Cut Drawings here. The images below have been cropped for clarity, with the permission of the artist.

— Syar S. Alia

Cut drawings by Joshua Vettivelu 13

Could you please tell us a little bit about your background – how you’d classify your work and what you do, how you started out? 

My name is Joshua Vettivelu and I’m a Toronto-based installation and performance artist. I’m a graduate of York University’s Visual Art Program. I focused my studies on sculpture, installation, video and drawing while there. I also completed a minor in Sexuality Studies, focusing on studies about psychoanalysis, masculinity, race and queer desire. It was an excellent program that really informed a lot of the ways in which I approach and am critical of artwork. There are some really excellent professors and students doing very important work there. It’s hard for me not to gush about that program.

While I was in school I was included in a lot of amazing opportunities like being a visiting student artist at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Since graduating I’ve been fortunate to be included in some incredible exhibitions, including travelling to Washington, DC to present work at IGNITION, a performance art festival curated by DULU, DC. A video of that performance was also featured at KHUSH: A Show of Love, at the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archive Gallery. I recently interned at the South Asian Visual Arts Centre, who commissioned me to do a performance piece at the Toronto International Art Fair. The commissioned piece, Glory Hole, was part of Focus Asia at TIAF, and was one of the last pieces I completed before leaving for a residency at The Prism House in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Cut drawings by Joshua Vettivelu 1

What are the major influences in your work? I looked through your website, and what jumped out to me was the focus on the human body, and organic structures (I’m thinking of Artifice (Host), Orifice, Untitled (Husks) and Body Coins). What stories are you trying to tell through your work?

I think you’re definitely correct in highlighting my interest in the human body. In very general terms, there is always something very alluring about the body, not only as a physical object but also as a portal through which subjectivity is experienced.

I think when I make 2D work, it is a much more intimate thing that I sometimes have trouble verbalizing concisely. It is much more an immediate translation of this feeling of excess in regards to the human body when looking at moments of desire, closeness, intimacy and longing. In the drawings I like to look at instances where the human body is not self-contained and ceases to be a singular unit.

There’s also this idea of false transcendence (kind of like an orgasm that never arrives) that I always have in the back of my head when I draw, but I don’t think I’ve really fleshed out or verbalised that idea fully. I suppose I am sometimes suspicious of ideas that I very much want to believe in.

When I make 3D work it is very much about how bodies experience space, both psychologically and politically, and I find the two hard to separate as I’m also very interested in examining how internalised psychological states, like desire and anxiety, can be culturally produced. Physical materials present us with a matrix of meaning that we must all navigate and negotiate with our own subject positions.

Artifice is possibly one of my favorite installations, because it utilised this very dark, raw space to evoke this sense of the internal self. You walk down stairs from this pristine white gallery and are suddenly thrust into this very dark, low ceilinged basement. The effect is very isolating and strengthens the relationship between the viewer and this uncanny creature slowly breathing at the far end of the space. The movement was subtle enough that it required you to be very still to see its movement — and even then you weren’t sure if your eyes were just tricking you. The only tell that this wasn’t a real creature was the power cord that extended from Host (the sculpture) to the ceiling outlet. It set up this dynamic where the institution of the gallery was literally mobilising a pile of material into meaning.

Cut drawings by Joshua Vettivelu 3

I ask this with a little hesitation, because I don’t want to pigeonhole you in any way, but how big a role does your cultural background play in your work, and does it still play a role? Sometimes I think that writing about and expressing feelings/thoughts/opinions about your cultural identity as a minority, as a (to be crude) non-white person navigating Western ideals, landscapes and structures — it becomes an obligation and a duty, as well as a rite of passage. It feels necessary, it feels inevitable and at the same time because of that it can feel a little stifling. Do you agree/disagree? 

I’m actually so happy that you asked this question because I think it’s a very important one to address — and I think you got it down perfectly. I can only really speak from my own experience but I find that I did (and sometimes still do) have this anxiety that there would be this constant pressure on me to address the ways in which I wasn’t normative in all of my artworks or that anything I would make would always be read in the terms of my external body. It really is a very tricky thing to navigate, but if I may posit a simple solution to the entire thing that has worked well for me so far it is honesty.

I think Bukowski has a quote about the creative process, where he says something along the lines of “If it doesn’t come bursting out of you, do not do it.” I think it’s a bit romanticised and perhaps belies some of the real work that goes into making — but I like the sentiment of it. If I sit down and am faced with a lack of ideas, the worst thing I can do is say, “Well I am brown and gay, I should probably start making brown gay art.” I think that this is very dangerous way to approach art because it comes from an expectation to perform your subject position rather than an honest pull to investigate it. (Though determining what is honest within your self is a whole other struggle.)

Cut drawings by Joshua Vettivelu 14

I chose to make discourses on identity part of my education and so these narratives are always cycling within my head;, however I sometimes fall into this trap where I try and force it into work that sometimes doesn’t have it because I feel like there is an expectation for me to do so. The result is never successful.

However, I have two pieces that deal directly with the intersections of my identity: Glory Hole and  I’ve Done It, You’ve Done It, We’ve All Done It (Failed Survival Strategies #1). These pieces are very personal and came out of a real struggle to symbolise the ways in which disparate parts of my identifications come together within my body. Talking about identity is important for marginalised bodies in so far as the narratives that come to constitute a singular body can also be extrapolated to larger political and cultural histories.

However we should also note that there are different stakes in place for different artists talking about culture. For me to make art about my position from a relatively politically stable environment is one thing; there are some artists who run physical and political risks to make the artwork that they do (for example, Ai Wei Wei). While I believe that there should never be an expectation for artists to perform to this, as it can be reductive and restrictive, identity-based work has a tremendous potential for affective engagement.

Cut drawings by Joshua Vettivelu 8

These cut drawings were made in collaboration with a performance. Could you elaborate a little more about the projects the cut drawings were based on, and how you got involved?

The cut drawings were exhibited in an exhibition that was presented in tandem with Richard Fung’s screening of Dal Puri Diaspora at the 2012 REEL Asian Festival in Toronto. The exhibition was called Rum and Roti and was the second of four installments of Andil Gosine’s Wardrobes project. Andil and I have worked together for a couple years now and he’s been a great mentor to me. He first put me in a show he was curating at the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives Gallery in 2011 and we’ve been working on projects ever since. For Rum and Roti, Andil had a performance titled A Map of Pleasure, A Map of Grief where he interviewed participants on the following questions:


I made Cut Drawings in response to these questions, and a select few were gifted to those who were interviewed by Andil. It was a very natural process, as I mentioned before; longing and desire and grief are all things that interest me very much. The entire event looked at how migration affects intimacy and concepts of home.

Cut drawings by Joshua Vettivelu 11

Why did you choose to utilize light in your cut drawings? You also used light in Ma/Pa — are these two instances work specific? Or have you been wanting to work with light in some way? How do you choose the right medium for each work? (I have refrained from using the phrase “shed some light” here, but you must know I was very tempted)

Please use all the puns you can. I love puns — they are everything to me.

I’m interested in this idea of darkness as this conduit to an internal psyche, and I am always very much drawn to installations that utilise darkness. For Ma/Pa I think using light was more of a reaction to the overwhelming darkness of the gallery. It was me testing the waters of using light as a medium.

However for the Cut Drawings, the use of light became more of an appeal to that phenomenological experience of excess that I talked about earlier and seemed like a natural evolution of what I was trying to access in the Exhaustion Drawings. The drawings become almost invisible when not backlit and I liked the idea of having this moment where you hold it up to the light and this image was revealed. That the entire visibility of the image became dependent on a certain positioning seemed to suit this idea much better. Since I am essentially carving into the paper to achieve different gradients, the process became more sculptural and for some reason, this allowed me to think of the body as a sort of transparent scar.

I associate the reductive carving process with a sense of trauma, where the body is formed and constituted by a series of cuts, but this gives it lightness. It is as if I was trying to erase/cut away the physical body to get at that unnamable thing within ourselves.

Cut drawings by Joshua Vettivelu 12

And lastly, as this is our January ISSUE, can you share with us what you’re looking forward to in 2013? 

I had a really successful last year both professionally and personally and I hope that trend continues. After I complete my residency here I’ll be travelling around Eastern Canada for a little bit of adventure. I will be in a group show up at the Lexington Art League in Kentucky from January 11 – March 3 where I will be showing a selection of Exhaustion Drawings. There have been rumors about a potential trip to Paris and New York (for art!) and a potential show in a regional Ontario gallery but nothing is set in stone, so I don’t want to jinx anything yet.  Ultimately, I hope I can continue to surround myself with amazing artists and thinkers and be able to keep producing good work.

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