Hetain Patel: Who am I? Think againToday’s talk isn’t so much a “talk” as a hilarious topsy-turvy performance by Hetain Patel that reflects on an identity forged as much from Spider-Man comics and Bruce Lee movies as by a father who emigrated from India to the United Kingdom in the 1960s. An excerpt from his latest stage work, Be Like Water, this talk introduces us to Patel’s art, which looks at identity as a game of imitation.
As his talk goes live, Patel has just unveiled a brand new work, his very first sculpture. For it, Patel converted an old Ford Fiesta — his first car — into a squatting Transformer. This was a huge undertaking for Patel, made especially meaningful because he was only able to do it with the help of his father, who works in hearse construction. Patel’s father has been a prime source of inspiration for his art over the years. (See Patel grow a mustache like the one his father sported in the 1960s.)
Below, Patel tells us all about this very cool piece.
My first car was a 1988 Ford Fiesta gifted to me by my father as I turned 17. Born in the U.K. to immigrant Indian parents, the passing of a car between generations provided me with my first taste of independence. In this new work, I’ve reworked a newly acquired 1988 Ford Fiesta, of the same specifications as my original car, to create my first sculpture. Manufactured in England, this car stands as a symbol of working class Britain — a native body, albeit a metal one.
Another significant influence for this work: Transformers, an American film and toy franchise since 1984, and a widely recognisable pop culture reference that reaches far back in my memory. In this new sculpture, Transformers have been made manifest, physically, in a literal transformation of a car into a large-scale, squatting, human-like figure. For me, these ‘robots in disguise’ (as per the cartoon’s theme song) stand as a metaphor for the other, in a fantasy world where they can transform out of a marginal position into one of empowerment.
I created this sculpture together with my father, with additional help from my engineer brother and fellow Transformers enthusiast, Pritum Patel. My father, whose day job is to convert cars into hearses and limousines for funerals, has carried out all the fabrication and structural work with me. This work is the third in an ongoing collaboration between us. (Other works are: the video “To Dance Like Your Dad,” 2009, and the live performance “Me and me Dad and me Wife,” 2012, both presented in 2012 at the Tanks at Tate Modern.)
Unlike the popular toys and films, however, the car here is not a high-powered sports car or truck transformed into a powerful warrior, but rather a small, inexpensive Ford Fiesta transformed into a human, calmly squatting. This posture is a recurring image in my work and forges a link between the lower classes in India and my immigrant family in the U.K., both of whom sit comfortably this way. Naturally this introduces a tension in this sculpture between the seemingly submissive nature of the squat and, in this case, its oddly larger than life scale.
As an artist who is most often the main protagonist in my work, this sculpture is the first time that my representation of the body is not immediately visibly linked to my ethnicity. The material and aesthetic of the work lend themselves to wider interpretations and contradictions around identity, exploring the increasingly murky ground between reality and fantasy, fixed identity and transformation.
I first had the idea for this Fiesta Transformer in May, but no idea how to finance it. Normally, it could take a year or two to do something like this. But then came TED Global 2013 in June … and, lucky for me, I was able to have lots of amazing conversations that week with some incredible people. One such person was Asha Jadeja. Her brilliant organization, the Rajeev Motwani Foundation, invests in and develops new learning and education technologies for children.
Asha and I quickly bonded over our common personal interests in parent-child relationships and the influence of migration and globalisation on this. Our dialogue continued beyond the conference, and led to her generous support in the realisation of this dream project – my first sculpture, created in collaboration with my father. From idea to exhibition in less than six months: that’s unheard of for me! I’ve literally just gotten back from France, having installed it in the Galleria Continua. It will be on display there until December 22.
As the project went on, this family endeavor grew, as even my brother got involved. As you’ll see, even the number plate on the car is perfect, almost spelling out ‘family.’ That’s the original, untouched number plate of the car.
Watch an amazing timelapse of the making of this Transformer: