Saturday, January 17, 2009
The Public Art Expereince
The two traffic policemen on the motorcycle came and stopped near me. They were trying to control the traffic, almost futilely. My camera probably gave me away, and guessing that I probably had something to do with the installations, they came and asked me about them. In fact, they had already understood it.
“It is about the vultures, is it not?” one of them asked. I said yes and told them about their extinction in and around Delhi. “We used to see them aplenty around our village, but now they are gone.”
In a brief moment the uniformed traffic policemen had transformed and become like anyone else. They had shed their uniforms. This was the type of interaction I had with scores of people over the duration of the installations, from 12th to 21st December. It was a fascinating insight into the nature of the ‘public’ and how ‘art’ could help bring everyone to a very human level.
On the roundabout
As I stood on the Mandi House roundabout, the site for the installation for the ‘public art’ project, the evening traffic chaos was evident. Like every other evening, between 5 and 8 the roundabout was a filled with cars, tempos, three wheelers, cyclists, scooters, motorcycles, all trying to inch forward in the un-definable mass of traffic. This was probably one of the largest roundabouts in the city, and one of the busiest, since it was the transit point from Central Delhi to North Delhi.
Of course it was all the better for the large installations on and around the roundabout. 4 large photographs, 20ft x 15 ft were located on the verges around the roundabout, lit by spotlights. The vultures which the city had lost stared back at the city – reclaiming the space. In the centre of the roundabout, and about 30 ft above it, were three large floating tensile structures, made of fabric, shaped in the manner of bird’s wings. Two were lit up with fluorescent light, whilst the third had the video ‘extinct?’ projected onto it. The video had been a challenge, since just finding the vultures took over 6 months, and that too in two small flocks of 30 and 9 birds. When I thought of the ease with which I found them even 20 years ago, just by traveling to the nearby ridge forest, the fact of extinction hit me very starkly.
Inside the Natural History Museum – the last two vultures, stuffed!
In side the Natural History Museum there were other installations. The Museum itself is in a building owned by FICCI, the large federation of the biggest industrial houses in the country. Built in the 1970’s the building itself is like a fascinating relic of the past, and announcing India’s encounter with modernity in its Bauhaus style of architecture. The entrance to the building has a beautiful overhung canopy anchored at one end with two pillars and floating beyond it. The lobby is messy, since it is unkempt, and full of banners which announce the various accounting tutorials which take place in the auditorium each day, The museum itself is approached through a staircase, and has displays which belong to a time past. Charming yet somehow ancient. In the centre of the building is a shaft around which spirals the staircase which leads upto the 5th floor.
The original plan to set up two large light boxes in the entrance lobby was soon abandoned, since it was just two messy. Hence these were located on the first floor, in the lobby to the museum itself. One installation was a large light box table, like a museum display, and with photographs of my old bird watching diary and photographs. From there floor signage took one to the central courtyard which has another fabric tensile running through it. Every evening this came alight with the video of ‘extinct’ being projected onto it. On the second floor, the signage led to the diorama of the stuffed vultures, which had a video of two nesting birds placed next to them. Here the group Desire Machine had recreated a multi channel forest sound, which brought the whole floor alive for a few days.
Readings on Ecology and Extinctions – public event at Max Muller Bhawan
The readings, I organized was an opportunity to think of extinctions and ecology in our lives, and what they meant. Salil Chatruvedi read his poems. Sheeba Chachi talked about memory and extinctions. Rana Dasgupta read on the extinction of identity, and Professor Vikram Soni spoke about the linkage between critical mass and extinction. It was a fascinating evening, and unearthed many thoughts and ideas about the interconnectedness of ways of thinking about loss.
The Public and Public Space - ours to reclaim!
I went and saw other works by fellow artists, over the days. Everywhere there were curious people. Complete strangers would come up, gather around the works and have a conversation. Suddenly the public space was not a place solely to transit across. It was also a place for community. As i have always felt, it is in the public spaces that community is formed and that citizens are created. It is these spaces which have the potential for openess and liberation. For democracy and sharing.
Place two chairs on the pavement and their will be a conversation, between complete strangers!
The public space is completely usurped by the state. We have allowed it to be so. It is like a natural law. If you will not occupy it, something or someone else will. This is true here as well. We have let go and let it go.
The festival to me brought home this realization. From the difficulties of getting clearances to the point where it was possible to put up public projects and activate the latent publicness around these objects told me clearly that this place can be reclaimed. It is only a matter is doing that, and of believing that it is important to do so.
If we do not then it is lost in the discourse of security and terror, and of divisive identities rather than of "creating a community."