A reflection of the world

A reflection of the world

Public Art

A reflection of the world

There is a method to the madness. In the heart of a Berlin winter, not long ago, libretto blared from six charred luxury cars that lay in a wasteland adjacent to the Skulpturenpark. For six weeks, the contractor who was overseeing a construction nearby had his nerves racked, listening to this seemingly pointless opera.

He complained to the police. The policewoman who arrived on the scene had a more artistic bend of mind and upheld KUNSTrePUBLIK’s freedom to present their artistic creation “Land’s End — Eine Oper in sechs Akten”  (An Opera in Six Acts).

The purpose, says Matthias Einhoff, co-founder of the artists collective KUNSTrePUBLIK, was an exploration of land values where “the cars enact an urban drama of competing forces, which entails no less than a battle for social and cultural supremacy”.

With the rapid evolution of our society, its modes of expression, including public art, have also evolved. Eminent sculptor Balan Nambiar demystifies public art when he says that anything done in a public space — a mural on a compound wall, or a terracotta pot strategically placed in a public garden, can be construed as art. Public art is as old as man — think cave paintings — and can be as enduring as the Sanchi Stupa, or as transient as sand art.

The definition of public art is confusing for most artists and the public, says renowned artist C F John. Doing a work in public space does not necessarily make it public art because it could be the artist’s own personal engagement with that space. In contemporary context, public works of art, much of it installation art, is the artist’s reflection of our times that seeks to engage and challenge the public both intellectually and sensorially.

“We think that public art represents the realities and at the same time demands and asks questions about the problems that plague our urban life. Urban India has experienced a cultural shift that is so drastic and dramatic ...it is experiencing an identity crisis,” says Chetan Manikantan, an active member of the Bengaluru-based art collective, Klatsch.

Over the past two decades, we have seen a veritable explosion of new forms of public art that seek to engage in social commentary, civic and even political activism. From Light Painting on the monuments in France, to mushroom farming in an abandoned warehouse in the Ruhr area, Gelsenkirchen, from calligraphy graffiti over dilapidated buildings in Manshiyat Naser, Egypt, to dancing in an abandoned well in Dodda Gubbi, Bengaluru; all over the world art has assumed a purpose. Einhoff puts this into perspective when he says, “The social frame has changed on many levels: accessibility to information, ideas of democracy, climate change, war and refugees; the topics and the approach to public art is a different one.”

C F John explains that the changing of the world order in the late 1980s with the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of USSR, the Gulf war in 1991, “brought a lot of churning in anyone who had societal thinking”. On home turf, the opening of the Indian economic policy in 1991 brought “for some optimism and new dreams, for others anxiety. The land that was once part of one’s identity now became real estate, water became a commodity. This loss of roots and identity; the sea change in politics, questions on spirituality, an emerging religious fundamentalism with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 — all these became concerns, and each one (artist) needed to find their own way of resolving it”.

For most Indian artists in the early 1980s, the effort was to find a public space for the work they did; galleries were few, media coverage was sparse. In the 1990s, the artists were caught up in the changing political, cultural and social scenario; “we were trying to engage with the public discourse, and not just engaging, but critically looking at public discourse — in the context of religious fundamentalism, the context of land, looking at communities and re-building communities — all that became a concern and interest for us,” says John. 

Artistic expressions

“So the forms used — such as paintings — were not able to significantly express what was churning inside us. We had to find new forms to express ourselves. Firstly by the participation of the community, and secondly, finding new forms of materials and space for what was going on inside us.” John stresses that this by no means disregards the conventional forms of art, but rather “addressed a specific aspect of our existence”. Interestingly, John points out that Bengaluru has always been “the hub of creative exploration” in India.

“Artists have been active in changing societies for decades, but in different fields (women’s rights, democracy etc). Greater access to education and information leads to a greater output of creative ideas around the current state of societies. This doesn’t mean that artists (today) are more involved, but more visibly involved for sure,” says Einhoff.

This is certainly true of home-grown maverick artist Baadal Nanjundaswamy who has gained a reputation for shaking up the establishment with his satirical commentary on the shoddy state of Bengaluru’s roads. A life-sized crocodile in a 12-foot-long water-filled pothole on Sulthanpalya main road, Yama the Hindu god of death painted around an open manhole in R T Nagar, a crater turned into a swimming pool on Mission Road, are but some of his jibes at the BBMP, Bengaluru. Allegedly, this galvanised the civic body into taking action.

From the darkness of waste that Tobias Daemgen found under the Wheeler Road bridge in Cox Town, a brilliant project was born titled ‘From Darkness...’ Daemgen took a common food cart and transformed it into a mobile light sculpture “to bring people together”.  In Bengaluru on a residency from Goethe Institute, Daemgen spent weeks under the Wheeler Road bridge “getting in contact with the people and collecting worthless and useless leftovers, garbage, plant parts, broken things... By integrating these lost objects into my kinetic light sculpture, projecting them oversized onto the walls of the flyover, they revealed their aesthetical value and beauty far from capitalistic qualities”. Daemgen’s objective was “to contribute to the awareness that public space is something precious, and its creation and preservation a task every single citizen is an important part of”.

The cross-cultural spectrum of people that gathered to discuss and exchange ideas at Daemgen’s light cart was remarkable. This was unthinkable a few decades ago, simply because art did not go to the people — people went to see art in galleries.

Yet, in many cases, public art installations can be esoteric. What, then, is its purpose? Nambiar‘s instant reaction — “Real creative work is not meant for innocent ignorants. I honestly don’t care (if people don’t understand.) I am happy to explain, but I am not going to justify the full meaning of the work.”

“Art is made to make you think, not to make you smile or like it. They (artists) will all try to make a statement,” says Franck Barthelemy, art adviser, writer and collector who “helps foreign collectors to get passionate about Indian art”. Each artist comes with his/her own particular “language”, which may be difficult to articulate. “We do not need to understand fully. We should take over their work and make our own story; and that is the role of art — trying to help you see the world in a different way,” says Berthelemy.

“All of our projects work with engaging a community of people... We’ve seen that people outside the creative community are highly receptive to creative processes as long as we can make it contextual to them,” says Shaunak Mahbubani, an active member of Klatsch.

“Jaaga DNA invest rather seriously into research, user surveys, baseline surveys and mapping exercises, and human-centered design processes for our projects,” says Kamya Ramachandran, director, Jaaga DNA. Throughout the three-week process of their Yellow UFO project, the community was invited to take part in the creation and ideation processes. The silhouettes in black, drawn on the yellow background under the Richmond Flyover, are actual citizens, ranging from a security guard from the nearby apartments to a passerby in a fancy car who stopped to engage with the artists.

Through an artist’s eye

Artists do not look at the world the way we do. “We see the complexity of things, not just one ideology,” says Einhoff. This was certainly true of distinguished sculptor Kanayi Kunhiraman when his Yakshi, the gigantic nude female figure, was installed in Malampuzha Gardens, Kerala, in 1969. It was controversial for its time, but also seminal in triggering off a debate on public art. “Nude is different from nakedness,” says Nambiar, pointing to the Gommateshwara statue at Shravanabelagola. That fine line of moral/ethical demarcation, he feels, is best left to the aesthetics and creativity of the artist. Barthelemy agrees. “If you don’t censor architecture which is in the public domain, then why art?” he queries. 

Have artists evolved over the years? “There is a definite change in outlook and perception,” says Nambiar. “Today, concept is more important that skill. In order to articulate, they (artists) need an electronic medium, and in the process may have lost correlation between the brain power and the finger tips.” After 23 years of installation work, John is concerned how international art practices are influencing Indian sensibilities and artistic vocabulary. He would like to see much more local context giving rise to art forms. Barthelemy believes that while artists still possess the passion, today they are more career-focused. A financially driven art market now propels an artist to tread a prescribed path that considers “Where do I have to show to be seen?!”

And while the journey for most is still tough, artists today do have the advantage of new media, exposure to works abroad, residencies, and support/funding from organisations like India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) and Jaaga DNA that seek to encourage, promote and sustain public art. Through its Project 560 initiative, IFA seeks to rediscover Bengaluru and connect to citizens through unique artistic interventions across the city.

“We look at public art and design as a process that heals and lends positivity to spaces. The space beneath the KH Double Road flyover was rescued from its squalor by deploying a set of 10 creatives from performance art, filmmaking, visual art, sculpture, and architecture, over a period... Involving the public in subtle and overt ways will have an effect on the civic-mindedness of our people,” explains Ramachandran.

Unlike several countries in the West, India does not have a centrally structured programme or dedicated finance for public arts. “The (government) support and encouragement is lacklustre at a macro level... However, there are stellar individuals that have offered in-kind support such as permissions, space and zero bureaucracy,” says Mahbubani. “We believe it’s critical to engage the government in our work, through its employees or its institutions,” says Ramachandran. On one point, all agree: public art is crucial as it records the evolving culture and contributes to the identity and history of a city.

Malleshwaram Calling (2015)

Jaaga DNA founder Archana Prasad created this work as part of a grant by IFA. A strategically placed old-styled telephone booth encouraged people to enter into an experience of time travel to Malleshwaram in the 1950s through oral histories of its senior citizens, listening to stories in their voices. For this project, Jaaga DNA worked with Sociology students of Mount Carmel College, and they executed a series of surveys with almost 300 people in the vicinity, and a socio-cultural mapping of the neighbourhood.

Myself Mohan 1909 (2015)

This project by Klatsch, funded by IFA, took place in a 100-year-old building in the heart of Old Bengaluru, the Chickpet Market. The project told the autobiographical story of the Mohan Building through mix-media installations. Over a period of six months, Klatsch researched the history of the building as well as the community feelings towards the building and the space. The community of shopkeepers and local vendors were receptive to the whole process and became ambassadors, getting droves of people in for the final exhibition. Klatsch heard from the community that they enjoyed seeing the history of the building in a fun manner and found it interesting to see how an abandoned space can be brought alive.

Silence of Furies and Sorrows - Pages of a Burning City (1995)

Mentally and emotionally scarred by the communal violence after the Babri Masjid issue in 1992, and in Bengaluru in 1994, C F John, together with artists Raghavendra Rao, Ravisankar Rao, Amaresh U Bijjal, Ramesh Chandra, Shantamani, Nandakishore and Tripura Kashyap, spent several weeks with the affected communities on Mysore Road “witnessing and participating at a very personal and intimate level”. They worked with both adults and children to provide emotional and practical support. The result was an exhibition of installations and performance at the Venkatappa Art Gallery, using materials similar to those found at the site of devastation. This commentary on urban violence hit the mark when individuals from the affected communities and the public were moved to tears.