The science of art

looking beyond

One for the birds Pratik Sagar’s  ‘interactive bird eco-habitat’ of millet-filled mud pots.This is not some school project on environment though. It is, in fact, the second edition of Khoj’s unique residency, ‘In Context: Public. Art. Ecology’, that saw four artists from India and abroad create public art works with an intent to break down the barriers between science and art.

Says art critic Jyoti Dhar, “Artists and scientists do not have the same starting points. In fact, none of us do — we all come with our own notions of what comprises good art and bad art, what constitutes the domain of science and the roles that both art and science play in society. Interdisciplinary residencies like this try to map out new and less restrictive ways of thinking about art — which is the opening up of perspectives.”

Freedom to experiment with an art form comes when the shackles of market are broken down and that is what Khoj achieves by giving space to artists and viewers to interact and respond with their public space. And that is the charm of this show. UK’s Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd, to whom the credit of converting the walls of the Khoj Studio into a foliage-filled installation goes, have been collaborating for years to transform abandoned churches, prominent city buildings, and now the Khoj courtyard, into grassy havens. They have displayed whale and camel skeletons covered in crystallised salt particles in museums and abandoned houses and they have burnt a polar-bear bone into ashes, collected the carbon remains and grown striking diamonds from it.

“This work was done to create breathing space within a hot and polluted city,” says Harvey, “we watered the barley seeds five times a day to get this lush green crop. Now this wall is not only the source of food for many birds, but is also providing them a roosting space.”

In an adjacent room, portraits of two women seem to emerge out of nowhere on a canvas filled with grass. “We decided to use grass as canvas about 20 years ago. We reflect light on some parts of the grass and those parts that get light are able to carry out photosynthesis and are greener than the rest of the picture. Slowly the portrait takes shape with the difference in the shades of the grass. We used two women as subjects of our art; the younger woman is the ironing lady, while the older woman is someone who lives in the Khirki area,” explains Harvey.

It’s not just the people of Khirki village with whom the artists have interacted. From the first floor of the studio, Baroda artist Pratik Sagar continuously observed the birds and squirrels getting attracted by his ‘interactive bird eco-habitat’ of millet-filled mud pots for a documentary film that is also being shown at the same venue.

A similar connection between environment and man is being explored by New York based artist and biologist Brandon Balengee who has installed a collection of indigenous flowering plants illuminated with ultra-violet lights that are attracting various insects inside the Khoj Studio. Titled ‘Love Motel for Insects’, the same work has also been installed in the neighbouring Saket Mall. Balengee is perhaps one of the most ‘science-driven’ artists in this inter-disciplinary residency. “The purpose of using ultra-violet light was to attract and observe natural insects. I have observed that there are very few insects that are flying in, showing the level of high pollution in this area, but I managed to capture the head hawk moth which is a rare species.”

Balengee’s ‘bio-art’ practice helps him to engage in what he calls a type of ‘ecosystem activism.’ In the same vein, Navin Thomas from Bangalore has attempted another experiment. A new-media artist interested in sub-sonic frequencies and ecology, he explored the River Yamuna for his work at Khoj Studios.

“I wanted to work with materials closest to me — radio and ecology; it’s not sculpture, it’s not ‘print on canvas,’ it’s not ‘pure object’. I want to ask — what happens beyond the system of objects? I try to push that dialogue further. Seeing as I come from an acoustic background, I pursue the idea of how to make the objects speak,” explains Thomas.
So, when Thomas set out to suspend a hydrophone (equipment used to sense life forms) into the Yamuna in an effort to capture sounds at a deeper level, he couldn’t “hear a thing”, suggesting the river is so polluted that “nothing except catfish have survived.” His observation has led to two works in the show — one, an installation made of steel urinals that emit the sub-sonic frequencies recorded at the river and, the other, aquariums full of catfish that suggest that “this sacred river is so full of sewage and waste products that I was unable to detect any signs of life — except one, some kind of catfish, with red, bulging eyes, which are voracious eaters and can survive on anything, including the faeces of pigs.”

While artists in the residency have collaborated to learn from each other’s experiences — Navin’s initial explorations of the Yamuna led fellow artist Sagar to the same site where he discovered Siberian migratory birds at a shamshaan ghat — the birds attracted by Sagar’s installation are also interacting with Ackroyd and Harvey’s courtyard full of barley. All that’s left now is for humans to understand the relationship art shares with science!

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