Review of Public Art project Genesis Eternal
A visit to Kalaghoda Festival has always been a ritual. It is always a matter of conjecture. Sometimes it surprises, sometimes it insinuates. A hub of cultural activities, Kalaghoda area of South Mumbai is converted into an urban museum where pavements, streets, parks, lawns hold the ensemble of art activities within a concentrated zone. The city festival that was initiated in the late 1990s with an aim to rejuvenate the heritage precinct of Mumbai, has grown in many ways in terms of its audiences, programming, and even spaces it occupies. From visual arts to literature, from food to cinema, and from performing arts to folk traditions, the Festival takes diverse voices and expressions in its fold but this time, unfortunately, with some inefficacy. This year’s festival was mainly defined by multiple versions of horses, selfie sessions, installations by sponsors and large crowds spread across different locations.
Amidst the clamor of the Festival, a slightly secluded and less crowded location was the Horniman Circle Gardens. Situated in the Fort area of Mumbai, this circular space with green grass, paved paths and tall trees has been a place for loitering, meeting and social gatherings. That space is transformed through various programs ranging from musical concerts, performances to art installations. This year, a public art project Genesis Eternal responded to contemporary ecological concerns as well as spatiality of the Horniman Circle for the duration of the Festival. Curated by Kanchi Mehta of Chameleon Art Projects, the public art project brought together various artists and cultural practitioners to work in the Gardens in proximity with the environment and architectural elements. The large open space of the gardens surrounded by grand colonial buildings was popularly known as Bombay Green a couple of centuries back. While wandering through the installations, one wonders if it is taking any clue from this historical fact.
Installation by Niksha Khemka – Diabolic Evolutions
Public art takes different shapes and forms as it’s definition is still in flux. Outside the commercial structure of art market, public art often questions the traditional boundaries of contemporary art practice. It trespasses into the everyday world either by interrupting or by co-opting the tropes of the city and urban geography. The art-works created specifically to be experienced in the public sphere/space and offer a response to certain social, environmental, cultural issues and concerns. The definition is multi-fold, but, I will consider two important aspects of it here: Firstly, art in public spaces that encompasses sculptural and site-specific objects that are placed outdoors to enhance the city landscape, and secondly, art in public interest where participation of public takes precedence in the making of an art project. The latter is defined by the process of dialogical engagement with a public or a community within a specific context.
Genesis Eternal at Horniman Circle Gardens occupied an in-between space. The dichotomous relationship between these two types of public art practice is ruptured and they conflate by an act of intervening into a site that is culturally and socially significant in the metropolis. After studying in India and abroad and working with commercial art spaces, curator Kanchi Mehta finds these structures ‘confining to a specific kind of crowd with a specific knowledge.' This specificity of the audience disintegrates in a public space like Horniman Circle Gardens which invites diverse audiences and interactions with the art-works. In the midst of daily activities of exercising, playing, sitting around, chatting, taking walks, these art-works engage people in many ways, abruptly or succinctly. Interestingly, the artists come from varied backgrounds like engineering, art history, designing have also shaped the works which are essentially different in subject, materials, concepts, and even visually and aesthetically. Some of them enter the realm of public art and some remain at the edge of an indoor and outdoor space.
The urgencies of environmental concerns and the pressing need to respond to these issues in a constructive way that continues to be a point of enquiry in this project. The sculptural objects or installations occupy the active space of the garden in conjunction with non-object or interactive works responding to the site. Mother do you think they’ll drop the bomb, a gigantic sculpture of Mother Earth by Mongrels placed the end of the entrance to the Horniman Gardens evokes quintessential perception of the environment. Made from bamboo, tree branches, twigs and rope, the sculpture depicts the mother nature in a dreadful state while the shimmering gold suggests its past glory. Instead of understanding the relationship between human beings and nature in all its complexity, this ‘othering’ of nature tends to create an artificial and dichotomous relation between the two. The metaphor of mother earth romanticizes the ‘past’ that existed without the intervention of modern science and technology.
At the beginning of the left-hand side pathway, Nishant Sudhakaran’s Live to Grow to Live camouflages in the surrounding trees while creating an illusion of an actual tree. The metallic form of a tree with exiguous rotating leaves are suggestive of changing human and environmental conditions. The subtle insertion of it in a public garden makes the viewer respond to and think about the new modalities of technology, nature and their interconnections.
Next to that is a fibreglass and raisin mould of a female figurine with hands spread and a free-flowing translucent garment. The act of breathing in Ratna Gupta’s Breathe spreads through the entire body conjuring experiences of breathing, breathlessness, liberation and claustrophobia. Created by Maandol Mukherjee, Differ-Ant placed solid, perforated iron cubes inside the organic surroundings of a garden space which countered the act of perseverance and resilience that it wished to disperse through the presence of ants around these cubes.
One could locate a few works which were in dialogue with the site, responding to the location as well as the ecological concerns of the project. At the center of the garden were Jatin Kampani’s designer cushions hanging from the leafless tree branches. The hanging cushions carried the motifs of branches, leaves and plants from across the world photographed by the artist during his travels. His work titled I Too Have A Song had three panels with poetry on nature and environmental concerns creating a backdrop for the installation by almost creating a staged performance of suspended cushions with shiny covers. Conceived around the idea of permaculture where design imitates the natural forms, Vikram Arora and Shama Shah created spiral structures from bamboo titled The Eternal Genesis. Drawing their reference from the plethora of permaculture designs, this work projects the ideas of energy efficiency, high productivity and diversity. Adjacent to it was a broom-stick installation by Tathagata Hazra titled Merudanda. Tied with strings, the different arrangements of broom-sticks painted in silver hold themselves on their own as a result of tensity and balance. Building upon the idea of human spinal cord and architectural elements, the work effectuates ideas of flexibility and receptibility of nature with a limited sense of formal qualities obliterated by glittery danglers. It was balanced by an installation on the other side titled Work in Progress by Santosh Kalbande that resonated with the shapes and shadows of the trees around it. The construction pillar resembles a tree with axe heads hanging from its branches. It was countered by the bowls at the bottom filled with organic seeds highlighting the contradictions and possibilities that lie within. The wish-fulfilling red and yellow threads around the tree branches in Vikram Arora’s Kalava evoke the sacred relationship between nature and human beings that misnomer becomes a misnomer in the modernised, technologically advanced societal conditions.
Out of the two interactive projects, Munir Kabani’s Matter Ka Fact invited viewers to participate where they could hold the mirrors to reflect on the solar panels. Their actions would flash the texts on the screen denoting unfathomable aspects of nature but, at the same time, signifying the ultimate role humans play in building the environment around them. The most captivating interactions took place at the River Library conceptualised by Rahul Bhattacharya. Suggestive of the slowly disappearing Mithi river, the project invited people and institutions to donate books, magazines, and journals. The collected materials were displayed in a twisting and curving form of a flowing river. The ‘library’ encouraged the audience to take away as well as donate books throughout the duration while distributing the books at the end. The gesture completely attempted to do away with the focus on object-based art practice and relied more on the conversations that took place within the space. The library space also became a site for performances e.g. Enith, a Goa-based artist’s story-telling and conversations around oral narratives, stories, myths about plants, herbs and trees from the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest.
While addressing the concerns such as technology, deforestation, river contamination, and renewable energy, the project partially treated the public space as an equivalent of gallery or museum space and partially as an open site for initiating a dialogue. By the process of emplacement i.e. construction of a particular space, the project challenges our notion of public space, urban environment and publicness. But, the alternative vision of the project gets embedded within the notions of art making which undermine the possibilities of transcending the frameworks of object making, aesthetics and publicness of public art.
Interview with Kanchi Mehta at Horniman Circle Gardens, Mumbai.