‘City for All?’ public art festival questions who builds our cities, and for whom
by Jincy IypeAug 17, 2022
by Rahul KumarPublished on : May 21, 2021
If we were to point at the singular most critical issue facing the world in our contemporary times, in my personal opinion, it will all filter down to exponential growth of the human population. Think about it…almost everything could be better managed only if we were fewer people with a higher per-capita resource available at our disposal. M Pravat observes, absorbs, introspects, and responds to the very fallout of increased population-lead urbanisation. “…my work is not so much about architecture as buildings and constructions. It is more about the fluidity and movement in built environments,” he says.
I first saw his works at an exhibition titled When is space at the Jawahar Kala Kendra (Jaipur). Pravat created a gigantic globe titled The Malleability of All Things Solid, that was uniquely placed right under a dome at the entrance of the complex designed by architect Charles Correa. It was only recently when I happened to spend time with Pravat during my visit to the Dhaka Art Summit 2020 that got to know about his artistic concerns and process.
I speak to the artist on the sidelines of his show titled Fugitive Dust, curated by Sabih Ahmed and presented at Vida Heydari Contemporary gallery in Pune.
Rahul Kumar (RK): The curatorial framework of your recent show mentions your ongoing reference to the urban architecture, especially that of the national capital of the country where you live. Your work, however, has a rather organic flow. How does this fit-in with the precision of urban town planning?
M Pravat (MP): Let me start from the city of New Delhi itself. The national capital has been experiencing one of the fastest urban expansions in the world. Vast areas of croplands and grasslands have been turned into roads, buildings and parking lots, attracting an unprecedented amount of new residents that may well be the largest urban migration in the world. Most of the expansion in Delhi has occurred on the peripheries of the city, as rural areas have become more urban. So, the city forms a morphology of multiple elements that range from colonial city planning, pre-modern traditions of town planning and architecture, gardens, to temporary occupations and settlements. If we observe, spatial growth of Indian cities have been polynuclear and multifunctional. While the blueprints and masterplans of city planning aspire for formal and regulated precision, I think there is a different kind of precision of the movement of people, animals, resources and debris, and even the wind and dust, that finally shapes a city. These movements and precisions are fluid and I am interested in this other precision of movements. When someone mentions urban planning, I feel there is never just one plan at work. There are multiple plans working at the same time, sometimes against each other. That is what I try to capture in my practice because the material I work with is not in my control and many other factors impose themselves. In that sense, my work is not so much about architecture as buildings and constructions. It is more about the fluidity and movement in built environments.
RK: Trained as a painter, you have now incorporated a wide variety of media in your practice. In continuation from the previous question, how does the fluidity of paint compliment the rather firm and strong materials like cement and wood? Has your very approach to your work, the conceptual foundation of it also evolved?
MP: I was trained to work with paints on canvas and papers, but my comprehension around how I would like to practice art changed organically over the years. While pursuing my artistic practice I had to shift dwelling bases between cities in India. Each time I moved to a new city, I could not help but notice the relationships between people and the spaces they make and unmake. These are both abstract and tangible; they provide indications for the histories and the present of urban architectonics. My current art practice moves between reconstructing images of these spaces and imagining a future that they might offer.
My artistic production almost always turns into a synthesis of multiple mediums, through which I explore the architectures of space, time, and memory of the places I live in. I have been exploring for more than a decade the forms, structures and spaces that emerge in and around Delhi. While doing so I realised that almost all histories of cities have a similarity and that is that they have expanded in layers, Delhi is no different. The forms and spaces in my immediate surroundings, the way they were physically constructed or imagined according to the necessities of an ever-increasing and changing population activated my ways of making works. The impetus with which the visual texture of the city has changed has had a profound impact on my practice and led me to appropriate mediums that are scattered across the urbanscape.
RK: Why the fascination with ‘under construction’ and incomplete buildings?
MP: My initial interest in examining under-construction sites started in 2006. Since then, it has matured into a search for residue, debris, decay and the afterlife of architectural structures. Delhi has provided me with ample resources with old buildings being pulled down and new ones coming up in their place. My approach to making art has been an attempt to map these tripping moments of constructed forms that are caught between permanence and disintegration. I believe this practice could be a passage of initiating dialogues between cities, their pasts and presents.
The material life of forms and the way our memories preserve them are two registers whose boundaries continuously blur, shift, break down, and reappear in my work. My process therefore entails working my way through different materials, exploring different sites, studying plans and oftentimes fabricating entirely fictive forms based on memories and dreams. These take shape in the form of paintings, installations, collages and drawings. My current and ongoing body of work has stemmed from honing techniques of formally and materially deconstructing the image step-by-step, the frame, the surface, and the very foundations of built forms, and then re-configuring them to retain their material and spatial characteristics, but re-adjusting their temporal frequencies. Be it a piece of paper with geometric progressions gone awry, or concrete and brick panels that freeze and preserve an accident. A space becomes a void when it cannot be used as a consequence of the built or as vestigial remains of spatial planning and design. Many a times, these incidental spaces take on different meanings through their un-designed usage. A look at these negative spaces and their significance in our daily lives reveals our relationship with this un-built component and the way we perceive space. I often wonder what happens if we were to create these voids deliberately and not incidentally?
Within the dynamic morphology of cityscapes, any attempt at forming representational models to reflect that dynamism poses a number of challenges, more so because any city itself is largely constituted by innumerable layers of images and imaginations. Whereas many images find a picture plane, there are imaginations, desires, and resentments that gradually seep into fissures and cracks to form different substrata. With excavation and archival retrieval as the most commonly spoken-about tropes today, could there be other ways to illuminate that which is beneath? My work aspires to capture this precarious life of built forms that are caught between permanence and disintegration, between constant re-building and tearing down, between physical presence and mental specters.
RK: What triggered the formation of Layout Collective? Please talk to us about its objectives and some of the significant architectural interventions made over the past years?
MP: Layout’ is an artist collective that was formed in November 2010 comprising of S Boka, Susanta Mondal, Navid Tschopp and myself. Together we have been interested in making site-specific art installations working with construction material partially influenced by DIY culture. All of us were concerned with specific aspects of our cultural landscapes finding influences in geological structures, history and contemporary cultural inhabitations. The group draws inspiration from technology in order to create a new reality that is solely expressed through hypothetical projects.
We describe our projects as location-based 'aesthetic constructions' that interrogate the standard engineered urban space. In most cases it has been the colonial architectural spaces of Delhi and Kolkata among other cities. Within the dynamic cityscapes we inhabit, any attempt at forming representational models to reflect that dynamism poses a number of challenges, more so because any city is largely constituted by innumerable layers of images and imaginations. Whereas many images find a picture-plane that is subsequently broken, there are also imaginations, desires, and resentments that gradually seep into fissures and cracks to form a different substratum. The artists in the collective are concerned with these different layers. We are increasingly learning towards immersing ourselves in a performative installation through sounds, videos and performance. As we do process-based work, our projects are always a kind of continuation from previous ones, accruing more material and volume. We are currently working with the notion of sound architecture, which will lead us to some form in the near future.
RK: ‘Fugitive Dust’ is a telling title of your show that recently opened. Please tell us the thought behind calling it by this name. Also, ‘Movement in stillness’ are tapestry sculpted with fired bricks. What metaphors are at play in this work for you?
MP: The title of the exhibition, Fugitive Dust, came out of conversations Sabih Ahmed and I had been having over several months as we were preparing for this exhibition. As Sabih has been following my practice for several years, he had made a number of studio visits when some of the larger works were still being made and we would always talk about the sheer amount of dust in my studio. Before I used to try and clean the dust but it was always there hiding in the cracks, so now I have embraced it. Dust seems to be an integral part of my studio, but also an integral part of the city of Delhi and it I often wonder whether it is the dust of the city coming into my studio or the dust of the studio going out into the city. More importantly, I have realised that this fugitive dust is at the heart of my work since the last five years as it creates a transparent structure of its own in the negative spaces of built environments.
Movement in Stillness is indeed like tapestry, and for me it was an attempt to create a model or fragment of an ancient ruin. As I have been thinking about cityscapes and urban environments, I did not want to limit myself to modern or colonial cities. I am also interested in the deeper civilisational history of cities that continue to exist, sometimes buried underneath the cities we inhabit and sometimes visibly present and inhabited. Several ancient cities were built using fired bricks, and the field of archaeology is always trying to unearth them, remove the layers of dust that covers them. I feel that the mediums of bricks, dust, paper, ink push me to access these vast scales of time and history that we currently inhabit.
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