by Vatsala SethiDec 30, 2022
When entering a white cube gallery in a tony locality in Delhi, one is not expecting to step into a pile of mud, nor is one prepared to cross the sludgy water that runs along the gallery floor. The temperature is around 40 degrees and the walls are scrawled with meandering black lines that echo the sense of chaos pervading in the gallery. When one finally navigates the mud and sludge to get to the interior of the gallery, there is a table spread out with goodies. Surprisingly though, the water that is kept in the usual plastic dispenser, is undrinkable, though it is simply untreated water sourced from the Yamuna river. It seems the immersive artwork has made its point. We are made to feel the discomfort of being thirsty and disoriented throughout the show.
The five young artists behind the project are Shubhangi Tyagi, Pragya Saxena, Arnab Chandra, Harindar Langayan and Yeg Kishore Bangar. Titled Scars of Scarcity, the project was a simulation of our everyday lives in the metropolis of Delhi-NCR. Hosted at the A4A (Arts 4 All) Gallery in Greater Kailash II, which is run by Pooja Bahri and Archana Bahl Sapra, the exhibition was on till the end of July 2019.
“The black sludge running through the Yamuna river, the escalating temperatures, the accumulation of toxic waste and non-bio-degradable plastics, is turning Delhi and the surrounding areas into an urban wasteland,” says Langayan. “The general degradation of the environment has lead to a water-crisis, not just in Delhi but in several cities across India,” says Bangar. “We decided to have this art intervention in the gallery, because we wanted people who live comfortable lives away from the water crisis or to become aware of the problems and experience the discomfort of living under these inhospitable conditions, since they are the decision makers,” adds Tyagi.
The exhibit is well-meaning, however, its great moment of reveal is a little obvious. Yes, we know that there is a water crisis, that the streets are often flooded and that the Yamuna has become a filthy dump for toxic waste. Unfortunately, it just scratches the surface and does not tell us anything new, nor does it push us to experience anything beyond the territory of the known, which is what leads us to beg the question, shouldn’t experiential art make us feel that ‘something more’?
Making a difference
Artists working with the environment is not a new phenomenon, there are many artists who have been engaged with the phenomenon of urban waste and the city, like Atul Bhalla, Arunkumar HG, Sheeba Chhachhi, Vibha Galhotra and Ravi Aggarwal, just to name a few. However, it is very heartening to see the younger generation of artists pick up the torch and carry forth the cause. In fact, this is not the first project that these five young artists worked on. They had assisted Arunkumar HG with Toxic Chamber, and Where does it go? - a public art project that is an initiative of the NGO, I am Gurgaon, whose singular mandate is to restore and revive the forest area around and in Gurgaon.
Latika Thukral, the former senior Vice-President of Citibank along with architect Swanzal Kak Kapoor and Ambika Agarwal, founded the group that has successfully re-forested 350 acres of land - right in the middle of the city of Gurgaon. They have to their credit the rehabilitation of the Gurgaon biodiversity park, which was swiftly becoming a toxic wasteland but with the concerted efforts of the NGO, it now plays host to a variety of wildlife including fox, deer, rabbits, peacocks and jungle fowl. Along the way the project involved artist Arunkumar HG, who is known for his work with recycled and reclaimed objects, having worked with materials like plastic, wood and concrete.
“Jagganath Panda and I have always been interested in doing something with the I am Gurgaon group, so when they approached me to create an art awareness project I quickly got involved. I also reached out to young artists who were passionate about the cause,” says Arunkumar, who collaborated with the group of five that include Tyagi, Langayan and Bangar. Thus Toxic Chamber was born and it occupies the Wazirabad Bund in Sector 43, a reclaimed storm-water drain site that is now a popular walking and cycling track. “Since the people involved were from the corporate world, they wanted us to work towards ‘tangible results’ and something ‘long-lasting’. Public art projects do have a shelf life, however, we did want to create something that would last at least for a couple of years, which is why we came up with the idea of recycling waste plastic objects to create a monstrous mouth that consumes us,” says Arunkumar.
Architecturally, the mouth is 25 feet in height, and 60 feet long where 80 percent of it has been created from used plastics. What was most interesting about the structure is that it brought with it a new dynamics of discomfort that was not planned — “We wanted to have film screenings in the chamber but the plastics generated heat and a kind of odour that made it quite unbearable to stay within the mouth for too long,” observes Arunkumar. However, MP and Gurgaon representative, Rao Inderjit Singh, was so impressed with the chamber that he even shifted his press conference there. Children and various citizens’ groups visited and were awed by the giant mouth. “We taught them the importance of waste segregation since each piece of plastic had to be cleaned before we assembled it into the structure,” says Arunkumar, emphasising that art can, in fact, change people’s mindset towards urban waste.
Speaking of the simultaneous nature of our existence, Pooja Iranna’s online exhibition Contemplating the Urban at VASA unpacked the conundrum of the city by digitally ‘stitching together’ several images of old and new buildings, where one superimposes upon the other. For the uninitiated, VASA is an online platform that provides a space for disseminating the work of theorists and image makers on a global scale. The VASA community shares an interest in media studies, photography, film/video and sound.
This exhibition curated by Sandeep Biswas spoke of the erasure of the past, by the present but it also addressed the fact that the past lingers on, in the form of haunting imagery. Iranna is a multi-disciplinary artist whose work combines photography, sculpture, painting and installation. “Over the years that I have practiced as a photographer, I have always been very inquisitive about a certain freedom I have witnessed while observing various other visual artists who use multi-disciplinary practices and have enjoyed how the amalgamation of a photograph with various multimedia can help enhance one’s work and expression,” she said. “For me, architectural spaces speak of the human condition and psyche. It has often been a metaphor for the changing landscape of Delhi, where a spangle of minarets and domes have been replaced by an ugly tangle of multi-storied constructions reaching up to claim the skies,” Iranna added.
Multiple layers of photographic imagery introspect upon the past, and how it overlaps with the present, while contemplating the perception of the future. Iranna has been deciphering and referencing her perspective on urbanisation and globalisation as a generation that grew up in the national capital of India, witnessing a stark change in the pattern of the world of consumerism in a span of a few decades.
Voices from the northeast
An exhibition that examined geopolitical issues at Akar Prakar Contemporary in New Delhi was A-Part: Stories of Lands and Lines. The exhibition comprised of the works of eight artists from the north eastern part of India including Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Sikkim and Tripura. India’s northeast is immensely diverse in many ways, and the prime source of local identity is derived from tribal affiliation, and ethno-linguistic factors. The region is known for a multitude of conflicts and the border areas have their own peculiarities and intricacies; often vulnerable to some issues like indigenous identity, sovereignty, and in recent years a huge influx of illegal infiltration of population. These add up the pressure on their social, economic and environmental resources.
Of these works, Dharmendra Prasad’s is notable for its immersive nature. It was a visual textual and spatial collection of pages from the lives of those who are displaced migrants from conflicted zones and disturbed ecologies. It aimed to erase the sense of territory and establish a new narrative asserting the concept of a ‘non-place’.