Nisha Mathew Ghosh on ‘Small is Beautiful’ at London Design Biennale 2021

Nisha Mathew Ghosh, the curator of the India Pavilion at LDB 2021, titled Small Is Beautiful. A billion stories, speaks with STIR on her inspiration and aims for the installation.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : May 28, 2021

As the curator of India Pavilion at the London Design Biennale 2021, Nisha Mathew Ghosh's installation, titled Small Is Beautiful. A billion stories, presents a plea to recognise the indisputable ability of the small, the local and the connected, to bring about meaningful change in the 21st century India. Building on her dedication to connect ideas that have resonated over the ages to transcend barriers of time, her curatorial narrative documents stories from all over the Indian subcontinent.

Over an illustrious 25-year-career spanning the domains of architecture, design, landscape, urban readings, strategy, and curatorial practice, Indian architect Nisha Mathew Ghosh has developed a reputation for her reflective and inclusive approach. Her work, situated at the convergence of threads involving architecture, ecology, landscape, and art, strives to exist synchronously alongside nature - a stark contrast to prevalent architectural practice that often indiscriminately consumes from the earth. A distinguished figure both on the global architectural stage as well as in associated artistic circles, she has constantly reiterated and upheld her commitment to 'Ideas’.

Since co-founding Mathew and Ghosh Architects with Soumitro Ghosh in 1996, Nisha has been at the forefront of numerous acclaimed projects by the firm, including the House of Stories and National Military Martyrs Memorial in Bengaluru, along with the highly influential competition proposal for the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Memorial. Additionally, she has also held exhibitions at the Palazzo Mora for the 2018 Venice Biennale, Art Asia Pacific 2007, and the 2006 Wallpaper International Designers Exhibition at the Teatro Armani in Milan

Early study for Is it a Bird? Is it a Windmill? Installation at the 2021 India Pavilion, conceptual sketch for the linear tapering spine wing assembly  | LDB Curatorial Note: Interview with Nisha Mathew Ghosh | STIRworld
Early study for Is it a Bird? Is it a Windmill? Installation at the 2021 India Pavilion, conceptual sketch for the linear tapering spine wing assembly Image: Nisha Mathew Ghosh

In the lead-up to the London Design Biennale's opening on June 1, STIR speaks with Nisha on the inspiration behind her curatorial exploration for this year's India Pavilion and its potential to amplify and impact the current landscape of conceptualisation and application through the lens of democratic process.

Early conceptual model for the India Pavilion installation | LDB Curatorial Note: Interview with Nisha Mathew Ghosh | STIRworld
Early conceptual model for the India Pavilion installation Image: Nisha Mathew Ghosh

STIR: At first glance, what did the theme of ‘resonance’ mean to you, with regards to your curation?

Nisha Mathew Ghosh (NMG): The idea of resonance embeds the possibility of interconnectedness, as frequencies map close to the natural frequency of an idea, to create amplification or increased amplitude. It is also about good stewardship and the power of one idea to multiply other ideas and eventually become a billion for another billion. And how critical it is that the ecosystem of ideas for change be built immediately in the face of polluted water and dying aqua systems, or earth that is not clean enough to grow safe vegetables without toxins!

This interconnectedness is something that I have been interested in exploring through my artistic practice, and especially via my study of rocks. How does architecture relate to geology and physics and astronomy? This underlying value determines how you imprint upon land or water or air in whatever you do. The amplification of every artistic decision can build or undo the ecosystem in which it is embedded.

STIR: How did you conceptualise the theme and content for the India Pavilion?

NMG: God is my helper. I mean every word of this! I saw God’s favour and confirmation in the actual motif that was the germ of the idea for the Art Installation, the name of the show, the idea to open it up to a billion voices (figuratively speaking!), and every single detail. The details developed over the last 12 months, and is always a work in progress; and the fact that it is dynamically evolving is the best part of it. The work of curating is like the work of an art director - your story has to communicate to someone else other than yourself.

Conceptual clay model of Is it a Bird? Is it a Windmill? Installation | LDB Curatorial Note: Interview with Nisha Mathew Ghosh | STIRworld
Conceptual clay model of Is it a Bird? Is it a Windmill? Installation Image: Nisha Mathew Ghosh

STIR: Could you tell us a bit more about how you see "the small, the local and the connected"? 

NMG: In the overwhelming odds faced by developing countries for clean water, clean air, clean earth, and forest balance for urban mass, this project makes a plea for and a reference to the power of the small, the local, and the connected as a significant alternative to bring a critical mass of ideas that can forge change for 21st century India.

As individuals, communities, and organisations have invented and innovated to create little ideas, seminal ideas, and ideas worth building on, this project documents and maps for the first time an atlas of connected ideas with resonances that have the potential to amplify to large scale impact on the landscape of ideation and implementation.

The recognition of the scope and scale of these ecological experiments as connected trajectories can re-create the tapestry of socio-cultural change needed to bring paradigmatic shift in lifestyles; even while the kneading-through of the democratic value of ‘’engaging’’ in the large democracy of India, builds a billion ideas.

We are very interested to take this showcase around India, to her villages, towns and cities, that the next generation of baton-holders may engage with this material.

STIR: Could you elaborate on the installation of the Punkha? Why choose this particular object for the installation design?

NMG: The installation makes references to clean energy, and clean air, as a two-winged structure inspired by the form of a windmill blade, and the idea of the traditional Indian fan or Punkha - that was manually moved to bring breeze. The vital imagery of the punkha or a traditional fan is that it was a celebration of the richness of colour and frill and kinetic principles, and it was clean air. It is vital to push our commitment to innovation in the domains of clean water, air, energy, earth and forest. We were also excited to use clean textile waste to create the delicate fabric overhangs that gently swished as the wings tugged. A giant albatross? the arms of God? The wings of flight?

Conceptual Textile studies for Iteration 02 of Is it a Bird? Is it a Windmill? Installation at the India Pavilion for the 2021 London Design Biennale | LDB Curatorial Note: Interview with Nisha Mathew Ghosh | STIRworld
Conceptual Textile studies for Iteration 02 of Is it a Bird? Is it a Windmill? Installation at the India Pavilion for the 2021 London Design Biennale Image: Nisha Mathew Ghosh

STIR: Is there anything in particular that influenced your pick of stories and designers to feature at the exhibition?

NMG: The call-out was democratic (in that anyone and everyone could submit their work as they responded to the theme) and important to be so, as we really wanted to represent India’s voice of the people that were thinking about these domains via their work. We had juries for the architecture section (Kapil Gupta, Edgar Demello and Soumitro Ghosh) and the landscape architecture section (enabled by LEAF and with Aniket Bhagwat, Sujata Kohli, Geeta Dua, Suneet Mohindru, Aparna Rao, Sriganesh Rajendran, and Vinay Kushwah). It was important to have an independent jury and yet one at which I was present too to make my notes and focus my curatorial resolve! We instituted a simple system by which it could be an impartial assessment. Additionally our content team researched innovation in various domains across the country from products to materials to community initiatives for 18 months. This is by no means an exhaustive list but it is an ongoing mapping. Our work has just begun.

STIR: What intended effect do you hope the installation will have on the landscape of design in India and other parts of the globe?  

NMG: The art installation is exciting to me because it is like a large giant bamboo and textile toy that you tug on and the wings move by a simple principle of physics. A mnemonic humorous reference to the diagram of the 'Vitruvius’ figure during the process of a visitor engaging with the pulling of the wings down (via a pulley and counterweight system), confirms the notion of an intentional will or choice to be made via man's action, that is vital to build an ecologically resilient world for the next generation.

It is a coming together of art, craft, design, music, and technology to reflect the complexities of ideas developed for an ecologically resilient future India, in areas of cleanWater, cleanAir, cleanEarth, cleanEnergy and more Forest. Artist: NishaMathewGhosh. Design Collaborator (Maker Studio): Sandeep Sangaru. DesignCollaborator (Advisor): Soumitro Ghosh

Detailed drawings for Is it a Bird? Is it a Windmill? Installation | LDB Curatorial Note: Interview with Nisha Mathew Ghosh | STIRworld
Detailed drawings for Is it a Bird? Is it a Windmill? Installation Image: Nisha Mathew Ghosh

STIR: In your view, how can India’s diversity and rich abundance of ideas, traditions, and indigenous practices contribute towards a more sustainable development path in the future?   

NMG: The historico-cultural context is referenced in narrative or abstract ways throughout the oeuvre of any artistic practitioner. Every invention or innovation builds either slowly or with a cloudburst of inspiration, but one can trace influences always. Traditional wisdom is always therefore fodder for the future because its very raison d’etre was the collective collaborative community that over centuries perfected previous ideas. In a way it is a vastly humbling moment when you stand before this vast collective knowledge reservoir and drink out of it, but fix your eyes on a future gaze.

STIR: How is this reflected in your design for the India Pavilion?  

NMG: We have made deliberate reference to this in the coordination of visitor pull with the trigger of sounds from India (such as the water spilling of a water wheel, the sound of bullocks with bells and so on) that enable an imagination of some of these references. The atlas of connected ideas is via a projection (that keeps running on loop) on the wall of the space, and maps some of these stories that were seminal for their day.

STIR: What were some of the challenges you faced in the design, assembly, and transport of the installation? 

NMG: The large art installation IS IT A BIRD? IS IT A WINDMILL? will now not be unveiled at the London Design Biennale 2021 due to COVID protocols that hindered its completion.  It will instead be unveiled for the first time in India at an appropriate forum. 

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