Life | Art of Re-Generation

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Art of Re-Generation
Text by Bhavna Kakar
Published: Volume 17, Issue 11, November, 2009

By taking a wider look at recycling and garbage, Bhavna Kakar contemplates recent artistic exploration in the context of a strong ecological comment

‘Garbage’ is everywhere. It can be found in everything without exception, yet it also largely invisible to most of us. […] In an unproblematic sense garbage is leftover matter. It is what remains when the good, fruitful, valuable, nourishing and useful has been taken.’
‘Appropriation is the mother of garbage.’
On Garbage, John Scanlan, 2005

BY ANY SCORE, DELHI QUALIFIES AS ONE OF THE world’s most dynamic and complex contemporary urban settings. With over 16 million people, the city faces new challenges of growth and change both from self-generated internal demands and the externally imposed pressures of globalisation. The world of art has always played a critical role in provoking thought and generating dialogue. Within this premise, many art interventions have accumulated grounds to expose to the local audience of the city, grasping repercussions vis-à-vis the ecological stance. For instance, the art festival 48°C Public.Art.Ecology shaped up as a combined initiative of Goethe-Institut/ Max Mueller Bhavan and GTZ in December 2008 as an experiment set within Delhi. The ambition of this project was to interrogate the teetering ecology of the city through the prism of contemporary art.

In April 2009, I curated an exhibition of more than 40 works with 18 artists in various media like videos, digital prints, watercolors, drawings, photographs and paintings ‘on the concept of recycling’. The exhibition titled Re-claim/Re-cite/Re-cycle was held at Travancore Gallery in Delhi presented by Latitude 28 and Seven Art Ltd. The concept took shape after a chance reading through John Scanlan’s On Garbage that talks of garbage not just in relation to street litter but rather terms anything bad as ‘garbage’ – bad thought, writing, art, music et cetera; and we recycle these ideas, thoughts et al. to arrive at the ‘NEW’. Of course, in the recent past, recycling has been reconstructed and repositioned both as a way of life and as an industry. As we begin to enter an era characterised by the fear of loosing the planet itself, there is a realisation that much of this impending disaster has been brought on by the industrial and post-industrial celebration of excess.

What took the show to another level were the artists’ analysis and documentation and artistic imaginations and representations of this concept metaphor called ‘re-cycling’. Artists like Rajan Krishnan, Sharmila Samant, Tushar Joag, Atul Bhalla, Prajakta Potnis, Ravi Agarwal and Mansi Bhatt who were part of the exhibition extolled in their own peculiar ways, aesthetic gestures that shaped and formulated environmental awareness. It is also pertinent to note that these artists mostly emphasise the ecological concerns in their local sphere and art activity. For example, Atul Bhalla’s photograph titled Dhaula Kuan held a dramatic compilation of shots of Delhi’s slum people trying to find a solution to their water woes.

One of the other participating artists in the show was Ravi Agarwal whose practice as an environmentalist and a photographer has increasingly been rooted in his understanding of the self as interlinked into a network of interrelated ecologies, or as a ‘personal ecology.’ He exhibited a work from his series called Alien Waters where the river is not a mere water body flowing through the city, but as part of a network of myriad types of relationships each based on an exchange of various sorts, including himself. It is startling how all these change as the river passes through rural into a highly urbanised Delhi. According to him vegetables, flowers, water, sand, sewage, junk, as well as a place for livelihoods, and of peace, quietude and tranquility, are all part of that exchange.

His interpretation of the concept is at a spiritual level in his second work Passage Rites that is based on rebirth. Agarwal says, “Recycling implies a transformation at the ‘end-of-life’ whether of objects or of living beings. However, there may be no beginning and no end-of-life. The beginning and the end exist only in human perception. Each moment, itself without beginning or end, is only a continuum in time, in eternity.”

Vestiges of memoirs, rising from the palpable flux of shifting faces of environs shape the visual vocabulary of Rajan Krishnan’s paintings. For Krishnan the childhood memories of a green, fertile land, adorned abundantly with flowing waters and vast paddy fields had portrayed some initial idyllic ‘agri-scapes’ as conveniently termed. But the sudden realisation struck that there was nothing romantic about the old landscape anymore. During the past 10 to15 years, Kerala landscape has been extensively ravaged, raped and systematically terrorised. Instead of paddy, concrete and consumerist debris grow in the agri-scapes. Widespread decay and disintegration has left only the memory sites. Krishnan reclaims the sites of memory that adhere to this apocalyptic vision. The concern though spatially bound to his land reverberates with the universal lamenting song. His canvas, a witness to the falling reality, poses an open-ended question, not easily retorted back.

In a different vein, Sharmila Samant’s exhibited her handmade Coke sari. Her work deals with issues of identity within a global context, particularly looking at the homogenising effect of commodification in relation to developing economies. The projects she undertakes involve eclectic collecting, documenting and recycling of urban debris, looking at the mundane and the profane. One of Sharmila’s iconic instillations that reflect her political and ecological concerns is the installation Against the Grain (2007) for the Museum of Modern Art in Brisbane in the 16th Biennale of Sydney. She covered the floor with great swathes of cotton fiber, and hovering above them are 1000 elaborate, foot-tall cobras woven in the traditional style of dhana kaam, or paddy art of Bolangir. In the past five years or so there has been a spate of farmer suicides in India and most are committing suicide as the result of the genetically modified cotton that has been introduced about six years ago.

Lately, Himanshu Verma, a Delhi based curator, has focused on organising a Monsoon festival to awaken awareness about our ecological responsibility in wake of a stream of vanishing monsoons. He believes it is no longer a time to live in our ivory towers and merely contemplate the abstract immersions of artistic practice. Even those who shy away from issue-oriented art and have a likeness for the form rather than content, like this columnist, have today no choice but to make a difference through their artistic practice.

Bhavna Kakar is a Delhi-based curator, art historian and consultant in modern and contemporary art. she's the founder and director of Gallery Latitude 28 and editor-publisher of TAKE ON ART magazine.

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