Thursday, 7 April 2011

Life goes on

Have you ever been to an art show twice, just to get a better look at an individual work or to use the opportunity to absorb an exhibition in its entirety, devoid of people and noise? I know I have.  But have you ever been to an art show that keeps changing every time you go to view it?  I know I definitely haven’t – until now.

I went to check in on KHOJ four days after the opening event, partly to observe the evolving interventions and also to try and get a sense of the most recent additions to the synthesized habitat.  I soon realised that the energy of the communal gathering and the spectacle of a private viewing had gone; the works had been left behind like residual memories. It felt a bit like walking into a house where the occupants had passed away.  “It’s not soulless but bodiless” said one of the KHOJ team members, and she was right.

The living installations seemed to have paused for breath, reflecting upon what they once were and what they had become.  The whole thing was quite apparitional, and yet there was poetry and poignance in this too.

Walking into the main courtyard where Dan and Heather’s show-stopping barley installation crept up the walls, the earthy smell is what hit me first.  Over the course of the residency I’d seen this work (KHOJ Court) go through all its transformations, from seeding, to germination, to wild and unkempt growth.  Now as the blades began to wilt, an equally evocative stage became apparent – decay and decomposition.  Dan and Heather's portraiture work naturally reflected this in a more obvious way, with two women’s faces (an older and a younger one) visibly fading from sight.  For me, these disappearing images echoed the ghostly aura of their surroundings beautifully.

If Dan and Heather’s work was restfully aromatic in its demise, Navin’s studio work (Symphony for a Swine) screamed at high pitch, demanding one’s full attention.  The steel urinals emitting squealing pig sounds resonated around his studio, and for a moment one wondered if they were actually coming from the installation opposite – several thrashing cat-fish swimming around in their neon green tank.  While on the opening night these interventions seemed alive with their adjacent placement and potential readings – four days later they just seemed disturbed.  Knowing Navin, this is probably the precise impact he wanted to have on us, to jolt us out of our comfortable suburban worlds to be faced with the effects of mass-farming and over-consumption – polluted rivers, mutated life-forms and diseased food-chains.

In stark contrast to this was Pratik’s inspirational video and structural installation (Unpacking Social Networks) which were very much about man’s moments of synergies with nature, as well ritualism and renewal.  In his structural work in the KHOJ courtyard, he had added material in the trees and alcoves to encourage more species of birds to nest. Some of the bird seeds had even taken root and sprouted grass.  Squirrels, mice, insects and birds still ran amuck enjoying their paradise.  His video, showcasing the various locations he took the structure to, gave insight into heartening public interactions with this works.  Pundits, policeman and school children all joined in by blessing the surroundings, helping with placements and feeding the birds.  In a way they all became part of the performance.

While Pratik’s work seems to transcend boundaries of class and religion, Brandon’s work seemed to bring together various factions of society and species.  His public intervention (Love Motel for Insects) at Select City Walk shopping mall attracted fascinated on-lookers, both of the insect and human variety.  While much of the (human) audience took pictures of the installation, others were plethoric with questions giving Brandon the perfect situation to do what he loves most – involve the community in his work.  The opening night was the first night the structure had been placed at the mall, so it had a few creatures zeroing in on the mesmerising UV lights and native plants.  A few days later and the intervention was rife with insects feasting off their specially crafted microcosm.  I for one will making a trip down to the mall before the end of the month to see what happens next!

And I wonder now if I will ever connect with another art exhibition in quite the same way as I did this one?  Not because I got a deep insight into the artists' psyche and practice, not because the subject matter is so glaringly relevant to our present and future - but because I saw the "artworks" demonstrably change over time.  Maybe next time we should have two or three openings, just so that we can let everyone be part of this fascinating evolution.

Curatorial Note for the Opening of In Context: Public.Art.Ecology – Phase II

“Everything moves according to only one law – life...All is all and one...We have always been hate-

love-mother-child-planet-earth-light-lightning – world giver of worlds – universes and universal 

(Frida Kahlo: trained in art, loved medicine)

Perhaps the poignance of the interstitial space between art and ecology/science lies not in the politics of

purpose, but in the poetics of the unknown.  These artworks, all incorporative of or investigative of nature,

have the ability to drive us to an instinctual point of inquiry.  And it is this antidote to the anaesthesia of our

quotidian, ritualistic, and urban lives in which lies the potential for these artworks to humanize us.

But as opposed to much “eco-art” there is no didactic overtone here and there is no underlying socio-political

agenda. Instead these ecologically-activated artists use science, technology and architecture to create public

observatories or “gathering spaces.”  Here, the inhabitants of various ecosystems, including humans, are

invited to momentarily (re)connect.  It is in the exploration, experimentation and extrapolation of these

interdisciplinary interventions, that we are given the opportunity to stop and re-examine our sense of self and

place in the world.

And ultimately that is where scientists, doctors, artists and writers are able to share common ground, as

translators of the environment around them; microcosms and macrocosms - universes and universal cells.

(Critic-in-residence: trained in medicine, loves art)

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Cultural tropes - Real and Imagined

I was thinking about the cultural context of this residency when I got distracted by the question of how we define or look at culture (especially in a country like India, especially at a time like now).  Time and again I find myself coming back to a text that has become a favourite over the years, “The Location of Culture” by Indian-born, Harvard Professor, Homi K. Bhabha.

“The very concepts of homogenous national cultures, the consensual or contiguous transmission of historical traditions, or ‘organic’ ethnic communities – as the grounds of cultural comparitivism - are in a profound process of re-definition,” Bhabha tells us. He also says, “This interstitial passage between fixed identifications opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy…”

It’s this space that he keeps talking about, this in-between state: between classifications, between geographies, between times.  It is this borderline space of possibility, of “invention and intervention,” that allows for creativity and newness. In a way, Bhabha’s concepts link the inter-disciplinary nature of this residency to the transitional phase India seems to be in at the moment.

At the recent Indian Art Summit (Jan 2011), cultural practitioners and theorists talked about India being in a “hybrid state” between old-word Nehruvian Socialism and new-world Global Cosmopolitanism.  Some fervently disagreed and said that this notion of “new India” only applied to a certain sector of society and therefore had limited currency.  Although this may be the case, I think it would be fair to say that India has dramatically changed over the last 10-15 years and that this shift in awareness, lifestyle and possibilities is trickling down into many aspects of society – including the art world.

Brandon Ballengee while on this residency in India has been thinking about this collision of sorts, and explains how it has penetrated his art practice.  He has been looking at the “new wave of Indian art clashing with Western art” which has resulted in the canvases in his studio being displayed at a tilt. (The stark white canvas suggests De-constructivist, Minimalist forms – but the tilt makes us see that it is meant to be presented in an altered state).

In the same studio he has created a “buffet for insects,” covering a long table with perfectly-presented petunias and carnations, placed upon a frilly white table-cloth.  He explains that this looks at his larger concept of “cross-pollination” where different facets of the public can be brought together through a work like this.  These different facets are particularly contrasted in a country like India, hence the additional details in his work.

One of the readings of Dan and Heather’s work could also look at this city’s shift in recent times.  As the city has been expanding rapidly, much of the peripheral farmlands have been engulfed to make way for property-developers.  Stories of farmers cashing in their livelihoods and their heritage have been rife, while the elite are increasingly using their Delhi farmhouses as retreats or for social entertaining.

By growing barley up the walls of a building located in a simultaneously urban yet rural location (KHOJ studios is in Khirkee Village in South Delhi and stands opposite a new shopping mall – you seldom get such old world meeting new) their work takes on connotations of past histories and present realities.

On the other-hand if we take a less analytical, more practical approach – this may be an encouraging look at how we should be growing more gardens in the urban space – whether on roof-tops or simply vertically on our walls!

Monday, 28 March 2011

KHOJ as a synchronised micro-habitat

At this moment in time, ‘KHOJ studios’ is probably greener than ever before – not just in an eco-friendly sense, but also quite literally.

The two sides of the inner courtyard have been taken over by Dan & Heather and Pratik’s installations.  On the left you have “Khoj Court” with barley sprouting up the walls of the arched courtyard enclosure – on the right, green netting protects Pratik’s small clay pots filled with millet seed, which spell out the word “FORGIVE.”

While Dan conscientiously waters his vertical harvest five times a day, Pratik watches over his bird and squirrel-attracting sanctuary, documenting the wildlife from his first-floor studio.  Nurturing their creations, you can well understand what makes working with living material so engaging and why there really is no beginning and end-point to this type of work – process, product and after-life are all intertwined.

Also in the studios above are Brandon and Navin’s insect-attracting interventions.  Using UV lights, fruit and flowers they observe the various food-chain interactions occurring in their re-worked collaborative installation “Meet the neighbours.”  Whereas Navin’s interest lies in recording “data-deficient” organisms, Brandon is keeping a “bug-blog!”

It has been heartening and fascinating to see what affect being together for four weeks, in KHOJ, in India has had on these artist’s practice and psyche.  It’s actually not something that is easy to explain or very tangible in many cases, but here are some of the ways they seem to have impacted each other’s sensibilities:

- At the start of the residency, Pratik gave Heather and Dan a book on spirituality and reincarnation.  Pratik often explores the relationship between science, logic and ritual, whereas Dan and Heather are very conscious of the relationship between mythology and plant-life, often talking about Greek, Nordic and pre-Christian gods of vegetal resurrection.

- Navin’s initial explorations of the Yamuna looking for life and trying to record sub-sonic frequencies (which effectively didn’t transpire in the end) led Pratik to the same site – where he discovered Siberian migratory birds at a shamshaan ghat.  Pratik is now using videos of feeding these birds as part of his final work for the residency.

- Also Navin and Brandon, as mentioned above, have collaborated on a work that they hope to engage the whole community in.  Meanwhile, the insects from their studios are interacting with Pratik’s created habitat.  The birds attracted by Pratik’s installation are interacting with Dan and Heather’s courtyard full of barley.  All that’s left now is for the humans to come and visit!


Friday, 25 March 2011

Philosophy and Perspective

Following on from my last post I was thinking about unpredictability and the creation of new ideas (“Is it possible to have an original thought?”) when I came across this paper on “Creativity, Constraints, and Conceptual spaces” by Margerat Boden.  She says,

“Devotees of the humanities expect to be surprised. An arresting metaphor or poetic image, an unpredicted twist of the plot, a novel style of music, painting, or dance...all these unexpected things amaze and delight us. Scientists, too, appreciate the shock of a new idea--the double helix, the jumping gene, or the benzene-ring. Indeed, unpredictability is often said to be the essence of creativity. 

But unpredictability is not enough. At the heart of creativity lie constraints: the very opposite of unpredictability. Constraints and unpredictability, familiarity and surprise, are somehow combined in original thinking.”

Original thinking and the production of new ideas is easier said than done.  Philosophy teaches us that no idea is essentially new, there are just different ways of presenting and exploring them.  (Case in point: The first entry on this blog is about how I see scientists and artists as translators of the world around us – and then I met Prof.  Sundar Sarrukai who has written an entire book on the similarities between science and translation!)

And when you become involved with a residency like this, I think you have to ask yourself: Are we doing something new here?  If artists have been working with the natural environment for decades now – where does the relevance of this residency lie?

Well, we know that an institution like KHOJ’s wider aim is to ask new questions, where some answers may be found and others may shed light on further areas that need to be explored.  And this is how progressive “alternative art institutions” eventually go down the route of taking on both laboratory and pedagogical functions. (Examples include Homeworks in Lebanon, Sharjah Art Foundation in the U.A.E. and KHOJ in India)

But for me, this residency is primarily about the creation of new perspectives.  Artists and scientists do not have the same starting points, in fact, none of us do – we all come with our own notions of what comprises good art and bad art, what constitutes the domain of science and the roles that both art and science play in society.  This is naturally part of our subjectivity, but if we can come to some kind of mutual, conceptual meeting point, then perhaps we can begin to build upon those existing ideas.

As the art historian Erwin Panofsky once said, “The future is constructed out of fragments of the past – nothing appears ex nihilo.”

So, if we create the conditions for artists, scientists and the wider public to engage in a dialogue in which (often misconceived) notions can be challenged, we can commence to break down traditional barriers – like the recent talk we had at Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA).  And if we create the conditions in which new artwork, reflective of our zeitgeist, can be produced and received, then we can way contribute in a valid way to the world of contemporary art – like the studio/public work being done during the month-long residency and its review at the opening.

Essentially, interdisciplinary residencies like this try to map out new and less restrictive ways of thinking about art – which is the opening up of perspectives.  And I believe this is what makes a residency like this conceptually, creatively and most importantly contextually relevant.

Frogs, Bugs and Ethics

Brandon is probably one of the most "science-y" artists on this inter-disciplinary residency.  As a widely-exhibited, multi-disciplinary artist and an amphibian biologist specializing in limb development, he traverses both the world of science and art with ease.  In fact, he’s also doing a trans-disciplinary PhD which gives him the flexibility to focus on both his loves – frogs and aesthetics.

(Wait a minute, I just used the words inter-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary in the same paragraph - the lines between ecology and art really are beginning to blur at this point!) But as Brandon sees it, why should the lines between disciplines be drawn at all? What we really should be doing is “connecting the dots.”

Brandon’s “bio-art” practice helps him to engage in what he calls a type of “ecosystem activism.” This is essentially raising community awareness of the environment, through physical field trips, art gallery installations and public art interventions.  All of this amounts to “tactile and experiential learning”; tools that he believes to be far more valuable and accessible than traditional methods of knowledge acquisition.

But his work is more than just didactic messages.  “Art can’t be art unless it’s somehow open-ended.  Otherwise it’s just propaganda or illustration,” he tells us.  And it is this room for doubt that has fuelled his drive, and his extensive research, over the years.   Involving two unpredictable variables – ecosystems and the public – Brandon embraces the potential chaos factor (much like the Fluxus artists did) in both his methodologies and his outcomes.  This is all part-and-parcel of what happens when you work with living systems.

Also extremely important to Brandon is the issue of sustainability and the after-life of his artworks.  This is one of the ways in which this type of work differs to that of other artists – it raises the question of ethics in art.

When your artwork involves creating micro-habitats, what happens to the work after the exhibition/project is over?

Aware of this issue, KHOJ has been involved with negotiating potential sites for some of the transportable artworks in this residency (including Pratik’s “FORGIVE” installation and Brandon’s “Love Motel” public art intervention at Select City Walk shopping mall) so that they may be ‘housed’ for some time after the residency ends if possible.

During his time at KHOJ, Brandon is creating two site-specific installations – one as mentioned above in the mall, and the other in the studio.  Both intend to attract a number of insects with a variety of fruit, UV light and native plants.  As part of this Brandon is keeping a “bug-blog” to keep track of all the creatures that he is able document in his time in India.

But in the meantime a gecko has infiltrated the camp and seems to be quite enjoying the easy access to the plethora of insects in Brandon’s KHOJ studio...Unpredictability prevails!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Face it

The thing about Dan and Heather’s works is that they confront you head-on and ask, “what’s your relationship with the world around you?” There’s nowhere to hide from them.   I can’t decide if they're passively aggressive (like Rothko) or aggressively passive (like Kahlo) - either way, they make you stop and re-examine your sense of self and your place in the world.

This is not to be misunderstood - there is peace, serenity and beauty in their works.  Actually, I wouldn’t mind living inside one of their wondrous foliage-filled installations for a while.  It’s just that their pieces have the potential to leave you altered...and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, isn’t that part of what art is meant to do?

Dan and Heather (more commonly known as Harvey and Ackroyd) are a UK-based artists’ collective who have been successfully collaborating together for the past 21 years.  They have worked with grass seed, clay and animal bones in the past and often investigate the interplay between dichotomies of material and form, organic and inorganic, nature and man.

As part of their extensive and experimental oeuvre, they have transformed disused churches, prominent city buildings and now the Khoj courtyard, into grassy havens; they have displayed whale and camel skeletons covered in crystallized salt particles in museums and abandoned houses; and they have burnt a polar-bear bone into ashes, collected the carbon remains and grown striking diamonds from it.

Inspired by the visionary artist Joseph Beuys, Heather and Dan have also collected hundreds of acorns from Beuys’s seminal work “7000 Oaks” and grown around 250 saplings of their own.  In a way, they are continuing to explore some of the questions he began asking such as:  “Can art have an impact on socio-political thinking?”

The difference in today’s climate is that one can no longer ignore the environmental issues at hand.  “It’s not an issue,”  Heather says, “it’s too big to be an issue – it’s every level of our being, how we drink coffee in the morning, how we drive to work – it’s completely systemic.”  Inevitably, Heather and Dan have become more politicised over the last decade and often feel that civilized society is increasingly isolating itself from nature.

Their portraiture works look at this dysfunctional relationship between the man-made and the natural, but also explore notions of permanence, mortality and temporality.  While at Khoj, they have photographed local women in Khirkee village.  They will then grow grain onto canvas while projecting an image of the human face onto it, so that it is captured by the chlorophyll pigment within the cells.  Such images may only last for a few days, at most a few weeks, before they fade away.

So there you have it - growth, revival, transformation, death, decay – all in one work.

And working with living material means that their work also draws upon ("almost osmotically") the histories, narratives and even mythologies associated with buildings or localities in which they grow their installations.  I for one am intrigued to see what the significance of their latest barley seed works done at Khoj will take on - and I can’t help but wonder how their works may add another layer of understanding to our perception of the world around us.