While they sip their lattes at the Select Citywalk mall over the coming week and soak in its First World-ish ambience, some Delhiites are bound to ponder over that age-old question—what is art?
Such reflections are likely to be prompted by the works of public art that will be on display within the mall’s capacious, air-cooled confines—among other things, there will be a Passenger Propelled Rickshaw (PPR) on display, and those who visit the mall’s washrooms will hear a recording of housewives discussing home remedies for sundry ailments. Shoppers can also view some cutting-edge video art— three short, arresting films made by Delhi-based artists which, in the elliptical fashion that is the hallmark of contemporary art, allude to the crisis of man-made environmental degradation.
Slow motion: A still from the video work ‘The Water Diviner’ by Sheba Chhachhi. Courtesy Sheba Chhachhi, based on underwater photographs by Umeed Mistry
As it happens, the source of these works lies right across the road from the shopping mall—the Khoj artists studio, situated in a dusty bylane of the Khirkee “urban village” (that is, a village that over time has been swallowed whole by the city). Since it was established in 1997, the Khoj International Artists’ Association has been promoting alternative and experimental art forms such as new media, performance art, sound installations and public art.
Their forthcoming show, titled In Context: Public.Art.Ecology, will showcase artworks that have emerged from a six-week residency programme for artists from India and overseas, along with some other existing works such as the videos, related to the theme of environment. Besides Select Citywalk mall, the works will also be on display at the Khoj studio and a couple of other locations in the city.
“We saw these huge malls come up in front of our eyes,” says Pooja Sood, director of Khoj. “And we saw what it did to the groundwater levels here, to the traffic...” It would appear then that by installing artworks in the mall, Sood is taking the battle to the enemy. But she sounds more resigned than combative (“It’s there; you can’t wish it away”), and as excited as any shop owner to get a captive audience of affluent mall-goers. “The new public spends its Saturdays and Sundays there,” she says. “It is possible to talk about social issues, about consumption, to them. After all the (crisis of) ecology is about over-consuming... Even if they get talking and some cross the road (over to the Khoj studio in Khirkee) and see how the other 90% lives, it will be a good thing,” says Sood.
One of the baits for mall-goers will be the PPR. When artists Sylvia Winkler and Stephan Köperl arrived in Delhi from Stuttgart—a centre of the German automotive industry—for the residency programme, their reaction on seeing a cycle rickshaw can be described as typically Western. The appreciation of a non-polluting mode of transport was dampened by the sight of a man straining to physically cart other people. Soon enough, they had a solution at hand—PPR is a marriage of the rickshaw and the pedal boats that are tailor-made for honeymooning couples. The jerry-rigged contraption has two sets of pedals for the passengers to propel it—the driver merely steers it. “A week into our stay here, we realized that banning the rickshaw is not the answer,” says Winkler. “We have come up with a non-hierarchical and collaborative solution.” Köperl admits that though “functional”, their effort at this point is still largely “symbolic”.
Symbolism and nostalgia also anchor Astha Chauhan’s sound installation, Gharelu Nuskhe and Muft ki Salah (Home Remedies and Free Advice). She has recorded many women in Khirkee village—young and old—talking about home remedies for ailments such as diabetes, piles and indigestion. The women also offer beauty tips—what to eat if you want to lose weight or if you want to get rid of spots on your face. She also recorded an area hospital dietician warning patients about the perils of pesticides in food (“Wash your fruits and vegetables with soap if you have to!”); and Mastan Baba, who comes from a family of snake charmers but decided to make a career switch, selling home remedies from his street-side stall. He too is offering advice on everything from contraception to baldness. “He is 75 and he recently married for the third time,” Chauhan says, adding that Mastan Baba offers tips on virility too. “He is about to become a father again.”
Listening to a 15-minute edited sound collage of these voices—which will be played in the mall’s washrooms—reminds you of the rapidly fading world of kitchen gardens and grandma’s cures, and makes you wonder what makes this art.
“Direct interventions by artists in public spaces is now seen as art,” says Sood. So what might appear to be straight NGO-variety activism (artist Navjot Altaf will highlight the importance of preserving and planting trees on roads) or innovation (Japanese artist Sohei Iwata is making and installing a waste-water purification system at the Khoj studio) or awareness building (American artist Chuck Varga will be fashioning and installing a weather station at Khoj) is, in fact, art, feels Sood—for the simple reason that these works are being undertaken by artists. “Who are we to say it is not art?” she says. “We can’t be dismissive. “We should question it on their (artists) terms. We should question—what is art?”
In Context: Public.Art.Ecology will be held from 8-16 April at S-17, Khoj Studio, Khirkee Extension, New Delhi. For details, log on to www.khojworkshop.org