On 15 May, this art will disappear
Graffiti artist Daku’s work on a Delhi wall relies on the earth’s orbit around the sun
It’s nearing 7pm and I find myself on the terrace of an almost empty two-storey building. It is here that Daku, a street artist, chooses to meet me, sitting on a wooden crate that has been converted into a bench under the overhang of a tree. The only time we have spoken earlier, was on a third person’s mobile number.
Delhiites will remember this fiercely secretive street artist as the one who famously showed them the middle finger through large wheat paste-ups in December 2013, just before the city elected Arvind Kejriwal as chief minister for his first turbulent 49-day term. “Mat do,” wrote Daku—“Vote” or “Don’t give”? It could mean either.
Lately, his work has become less cynical, and more experimental. His latest work in Lodhi Colony will only be visible till 15 May, for it needs the blazing summer sun in just the right position to be read. Many walls of the government housing blocks in this Delhi colony have been treated to art by the St+Art India Foundation, under their year-long Art District project, carried out in collaboration with the Central Public Works Department and the Delhi Urban Art Commission to encourage contemporary street artists and supplement the Union government’s Swachh Bharat Mission. One wall in block No.8 has Daku’s work, though it is unsigned.
You can recognize it because it stands out—it is certainly the only piece that replaces colour with natural light. It would be inaccurate to describe the piece as a painting; it is, instead, a cleverly done work of art that experiments with design and type. “Even as a school kid, I was super interested in type and text,” says Daku. Growing up in a small town in Gujarat’s Saurashtra district, he went on to study design and later joined a multinational ad agency. It was at this juncture that Daku was born. “I think the corporate job inspired me to get out and do something stupid,” he says. But his works, even his more experimental ones, are anything but.
For instance, if you want to get a glimpse of his Lodhi Colony work, you will have to be there at the right time: Too early in the morning or too late in the evening and you will see nothing but a blank white wall. The standard soft-pink-on-cream of the rest of the government housing block has been scraped clean. From 9.30am, his words come into view: “ABILITY BALANCE ORDER CHAOS… …LOVE SIZE REALITY BEAUTY MIND BODY… PERCEPTION PEOPLE MEMORY DEFINITION…” These and other words turn sharper and bolder at noon, though you will need to squint and shield your eyes against the bright hot light. He calls the piece Time Changes Everything.
The words are shadows of letter cut-outs installed at an angle parallel to the ground. You cannot read them all together—the sequence is broken by the shadows cast by the building’s window shades. As the sun moves across the sky and the intensity of light changes, the words too change in size and slant through the day, like the shadow of a sundial.
To make this piece, Daku researched sunrise and sunset timings. He also made good use of technology. “I used Google SketchUp (a 3D design software) to recreate this wall on Google Map screen grabs of the area. I then understood how shadows fall on it through the year, and at what time.” That’s why, he informs us, that from 15 May-15 August, this wall will appear blank. “I love that this can disappear with time, and be back again.”
Through these months, the sun won’t cast a shadow on this particular New Delhi wall.
Daku first experimented with light, shadows and reflections in street art in Kochi, in 2012, when he put up four frames with mirror-cut letters with reminders such as “Time Flies” or “Time Fades”. Quietly, he placed these frames on high street-side walls in some parts of the city. “And as they caught the sun, they would suddenly reflect these words on to the road. And people walking around would suddenly see a message reflected on their path,” he says. The appearance of these letters too depended on the time of day and the angle of the sun. It’s the element of surprise, and of someone stumbling on to a message that felt like it was just for them, that interested him. “I like to play with your mind a little. I like to engage with your mind.”
Street art as messaging is a political tool used to great effect in India. But drawing decorative elements on roads and walls has been part of our cultural heritage. In towns and villages, art on compound walls or at the entrances to homes, is a common sight—kolam, rangoli, Warli and Madhubani art, as well as the symmetry created by cow-dung cakes patted on to bright, white walls. But Daku observes that India’s urban-scapes have grown very differently. From the moment you enter a city, you are bombarded with information: Buy this and buy that. Or you want a job, a PG? Someone suddenly wishes you Happy Holi from a flex board. Everybody has their own agenda and the street is crowded with it…it’s a truly free medium, unlike a newspaper or a TV channel. But all this information has only made us passive consumers,” he says. “There is nothing that’s questioning you, making you stop and think.”
Daku has worked with many street artists from around the world, and not just due to the new-found legitimization that the genre has found through street art festivals and urban beautification drives. Daku was one of the early ones: When he initially ventured into street art, it was through a website called Streetfiles, sometime around the Y2K Internet scare. Members of the community could connect in the quiet, anonymous spaces of the Internet and invite one another to tag in their respective countries. One of Daku’s first such collaborations was in 2008, with France-based artist JonOne, one of the founder-members of “156 Crew”—the band of infamous New York subway artists from the 1980s. Streetfiles has since shut down. But street artists have found other walls, like Instagram and Facebook, that help them connect and share their art. Daku’s works are a regular feature on these.
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