A thick brown cloud hangs over Delhi—not some figurative cloud of doom but a very real cocktail of soot, sulphates, and other aerosols that dims the daylight and chokes the lungs. A recent United Nations report says the cloud hangs over most of South and East Asia.

Such a visceral example of ecological damage provides a pressing urgency to the 48°C Public Art Ecology Festival that will showcase artworks installed in public places at eight sites along the three Metro Rail lines in Delhi.

Friso Witteveen’s Hocus Pocus

The Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan and German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) commissioned the festival and invited Pooja Sood, director of Khoj, the artists’ collective in Delhi that works with alternative art exhibits, to curate it.

Sood chose sites along the metro to have a “ready-made public" though there is always a chance that not all will appreciate the interference in their commuting space. “I’m not sure about issues of reception. That’s a big unknown," says artist Ravi Agarwal. “It attempts to deal with the public which is not used to dealing with contemporary art."

Sood feels the fact that the works will be on display for only 10 days and then dismantled lends more creative freedom to the artists. “You know (the public) can say, ‘It’s there for 10 days…Okay, good, thank god it’s over.’" Conveniently for viewers, each installation will be a 5-minute walk or a 10-minute cycle rickshaw ride from the next site.

The festival’s other key aim is to “interrogate the teetering ecology of the city through the prism of contemporary art".

Each of the 25 installations, ranging from wooden lighthouses projecting videos to enormous stainless steel water buckets, will highlight the precarious relationship between nature and humans.

“I see the separation of ecology from humans as a fundamental alienation of the self," says Agarwal. His project, a visual and sound installation at Mandi House, focuses on India’s dwindling vulture population, which has dropped from millions to a few thousand in less than 20 years. “It’s the fastest extinction in human history," he says.

Agarwal grew up birdwatching, spotting vultures easily all over the city, but says that “now the only two vultures in Delhi are dead vultures"—a reference to the two stuffed vultures at the Natural History Museum.

Some exhibits will be interactive—Ichi Ikeda, a Japanese artist, will “anchor" a futuristic boat on the grounds of the Town Hall in Chandni Chowk. He hopes people will be “in a creative partnership" with him as they climb aboard Waterpolis and try to connect water joints that will find water in the future.

Other pieces include fixed sculptures, such as Subodh Gupta’s fountain, represented by an oversized bucket overflowing with water. As with many of his sculptures, Gupta draws from an iconic image ripped from every home in India, where people “forget to turn the tap off".

Gupta feels that this is the best project the Capital has seen in a long time, especially since people in Delhi only see contemporary art in galleries where it is a marketable commodity. Agarwal says the scale of the project will make it impossible to ignore: “It’s a spectacle."

Besides the Khoj productions, which have been taking place since 1997, this festival is a rare occasion for people to access contemporary art for free. Gupta blames the government for this state of affairs, saying that there is little institutional backing for locations to host contemporary art. Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon, the one museum dedicated to contemporary art, was set up through private effort.

Having the chance to show their art to a large swathe of the public drew many of the artists to the project. Sheba Chhachhi, whose The Water Diviner will be installed in what used to be the swimming pool at the Delhi Public Library, hopes her work will engage a multiplicity of people, “from the unemployed youth hanging around parks to the library-bound student, the elderly sunning themselves on a bench to the busy shopper or commuter." She says people will be interested in seeing public art “which raises questions and awareness, initiates dialogue, shares insight and information without needing to ‘sell’."

The festival itself, Sood says, is “immersive; it’s not didactic; it’s inviting you to accept it or not accept it. It’s interesting objects that you look at and say ‘What the hell is going on?’"

Dutch artist Friso Witteveen—whose piece Hocus Pocus mimics the shape of Jantar Mantar but is made up of reflective surfaces—says the “what-is-it" curiosity factor powers public art. As a teenager, he recalls seeing the Pont Neuf bridge across the Seine river in Paris wrapped in pink gauze by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. He spent the next two days watching people react to the strange sight. “People walk around with a funny, happy feeling in their eyes," he says. “Everyone had to say something about it."

Sood sees the 48°C festival as a the beginning of a conversation. “At best, art can just shift your perception and make you look at things differently and that’s a hell of a lot. If you just begin to think about things and talk about things that’s when you begin to do stuff."

The festival will be on from 12-20 December. For the map, schedule of events and day programmes at the festival, visit www.48c.org