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For the people

Ever wondered why so many of our public sector companies have large, revolting pieces of public art in front of their offices? Asks Amitava Sanyal.

art and culture Updated: Apr 10, 2010 22:57 IST
Amitava Sanyal
Amitava Sanyal
Hindustan Times

Ever wondered why so many of our public sector companies have large, revolting pieces of public art in front of their offices?

It's thanks to an inspired early-1970s' circular by the Union urban development ministry. It said all public projects — offices, factories and other non-residential buildings — should spend 1-2 per cent of the project cost on public art, informs K T Ravindran, chairman of the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC).

Today the circular lies forgotten. But what's real and jarring are the ill-conceived, hastily-executed art objects in our urban spaces.

Was that the idea?

Artists involved in several public art projects on show in Delhi agree that it's, in fact, what we should be running from.

Consider some of the pieces put up for In Context:Public.Art.Ecology, a project conceived by Khoj International Artists' Association.

Chuck Varga, a special effects artist and former member of the 'shock rock' band GWAR, has encased a Maruti 800 in a balloon that heaves "like a breathing lung".

Mumbai-based Navjot Altaf worked with the municipal authorities to improve the soil beneath the trees on Barakhamba Road. When this writer visited the toilet at Khoj Studios, he got 'beauty tips' on 'skin tightening' playing on a sound system.

In a separate project, Vishal Rawley has set afloat a Burak — the flying horse with a woman's face in Islamic mythology — amid the putrid, plastic-strewn water of Mehrauli's Hauz Shamsi.

You can make it glow by 'phoning' it and watch it on a webcam.

Taking his cue from the lore that Sultan Altamash paved the pond where he found the Burak's hoof-mark, Rawley wants to inspire new legends that serve the local ecology.

"When people call in, they will hear stories like, 'If you throw plastic in the water, your children will be born with crooked teeth', or 'You will grow warts on your ass'."

In a country dotted with statues of men pointing up at nothing in particular and of a woman clutching a handbag, these aren't your typical public art. The idea is to draw in the passers-by, make them contemplate and, at best, transform their thoughts on a subject.

What about it being "a thing of beauty"?

A public meeting on public art convened by DUAC in April 2009 agreed that "themes of public art should be positive and should evoke a sense of joy, beauty, reflection and participation".

Pooja Sood, director of Khoj and member of DUAC's advisory committee on public art, says, "We have to identify the objectives public art must conform to, rather than just beautifying spaces... Art has moved far ahead of just aesthetics."

Maya Kóvskaya, critic-in-residence at the Khoj project, says, "If we shift from simplistic aesthetic criteria... to performative criteria — about what art does and how it allows us to see our world in new ways — then art allows us all to become its interlocutors."

That addresses the question of public art being 'for the people' and 'of the people'. But what about 'by the people'?

The Khoj project has been funded by the Norwegian embassy and Rawley's Burak project by the Swiss Pro Helvetia art fund.

When Sood helped conceptualise Delhi's first public art fest, 48 Degrees, last year, the German Goethe-Institut came forward with the money. None of this has been called for or ideated upon by the people.

Sohei Iwata, who did his post-graduation in public art from Tokyo University, says such an idea doesn't exist even in
Asia's richest nation, Japan.

The artist, who has constructed a biological water purifier for the Khoj project, says, "The public doesn't invite public art anywhere. We move from project to project, grant to grant. In fact, my 'art' starts with making the finding proposal."

The Public.Art.Ecology works are at the Khoj Studios, Khirkee Extn; Select City Walk Mall, Saket; and 20 Barakhamba Rd, till April 16

For the Burak, get to Hauz Shamsi at 6-8 pm and call 9873562911

First Published: Apr 10, 2010 22:51 IST