The participating artists in this residency were Dhara Riviera from Puerto Rico, Shukla Sawant and Prashant Soni from India, Manuel Bouzo from Spain, Matej Gavula from Slovakia.
As a critic- in- residence for the KHOJ Residency 2004, I first met the artists by accident at the only restaurant before the ‘gali’ that leads to the venue, KHOJ. This was a couple of days after they had arrived at New Delhi, and at the lunch table, I sensed that they had each already cultivated a preference for what they relished from the long menu, and had even figured out some basic mixtures of flavors and masalas and spices that garnish regular South Indian, Hyderabadi or Punjabi food. The choices were known, as were their after-effects. The usual words of caution had been spread about drinking water and the ‘Delhi-belly’ and other food and water-borne bugs. Indeed, Indian food is certainly a global phenomenon now and can be found in most places of the world and the food seemed the least of adjustments for them. What they were trying to figure out and adjust to, were the disparate conditions of living, the simultaneous affluence and poverty, the closely spaced tall, sleek buildings together with the assembled discard materials of the slums. India looked like it was moving at a hurried pace towards a hyper-urbanization, with construction of flyovers, shopping malls and multiplexes and mansion like houses, while the city seemed to be reeling under an automobile menace, traffic jams and an unbelievable overload of people on the streets.
There was so much to see in Delhi with its many nuances and compelling layers, with the present city exhibiting a composite culture, having taken into its fold the many lost and ruined medieval cities and the resultant enmeshed cultures. Trips into the varied zones of the city with their various modes of transport seemed inevitable—and hence even for a local participant, Delhi presented an enigma that invited fresh exploration.
The most interesting aspect of this residency to me has been the way artists have addressed the dialectics of the place, the city and its multiple layers, the visuality of a transforming environment and have even critiqued urban inspirations that bring into focus the risks and challenges to the common man. With the now instant-capture tool, the digital camera, artists were recording the local images and realities for their understanding and creative use. For instance, Dhara Riviera captured images of the heavy and precarious bamboo scaffolds that were symbols of an everyday act of balance between life and death for the working classes. Prashant Soni responded to the sarais, the older camp cities of the Mughals in Delhi which now functioned more in the form of a memory. Manuel Buozo, while walking the streets of new and old Delhi, lamented the soon disappearing charpoy that was home and comfort/shelter to the many homeless in the city. Shukla Sawant, the only Delhi-based artist in the group, raised deeper issues of regimentation and control of public urban spaces in the city of Delhi. As a critic in residence, my conversations with these artists were not limited to the making of the work for the residency, but interspersed with local and global knowledge of each participant and the dynamics of sharing was certainly a way of informal education. From a fifteen-day workshop to a six-week residency program at Khirkee in Delhi, KHOJ has intensified the nature of its program by reversing the earlier equation with fewer artists and more time for them to engage with the people and place. This is reflected in the way these artists have engaged the city and not merely the immediate physicality of the site as seen in the first two workshops at Modinagar.
Dhara Riviera- While navigating the streets of Delhi, Dhara was immediately struck by the overwhelming images of the enormous bamboo scaffolds of the many large-scale constructions that littered the city spaces. The scaffolds were quite different in their making from the industrial scaffolds that followed strict safety measures and building code used in her home country. Here were people, often visible, precariously perched high up above fast moving roads. The irregular bamboos of the scaffolds bonded by ropes evoked in her the fears of life and death that were negotiated at a daily basis by these anonymous low waged workers.
For Dhara who is a socially engaged artist, the idea of creating an artwork shapes up only gradually after a long drawn reflective process. In this case too, she was looking for metaphors and associations as she surveyed the simultaneous construction of huge temple and industrial buildings. Using her camera, Dhara recorded the visual experience of these scaffolds from various viewing angles, that immediately brought to her consciousness, issues of safety, security, climate, hygiene and many others- it seems like a real display of the circus of life and pulling out photographic prints, Dhara started outlining the scaffolds and the precariously placed workers who amidst their job were also performing a deadly balancing act. She then sat for hours, painfully cutting out these images, neatly leaving out the unnecessary areas to create a tracery of the bare bones of the scaffolds from each photograph. The close up and distant views of people placed on the scaffolds were juxtaposed to create a feeling of scale, depth and projection.
These intricately ‘carved’ photographs were tied to one another by a nylon thread to create a tensile ‘structure’ that was fixed as a semi arch in Dhara’s studio. Having deliberately placed the photographic images on the inside, the whiteness of the photograph carefully cut and linearly stitched, created a tracery like feel, and one that evoked the surface of some Mughal monuments. The idea was to bring viewers under the singular arched tensile structure, to experience the images as one experience the scaffolds placed in the setting of physical space and light- the light source dramatized the patterns and the images and people on the scaffolds looking down and the viewers as passers by looking up.
Matej: Matej comes from Slovakia and he once shared with me that in his part of the world where it is extremely cold, the windows and doors of most buildings do not use single sheets of glass in them, but use a sealant to create double glass windows. Fascinated by Architecture, Matej enjoys the possibility it offers to work in varied materials- Responding to the KHOJ Building which was a workplace specially designed by architects for their own office use, Matej investigated some of the special features it offers. In fact Matej has installed one of his pieces on the window and another in his studio-space. One is set against natural light and the other against artificial light. In this period he worked with glass and silicone sealant, which is strong and stable glue that is mostly clear, and is used to seal gaps and cracks. It was therefore particularly interesting to examine the aesthetic dialogue Matej created between two materials- one smooth and elastic, free flowing and organic and the other fixed, strict, and with a definite shape.
In glass too, Matej has used the combination of a transparent and a translucent glass. His familiarity with glass and silicone sealant has helped Matej to for the first time treat silicone glue as an aesthetic material for image making. Drawing in a free hand method with the sealant on one glass, another piece of same sized glass is impressed upon it, and after 3or 4 minutes the two identical pieces of glass are carefully separated from one another.
Manuel Bouzo: Manuel has been coming to India for many years now. He was surprised during his visit this year as a participating artist by how much Delhi had changed, both in look and character and how consumerism has erased low cost living and easy survival techniques. Of his many fascinations with India, he has been quite enamoured of the charpoy that practically houses the many who sleep under the sky, oblivious to the future and immune to the noise of passing trucks and busy urban streets at night. In his work at KHOJ this year, Manuel treats his studio as his room, his new home to inhabit and display his collections of all that stirs his imagination and wit.
Manuel is a traveller and he fills and empties his bags at different destinations…he enjoys mixing and matching things from various locations. “For me entering a new room is like entering a new home- the blank walls seem so inviting and call to be filled up with signs, precious and personal things to get defined …one places a frame, then another, then something else and by starting to put different kinds of things for memories, aesthetic appeal, for looking up dates and for no reason at all…one starts creating a personal museum of sorts. Manuel creates art from spare parts, through bits and pieces collected that become his visual metaphors and symbols. The walls and the room space help create an installation that assembles various kinds of materials, some of them carried from home and on the journey from different parts of the world- for instance natural seeds, thorns from Spain, books, pebbles, stamps, tickets, photographs, jewelry, domestic objects, a mix of found objects, discards and invented objects as well. In the centre we see a mini charpoy fenced with a barbed wire. Manuel expressed, “through this work, I pay homage to the charpoy, safeguarding it from the threat of its demise under consumer culture and mindless urbanization. The altar is simple- with a pedestal, some dried dahlia flowers and the pseudo charpoy placed against the text on consumerism.
Manuel’s approach to art making rests on his belief in the portability of culture and how artists are active agents of cross-cultural fertilization of ideas, awareness and knowledge. He passionately engages with both strange and familiar environments, and plays with the idea of meaningful and absurd re-contextualisation of objects and texts into different contexts. Many of his displays are on wheels as if commenting upon the mobility of objects, people and things in the global culture. Also, Manuel’s space is not about one statement or a single expression- it is a repository of many little frames, objects and texts created by him through collaging, cut and paste. His little personal altars created out of diverse materials, straw, little plastic objects, crushed powder, with the most interesting being where the crumbs of wisdom (encyclopedia bought from the old Delhi footpath book market) offered as ash to what Manuel has scripted as the ‘deepest desire.’ Manuel works to invent an intimate, poetic, often absurd space of encounter where he does not draw any obvious connections between the various things but allows the viewer to play with free associations and read meanings from within them. He celebrates a hybrid identity and a belonging that tries to raze down geographical and cultural borders in his art.
Prashant Soni: After spending his time in Baroda and Bangalore as a student, Prashant Soni was moved by the historic pasts of Delhi. He was drawn to the sarais of Delhi, which used to lodge travelers and strangers who sought shelter and companionship during the Mughal period. Though the sarais have none of their original purpose in the new urban age, their names and old structures still hauntingly echo the memories of their past glories. Moving in and out of the several sarais in Delhi, Prashant found their presence compelling as he photographed them and met the people residing there. He spoke with them, sketched their faces, and heard their stories about the place. The residency at KHOJ facilitated a prolonged interaction with the sense of a place and its people.The studio space which is Prashant’s ‘sarai’ at the moment, housing him temporarily as a traveller, Prashant has engaged with the project not with the intention of appropriating it in its look and design, but spelling out presences and absences of the sarai in its various transformations. The viewer encounters large drawn faces, portrait of common people he met in pencil and in charcoal, but deliberately coated with a thin layer of emulsion paint making their presence residual, blurred and buried as if under the layer of time. In the final phase of the project, the walls were fully white washed and the faces that now hauntingly look at us, the viewer will be buried within forever, absented from sight and yet invisibly present and part of the place forever. The forces of history and presentness intermingle and transform architectural spaces, through intent as well as by accident.
Shukla Sawant: Shukla Sawant uses subversive strategies to deal with the issue of access and regimentation of public urban spaces especially in the metropolitan city of Delhi. She reacts to the kind of militarism and surveillance that is on increase in the cities. In the so-called ‘dialectics of defeat’, Shukla says “There are two ways of looking at the debate on fixing your identity, one through the ‘politics of difference’ and the other is through ‘the politics of passing’. Shukla wittily creates a spoof on the idea of the politics of passing as a way of empowering oneself by creating a false identity. Being a conceptual work, needs an entry point…Using mock flags as car pennants-cut, stitched and embroidered by her with witty captions and staged-photographs of powerful dignitaries, Shukla Sawant with her radical views on both politics and contemporary art practice has been addressing issues of gender, equality, identity and multi-culturalism in her works for some years now. Here Shukla deals with a serious social problem with hilarity, though there seems to be a tragic sense of powerlessness attached to the situation. Appropriating the car pennants that give a special identity to important vehicles, she plays with each one, dedicating it to her experiences of living in cantonment areas. Some of the pennants read as Romantic Car Specialist, Parkatti, Gopinath Golgapas. The wall of the studio has been painted to be suggestive of the ‘military’ as a special category that allows access to only the qualified few. She also raises the issue of the militarisation of public spaces that deny and control access. In a room that had the wall painted to appropriate the signs of military presence, the interplay between the text, the craft-based objects- the car pennants and the large size photographs made it interesting for the viewers to draw subtle connections and arrive at the issue she was dealing with. Having played an active role since the inception of this artists’ collective, Shukla reinforced the need for such alternative spaces and for a consistent dialogue that actually make possible, an inter-cultural exchange of ideas and consciousness-raising between artists and the art community, that is imperative for experimental and cutting-edge art of the day.
One hopes KHOJ is able to open its doors to many more artists and is able to reach out to a larger audience with time.
Art Historian, Independent Curator