Public art in Mumbai: Talking civic sense

Public art in Mumbai: Talking civic sense

Mumbai-based art critic and independent curator Gitanjali Dang investigates public art in the city with the help of eight exhibits spanning the online, the offline and spaces in between

Exhibit One: Monsters Inc

Ordinarily, most of the city’s public statuary is easy bait for bird poop but the metal monstrosity which greets you just as you enter Bandra via Mahim is avoided by even the feathered folk. 

There was a time when the effluvium from the Mahim Creek had the sole pleasure of heralding the first of Mumbai's western suburbs, but now it's an even tussle between the creek and the metal thingamajig. Should the opportunity ever make itself available, it is certain that our citizenry would be hard-pressed in deciding which element to oust first. 

The sculpture -- for the lack of a more biting noun -- has a recumbent lady, presumably a mother, holding up a child. Underneath the deadweight of the sculpture are the words:

A CHILD GIVES BIRTH TO A MOTHER

-Vithal Venkatesh Kamat-

And no, Kamat is not the man responsible for the making of this hideosity; a city hotelier he is responsible for commissioning it and for taking credit for the sappy populist quote for which he rehashes, without remorse, the unlikely trio of William Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Osho.

This then, is one of the more visible and unpalatable specimens of art in civic spaces in Mumbai.

Nonetheless, it isn't an entirely open and shut case. Over the last 12 months we have had projects that have assuaged at least some of public art's identity crises.

Of course, it’s tempting to compare our progress with that of Delhi's, which it must be said is a few flyovers ahead of us. But, it needs to be clarified that this piece is going to exclusively look at public art in Mumbai. That said, every so often Delhi will be roped in to amplify the apposite.

Exhibit Two: The Wall

Not too far from the site of this mother-child mush is the Tulsi Pipe Road. In August last year, the entire stretch of the wall, which runs parallel to the western railway line, was transformed into a mural with the (Bombay Municipal Corporation) BMC's support.

Undoubtedly, The Wall Project at Tulsi Pipe road, initiated by Dhanya Pilo, an NID graduate, is one of the better things to have happened to this city. The momentum and interactivity generated, that too on a Sunday morning, were unprecedented. If in the past you found yourself wearing blinkers at the sight of this traffic infected road, right about now you’re probably sticking your head out of your vehicle window trying to keep up with the graffiti. Or better still, you’re going flâneur so you can read delectably whimsical thoughts such as: all you need are love and sneakers.

However, the city’s most assertive display of public art drew out only about three and a half artists, give or take a few. Tejal Shah and Apnavi Thacker took up patches of the wall, with the visiting New York-based artist Jaret Vadera joining in on the festivities. Showing regard for the street, each of these artists kept suave and/or recondite conceptual maneuvers at bay and worked with texts and visuals that included missives about gender equality and cheery flowers. 

Be that as it may, why did such a strikingly low number of artists -- often found breast-beating over the paucity of opportunities for public intervention -- turn up? To have to constantly hear their larcenous cries about lack of initiative vis-à-vis public art is rather cheesing off. Such complaining then is just ancillary to critiquing the dominant commerce of art, from under the security blanket of the gallery. If its redressal you are keen on, grab a paint can and channel the Banksy in you onto the walls of Tulsi Pipe. The Project's back for its third installment and it wants you on Sunday, May 30. Be there post 16:00 hrs.

Exhibit Three: Breathe in, Breathe out

From the coveted security blanket to the everyday galvanic force of oxygen in open spaces.

ArtOxygen, a public art initiative helmed by Italian-born -- currently Mumbai-anchored -- photographer Claudio Maffioletti, took to the streets with artists Pradeep Mishra, Bidyut Singha, Uday Shanbhag, Neil Dantas and others.

In any public space, particularly ours, the artwork has to strive hard to draw in people who would not ordinarily cross the threshold of a gallery. Public art has to make itself readily accessible. Mishra's project at Crawford Market did just that. It was cleanly articulated and everything was angled towards grabbing the viewer. For Lovable Beings (2010), the artist made portraits of potential pets -- ranging from rabbits to fish -- on sale at the market. These portraits, along with specially crafted roofless cages, were made and displayed on site.

Exhibit Four: No horsing around, please

Further south from the Crawford Market is our art district aka Kala Ghoda. Unfortunately, with each passing year the annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival keeps losing steam. Much loved as it is -- the number of people at the festival will vouch for this -- the committee needs to rethink its vetting process and at least keep some of the paint-your-name-on-rice variety at bay.

The Kala Ghoda mural on the other hand continues to be the one consistently engaging, and politically provocative if you like, public presence in the area. Currently Sunil Padwal's mural reminds us that the equestrian statue of King Edward VII, after which the district is named, is now living in political exile at the Jijamata Udyan.

Exhibit Five: Vanishing shadows

Across town, back to Bandra, back to another festival. The Celebrate Bandra Festival 2009 saw some interesting contributions by Reena Saini Kallat and Shilpa Gupta. Gupta's well-traveled interactive Shadow 3 installation was a perfect choice for a venue like the Carter Road promenade but the technical sophistication of this piece did not make it the easiest choice for the public space, and for this alone Gupta must be commended. It would have certainly been easier for her to tack up a few photographs instead. Designed with the help of the vvvv tool kit, Shadow 3 allowed the audience to interact with their shadows using real-time shadow synthesis.

Our vote for the most heart-warming (and heartfelt) public project of the recent past would go to Reena Saini Kallat’s Vanishing Point. For this the artist created a sequence of join the dots puzzles. Once all the dots were joined, an extinct or almost-extinct creature emerged. With the intention of captivating her fickle core group of children, the artist mounted her blackboard works on the fence of the children's park on the promenade; and captivate the moppets it did.

Exhibit Six: Flocking the information ether

Ironically, although most galleries and subsequently art related activities are focused in and around South Mumbai, Bandra is busily engaging with its civic spaces. Before its crescendo time at the Tulsi Pipe Road, The Wall Project had its humble beginnings in the by lanes of Bandra where more than a few houses and courtyard walls were made memorable by the initiative. Over this last weekend, another miniature neighborhood in Bandra happily turned into a street gallery with BlowUp Bombay: A Street Exhibition of Photographs.

The exhibition, the doing of two photography collectives: Blindboys in South Asia, and Wideyed in North East England, has already been there and done that in Bangalore, Paris and Delhi.

Blindboys relies heavily on critical mass generated online. With good reason too; birds of a feather flock together in the information ether. Teeny tiny interventions can travel unprecedentedly long distances on the Web, yet despite that the dearth of locally engendered net art projects and online interventions is glaringly obvious. It is the other public space lying more or less fallow. Some would insist that funding is critical for such projects, and indeed it is, but it’s eminently possible to carry out a sleight of hand or two.

Exhibit Seven: Hot intervention here

Since 2003, Jasmeen Patheja's Blank Noise Project has intervened and confronted harassment of women in public spaces. In doing so, it has garnered troops in cities the country over. But realizing the potential of virtual public spaces Blank Noise has launched several online interventions. One of the more playful ones commuted via networking platforms such as Facebook. 'Fans' of the Project simply received mails requesting them to update their profile picture with a placard-like image that read Hot Chick Here. And that was that.

Such sly strategies effectively broaden the reach without sweating the environment too much.

As you read this piece online you are also experiencing what could soon be the hottest summer the country has witnessed in 100 years. Hmmm. And there is no immediate reprieve, not if we keep spilling the environment's guts. Drawing attention to the embitterment process and pledging their support are the likes of filmmaker Franny Armstrong and even the British pop act Coldplay.

The end credits of Armstrong's "The Age of Stupid" (2009), a rousing critique of the agents of global warming, include a mention of the carbon footprint occasioned by the documentary artform itself. As for Coldplay, following each concert the band plants a tree on a patch of land they care after, on the outskirts of Bangalore.

The production, distribution and consumption of art has an undeniable carbon footprint, the size of which may vary from one foot, read exhibition, to the next, but there’s damage there for sure.

Exhibit Eight: Sleeping with the enemy

48°C Public.Art.Ecology (2008), Delhi-anchored Khoj International Artists Association's very successful and landmark public art festival, attempted to investigate the failing ecologies of our planet. But it wouldn't be erroneous to imagine that a special focus on public art itself could be a viable way to temper the carbon footprint of contemporary visual art. 

As far as art in civic spaces goes Delhi has set a template already. The capital even has a policy in its favor; in the 1960s the Delhi government ruled that 1 percent of the budget of every public project and building be set aside for art.

As for us in Mumbai, beleaguered as it is, even our space runs against us. Delhi has room and more room. Mumbai has a tough time figuring elbowroom. It is imperative that we get the bureaucrats to look beyond decorating our police chowkies and traffic islands with baubles and cute sea mammals. Sleeping with the enemy is not altogether undesirable -- not if one has one’s way. The guys at The Wall Project are nodding wildly in approval. Grab the beast by its balls; or somesuch.

Gitanjali Dang is an independent curator and critic. Through her various projects and writings, she is interested in engaging with a post-Duchampian sense of humour, caprice and interrogation.
Read more about Gitanjali Dang
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