How to anchor the hopes of the community through image 

Published : May 02, 2024 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

“Life” / “வாழ்க்கை”, a monochrome mural in Nochikuppam, Chennai.

“Life” / “வாழ்க்கை”, a monochrome mural in Nochikuppam, Chennai. | Photo Credit: Instagram/startindia

Public art practises democracy by splitting the gaze, centring not a person but a people.

Cutting across the humid seaside city of Chennai in the late afternoon heat, I kept jogging until I hit the shore, the sea. Through the narrow stretch of ashen road slitting past tenements dotted with crucifixions, the sea glistened a blinding sapphire. Having reached the coast, I walked alongside it, its companion, until I was hit by both the smell of fish drying in the sun and the radiant glow of public art on the facade of the houses in Nochikuppam, the fisherfolk colony.

Among the colourful facades is a monochrome mural titled “Life”/“வாழ்க்கை”, a portrait of the community. There is a child, head back, mid-dance in her frock; an old woman, seated in her nightie, looking straight at us; a woman holding a baby at her hip; an old man surrounded by curious kids peering at what he is holding; there are dogs, cows, a horse; men are busy on boats, working the nets; women are selling fish. A portrait of labour and leisure, economy and ecology, but also a portrait that eschews individualism. There is no centre, no spotlight, just a diffused portrait of a community.

Conceptualised and painted by Paola Delfín, a Mexican artist, the work was supported by St+art India Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that creates art projects in public spaces. That they would choose Nochikuppam, severely hit by the 2004 tsunami and drowned for days in the 2015 floods, as the site for this artwork is not unusual. This is a space that had to build itself up, with the help of government support, but also by holding itself together. It is still a contested site, with the government building houses, trying to take the space for an arterial road, relocating people. Community building is a prickly exercise but a conscious one. Like democracy, it has to be carefully, conscientiously cultivated by sometimes standing up to the state, “a unity composed of—rather than imposed on—difference”, as Fred Evans writes in Public Art and the Fragility of Democracy.

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Public art and citizenship

How to anchor the hopes of the community through image? Can public art, as Evans asks in his book, be an act of citizenship? Should it only be acts of citizenship, caving in to what Walter Benjamin called the “politicisation of aesthetics”?

When, for example, Pilloo Pochkhanawala, the sculptor, makes an abstract explosion of porcupined metal scrap titled Spark—a piece that has gone missing twice—and plonks it in the middle of a traffic circle in Mumbai, a sculpture that some newspaper reports describe as a “peacock” and others as a “hedgehog”, it is a mere sculpting of space, not something whose meaning, whose context, whose affect—as in the emotional rupture that gets produced—is available to the public.

“If we expect our public transportation to be accessible, should we not make similar demands on public art? Perhaps we do not consider ambiguity, ambivalence as important ideals to cultivate.”

If we expect our public transportation to be accessible, should we not make similar demands on public art? Perhaps we do not consider ambiguity, ambivalence as important ideals to cultivate. It is the fetishisation of clarity, of meaning, of purpose that refuses art its unwieldiness—public art must be instrumental, it cannot merely be, its very “public-ness” places on its upright shoulders the pressure of “purpose”, which we otherwise tend to not give art.

This is what leads to artworks of radical clarity produced by artists like Valay Shende, strewn about the Phoenix Palladium in Mumbai—trying to invoke the dabbawala by numerous working clock faces, a lunch box shaped as a stomach, the Virar fast local, the trucks and the buffaloes on the road. Clarity can be suffocating because it pins down its effect so perfectly. It is produced in the shadow of a purpose that it reproduces in the mind of the spectator, a cunning simplicity.

Finding common ground

So, when the late Richard Serra’s controversial Tilted Arc, a 120-foot-long, 12-foot-high solid unfinished plate of rust-covered steel, punctured New York’s public place, it caused an immediate furore, with many critics calling it ugly; ultimately, it was removed from the space. What of the fact that this slice of metal produced a tetanic pause in the landscape, making us not only aware of space, of air, but of boundaries too?

When, in the late 1950s, the Nehruvian government cobbled together a policy to set aside 2 per cent of the national budget for permanent murals on public buildings, the aesthetic imagination and the political imagination tried to find common ground. One way was through ideas of empowerment, poses of individual men and women ambered in strident courage. Seeing Kannagi—not as a historical but as a mythical figure—on Chennai’s Marina Beach, arm flung out, is to see how she embodies the spirit of the wronged common person who can bring down the king and indeed an entire city to cinders with her righteous rage. She has become a category of unambiguous meaning-making, yes, but also her gesture of pointing a finger produces this strange secretion of hope, of being called upon. The work leaks beyond its meaning.

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When, in the early years of the United States, members of Congress were discussing the importance of hero monuments of George Washington, a group of people, like John Nicholas, suggested, instead, “a plain tablet, on which every man could write what his heart dictated”. To create new templates of public art that need not celebrate the past but co-create, or at least co-imagine, a future.

One of Evans’ arguments in his book is that democracy is fragile; it needs to be constantly interpreted, constantly pushed forward, constantly practised in order to function; democracy is never settled. As such, public art must “render democracy palpable, to increase its force in society and to explore or extend its meanings… to help convert the abstract idea of democracy into a ‘popular ethic’...”.

So, when murals like the one in Nochikuppam, like the ones of the Aravani Art Project (currently showing at the Venice Biennale) produce portraits of community, either as depictions of what is or as hopes for what will be, they are practising democracy in a way that statues of eminent political figures will never allow because they split the gaze across their “multi-vocal” compositions, centring not a person but a people. 

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.

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