The dialogue around art, culture, politics and environment continues to grow in Chennai. With an aim to rejuvenate public spaces through art, the Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan has organised DAMnedArt, an awareness project, in Chennai.
Ravi Agarwal and Florian Matzner, the curators of DAMnedArt, initially envisioned the project to be a public art festival with 13 installations along the banks of the Cooum River and Marina Beach. The team tried for over two years to gain permission from the government for the public art display, hoping to take the art directly to the masses. The permission, however, never came through, so they worked on plan B.
The curators have worked on other such public art installations focussed around river restorations. “Florian’s work on the Emscherkunst, designed around the Emscher river in Germany, created a very good traction in the country,” said Ravi.
Ravi has also been a major part of the Yamuna-Elbe, a public art project that was organised in Delhi in 2011.
“Such projects help people reimagine spaces. It makes a big difference in their perspective and they stop calling the place dirty. That association is broken with the help of art exhibits in open spaces,” he said.
The moment one enters the place of the exhibit at Lalit Kala Akademi, one is invited by a huge pattern designed on the sand with all kinds of trash - empty bottles, discarded toothbrushes, bottle caps, and whatnots. Upon closer inspection, one learns that this is a kolam (rangoli) made out of the garbage found along the banks of the Adyar River, and this truth is hard-hitting.
Created by artist Parvathy Nayar, the installation — called ‘Invite/Refuse’ — is a stark reminder of the extent of damage we have caused to our rivers.
“I went on a trail tracing the origins of the river Cooum. I was very surprised to learn that the river was once considered holy,” said Parvathy.
Her observations of traditional kolams also struck a chord. “I found that these kolams cut across all denominations. They were present outside everyone's houses and I wanted to create a kolam for the Cooum.”
The project was initially supposed to be a 15ft x 15ft installation which would be drawn using ceramic representations of the algae and diatoms found in the river. It was later adapted into what it currently is. “I see it as an intervention into my own project,” Parvathy said.
‘The Circle of Life and Things’, an ongoing project by Austrian artist Anna Witt, added an artistic spin to the process of recycling and production. Hundreds of patterns drawn by children, inside the abstract outlines given by women living along the banks of Cooum, are transferred onto recycled cloth in the form of embroidery. This art will then be given back to children, with hopes of instilling positive associations of the river in their minds.
Although the installations have been adapted to be presented indoors, every exhibit, tailored around the Cooum, has been meticulously thought-out to create a lasting impression on the viewer. One can only imagine its impact had it been outdoors. The organisers, however, decided to let the people know about the installations that had been envisioned but could not be presented.
The exhibit, however, does not comprise of just art installations. A number of talks, screenings, guided tours, and workshops have also been curated to touch people from across the city.
Arun Krishnamoorthy of Environmentalist Foundation of India is elated that this kind of dialogue is happening in the city.
“On February 11, we had Reciprocity Fest happening at Kalakshetra, The DAMnedART Fest at Lalit Kala Academy and the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha at Olcott Kuppam. All of these events revolved around water bodies and conservation. What does this tell you?”
Arun is optimistic that the folks in Chennai are now ready to take action.
“For long, there was this disillusionment that polluted lakes and rivers cannot be saved. But in our ten years, we’ve been able to revive 19 waterbodies in and around Chennai itself. The very fact that such awareness art fests at this scale are possible in the city is a testimony to the increasing interests among people to revive and protect water bodies,” said Arun.
Although confined to an indoor exhibition space, the project poses the right questions to the viewer.
The project is part of the larger initiative called Embracing Our Rivers. The DAMnedArt project will be open until March 4. For more details on the line-up of events, please check their Facebook page or website.