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Creating and viewing art goes public
Public art exposes people ‘of all different ideologies and backgrounds’ to the varied socio-cultural experiences and can reconnect them to their own surroundings and cityscape. In a way, it encourages them to see their neighborhoods and environment from a new perspective, in a new light and with completely different mode of appreciation. Many established and emerging Indian art practitioners are using several innovative means and mediums for their foray into public art.

Just outside suburban Mumbai’s gleaming Maker Maxity tower, a ravishing red double-decker public transport vehicle, resembling one that used to ply the city roads in the 1970s, drew everyone’s attention for quite a long period. One could see it sprouting a couple of stainless steel wings, its front wheel slightly raised off the ground as if set for a takeoff. A plaque beside it read: ‘Sometimes when we travel, we forget who we are...’ Its inception can be traced to the artist’s meeting with Manish Maker on a flight. Starline, an automotive company, helped him fabricate the piece, weighing almost 9,000 kilograms (10 tonne). It was brought from Belgaum, Karnataka to Mumbai after a 600 kilometer long journey by road and was thrown open for public viewing earlier this year. The bus could house a transitory audience, which drops in and comes out as BEST passengers used to.

An exhibition space on the upper and lower deck of the bus hosts noteworthy creators from the fields of art, architecture, photography and film like Delhi-based filmmaker Amar Kanwar, photographer Dayanita Singh, artist Gurdeep Singh, graphic novelist Arijit Sen and the Bangalore art duo, Pors & Rao. This fascinating Flying Bus sculpture by Sudarshan Shetty, which cost an estimated $250,000, can be counted among India's most prominent public art projects. An unconventional notion of ‘art-within-art’ stands for his keenness to draw the people to artistic world. His purpose seems to have been served as a steady stream of visitors often checks into the public gallery. The project in a way, redefines the myriad possibilities for public art domain. He has been quoted as saying: “Public art is a very difficult space because it’s going to remain there forever presumably. But I believe that all objects are bound to change in their meaning over time so this allows for that continuous change.” According to the senior artist, instead of curating shows, he just selects practitioners to showcase their work.

Here are a few other noteworthy instances of recent public art projects in India:

Subodh Gupta’s 'Line of Control'

Kiran Nadar, the chairperson of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), just accomplished the mounting of probably India's largest ever public art installation at any museum in the country. Subodh Gupta’s 'Line of Control' at her museum site in New Delhi is a 36 feet x 36 feet stainless steel mushroom cloud acquired from Europe's Hauser & Wirth gallery. Speaking on the occasion, she said “The ‘Line of Control’ is not merely unique and rare, but brings a whole set of new challenges for the museum in terms of its installing, maintenance and storage.” KNMA unveiled this iconic stainless steel installation by the renowned contemporary artist, set up for the first time in India. The cloud-like sculpture poignantly represents the mushroom cloud emanating from Hiroshima or Nagasaki in August 1945 when atomic bombs were hurled on the cities.

Vibha Galhotra’s ‘Neo Monster’

‘Neo Monster’, Vibha Galhotra’s installation project, is a continuation of her long engagement with the capital city of India. It incorporates a larger-than-life size earth mover machine created from an inflated balloon. She responds to its rapidly changing gigantic urbanity through site-specific installations that communicate the feelings of fear and anxiety, to suggest that highly complex legacy of colonialism, religious tensions, and power conflicts have hampered its progression and path into modernity.

The Yamuna-Elbe public art project

Conceptualized and implemented in November 2011, The Yamuna-Elbe public art project was conceived as part of the India Week celebrations in Hamburg. It aimed at making people rethink their sacred and need based relationship with the river and the fragile ecology it supports by making it part of the art. Most of the works done by Indian and German artists were lined up along the two riverbanks. Signifying the general apathy, artist-environmentalist and co-curator of the project, Ravi Agarwal, was quoted as saying, “While the river Yamuna is really on nobody’s mind in Delhi, the city of Hamburg has actually maintained the tidal data of the river for the last 100 years for each day.” Atul Bhalla conceived a 12- part series of a photo-performance on Elbe. Gigi Scaria’s 25-foot-high, fascinating fountain, kept pumping water from the river Yamuna and purify it as it’s pushed up. The artist intends to make similar fountains nearby several other polluted rivers of India.

Public art scene in the west

In cities like New York, public art is infusing a breath of fresh air even as exhibitions growingly moving to outdoor spaces, offering visitors a curated museum experience albeit sans the walls. These exhibits represent the renewed wave in public art domain in New York, moving away from the classic notion of simply plopping a ubiquitous bronze monument in any public square. They are more like elaborate museum shows in their quality, complexity, and also scope, with a curator meticulously selecting artists or artworks that communicate with each other and situating the artworks for the sake of artistic resonance and relevance.

Road ahead for public art in India

Trying to stay tuned to the global public art policy, prominent public spaces in India, including airports in New Delhi and Mumbai are now taking steps to integrate art within their premises. Expected to be publicly unveiled in 2013, an innovative art program for Mumbai's T2 will incorporate specially commissioned pieces and interventions on traditional art/craft objects. Rajeev Sethi, curator of the ambitious art program for Mumbai's new airport, was recently quoted as saying in a column by Anupa Mehta that, ‘airports are the new shrines of public art. Where else would you get so many footfalls?" He wants to use it as (a) point of departure (or arrival), for inspiring contemporary artists to make visually striking works.

Hopefully, significant spaces such as schools, hospitals, colleges, office buildings and parks under artistically aware managements will also try and get themselves a vivacious visual facelift. Indeed the potential for our public spaces to get repositories for throbbing cultural experiences is immense. Several artists, as stated above, are looking to make art part of the public sphere. Tushar Joag’s work includes gallery practice and interventions in the public sphere as well so as to examine the linkages between politics and aesthetics. For him, art is ‘a way of negotiating life. It's about asking how one does that, about the experiences involved and how life moves on.’ And this is why he is so keen to explore art in the public realm.