The do-not-touch policy no longer applies to artworks as they evolve and change with the participation of the audience, says Chahak Mittal
It was on a summer evening in 2013 when a video, showcasing a group of performers who presented a flashmob recreation of Rembrandt’s famous painting The Night Watch, surfaced on Youtube and went viral overnight. One must remember that this was a pre social media sensations world. The stunt was organised to coincide with the return of the painting, which is considered one of the Dutch artist’s greatest works, to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.
Fast forward to 2019 and you have “Public Radio,” a unique art installation at District Hall’s outdoor plaza in the Seaport, Boston’s home for innovation. Standing 10 feet tall, elegantly sloped along at its front face with the soft rainbow LEDs glowing behind half inch of frosted acrylic, it’s an innovative way to activate a public space using a combination of interactive art and technology. You can turn the metal-rimmed dials to tune to a different station as the corresponding LEDs light up on this giant radio inviting the public to play with and listen to the latest broadcasts and music. Built by New American Public Art in the Microsoft Garage at the New England Research and Development Centre, Public Radio is an interactive art installation with microprocessor parts and a futuristic look that encourages a spirit of community, working and grooving together.
In interactive art works, where the art itself engages with the audience at a public space, it is presumed that the viewers are no longer passive onlookers but the ones who complete the work’s purpose through participation. These could also be deliberately left open-ended in order to make it more understandable and readable for the audience and draw them into what was once considered erudite and classic.
From art in caves to graffiti and sign illustrations in churches, fresco in mosques and tombs, Madhubani art to miniature paintings on fortified walls, the age-old tradition of street art is the first one that comes to mind when we talk about art in the public space.
Giulia Ambrogi, co-founder and curator of the St+art India Foundation, talks about how street art directly engages the population, triggering conversations and beyond the confined walls of a gallery.
“The idea was to move away from the elusive nature of the uptight art gallery concepts that the cities offer. It’s important because cities need identities. The great power of street art, the skills and the sensitivity of the artists speak, everywhere they go they try to respond to the local narratives. Street artists have to keep in mind a lot of things while making the murals — the architecture, texture of the wall, specific city in which they are, country, colours around them, the people that they meet, area that they breathe in, flora and fauna, everything should merge together in conceptualisation and eventually execution of their pieces.”
She feels we live in a time and age where people are disconnected because of the fast chaotic life, “There should be some moment in which we recognise ourselves in our own cities.” For instance, artist Dattaraj Naik, who recently painted one of Goa’s biggest football-themed murals, where a child is sitting in a classroom and thinking about football, which is below his feet. The artwork aimed at representing the common aspirations and feelings of school students who try hard to keep a balance between academics and sports.
Artist and illustrator Rohan Chakravarty’s Gaj Yatra was a series of comic strips displayed at the Mandi House Metro Station, engaging people and triggering conversations around vanishing habitats of elephants.
Time Changes Everything at the Lodhi Art District changes with the angle of the sun. Come at noon to see the wall’s metal cut-outs cast perfect shadows that spell out words like “hope”, “ambition”, time”, “people”—all concepts that shift meanings over time. At 6 pm, the shadows are melting; at night or early morning, there are none at all. It is a commentary on the nature of street art. which is ephemeral because once a piece has been made, it is abandoned.
At the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) recently, a group of performers dressed in the costumes from the 19th century, who casually converged in the central atrium of a mall and broke into a dance in the city. The presentation aimed at recreating artist Raja Ravi Varma’s Portrait of a Family, where the artist captures a South Indian family in their respective attires.
Kiran Nadar, chairperson, had earlier said that since Indians are deeply fond of dance and music, so what could be a better way to connect with the public for spreading awareness for Indian art heritage?
In most art galleries and museums, the ‘Do Not Touch’ rule is non-negotiable. But there could be some people who can’t resist flouting rules. However with more innovative art coming to the fore, the rule doesn’t really stick to them by including people in the pattern that the artwork follows.
For instance, the Mirror Box at the Museum Centre in Krasnoyarsk, Russia creates a never-ending myriad of reflections of everyone who peeped inside the box. On the other hand, Alan Parkinson’s Luminarium installation allowed the viewers to step inside a circular pavilion surrounded with vibrant colours and soft lights. It is important not to confuse these for 3D artworks.
Anahita Taneja, director, Shrine Empire, tells us about their recent curation at the gallery, which allowed viewers to engage in a direct conversation with the artwork on display.
The installation titled, One Thousand Tears by artist Suchitra Gahlot, asked a thousand people from the audience ‘Why did you cry last?’ Their one word replies were labelled on to a thousand small vials. They were then filled with a saline solution that matched the exact composition of human tears. An accompanying use and throw book had the one-word replies printed on tissue paper. Once read, the answers are lost forever.
Taneja says, “It was so beautiful to see how people were constantly getting attracted towards the work. It showed how interactive works make a difference to people, especially the artwork that is touchable. Other sculptures and paintings in a gallery are mostly looked at and forgotten but such works stay within the person even when s/he walks out. They would not only be engaged with it at that time, but would also tell the story to people they know outside.”
Priya’s Mirror, the art exhibition, curated by art connoisseur Mukta Ahluwalia, brought together a range of artworks and augmented reality installations by four different artists that aimed to invoke in people a sense of responsibility towards the society. The artworks were divided into four chapters, featuring India’s first female superhero, ‘Priya Shakti.’ She is a rape survivor, who helps a group of acid attack survivors to find their strengths and overcome their fears — finding similarity with the way she had conquered her fears after the brutality she went through.
One of the visuals had a young girl, in a quiet land, sitting on the back of a tiger. To make it appear real, one had to install a free application on their phones called Blippar, and scan the image through their phone’s camera. The app would activate the digital programme, which in turn would allow people to see the images moving. Here, the girl sits on the back of the tiger and flies away.
She explains that since art is capable of instilling in people a sense of responsibility, then “why not make it more interactive through various media we have today?”
Astral, by Australian illustrator and designer Stuart Campbell (popularly known as Sutu), features a sequence of 21st century tableaux vivants that give participants the sense that they are actually stepping into the paintings.
In another illustration, Dark, by California-based digital artist Steve Teeple, technology and organic matter converge within an inverted, globular space where a few multi-coloured lights pierce through the uncharted inky black terrain of deep, dark space.