Arts Practices: A Critical Enquiry — by Navjot Altaf

5th Kochi Muziris Biennale, Kochi, India
28th March 2019

Since I am going to speak about some of my collaborative works done at public sites, this paper addresses issues- which concern:

-politics of art practices and aesthetics                                              
-the nature of research

-collaborative and participatory practice and the perceptions of politics of inclusion


Let me begin by sharing – how I see my practice;  based on my experiences, imagination and intellectual inquiry

what position do I take as an artist during the process of engaging myself with the people, the process of research and while working collaboratively on the projects. My struggle with the difficult decisions, which sometimes lead to peculiar situations… as there are both positive and negative sides to any decision making, but I believe and agree with the idea that the political choices or decisions made by the artist help develop and analyse an artist’s own sensibility in depth, which  defines his or her aesthetics and politics .

Since I am interested in art in a public domain, participatory and socially engaged art and what form of knowledge such practices can generate. I see dialogical process or interaction with people from diverse fields and socio-cultural backgrounds as a form of creative praxis, because I have learnt as much from practical experiences as from theory from the beginning of my career.

In the 1970’s after my art school in Bombay as a member of a student’s organization, ‘PROYOM’ [Progre-ssive Youth Movement] affiliated with the left ideology to develop a culture of critical viewing and reviewing, our [Altaf and mine] intervention in non-art places, by taking our art works, which addressed socio-political issues to factories, labour camps, colleges, CPDR [Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights] or PUCL offices [People’s Union for Civil Liberties] the process of interaction with audiences other than art lovers and gallery goers  used to lead to questions, which concerned man-made asymmetries, social oppression, migration and the human condition etc.

Alongside PROYOM’s study sessions, the other activities we engaged were with making of posters collectively on local and international issues, to be pasted on the walls in the city and our participation in political rallies to express solidarity for example, with the locomotive staff of the railways in Mumbai [1974] or Great Bombay Textile Strike [1982- protesting for better wages, working conditions and bonuses] or supporting students’ movement or protests again the Vietnam war [mid 1970s] was not viewed as an ‘art activity or art form’ by the artists’ community, the critics or the artists themselves.  Theoretically, it was viewed  as activism, compared to the combination of activism and art, now seen as a  ‘mode of art making’ since last couple of decades in India. But intervention in non-art spaces, everyday life for me at that time was a self-conscious move and I can still recall how the process brought us into direct contact with people, who dealt with the compelling issues of that time and how the communication between us came alive in those moments of exchange at those spaces.

The process included a more intimate and engaged relationship with them. There were uncertainties no doubt…but there were unanticipated insights, which evolved from those interactions, the accumulation of experiences and diverse responses of people at discursive levels, that I believe has helped me to extend my practice beyond the private sphere.

With the emergence of international art workshops or grant making organizations focusing on art projects in public spaces or Biennales and Triennials that I have been part of, a number of individual  artists, art collectives, critics and curators have been exploring alternative spaces and ways for experimentation, interaction and serious discourses on art and art practices to generate communication between the artists and people from different disciplines and local communities, were approaches some of us in Bombay and few artists in Delhi, that I am aware of began in the 70’s –  with no art historical references or support from the art world or anywhere else, which was a challenge in many ways.

Now when we have local and international art historical references for interactive collaborative or collective approaches and process based experiences, “which is away from a ‘textual’ mode of production” [Kester, G. The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context, Duke University Press, 2011], where work is not presented or viewed as a complete work and art is not created only for it to become an object to be commoditized. Such practices complicate conventional notions of aesthetic autonomy as well. So, I feel that the culture of critical viewing and reviewing has to be on the move and I would say that in many ways the art world has come full circle where critical artistic position is recognized and I can see that it is less of a minority position. 

At the same time I feel that even though globalization has transformed and neutralized many things around the world and various countries are going through similar socio-political and economic transitions – the context in which artist works, researches, experiences and concept-tualizes situations because each place has a unique set of conditions needs to be understood deeply. That’s what makes the artists’ social and political approach and stance different / peculiar and when we travel and see international exhibitions like this one here at Kochi, one can sense that through the works exhibited  here.

I would speak about some of the projects I have selected for this presentation:

1: Politics of 100 Mahua Trees,1999

Modinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India

Though a short term project, I consider Politics of 100 Mahua Trees, my first consciously conceived project in public domain. The process included planting of 100 Mahua Saplings in Modinagar [1999/ second edition of KHOJ International artists workshops] in conjunction with people from different fields. I was already in Bastar for a year and a half, working alongside Adivasi artists and prior to coming to Modinagar, a forest officer in conversation with us continued mocking Adivasis for drinking Mahua and offering it to their gods and goddesses. In his opinion, to discourage drinking, no more Mahuas should be planted, whereas extracting alcohol from Mahua fruits is just one thing. Like a Banyan tree in many cultures, Mahua is regarded as a ‘tree of life’ by the indigenous communities, it is used on all occasions, from ‘birth to death’. Many parts of this tree, including the bark, are used for their medicinal properties and because of its usefulness it is considered holy by them.

In Modinagar I came across a nursery run by the Forest Department  right in the middle of the bazar street close to Sikribaug, where artists were put up. Officials at the Forest Department were extremely helpful but were curious to know why I wanted to plant Mahua saplings – as they had to get them from Madhya Pradesh. The intention of this project – process was to include local people and young students who could know through this activity the significance of the Mahua tree.  Mahua is not planted commonly in the State of Uttar Pradesh.  The proposal was discussed with five schools and one rest house in Modinagar and saplings were planted at mutually decided sites.  [sites – 1: Dharamshala Sikri Kala,   2: Primary School, Sikri Kala, 3: P.B.S. School, Modinagar,  4:Prathamic Vidhalya, Govindpu, 5: Prathmic Vidhalya, Begumabad, 6: Modi Inter College]. Installing them on the open day at Sikribaugh was like a symbolic and a spiritual gesture performed by the Adivasis before the sapling is planted in the court yards or in their surroundings in Bastar. The saplings were packed by me in a ‘chosen manner’ and in a ‘chosen natural material’ with  assistance at the forest department to create an idea of trees being protected and the possibility of their transportation from one place to another.

Paper boats titled ‘M to M’ [Meerut to Modinagar] installed in the water channels along the installed saplings were made with different colour paper with the children of the staff living and working inside Sikribaug, symbolized our creative or spiritual journeys or to sense – how we know what we know and how each one learns through their own  journeys in time.

Politics of Mahua Tree: 1999

2: Nalpar and Pilla Gudi projects, 2000 onwards

Collaboration between indigenous artists Rajkumar Korram, Shantibai, Gessuram, Gangadevi, community members and Navjot Altaf, Kondagaon, Bastar, Chhattisgarh, India

My Intervention in Bastar was to understand different modes of art making and ways of world making for ourselves. So while working side by side with five indigenous artists at the Shilpi Gram studio space over period, I and my colleagues got more interested in questioning and discussing our visual and cultural literacy, limitations and conditioning  as we came from different cultural backgrounds. This led to our interest in endeavours that are exploratory and dynamic. So we began coining terminology and the language to have a dialogue at a deeper level, to discuss contemporary art practices critically. It required an involvement – to work and rework – to be able to develop a vision to free ourselves from our preconditioning or assumptions.

A dialogical process of interaction between us and then with the community members in and around Kondagaon helped us understand to an extent the workings of the social networks and issues associated with the respect for Adivasi culture and their dignity. My colleagues recognized the fact that there is always a need to be informed about their social rights and their inclusion in decision making. Nalpar [handpump] sites were selected mutually because hand pump is one public site where people of all ages come to fetch water. Fetching water at the hand pumps in extremely unhygienic surroundings, and municipal department not providing proper drainage was one of the issues discussed between us and the community people. Dialogue with the municipality officials to work at the hand pumps installed by them, initially engendered their interest in this project – only to an extent of allotting sites for this experimentation.

Our concern was:

* First, to create drainage and small water tanks for wastewater to be reused and to improve hygiene.

*Secondly, to create heights for women to place their vessel to avoid weight on the leg before placing it on the head.

*Thirdly, to transform such public sites aesthetically where women, children and men of all age groups come umpteen times a day for a mundane job like fetching water. 

To develop designs for the hand pump sites we chose to  understand the significance of symbols related to water, which the local communities incorporate in their ritualistic patterns during social functions. Our interactions with them expanded our perception of how certain symbols have continued to be part of people’s social as well as spiritual life and how due to the socio-political and economic transformations new signs have been evolving.

So the designs for the structures not only incorporated pre-historic signs of water but of earthen pots as well, which are still produced and used in Kondagaon by adivasis for their day to day usage and in their rituals, whereas the forms of modern water taps and hand-pump that we have used, interestingly are used by the political parties as well, as their election symbols in recent times. Most interesting part of this process was the emergence of unanticipated insights, which could transform or reverse our previous thoughts and decisions. The aesthetic, which has evolved from our collaborative practice [through the Nalpar project] I would say is an aesthetic informed by conversation and most importantly it is relative to people’s cultural experiences.

To stress upon the difference between the projects developed independent of people’s participation in a private studio and those which are developed through the process of a dialogical interaction and physical engagement, I would like to quote Grant Kester, “Site of production and process of reception is generative only due to participant’s presence at a close proximity as a resource for the analysis of reception that normally is not accessed by a viewer or an interpreter who wants to enjoy only the outcome or an object alone” [ibid]. So collaborative process of this kind is distinct from studio-based practice and interpretive criticism of art.

Nalpar: 2000 onwards
water pump sites

Another collaborative project, ‘Pilla Gudies’, [Temples for children] have been built for children that they can call their own. Our interest was in, how the process of art workshops could create passion for perception both explicitly and implicitly and engage us in the politics of knowledge systems. Possible sites for the Pilla Gudi structures were suggested and allotted by the villagers and many of them voluntarily participated in the production.

Pilla Gudis are imagined meeting spaces for the young, for them to interact not only with the artists from different disciplines and those possessing an oral tradition of knowledge but with one another as well. Such interactions could encourage the young minds to think about different ways of knowing and modes of working.  Since community members are also involved, at times there are frictions but we try our best to see that in no situation a process of give and take overrides the right to judge. The emphasis has been on acknowledging different knowledge systems, human values and respect for all life.

Pilla Gudi at Bhelwapadarpara
Kondagaon, Bastar, 2001

Pilla Gudi on going workshops
Kondagaon, Bastar, 2001 onward

3: Where is Cader Idris? and Are we communicating, 2001

‘Cyfuniad’ International artists workshop’ Wales, England

Cader Idris in Welsh means a giant chair… A mountain-in the shape of a chair. Opposite the guest house artists were put up in, most of the time remained covered with clouds and one could rarely see the shape for which it is given a name. On one of the sunny days while waiting on the highest spot for the shape to be visible, I began using my binoculars and noticed diversity of vegetation Cader Idris was surrounded by. While looking at those things I suddenly noticed Cader Idris clearly visible but within 10 minutes it was again covered with clouds. That was the moment the idea of installing my binoculars at that spot on top of the mountain in the forest from where I had got a glance emerged and I made a sculpture with a binocular, broomstick, iron hooks, embroidery thread, sequences, fabric and cotton. To reach that point from the guest house, I had found a  shorter route and wanted others to know about it. Near the site I had chosen to install my binocular sculpture,  there was a signpost with a marking of the letter ‘M’. I made number of bright colour soft cushions with the same sign ‘M’ embroidered on them with shiny silver sequences and placed them on the trees for the people to reach the spot by following the trees with cushions.                             

It was interesting observing and listening to the viewers. I was told by them that looking through the binoculars was fun as they were surprised to find unexpected details a naked eye could not. Even though each one’s way of looking is determined by what one wants to look at, interestingly the viewers did look for Cader Idris to emerge from the clouds…

Where is Cader Idris? 2001

Where is Cader Idris? 2001

Are we communicating? was conceived and done with 23 participating artists [in the same Cyfuniad workshop] from different countries as it encouraged dialogue at a one to one level both formally and informally about various similar or different issues and concerns artists deal with as artists and social beings in different places and in different contexts. It was quite engaging. From the local Welsh artists, I got to know about the location we were in and its socio-cultural and political state. This area was known for its slate stone mining, which has a long history of mineworkers’  struggle for status – that of the labourers. Two artists in the workshop came from the miner’s families  and had seen their parents struggle. Their struggle was not different from what at that time I was witnessing at Bailadilla in south Bastar, where iron ore mining had been devastating local communities and the ecology alike. Recordings done in co-operation with all the participants on tape recorders were installed in the open –  around the place we lived and worked in and could be heard by anyone in that area.

Are we communicating? 2001

4: Making wishes, 2001

‘Rice Lane City Farm’- workshop with community members in City Farm, Liverpool, England

Making Wishes was done in Liverpool, when I was invited by Blue Coat Art and Cultural Centre Liverpool to engage with the young and community members at the Rice Lane City Farm area on the outskirts of the city, which is a ‘Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens’ since 1997. The local government had prioritized the need to develop ways of working with socially excluded people and with young students in danger of becoming excluded from schools. This was the time when 9/11 happened. Making wishes evolved from our informal discussions on this violent event in New York. So, how to create interest in speaking out our viewpoints, that goes into making sense of the inquiry and what is found out by each participant – became the focus. This engaged the participants to find ways to creative thinking and express.

Suggestions were made to interview each other on the issue of 9/11 and their understanding and approach of the two countries to fight back terrorism. The decision to express in a group situation encouraged them to listen to each other’s viewpoints as well. This process also allowed each one to question and be questioned. The previous day’s recorded audio was played every day to see if some new questions could come up. Based on their recorded viewpoints, all the participants wrote down their wishes on  paper slips to put inside small pockets, stitched and decorated by themselves with materials provided by the Rice Lane City Farm workshop assistant, Becky. Since the media all over the world highlighted the stories of the 9 /11 incident, there was fear in people all over the world – the concept of dealing with the fear in mind and sharing their viewpoints with more people than this group alone also emerged during some of us narrating stories of terrorism in other parts of the world. How earlier people used to  fear natural calamities or wars and used to make wishes for the well-being of their dear ones, or for humankind, earth and other living beings in general. Many cultures in the world have developed spiritual ways to convey inner feelings through simple rituals like tying threads on to the trees or through offerings – like it happens in India even today.

Interestingly the young participants, otherwise quite impatient and restless, insisted on hand stitching the pockets rather than employing short cuts like gluing the fabric. Though Becky and self – had to help them from time to time, they did not want to give up. Even the farm staff were able to take time off from farm responsibilities to allow themselves to express through this activity. The secret wish slips inside the stitched pockets were tied on to the trees. The passer-by could open the pockets, read the wish slips and take them if they liked or could add new wishes and then tie them back on to the tree. The title of the project Making Wishes or Dressing the Trees was mutually decided. But in the end Making Wishes was the one everyone preferred. 

Making Wishes, 2001

5: DELHI  LOVES  ME ? 2006

KHOJ, Public Art Project- New Delhi, India

Delhi’s government plan to transform the city into an international city was going on at a fast pace at the time when I was invited by KHOJ, for a public art project. The year was 2006, Delhi had begun to ‘clean’ the city for the preparation of forthcoming Commonwealth Games and was in the process of eviction and demolition of settlements of the poor by displacing them further and further. Part of the Khirki area was also affected. I stayed at Khirki village, where the KHOJ Studio is situated and  people living in Khirki and Hauze Rani identified KHOJ and could relate, where I was coming from.

So whilst meeting the local, settled communities and the migrant population in their work spaces such as shops, small scale embroidery workshops- producing for fashion industry, medical clinics, property agents, cobblers etc. and the labour waiting to be picked up by the agents every morning- primarily to be taken to construction sites, I was amazed at how half way through our meetings and conversations, the narration of poetry began emerging in response to the sticker ‘Delhi Loves Me?’ that I had made- counter, to an available sticker – ‘I Love Delhi’. Through those verses they questioned and stated their cultural identities in relation to geographical territories and the ‘choice to belong’ in relation to the socio-political, economic and culturally constructed power structure, which caused a sense of alienation. I was told by a number of individuals who had migrated to Delhi for work that the “choice to belong anywhere or everywhere is not applicable to everyone equally in recent times”. The tensions between questions to belong and my own freedom of choice as an artist and being privileged, reminded me of what Homi Bhabha said in his writing ‘Double Visions’ – “The globe shrinks for those who own it; for the displaced or the dispossessed, the migrant or refugee, no distance is more awesome than the few feet across borders or frontiers”.

The images on twelve stickers are of different sites clicked by me when and where I met the people in Hauze Rani and Khirki village and the poetry juxtaposed on the images is by the participants. As an artist my interest also lies in to understand- to what degree audience participation forms and informs the work- how it functions as integral to the work’s structure” [Grant Kester]. Next step was working with auto-rickshaw union members, to see if auto-rickshaw drivers could collaborate and allow us to put the stickers on the autos, to share the ‘art work’ made in one place with people in other areas, as autos ply throughout Delhi. The process of speaking and listening to rickshaw drivers was video recorded and shared with the public of Khirki and Hauz Rani areas by projecting it on the outside wall of KHOJ studios on the opening day. Many of them in the audience were the participants and were free to comment on the outcome.




6: Barakhamba 2008, 2008 

48°C Public.Art.Ecology, a combined initiative of Goethe-Institut/ Max Mueller Bhavan and GTZ with KHOJ- New Delhi, India

Barakhamba 2008 was part of a project 48°C Public. Art. Ecology, and it was a site-specific project that I began with examining the complex relationships between urban environments, city development programs and the people- people who are not a homogeneous body. The public site as we know is a sensitive area and the relationship between diverse public is complex. Section 144 had been imposed in many areas in Delhi including Connaught Place due to series of bomb blasts at that time. 

The video Barakhamba 2008 is based on a documentation of the processes of conversational interaction in terms of people’s ideas, of their experiences, anxieties and their particular visions regarding development in Delhi.  This work addresses the short-sighted development taking place in urban design and architecture and its impact on the people, their localities, their day to day lives and hugely on the environment. People from working class and those who worked at ground levels – drivers, vendors, taxi/auto/cycle rickshaw drivers, small shop keepers etc. specifically spoke about the loss of green cover and the need to recognize the significance of trees in the context of road zones… [Delhi has seen temperature rising above 48°C in the summer months]

The work brought diverse viewpoints onto one platform – in the form of a two channel video installation whereas the third screen projected the unedited, on-site conversations and interviews between the viewers and with the artist,  discussing possibilities of art in public spaces and our perceptions of this mode of art making. The conversation to an extent reduced the distance between those who were watching and the ones who were being watched.

People who were Participants had become viewers, and then again the participants when they spoke about their impression of the art work they were part of. Even though the permission to install the work on the Barakhamba main road and by-lane was obtained from NDMC by KHOJ, I had to deal and negotiate with the local police officials on duty almost every day.

Barakhamba 2008

Installation view
Barakhamba Road
New Delhi

Barakhamba 2010, 2010

In Context:, KHOJ International Artists’, New Delhi, India.

Barakhamba 2010 was a continuation of Barakhamba 2008, during which my experience of research and  learning from the environmentalists, bio diversity scientists, activists, sensitive architects / town planners or institutions as well as many working class individuals, or shop keepers etc. had made me aware of  the gradual loss of green cover in Delhi and the insensitive removal of the trees during various ongoing development projects, which continue to overlook the role of trees in the context of road zones in many parts of Delhi. Processes of relentless construction, widening of the roads and concretization of the pavements have caused total choking of fully grown trees at two stretches of historic Barakhamba Road as well. The Delhi Metro and the civil work authorities while re-planting Pilkhin / Ficus trees above Barakhamba Metro station, had overlooked minimum 6 feet x 6 feet space required around the trees. The concrete tree guards had in time, turned into dustbins and were harmful to the health of the trees as well as unhygienic for other living beings.

So the collaboration between the artist, an environ-mentalist – [Ajay Mahajan] and a bio-diversity scientist – [Fayaiz Khudsar], with whom I had interacted closely during Barakhamba 2010, and the co-operation of New Delhi Municipal Corporation’s [NDMC] horticulture department, could initiate the process of de-choking of 180 old and newly planted trees on Barakhamba Road. Concerns we had in mind were; to what extent the process will make a difference to the environment and other living beings and how could the project be carried out on a larger scale to restore and revive the damaged environment?  Theoretically such a process is seen as a mode of participatory art making in a public space. De-choking of 180 trees was not a construction of an object but a process of a symbolic action to the benefit of the trees and the environment – to be carried out by the citizens and the concerned authorities like, NDMC.

Barakhamba 2010

Barakhamba 2010

7: Empty containers, 2011 

Empty containers – part of a project YAMUNA. ELBE-Contemporary Flows, fluid times Hamburg, Germany

The story of man-made interventions in nature is not different anywhere on this planet, it is only the degree to which it varies from place to place.  

In the case of the Elbe River in Hamburg in 2011, when I began my research I came to know that the Elbe had been navigable by commercial vessels since 1842. The river bed had been deepened seven times since 1850 to cater for ever growing bigger ships for trade links and the government’s plan for further dredging, for economic development, which was being resisted by the people sensitive to environmental degradation in Hamburg. From its original depth of four meters it was deepened to15.30 meters and one meter dredging was still required in 2011 for the bigger ships to come in around the clock. In the process of meeting and interacting with the specialists and reflecting on my own understanding of the harbour city and its networking, about the life of the river and how it could be sustained – a poem by T.S. Elliot came to my mind. 

“The Endless cycle of idea and action

Endless invention, endless experiment

Brings knowledge of motion but not of stillness

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence…”

While walking and being driven, visually I got to experience the city, below and above eye levels and little bit about its complex networking. Looking at the trucks carrying containers from one place to another and the container terminals all along the river, it occurred to me that the words – container and river, both have metaphorical connotations, by definition – “metaphors are devices that allow us to understand one domain of experiences in terms of another”. So my work Empty Containers, in the form of 4000 books is an idea used in place of another idea – as both are containers of materials, knowledge  and interconnection.

This collaborative project was installed on a boat. The audiences were invited to reflect on their relationship/ association with the city, their perception of the Elbe or other rivers and the ongoing debate on the issue of non-stop development and its consequences, by adding or erasing the text inside the books to be shared with other participants at different venues.

Site: Boat Lieger Caesar
Magellan Terrassen

Empty Containers, 2011
4000 books on industrial cart
Installation view

Empty Containers, 2011

Empty Containers, 2011

8: Body City Flows, 2015

Part of a project ‘Geographies of consumption / The City as Consumption Site: Bombay/Mumbai’, Mumbai, India

‘Body City Flows’ [Single projection video] attempts to address how the flow of river water is impacted by the abuse and appropriation of natural resources and excessive construction in Mumbai city, which has four river basins.

I see a link in the flow of rivers their tributaries and the human body’s vascular system, its veins and arteries. To create a better perception of the flow of life both in terms of the human body and the natural environment apart from the material researched and shot by me on four rivers [the Mithi, Poiser, Oshiwara and Dahisar] and footage of blood flow and blockages in the human body obtained from medical practitioners and hospitals – the video also includes an animation on blood flow in human body especially done for this work and a conversation with Dr Modak [Founder of Ekonnect Knowledge Foundation] on Mumbai’s present water situation.

If we observe, the veins of the body, roots of trees and a river’s delta – these visually convey a sense of the timelessness of similar shapes. The rivers are like the blood in the veins or the roots under trees, because they support life and provide sustenance. And because of their organic connection with the earth and water, civilizations have thrived off river systems. In the metaphorical sense rivers have been compared with the soul, implying the endless quest for roots or routes of knowing and perceiving nature. Here I intend to bring things full circle by connecting bodily blood flow to the present system of the water supply and the state of flow of the four rivers in Mumbai.

Body City Flows, 2015

9: Soul Breath Wind, 2014-2018

Multi projection video, 60mins

This video work has evolved from my research and interaction with the local communities struggling for justice against powerful forces, who they feel are committing crimes by increasing conflicts amongst the local population and the vulnerability of ecosystems due to which they are facing high consequences, risks and environmental harm.

Participants in the video speak about how under the pretext of progress and assurance for better future, all kinds of crisis, which are intertwined and complex, have further increased social asymmetries and disruption in the systems of relationships. The earth, is being pushed to the very edge leaving the people and non-people vulnerable – only to suit interests of handful of people. Despite the political pressures, more than eighty affected and to be affected villages by the coal mines and other industrial plants, in the northern central part of the Chhattisgarh state have come together to resist coal mining in favour of renewable resources. They want to continue farming. They are a community not as something given, but rather as a result that is obtained through co-participation and dialogue. Their coming together has compelled the system to introduce new laws.

I feel that it is a space created for feedback and collaboration, to create a feeling for care, nurturing relationships and a place of containment. In such settings if I think of ecological democracy or eco-feminist awareness, which is based on the cyclical processes of nature… I also witness the emergence of the processes of learning for life, it is there that living knowledge or wisdom emerges and one can sense that the main ecological crisis for them is the increasing loss of connectedness and interrelationship with their environment.

Navjot at a meeting with the villagers
Gare, Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, 2015

Soul Breath Wind, 2014-2018
Installation view

10: Mary wants to read a book

Mary wants to borrow a book

Mary wants to buy a book

Mary wants to own a book: 2014


Whorled Explorations, 2nd edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Kochi, India

This work is to be viewed from an ecological perspective, from the perspective of our relationships to one another, to generations to come and to the web of life of which we are a part of. It is also a critique of hyper consumption, which is continuing to grow and has led civilizations over a period to estrangement from life-world experiences.

Kerala is known for its unique high standards of social development but is critiqued for low industrial-based economic growth. The positive side of low industrial-based growth is that the emission rate of green-house gases (GHGs) is low and the forests in Kerala are better stocked than forests in other parts of India.

Sustainable development in the state, amongst other benefits, is a desirable outcome given the state’s rich biodiversity potential. Cities situated near rivers or seas, such as Kochi, are vulnerable to climate change and increase in global warming. For sustainable development, future industrialization in the state needs to employ less energy-intensive and low GHG emission technologies.

The interactive work Mary Wants to Read a Book at Kochi is to recognize the significance of the literary movement and library culture in Kerala. I agree with the idea that, ‘culture is a collective memory of a plurality of knowledge. … Cultures, together with individual minds, are also the ecosystems of ideas and mental images’ [Kagan 2011: p. 13].

The library built here is a mental space, it is a desired space. The structure and the jackets of the books are based on the ‘Study Charts 2,000 Years of Continental Climate Changes’. The colours denote the extent of warming or cooling and the bars denote thirty-year periods during which the mean temperature was calculated.

The books are made of old newspapers and environmental periodicals. Each book has text designed by the artist on one page. Visitors could take the books away in the last two weeks of the Biennale.


Mixed media installation
with books, audio and video, 2015

Mary wants to read a book, 2015

Mary wants to read a book, 2015
Installation view

Mary wants to read a book, 2015
Installation view

Mary wants to read a book, 2015
Viewers interacting with the work