Saturday Features

Room for community

  • Addressing societal disconnect and the lack of safe spaces through a public art installation

Jun 16, 2018-

Kathmandu has seen drastic changes in recent years. A Valley once known for its community spaces—and resting places—is now a clutter of bricks and concrete and corroded asphalt. Save for a few old temple plinths and a handful of paatis, Kathmandu has lost its open spaces and chowks to ever-growing high-rises and haphazardly parked motorcycles. Communal areas are being mowed over by bulldozers for a few more metres of road, real-estate, or yet another glassy modern building. Amid this growing concern over spaces in the city, a workshop took place at the Kathmandu University Center for Art and Design where third-year students and their mentor, Sagar Manandhar, collaborated with students and professors from Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, USA, to talk about the role of art in placemaking—and how it can be used for community interaction—and to work on a site-specific installation at an unused public space.

According to Pepón Osorio, professor at Tyler, the primary idea was for the KU art faculty and students to collaborate with their counterparts from the US, “Cooking a formula that exaggerates the experience” and in turn “creates something.” What came out of this three-week-long workshop was a public installation titled Wakeful Resting.

“We thought of Wakeful Resting because of the references it makes to the historical resting stops [paatis and pauwas bear immense historical significance for they were resting stops for locals, as well as travellers from both North and South]. But during the process we also got to learn a  lot about the site itself,” says Osorio.

The installation makes use of cut water hose, multi-utility hook ropes and nylon ropes, which are woven together to create sitting areas tied onto recycled metal frames. The resting areas are installed within a wooden-framed, corrugated-roof-covered shed in the garden behind the Patan Museum premise in Lalitpur. Pieces of patterned fabrics have been pasted onto the wooden pillars and struts of the structure, turning what was a neglected space into one where people can sit around and spend time. What was once a greying structure has now been transformed into one of vibrant colours which stands out against the earthy browns and greens of the garden.

“All materials have a history and a set of politics attached to them and, at the same time, contemporary use and value,” says Jesse Harrod. The professor who runs the Fiber and Material Studies programme at Tyler School of Art has been, in her art practice, focusing on traditional techniques and processes and how they can be implemented to create contemporary objects.

“Using cloth is an interesting way of covering surfaces; they bring colour. But also interesting is to know about where the fabrics come from,” says Harrod. The cloths that were used in the installation were sourced from local fabric stores around Mangalbazar. The shops store locally produced fabrics, as well as sold ones that are imported from China and India.

“The woven components were purchased from local stores as well. They are not conventional art materials. I am interested in subverting our understanding of the use of materials, what can and cannot be used [to make art]. It was exciting to take something like a hose, which we see everywhere we go, and think about how they can have a different life and a different existence,” says Harrod. 

The choice of material and the process also compliments the idea of collaboration that the workshop focused on. “All textile processes require more than one person,” says Harrod. According to the artist, textile processes are “inherently a collaborative thing.”

“We chose weaving as a way to construct these shapes. The material that we chose is rigid and requires four to five students at a time to work on it. They had to communicate with each other during the process,” she says.

Although the KU art students say that they were confused at the beginning of the workshop as they weren’t informed of what was happening, they say they are glad to see the space transform.

“The shed was like a makeshift storage when we first saw it. There were discarded material and waste and piles of bricks and a lot of dust,” says participating student Pooja Duwal.

The space, within the Patan Dhoka premise has been used a few times by the local art community; last time it was turned into a temporary community space by Srijanalaya—an art education organisation—during the Kathmandu Triennale 2017. The shed had been left unused ever since. The employees of Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) and the museum have been passing by the structure every working day without ever pausing to give it another glance. Groups of school students have been coming in to sit and eat lunch in the area, but for them too, the shed had little value.

“It is a little disappointing that the area itself receives minimum footfall. We did have visitors, but they were limited to the museum and the KVPT employees,” says Duwal. “Considering the disconnect among members within our society, I think we need to make public works that can involve more people.”

As a growing metropolitan city, Kathmandu denizens have ceased getting acquainted with their neighbours or spending anytime outside of the concrete barriers that they have built for themselves. According to Osorio, though, it was the limited amount of time they deprived them of deeper interactions with the community.

“The students who are also a part of the community were involved.Visitors and employees of the museum were involved as spectators. Although we wanted others to be involved, we thought, considering the short amount of time at hand, it would be artificial,” he says. “But when I talk about community with reference to this work, I do not mean everybody. The community in this case is the museum employees and the workers from KVPT. Having a safe place is to have a space where people, who do not necessarily know each other can sit down and interact. This work could be that for the members of the community that I am referring to.”

 “When you go into a community, you might know four or five people, but the stakeholders in the community, they don’t even realise that they are playing a particular role. So, to know those individuals, that might not have a formal role in an institution and might have a more informal role in the community can take a while,” says Harrod. “It takes a longer investment. But my hope is that this is the first of many times that we are engaging with communities in this area and learning from them.”

Photos courtesy: Tashi Lama and Hitesh Baidhya

Published: 16-06-2018 09:31

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