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Delhi abysmal for public art
NIDHI GUPTA  22nd Jul 2012

The Arcelor Mittal Orbit

here are two things that stand out about the Arcelor Mittal Orbit, the giant sculpture that now stands in London's Olympic Park as a tribute to the architecture of dreams: first, it is made of stainless steel and secondly, it is named, quite unusually, after the sponsor whose industrial empire needs no introduction.

Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond's red and grey, twisty sculpture may be getting a lot of bad reviews, but for K.T. Ravindran, former chairperson for the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, more important is the politics playing out between the material, the idea and the public – in this case, a shiny amalgam of patronage by the London government fused with the global politics of steel, making it a 'permanent' fixture on the island nation's skyline.

Speaking at the latest edition of Raza Foundation's talk series 'Art Matters', Ravindran, along with artists Vivan Sundaram, Subodh Gupta and Balan Nambiar, discussed the notion of 'art in public spaces'. Quite simply put, public art is art planned, commissioned and executed for display at public domains, essentially outside galleries and museums.

Everything from the Jantar Mantar to the ruins of Purana Qila can be considered works of public art simply for the exhibitionism they warrant. But while artists like Henry Moore, Urs Fischer and even the rebel Banksy are making waves with their installations abroad, these archaic monuments are all we have. That is, if you count out the grossly expensive, glossy mushrooms at the AIIMS flyover and the Commonwealth sculpture near the Barapullah flyover. Blame it on lack of patronage, sponsors, appreciation or security.

This last issue is pervasive, complicated as it is by a general apathy where art is concerned. Nambiar recalled the time when his sculpture on a well-thronged street corner in Bangalore was bulldozed by traffic policemen overnight. "I've been trying to get the government to draft a law for protection of artworks since 2006," he pointed out. Ravindran's solution was conducting art appreciation workshops for engineers employed in different government departments.

But then, the definition of public art casts a much wider net today, with performative and non-object art also making heads turn in public spaces, pointed out Sundaram. One only has to turn to Khoj's 48 Degree Art Ecology Project or Tino Sehgal's 'Kiss' at the Guggenheim Museum. For Sundaram, the mapping of this vast and constantly expanding oeuvre is most important, so that such data/information can then be collated and theorised upon.

"The city has to be seen as a network of communication – one that is invested with its own intelligence. This network is the background in which public art is introduced, the context in which it gets stuck in the public psyche," explained Ravindran. Therefore, he felt, in a country like ours, public art has to have a role – aesthetics apart, it must aim to mitigate the collateral damage that development incurs on the common man.

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