Art: Public and privateOn a recent trip to New York, that city of museums, galleries, and green parks, the New Museum was in a confused state of heightened exhilaration.
On a recent trip to New York, that city of museums, galleries, and green parks, the New Museum was in a confused state of heightened exhilaration. The entire space, a centre for contemporary art that re-opened in 2007, was about to be transformed into a retrospective for the extraordinary Swiss video installation artist, Pipilotti Rist—an unapologetically emotional artist whose carefree, baroque video installations are backed up by a precise amalgamation of sounds and images that result in moving, transcendental, immersive experiences for the viewing audience.
Having arrived just before the official opening a few days later, I missed the hordes but was only able to see just the one completed installation on the top, fourth floor, a creation, titled 4th Floor to Mildness, which was designed especially for this retrospective.
Walking into the deep, dark, curtained space, the entire room was oriented to look up towards the leaf or lily-pad (as you will) shaped screens onto which two videos of watery loveliness were projected. There were beds scattered all over the room so people could lie under the screens as they drifted into the Monet-like impressions on screen that were enhanced by the eerie, gorgeous soundtrack composed by Soap & Skin, a music project by the Austrian artist Anja Plaschg.
The remarkable bravery it takes for both artist and curator to commit to projects of such large dimensions, and the tremendous, immeasurable impact it makes on the viewer is a thought which hung with me for hours, days, and even now as I recall the sublime place I was taken to lying on that anonymous bed, in a huge dim room, looking up into the intensely personal art that was playing above me. The experience was one of the most moving and unforgettable encounters I have ever had with a piece of art, bringing me to a dreamy, but hyper-aware, state that is almost impossible to achieve otherwise in daily life.
Rist’s other installation, from 2008-2009 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA), was similarly epic and all encompassing. Projected onto the walls of the MoMA’s Marron Atrium with 25 foot high images and a soundtrack by Sigur Ros, the famous Icelandic musicians, the installation was another risk that paid off and is something that people still talk about with an excitement that is often reserved for a rock concert or a religious experience.
Art on this kind of scale has a power to move in a way that is unparalleled. In Kathmandu, while we do not have interior spaces like the MoMA atrium, or even an entire floor of a contemporary art museum as platforms to showcase art on a mega-stage, in the last few years, Photo Kathmandu (2015, 2016) and the Kathmandu Triennale (2009, 2012, 2017)—both home grown art festivals—have moved to take art out of the interior and into public spaces so that the passerby can happen onto them, whether they choose to engage with the piece or not.
Rist’s installation at the New Museum seeks to “allow viewers to explore, among strangers, a vulnerability usually reserved for the home’, thereby creating a unique crossover from private to public experience in an attempt to bring her art to a more inclusive form that is less defined by boundaries than what the usual museum experience may provide. The work that Rist does is an inspiration to those who wish to make art more immediately accessible— emotionally and spatially.
Both Photo Kathmandu and the Kathmandu Triennale are hyper aware of how divisive and undemocratic art can be. By choosing to design their programmes specifically into the fabric of the communities, these art movements have taken on the questions regarding the relevance of art in our day to day lives, thoughtfully choosing themes and subjects that are political, but still sensitive to the communities in which they are placed.
This year and last, Photo Kathmandu curated its shows in and around the living, medieval squares and streets that make up Patan, ensuring that both curious pedestrians and avid art lovers could come into close contact with carefully curated shows. Portraits of Nepal, a series of striking black and white photos by Kevin Bubriski, exhibited in the area around the Bhai Dega temple in last year’s festival, brought people directly into contact with our own past, a disconcerting and fascinating glimpse into the tumultuous decades we have just lived through, creating an immediate dialogue between viewer and exhibit—an extraordinary thing to witness for all present.
The many arguments surrounding art being placed in public areas include those that rail against a communal space being crowded by that which can sometimes seem irrelevant. There is also the ever-present question of taste, and of values, and of the authority of the people that may deem that something is worthy of public consumption. Finally, and most subjectively, there is the discussion about whether art is important at all when so many other issues need to be addressed.
It is not easy to deal with any of these questions. Shockingly bad art has made its way into public spaces provoking much criticism. The same can be said for commissioned architecture that is often completely tone-deaf, a case in point being the late Zaha Hadid’s monstrous The Port House in Antwerp, Belgium. But with these festivals, where the art is only on display for finite periods, the question is more of relevance than of public space being permanently put upon. Often people assume that art is just art, and therefore not provoking much thought, a fallacy that is best refuted by the great Louise Bourgeois, an artist and sculptor who said “Art is a way of recognising oneself”. Her Maman a giant, bronze spider carrying a cache of eggs, when exhibited in front of the Rockefeller building in New York in 2001, elicited both thrills and chills down the spine, challenging notions of femininity and motherhood.
Even for the novice, a piece of art like that of Rist, or a photo exhibition of the Dalit community’s struggle for basic human dignity can bring the self in confrontation with a subject that appeals or disagrees so strongly to our sensibilities that it changes our perception. When we become less intransigent, we become more open and that is the true aim of bringing art out of the museum and into the public sphere.