Kathmandu Triennale: Artists in the CityKathmandu Triennale launched its inaugural edition on March 24 and will run till April 9.
Kathmandu Triennale launched its inaugural edition on March 24 and will run till April 9. The Triennale evolved from the Kathmandu International Art Festival which was initiated in 2009. While this edition focused on the status of women, the second in 2012 explored the issues relating to environment, the third version had to wait for five years due to the devastations caused by 2015 earthquake that left the nation in tatters, with many heritage sites, individual homes and public buildings destroyed. The fact that art continues to thrive in the Valley speaks a lot of the resilience of the cities and its citizens, as was also documented by Kishor Kayastha’s short film screened at opening of the current Triennale. In this context, it seems fitting that the current art festival, which showcases the artworks of over fifty artists from twenty-five countries, is about city spaces, including its older, historical spaces dense with memory and history, as well as new commercial spaces palpitating with the possible birth of still newer urban mythologies.
What is a city? A city is obviously many things, including its numerous sounds, tastes, sights, spaces and peoples. Prithivi Shrestha’s video at Taragaon Museum is about the cacophony of various sounds that surround us during the course of our everyday living in the city. Chinese artist Song Dong constructed a monumental mandala of Kathmandu City from an array of biscuits at the Nepal Art Council. Titled Eating the City, the work invited the audience to eat the biscuits and as biscuits were consumed the mandala disappeared bit by bit, leaving in its wake the fleeting taste of biscuits and the story of human consumption and greed.
Cities are also about their visible surfaces: buildings, roads, hoarding boards, bridges and perpetual flow of gleaming commodities in the malls and shopping centers, the new “temples of urban modernity.” At the same time, cities are more than their surfaces. The visible surfaces that we see are often traced by history, by memory, and by mythology. The same roads that are lined by modern buildings are also the pathways through which the chariots of red Machchhindra Nath and Min Nath roll, and masked dancers and singing troupes pass during specific festivals and Jatras. A number of artists, including Ashmina Ranjit and Bidhata KC, among others, explore this mixture of historical mythology and contemporary urbanity during the Triennale, showing how the modern surfaces of the city coexist alongside its ancient history.
What is sometimes erased in the play of city surfaces is the labour that goes on to create and maintain them. When labour is erased, the structures and objects—including commodities in the malls and shopping centres—appear as if they have emerged out of nothing; they turn into “magical objects,” untouched by human labour. In this context, Manish Lal Shrestha’s installation at the Nepal Art Council is important, in the sense that it makes visible what often remains invisible. His knitted work created by engaging the local community is a 1336 feet metre long knitted rope-like piece conceived to represent the height of Kathmandu Valley from sea level. In the ground floor hall of the Art Council, the entire labourious process involved in making this work, including stitching and sewing is laid bare, making the viewers aware of the labour underlying the magic of commodity fetishism.
Much of the dynamisms of the cities come from the fact that they are always on the move. They are not only the spaces of gathering but also that of dispersal and migration, both inward and outward. The installation by Hitman Gurung at Taragaon Museum, showcasing photographs of migrants going abroad, as well as coffins in which their bodies arrive back home is very touching and almost poetic. I felt the same haunting, poetic impulse in the artworks displayed at Tangalwood, Tangal, where Mekh Limbu, Hitman Gurung and Sheelasha Rajbhandari have displayed their works, alongside those of Carolina Araibar-Fernandez, Emelina Soares and Abdulla Alkuwari, all based in Doha. Mekh’s work, which shows his father working as a builder in Qatar, not only narrates how migrants are helping change the landscape of global cities, but also transforms the artist’s personal euphoria, pain and nostalgia into public art.
Kathmandu Triennale is spread all over the city and the artworks are shown at multiple venues including the major art centers of Taragaon Museum, Patan Museum, Newa Chhen, Park Gallery, Siddartha Art Gallery, Nepal Art Council and Tangalwood. It is not easy to organise such a huge event, especially when one considers the energy and costs involved in bringing many artists from so many countries together to work for a common purpose. For this reason, all of those who worked day and night for the success of the Triennale, including Philippe Van Cauteren, Director of SMAK Museum in Ghent, Brussels, who curated the event, Mumbai-based curator Veerangana Kumari Solanki who was responsible for organising the symposiums, Sangeeta Thapa, the Director of Siddartha Art Foundation, and Nishchal Oli, the Director of the Triennale, among many others, deserve praise.
At the same time, some great challenges still remain, especially when we consider beyond the current Triennale. One of the biggest challenges is to involve non-English speaking local population of Kathmandu, especially those who do not belong to the art community, in these events. One of the aims of Siddhartha Art Foundation that organises Kathmandu Triennale(s), if I understand it correctly, is to take art out of elite spaces, and to make it available to general public. The problem, however, is that most people outside the art community have hard time understanding even semi-figurative art, let alone the theoretical “concepts” underlying installations and performances showcased during the Triennale. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to fulfill the aim of public art, as art can remain elitist even when it is taken out from the galleries and displayed in public spaces, despite the sincere intentions of the organisers to break the barriers. If this barrier between the art community and general non-English speaking local art lovers of the city could be broken somehow, then I think art would really thrive in Nepal.