Kathmandu Triennale 2017: The City as Creative Laboratory

“An exhibition is namely a tool (for transformation) and an instrument, which generates meaning, and that which serves, in its spatial articulation, to make the predefined artwork to become ‘elastic.’ Artists are the compass as they show these directions that no one else reflects.” Philippe Van Cauteren

The image of pagodas, the silhouette of stupas and the ramshackle old city buildings are familiar to all travelers who have been to Nepal: a country rich in culture, steeped in heritage and mythical history where silversmiths and thangka painters continue to craft their magic in the same way their ancestors did for centuries. Tokyo, London, Lagos, Rio De Janeiro, Beijing, Johannesburg, Delhi and Moscow are just a number of cities where art prospered and art history has been written. Kathmandu belongs to this list of cities where art has thrived for countless years but it is also a city where the challenges of tradition and modernity meet.

For the inaugural Kathmandu Triennale, more than 50 artists from 25 countries were invited to contemplate the relationship between art, the city and its heritage by making the city their studio, and creating works inspired by the blend of ancient traditions, cultural, social and political changes, natural disruptive events, and economic development. The triennale was dedicated to the victims of the earthquake and aimed to contribute in the rebuilding process, by engaging the community with art through a variety of exhibitions inspired by the local culture and the landscape.

Organised by the Siddhartha Arts Foundation, Kathmandu and the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Gent, Belgium Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst of Gent, Belgium (S.M.A.K.) The thematic exhibition curated by Philippe Van Cauteren, artistic director of S.M.A.K . ; was titled “The City, My Studio / The City, My Life”. Kathmandu served as a unique and enchanting hub where encounters were generated between artists from Nepal and around the world. At the same time, the exhibition served as a meeting point between artists and the audiences. “The City, My Studio / The City, My Life” was an invitation to embrace differences and idiosyncratic artistic practices of the highest qualities to create a dialogue as well as a tribute to art and its vital role in society. For Kathmandu still in the crucial stages of rebuilding the morale of its people and its damaged infrastructure brought about by the devastating 2015 earthquake, their first triennale could not have been held at a better time.

Works by artists from 25 countries represented the two functions that the city can have for an artist. Van Cauteren explained: “Kathmandu (or any other city) functions as a working place, and as a foundation for artistic thinking and process to happen. It is a place where artists (and everyone else) try to organize their lives. The city is an arena where daily life is ‘performed’ in its richness and complexity. It is a complex of neural connections, and interactions; rich with history, and cultural traditions preserved. Invited artists not only illustrate this definition of the city or urban life, but instead make the city a catalyst—and turn it into a laboratory to generate artistic forms, gestures, acts, ideas, and art works. The city becomes a place to work from, a context which motivates and inspires the artwork.”

Many of them created new commissioned site specific works, videos, films, multimedia performances, paintings, sculptures, photography and drawings for different parts within the city including four main exhibition venues: Patan Museum, an ancient royal palace now re-used as a museum of traditional and handmade religious objects; Siddhartha Arts Gallery, co-founded by Sangeeta Thapa, chairperson of KT, featuring the best of contemporary Nepalese art; Taragaon Museum, designed by Austrian architect Carl Pruscha, showcasing ethnographic photography, architectural drawings of Nepal’s heritage, maps, old landscapes and urban sketches; and Nepal Art Council, the country’s official exhibition space for contemporary art. The works directly addressed the notion of the city, some reflected elements of urbanism and architecture, while others contemplated the city as a social organisation, a living and changing organism built by people of different social and cultural backgrounds. It showed that creative fields have never been more porous. An artist today, adapts to different creative spheres and their identities are many; from painter to sound technician, and multimedia artist. The subcultures flow together.

Installations ‘environments’ often occupied entire rooms, gallery spaces, and the outdoors and the audience had to walk through them in order to fully engage with the work of art. Artists like Ciprian Muresan (Romania) installed a full scale cardboard model of his city Bucharest designed to be stepped on and ruined, to get from one part of the room to another making the connection between the damage of the 1977 Bucharest earthquake to the 2015 Kathmandu earthquake. At the end of the day, it was completely destroyed. Some installations, were designed simply to be viewed and contemplated on, as in Ang Tsherin Sherpa’s (Nepal) new mandala made from debris from the 2015 earthquake. The objects gathered from a chaotic and destructive event were arranged into a perfect and serene mandala symbolizing a cosmos. Other works which took up a whole floor in the Nepal Art Council building like Song Dong’s (China) “Mandala City for Eating”, was meant to be eaten by the audience.

Ronny Delrue (Belgium) and Sanjeev Majarjan’s (Nepal) “Dialogue Depth”, entered a conversation and generated a ‘composition’ that was a tribute to art in shared parallel experiences through objects from both of their pasts. Their “meeting” was a questioning of each others identities through drawings, letters, photographs, and objects that shuttled between Gent and Kathmandu. The result was a collaborative alcove installation that gave insights to a wonderful encounter between two artists from different cultural backgrounds.

Ricardo Brey’s (Cuba) “Dust Bathing” installed in the main courtyard of the enchanting Patan Museum, fronting a shrine devoted to Lord Vishnu, was a masterful appropriation of space where clay sparrows basked under the heat and dust. In this particular case, Brey referred to dust instead of water as a symbol of purification.

Belu Simion Fainaru (Israel) presented provocative interventions in spaces by juxtaposing ordinary objects like coins, stones, a hat; and investing them with new symbolic meanings.

Phritvi Shestra’s (Nepal) “Pillow” was a video documentation of a performance where he went through the sounds and rituals from the time he lays his head on a pillow to dream to when he wakes up and goes about his day in the city. He uses himself and different sounds referring to moments between sunrise and sunset. By using these natural sounds which we normally ignore in his performances, we are reminded of the spiritual and psychological power they invoke in our lives.

Jorge Macchi’s (Argentina) map of central Kathmandu cut out to show only major roads and rivers, considers ways of creating place, landscape, space, and atmosphere in new artistic expression. The “map” becomes an object of fragile beauty inspired by the labyrinth of roads and alleys of a city in the midst of heavy reconstruction. Drawings like Masae Suzuki’s (Japan ) rhythmic and repetitive abstract cityscapes are calm and meant to be contemplated on before one walks away to view the rest of an extensive global selection of works and performances in the charming Taragaon Museum.

Birds of Nepal was a multimedia installation by Heide Hinrichs (Germany) which featured a wall sized drawing in pencil sourced from a volume on Passerines in the ‘Birds of Nepal’ series; a research project commissioned by naturalist Brian Hodgson, founder of the Himalaya Studies. The drawings for the series of books were done by Nepali artists under the lead of Rajman Singh Chitrakar from 1830-1857. The installation represented the co-existence of different perspectives informed by Buddhist, Hindu, shamanistic beliefs, and a scientifically informed worldview. Blue threads and feathers (collected from the streets of Kathmandu) were strung from the ceiling to the floor; the threads were held down by different ornithological field guides to the Indian subcontinent and Nepal produced over the past 60 years. This installation addressed personal, symbolic and collective relationships while crossing over generations. The artist becomes an urban archaeologist who digs from a city, elements which can serve as core threads for artistic practice.

Today, society moves artmaking through the prism of the Internet and finds artists that reflect a new thinking. The values that define the artist’s behavior in the street are close to those that define our behavior on the Internet: Empathy, the right of access rather than ownership, a collaborative spirit, authenticity, and a cross/hybrid culture. Representative interventions that turned the city into a place to work from and become a motivational and inspiring context for collaborative artmaking were well envisioned by Nepal–based artist Amrit Karki, who spent several months working with households in Kirtipur, the oldest human settlement in Kathmandu; convincing residents of the historic old town to let him paint a superimposed composition (a red frame) over a certain section of their iconic hillside cityscape. More important than the finished mural, was the extensive community involvement that happened in its making and the decision to make his intervention in an old town commanding a panoramic – not to mention strategic – view of the valley.
It was a cool spring night in the Basantapur district and huddled together under a waning moon with artists and families, I watched a short film that pushed me to think more deeply about the global directions of contemporary art and how even more technologically conscious it has become.

Michael Candy’s (Australia) “ Ether Antenna “ was a short film featuring several rover robots on a surreal journey playing out Buddhist narratives through Nepal’s natural terrain. Candy’s 3 month residency with the Robotics Association of Nepal (RAN) enlightened him on new engineering technologies that were being combined with ancient traditions to rebuild temples following the 2015 Nepal earthquake, “Ether Antenna” resulted from his own insights into the impact of current technology on contemporary spiritual practice.

At the request of the artist, who wanted to reconnect the film back to the communities and locations in which it had been shot, open-air screenings of the film were held in a mobile cinema in underprivileged areas of Kathmandu, including schools, orphanages and NGO’s between 24 March – 3 April 2017. The work was described by Bato Ko Cinema as “a perfect amalgam of the eastern philosophy and DIY robotics.”

With the communication revolution and Internet connectivity, the beginning of the millennium has brought changes to our perception of the world. We are all the world’s citizens: cosmopolitan, emphatic, and cross cultural in sensibilities. From Kathmandu Triennale Artist Patron Francis Alÿs’s (Mexico) video documenting a melting block of ice as he moves it through the streets of Mexico to Alice Fox ‘s (UK) collaborative sketches charting a journey through the city in a shared taxi with other artists, on rough and bumpy monsoon roads done during the entire course of a day.

The KT reflected the contemporary art scene of the South Asian region with its theme that encouraged a direct engagement with the cultural specifics of a city like Kathmandu. Not only did it influence the art making processes for many generations of artists, it was led by a curation that went beyond selection and placement of art in a space. It was a global event that allowed people to view a city in new and changed ways. The KT’s main exhibition curator Philippe Van Cauteren exemplified a new curatorship the kind that moved out of the walls of institutions; one that focused on audience engagement, empowerment, and collaboration, rather than specialized knowledge. It was a curatorship that made both the artists and the audience distill a whole experience and make it work best for themselves

– Glenna Aquino, July 2017

Amrit Karki (Nepal). Rectangle, 2017