Following India’s independence in 1947, architect Le Corbusier was recruited to design Chandigarh, the country’s first planned modern metropolis. Alongside, in secret, another builder had a very different vision in concrete. From 1957 onward, Nek Chand constructed the Rock Garden of Chandigarh, with animals and human figures cobbled together from broken glass, rebar, ceramic shards, electronic parts, and other trash, much of it from construction sites. Despite trespassing with his artwork on government land, the people of Chandigarh rallied for Chand’s art environment and it opened to the public in 1976.
The self-taught Indian artist remained the leader of the Rock Garden’s evolution, over 25 acres of waterfalls and winding paths populated with thousands of sculptures, until his death last month at 90 years old.
In his memory, the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea is displaying two of his recently conserved sculptures in their lobby window. “Boy with Back Basket, Ceramic Shirt, Clinker Legs” and “Blue Glass Animal,” both made between 1984 and 1985, were part of his Fantasy Garden installation at the National Children’s Museum in Maryland. The Rubin Museum acquired 10 of the Fantasy Garden sculptures in 2014, but they’ve been out of view at their off-site storage facility. Conservation focused on stabilizing the outdoor sculptures after their exposure to the elements and readying them for travel to the museum.
Beth Citron, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Rubin Museum, told Hyperallergic:
Though our permanent collection is comprised largely of religious and ritual objects, our mission is rooted in connecting contemporary life with the art and ideas of the broader Himalayan region, including north India. Nek Chand’s work resonates with the modern and contemporary shows we’ve organized here in recent years, including an exhibition series on Modernist Art from India (2011–13), and Francesco Clemente: Inspired by India (2014). Following these projects, Chand’s work is especially significant to the Rubin Museum’s community because it offers yet another lens into the depth and variety of expression in Indian visual culture. Showing these works here creates a wonderful opportunity for visitors to make new discoveries and connections to the region.
“Boy with Back Basket” has a ceramic shirt where floral patterns from some shattered dinnerware accenting its pearly color, and the “Blue Glass Animal” shaped like a bird has blue broken bottle pieces for a beak. Chand’s art at its best celebrated how the discarded could be made beautiful.
Le Corbusier’s stern concrete design has decayed in recent years, its buildings and infrastructure worn down by time. The Rock Garden still receives visitors in the hundreds each day, and Chand’s renegade hobby may potentially outlast the modernist master plan.
Nek Chand’s sculptures are on view in the lobby window of the Rubin Museum of Art (150 W 17th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 2016.