Kathmandu Festival Embraces Art’s New Forms

Chris Drury, “The Way of White Clouds” (image courtesy KIAF)
Chris Drury, “The Way of White Clouds” (all images courtesy KIAF)

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts on the Kathmandu International Art Festival. The first, “Painting is Alive and Kicking at the Kathmandu International Art Festival,” was published on December 20.

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Though the world didn’t end on 21 December, the Kathmandu International Art Festival did, having possibly changed forever the way Nepal perceives contemporary art. The space given over to three-dimensional, site-specific, and video installations as well as performances in the festival was unprecedented for the new republic!

“Forest Walk,” by Canadian duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, challenged the monopoly of the visual in a very exciting way. A thought-provoking soundscape that transformed the familiar but droopy backyard of the Nepal Academy of Fine Arts into a mock forest, its aural polyphony (bird calls, the crash of a felled trunk, the rumble of a car) mixed with the “real” sounds of urban Kathmandu to create a poignant narrative of humankind’s at best ambivalent relationship with nature. It remains one of my favorite pieces in the show, since I was somewhat jaded by the overabundance of artworks requiring intense visual attention. British artist Chris Drury’s insightful video loop, being showcased inside, links nature and culture rather uncannily too: streams of white, cloudy water slip and swirl into a still, black lake, immediately bringing to mind the swirls and whorls of flames in traditional paubha and thangka paintings of the Himalayan region. The image resurfaced when I ran into Maureen Drdak’s “Flying Nagas” in Siddhartha Gallery later, and Lok Chitrakar’s arcane lotuses in Metro Park.

That brings me to Metro Park and its adjacent venue, Nepal Investment Bank, both of which were chock-a-block with exciting pieces. Pakistani Yasir Hussain’s “Neuro,” a video study of the Karachi waterfront on an obsolete cell phone camera, is a poignant encapsulation the broken, sad reality it captures. “Neuro” becomes doubly interesting with its follow-up, a social-media based project called “Bio,” in which Nepali farmers interacted over the internet with Karachi fishing folk.

Lantian Xie, “Al Saraf Cafeteria”, 2011
Lantian Xie, “Al Saraf Cafeteria”, 2011

Identity and interaction were also the fulcrum of Lantian Xie’s work “Al Sarab Cafeteria 2011,” in which sound vibrations emitted by the viewer set off a series of images and texts gleaned from cafeteria and restaurant menus in the United Arab Emirates — a sharp comment on global consumerism. The specter of consumerism was central to Nameera Ahmed’s “Bloody Birds” as well: in the piece, chicken are slaughtered to the accompaniment of television commercial and cooking- show voiceovers. The commodification of the body was the theme of another video installation, by Palestinian Ibrahim Jawabreh, although Jawabreh focused on the human form. So did Nepal’s Gopal Das Shrestha Kalapremi, whose series of ceramic raku figures — tellingly called “People Being Cooked and Sold” — were molded and fired on site, taking the same query further, to the point where the process and product both delve into the nature of commodification.

Gopal Das Kalapremi, “People Being Cooked and Sold” (2012) being made on site
Gopal Das Shrestha Kalapremi’s “People Being Cooked and Sold” (2012) being made on site (click to enlarge)

This undercurrent of socio-political inquiry came center stage in Egyptian Khaled Hafez’s installation “The A77A Project,” in which Hafez brings together superheroes, presidential elections, footage taken by unassuming citizens on cell phones, and an animated Anubis figure all in one uproarious video loop on presidential erections — oops, I mean elections! “The A77A Project” turned out to be one of the favorites of the festival. Fraz Abdul Mateen also cast a critical gaze at the ego with “Ego-logical Footprints,” for which deep footprints carved into actual books and magazines and video footage of the same formed a composite artwork attacking our environmentally unfriendly urban way of life. In counterpoint, American Cecilia Paredes’s installation used the book to build bridges between multiple cultures and times. The artist made fragile pentagons in collaboration with Nepalese women and students out of rare 18th-century Calderon editions and Nepali Lokta paper.

Sadish Dhakal, “Jamara Might Not Exist” (2012)
Sadish Dhakal, “Jamara Might Not Exist” (2012) (click to enlarge)

Time, actually running out of it, is the theme of Sadish Dhakal’s  “Jamara Might Not Exist,” which reminds us of the imminent threat of floods from glacial lakes via sets of pots bearing sprouting barley, or jamara. Each set is proportionately larger in size in keeping with the increase in water volume of Lake Tsho Rolpa. Jyoti Duwadi, meanwhile, tackled a similar idea (in collaboration with Paul D. Miller) by projecting footage of melting Arctic snow on blocks of ice that themselves slowly melted away right in front of viewers’ eyes. The Croatian Lala Rascic’s “Damned Damn” fast-forwards in time to 2027 and, looking back from there, delivers a fictional narrative based on the very real dam break in Modrac Lake in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In contrast, flowing water’s meditative aspect was brought out by Australian Neolene Lucas in her “Water Atlas” of eight rivers across the world, projected simultaneously on eight separate screens.

Mili Pradhan’s over-an-hour-long “Float” held me enthralled as I sat and watched the river pass by in a tiny darkened room of the Patan Museum, bearing our urban waste to the eerie soundtrack of Juliet Case Kaplan. Indian artist Sheba Chhachhi’s composite installation “Neelkanth: Poison/Nectar” questions our urban way of living/wasting and whether the Earth will be able to bear this poison forever, like the god Shiva, or give in soon. The same issue was a preoccupation for Canada’s Michael Campbell and Janice Rahn, whose pseudo-mythical marine creatures made out of rattan and salvaged waste were displayed alongside a hyperreal video loop intertwining urban industrialization and organic natural growth.

Mili Pradhan, “Float” (2012)
Mili Pradhan, “Float” (2012)

Through these pieces and others, the festival has been quite an eye-opener for a viewership that predominantly considers 2-D paintings and sculptures more acceptable modes of creative expression. Thrusting us into the realm of current art practices worldwide, KIAF’s “Earth Body Mind” has surely done its bit towards making Nepal more receptive to less conventional and multiple-media art forms, not to mention being an educational catalyst for environmental awareness.

The Kathmandu International Art Festival ran from November 25 to December 21 in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu.

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