Friday, September 2, 2011

Neo-Monster- A Project by Vibha Galhotra- Story and History

(Neo-Monster by Vibha Galhotra at Select City Walk Mall atrium, Saket)

In Delhi we don’t have a turbine hall. We don’t have a Thames either. But now we have the atrium of the Select City Walk Mall to make a comparison with the great hall of wonder at the Tate Modern in London. And of course we have our own Yamuna but no luxury cruises and no Delhi Eye to see the whole of city from a bird’s eye point of view.

I cannot argue that the Select City Walk Mall’s atrium is equal to Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. But what makes it equally fascinating for me is the reach of the people who could take a view of a work of art displayed in the atrium from close proximity to different levels of perspective as the structure of the mall provides an ascending and descending view of the atrium as well as a 360 degree view of the same.

(Vibha Galhotra)

That’s why, the ‘Neo-Monster’, a public art project by a Delhi based artist, Vibha Galhotra looks really impressive at the Select City Walk Mall’s atrium. ‘Neo-Monster’ is an inflated balloon in the shape of a heavy earth mover, often called after the company that made it famous in India, JCB. This JCB machine whirrs to life as a hot air pumping machine works from inside. At the shape of the mechanical shovel on the front side, a video of an actual JCB uprooting a tree is projected.

One could easily understand the interest of Vibha who has been living in the city of Delhi for almost a decade, witnessing and at times guiltily participating in the changes happening to it. JCB machines have been a part of the urban landscape of Delhi for a long time. Also the cranes that mark out the sky with vertical and horizontal lines, full-stopped by a pair of heavy concrete blocks. Anyone who is interested in the theme of fast urbanization of the world, would recall the Dubai skyline during global market boom, criss-crossed with cranes.


Here, in ‘Neo-Monster’ project, Vibha is at once a hard truth teller and a romantic soothsayer. The machine that reminds you one of those works by L.N.Tallur or Mark Streicher who had worked with Abhay Maskara or even the works by Jeff Koons, works well in the atmosphere of a mall. Neo Monster is a plain name as it directly suggests that this is ‘new’ and it is a ‘monster’. The JCB s are the new monsters that gnaw the essence of the earth.

But as a soothsayer Vibha directly connects JCB as a tool of urbanization with the same machine as an enemy to nature. She subtly brings the ‘culture-nature’ polemic within the visual discourse of this work as she projects a footage that she had captured during one of her trips to the hills in North India. This footage shows an actual JCB machine ruthlessly bringing down trees causing de-forestation and realizing/making way to urbanization.

(Mark Streicher at Abhay Maskara Gallery)

The debate is as Rahul Bhattacharya, who has given a verbal back up to the project, puts it, that of fear and desire. Urbanization has become a perennial desire of most of the human beings on earth. They want to move into the city centres or suburbs and live a life that is mechanically devised the urban systems that include both human beings who are in power and the machines that are in control. At the same time, this desire engenders the fear for the uprootedness or the impending dislocations. Caught between these two emotional states human beings live in edge, expending their ultimate doom or deliverance.

I appreciate Vibha’s decision to show this project in the atrium of a mall. Mall is a place where fear and desire manifest literally amongst the people who visit there. I have observed the emotional status of the people who hang out in malls; they believe in what they see and what they experience. The temperature controlled and glass cased atmosphere of the mall give the people a feeling of eternity. Mall is like a film or like poetry; it helps you to suspend your disbeliefs willingly. You completely absorb the ‘given’ reality into your system until you are rudely shocked to the ‘real’ real once you step out of the mall. Mall is an ultimate example, a micro world of spectacle as envisioned by Guy Debord.

(Shoppers walking past Neo-Monoster)

What Vibha does is placing a spectacle within the spectacle. Hence, even a non-citizen of the art world, an ordinary loiterer, a casual visitor, a discerning shopper, or a shopaholic, would find this spectacle believable and its ideas palatable. Could the ideas be thought, discussed and debated by the onlookers who just pass by? I don’t think we need to expect them to do so. Neo-Monster stands as a gentle reminder of the shocks that we otherwise receive in our day to day life, as we witness the expansion gears shifting to top by the developers. The very spectacularity of the work invites the viewer to it.

As I stand there at the atrium witnessing people responding and reacting to the work, I realize one thing; people touch anything fluffy and soft. And also they pose before anything that is big, spectacular and eye catching, for a photograph. Irrespective of the discursive meaning what attracts people to Vibha’s works or in that case anything that is put it in a public place like the atrium of a mall, is the tactile and visual presence of it. The surprise and joy comes from the realization that they too are familiar with this ferocious machine called JCB but not this cute and ‘Disney’ version of the same.

(Neo-Monster, detail)

In due course, the visual discursive zone created by Vibha’s Neo-Monster, opens itself up to be more participatory acts. From caressing to poking, from patting to punching, from sliding to leaning, from frowning to smiling, a series of physical and emotional responses are evoked amongst the people on the very witnessing of it. Unlike the huge objects, commercial product promotional activities pepped up with light and sound, this object of Neo-Monster does not try to tell people anything. It does not ask the enthused and amused viewer to do anything with it. But the very presence of it is provocative enough to land them up into sort of discourse, which could eventually reach to the intended idea of the artist.

(Settlement, a painting by Gigi Scaria, 2007, from the show Absence of an Architect)

Art historically speaking, earth mover machines or JCBs have been a major inspiration for many artists for quite some time. Gigi Scaria, in 2007, in his solo project painted a JCB, which was structured as a building complex in itself. Though Gigi was not debating the romantic involvement with nature, he was addressing the fast changing landscape of an urban location. The brutal mobility of the machines that could primarily deconstruct and then construct a space was implied by Gigi in his work. This work was later done in a site specific sculptural installation in 2009 and was exhibited at the Christian Hosp Gallery, Berlin.

(Gigi Scaria's sculpture, 2009, before it was sent to Christian Hosp Gallery,Berlin)

Lijo and Reni Jose, two architects and artists, who excel in site specific installations and performances along with their architectural projects, had done a project with an actual JCB machine in 2007. Titled ‘Earth’, this work was performative in nature as Lijo drove a JCB machine over the earth collected from different dislocated sites.

(Site Specific performance by Lijo Jose, 2007)

Kochi based Mathai Tom had been painting the scenes of a small village near Kochi for a long time and his major concern has always been the JCB machines gnawing away the earth from the habitats, leaving houses and agricultural fields marooned in stacks. In one of the paintings, he paints a boy playing with a plastic toy while a monstrous JCB works behind him, taking away his earth.

(Paintings by Mathai Tom, 2007-08)

Shivananda Basavanthappa is another artist who has painted JCB as a monumental icon, almost loveable and worship-able in his paintings.

(Painting by Shivananda Basavanthappa, 2008)

Prasad Raghavan, in 2008-09 painted a JCB machine as an emblematic mover of the deluge. He connects its presence with the judgement day and final escape of a few species to safety as in Noah’s Ark. In his video titled Noah’s Ark, Prasad shows a JCB machines eating away earth within the Noah’s ship.

(Work by Prasad Raghavan)

To watch Prasad Raghavan’s Noah’s Ark in youtube, follow this link

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