Water wonderful world: DAMnedART project to raise awareness in Chennai

‘What is clean or dirty? What is dangerous or healthy? What is beautiful or ugly? For whom?’  The DAMnedART project raises such questions to create awareness about water conservation.

Jaideep Sen Published :  16th February 2018 02:18 PM   |   Published :   |  16th February 2018 02:18 PM
‘Of the First Water’ by Raumlabor

‘Of the First Water’ by Raumlabor

There are many origins to the name, ‘DAMnedART’, of the ongoing ‘Public.Art.Awareness’ project and month-long festival focused on the subject of water, hosted by the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan Chennai, as a part of their Embrace Our Rivers initiative.

“The name has many meanings,” offer the festival’s curators, the artist, environmental activist and writer Ravi Agarwal and German art historian Florian Matzner, in a combined response to an email interview.

“The name is a reaction to the public art show, which was held indoors after the site clearance for holding the project on the Cooum River estuary could not be obtained,” say the curators, explaining how their original plan had to be altered, after they ran into trouble for official permissions.

The initial plan was to present a series of 13 art installations and performances by a group of 20 Indian and international artists by the estuary and along Marina Beach, where the sea and the river meet. But now, the works are on display at the Lalit Kala Akademi.

“Estuary”, Atelier le Balto (2018)

Once the earlier plans had to be changed, the curators decided to make their attempts known, and to engage the city’s citizens in a discussion of “What could have been, if…”, explain the curators. “What you can see in this exhibition is the artists showing us in multiple ways — through video installations, films, large photos, models, animation, drawings and text — what their art on the river banks would have been…”

“The name also refers to the idea of ‘Damning the flow of the river’, and changing its natural flow to make it unfree, as we have done,” add the curators. “Also, it refers to the idea that artistic imagination is not included in how rivers are managed in cities, and this is left only to planners and politicians. The name of the project was thus a collective decision.”

The DAMnedArt Project’s objectives are statedly simple: To see the River Cooum from a different perspective, create public dialogue, reflect upon collective responsibility and encourage action. In the curators’ words, “The exhibition is a bouquet of ideas about rivers in urban space. Each artist 
has a different artistic position and their ideas vary from social, community-based, political and architectural to scientific interventions.” 

The selection of artists was made considering their long-term practice with public art and ecology, add the curators. “These are some of the finest practitioners of public art and ecology we know.” As a part of the Goethe Institut’s approach to foster cultural exchange, a host of German artists were invited to Chennai, to conduct research visits and develop their project, also meeting with experts on the River Cooum.

The show includes works by Atul Bhalla (on-site at Periyar Bridge), Gigi Scaria (the sculpture Source of a River in Descending Order), a community intervention led by Gram Art Project and Shweta Bhattad, the audio installation Sound Shower by Layout Collective, as well as the video works Bloom by Rohini Devasher, and Coming Forest and Before the Rain by Suyeon Yun. There are also architecture-based works by international groups such as Raumlabor.  

Anna Witt

A moment of irritation
For German artist Mischa Kubal, the idea for her work came “straight at the spot” on her visit to Chennai in 2016. “The river and its cultural presence stands in complete contrast to how the river has been treated‚" points out Mischa. Her work, University of the Rivers, includes a banner hoisted at the Cooum River Bridge, to get the attention of daily commuters.

Mischa’s first idea was to place a light installation in Tamil writing directly into the river. “But this was difficult due to high tide cycles, and possible flooding,” she explains. “The basic impression that viewers will get from my work is a moment of irritation,” reflects the artist.

“It may help to see the situation in a different perspective — this will not change the river at once — but the work might introduce another value, as we estimate a hub for knowledge such as a university higher than a polluted river.”

A work by Mischa Kubal

The circle of life & things
The artist Anna Witt from Vienna, Austria also visited Chennai, and “spent several days to walk along the Cooum River to see the communities and activities along the riverside”. Anna says she got interested in the amounts of production visible — not only in the factories, but in every scale, on the streets, and in small workshops. 

Inspired by what she saw, Anna developed The Circle of Life and Things, focusing on “how society — both locally, and globally — and its production, in relation to nature and the ecosystem”. She adds, “Often, our relation towards nature is very much purpose-built.”

Anna’s project involved collaborations between different individuals and groups. She began with a group of women working as street cleaners and recyclers, who made 250 drawings of different shapes of garbage and recyclables they cleaned off the streets.

Over the month-long period of the show, children from different schools in the city where invited to take part in workshops, and together with a biologist, they also went to see the Cooum River — “many of them for the first time in their life”, notes Anna.

The students learned about the river’s current ecological condition, its history, importance and biological diversity. Then, they worked with the drawings of the street cleaners and used the shapes to transform them into animals, plants or other living organisms they imagine to be alive at the Cooum River now, or in the future. “Whatever inspired them,” describes Anna. “So the original drawings of shapes of waste were turned into animals or plants by the children.”

Lastly, a group of craftsmen transferred the drawings onto a piece of fabric, over the course of the show. “It’s a fabric with a pattern inspired by waste, and imagined with nature,” says Anna. The amount of embroidery will grow over the period of the show, she explains. “At the end, about 60 metres of embroidery work should be the outcome.” 

The fabric will eventually be cut into pieces and redistributed to the woman in the recycling sector. Thus, her project will circulate waste material and recyclables back to new form, in collaborations that emphasise the relation between people, nature and production, and also, a creative art process. 

Arunkumar HG

A ‘use and throw’ culture
The contemporary culture of ‘use and throw’ sits at the heart of the work of Arunkumar HG, as well. “This is the main concern and problem in keeping our environment clean, and the main reason to finish off our invaluable natural resources,” says the artist from Karnataka. Arunkumar uses materials in 
his work in a manner that reminds viewers “the enormity of the issue, when each of us contribute with small amounts of waste we produce in our everyday lives”. 

His work, Droppings and the Dam(n), was created as a tapestry of plastic bottle tops, and speaks for the careless manner in which people go about dropping waste, “bit by bit, without a sense of responsibility”. The artist is also showing Hollow Drop, with videos of his long-term engagement with environment awareness programmes, at the exhibition. 

“I don’t think we have any lasting solution, unless there is a huge awareness campaign conducted at the same speed that we, as a society, are contributing to the problem. The DAMnedArt show will create awareness, and I hope it triggers a chain reaction in larger campaigns,” he suggests.

A project by OOZE Architects

Lake 301 — A Lake in a River
For OOZE Architects, based in Rotterdam, Netherlands, the context of Chennai was interesting because of its relationship with water, “which is so close and so far at the same time — as it is next to the sea, and has three rivers and 300 lakes”. 

In another email interaction, representatives of the group, led by the Slovenian artist and architect Marjetica Potrc, offer the result of their research: “Some time ago, Chennai was a prime example of smart water management and living in harmony with nature and the seasons. Its lakes acted as seasonal reservoirs, which would absorb and retain water after the rains. In the dry season, the lakes were used for local cultivation until the next rains. Now, Chennai’s rivers have become synonymous with sewers that receive tons of waste water and solid waste, and the lakes have become encroached by real estate developments. The lack of this buffer zone now leads to extreme floods,” they reason.

OOZE’s project, Lake 301 – A Lake in a River, serves a window into the future. “We want to show that it is possible to restore the city’s relationship with water into a positive one that is beneficial to all citizens and the city as a whole,” says the group's representatives. “The project adds a new type of lake to the 300 lakes of Chennai, the Lake 301. This new lake is an insertion of a pocket of clean water into the polluted Cooum river.”

Parvathi Nayar

Kolams out of trash
For Parvathi Nayar, who lives and works in the city, the subject of water strikes home with her personal interests. “Water is one of the hot button topics of our time, and rivers are a crucial part of our ecology,” says the artist, who has been involved with the Embrace Our Rivers project since its inception, about three years ago. 

“There can be no desire to act until and unless we feel that sense of ownership for the rivers, and at the same time acknowledge the rivers in their own right, as a part of nature,” she urges. “Nature should be allowed to take her place as a stakeholder on this planet, she is not just a resource. Art, I believe, is a 
way to bring such ideas back into the minds and hearts of people, to raise questions that foster discussions.”

Parvathi’s own project on the Chennai rivers is called the ‘Reimagined River’ project, a part of which is her installation, Invite/Refuse, at DAMnedArt. “My art is a philosophy of space — the spaces within our bodies — and the spaces we live in. It is the philosophy of our place in the world, and in this respect, water has always been an important strand in my work,” offers the artist. 

A work by Parvathi Nayar

“On one level, it is what our bodies are made of, we need it to survive; politically and environmentally, it is a contested resource; it is also meditative and abstract, the carrier of ideas. I have played with water in its multiple forms — from abstract entity to concrete resource, different sorts of mapping over the years,” she says.


At the outset, Parvathi felt it was important to reimagine the presently-debased River Cooum, "which I see everyday from my window". To do this, she went on a trip with local historian Padmapriya Bhaskaran, to discover the real and mythical origins of the Cooum.

"To my surprise, I discovered its history as a sacred river," reflects Parvathi. "There are several temples associated with the origins of the Cooum, and at these old sites, I still saw kolams (a traditional geometric form of drawing), beautifully drawn."

Such floor drawings are familiar in Chennai, notes the artist, but her discovery led her to look at the diagrams anew. Soon, she was looking "At the mathematics of the symmetrically drawn kolam; at the kolam as a greeting or invitation that cuts across strata from richest to poorest, which can be seen outside the poorest of homes and the most corporate of offices and everything in between; and how the kolam as something created from dot and line, the 'pulli' kolam, would be an organic extension of my own drawing practice," she explains.

A work by Parvathi Nayar

Given to often employing science as a visual language, Parvathi decided to make a kolam out of the microscopic algae that exist in the river – in the form of dozens of specially made white ceramic pieces. Midway through the project, the artist had also done another solo, called Haunted By Waters, which dealt with another Chennai River, the Kosasthalaiyar River, at the Dakshinachitra folk museum. 

"So when it came to the DAMnedArt project, she resolved to work with Chennai’s third river – the Adyar River. "Visits to the Broken Bridge site were quite devastating – to see the levels of garbage," she relates. "This was not really industrial garbage, but the kind that each of us are responsible for in some way or the other – slippers, bottles, bulbs, toys…"

Thus was born the idea of a kolam for the Adayar River, made out of trash. Eventually, Parvathi's idea transformed into a community project, gaining the support of groups such as the Vettiver Collective, CAG, and Madras Terrace Architectural Works, among others.

"I approached trash as ‘raw’ material with which to make the art, with no preconceptions," explains the artist. "I let the form evolve organically from the trash objects found by the river. The materials found dictated the form of the kolam." Parvathi also created a companion video piece, By the Mouth of the River, which is a part of the installation. The artist is now also involved in a parallel initiative to host guided group tours for school students, free of cost. 

Gram Art Project & Shweta Bhattad

More than spectators
For their part, the German architect group Atelier le Balto, founded by Marc Pouzol and Laurent Dugua, devised an intervention called A Raft for the Estuary

“When we visited Chennai and discovered the River Cooum, we were impressed by the many well-kept public spaces and the attention given to the plants, trees, greenery and flowers. At the same time, we could see the dark colour of the water, at the edge of the river,” recounts a spokesperson of the group.

“We wondered how the native vegetation of the River Cooum was reacting to pollution. Is the original vegetation still there? Did it survive the pollution? Did it adapt? Or has it been transformed? Have some plants replaced others?” The group went on to discover that an inventory had been conducted of the 
plants growing from the spring of the river until the estuary.

“So, we imagined gathering all these plants, or some of them, on a raft, and transform a piece of the river-bank into a peaceful place to sit and appreciate the beauty of the estuary. A place to meditate, to contemplate and maybe to dream. The raft would concentrate our ambiguous feeling: What is clean or dirty here? What is dangerous or healthy? What is beautiful or ugly? For whom?”

The architects from Ooze summarise all of their efforts with an all-encompassing viewpoint: “In Chennai, waterways make an important identity of the city,” observes a member of the group. “In fact, Chennai’s ecosystem, its lakes and rivers embody its identity. Its diverse waters should be at the forefront to question the state of urban development,” he urges.

“Art is important in this context as it acts as a tool to get this vital discussion going between citizens and their city. The visitors of the artworks become more than spectators, they become actors to take a role in the formation of the city they want to live in.”

The rapid deterioration of the water streams and water bodies should be at the centre of all discussions to re-establish a balance between the man-made city and nature, he adds. The point is clear: “Residents of Chennai should celebrate the city’s unique ecosystem, lakes and rivers!”

DAMnedArt Project, at Lalit Kala Akademi, until March 4, 11 am-9 pm daily. Includes the workshop ‘Thinking on Water – A Solution’ (Feb 17, 10 am); the talk ‘Community and River Rejuvenation’ by Dr Rajendra Singh; music & dance by Chennai Choir – NalandaWay (Feb 16, 6 pm), Mallipoo and the Alwas feat. Sofia Ashraf (Feb 17, 5.30 pm), as well as film screenings. The hosts are also conducting 
free guided tours for school students, for details email info@chennai.goethe.org

— Jaideep Sen