‘Land of the Eternal Blue Sky’ Mongolia is especially vulnerable to climate change due to its reliance on traditional knowledge systems and weather forecasting techniques, which have been rendered redundant by climate change. By asking who owns the earth, and subsequently, who owns the water, Vibha Galhotra turns our attention to the consequences of climatic changes on Mongolia’s fragile ecosystems, pastoral animal husbandry and rain-fed agriculture, which has led to desertification, decreased water supply and natural disasters in the region. Vibha Galhotra’s art is now more important than ever. Through her large scale works, often created on land and water, she raises some fundamental questions – Where do we come from? Who we are? Where are we going? Why do humans claim ownership over nature? Her work is a reaction to her observations of human behaviours - our sociopolitical, cultural and economic structures, and our relationship to the environment around us. Vibha Galhotra is a conceptual and land artist. She grew up in Chandigarh, studied in Santiniketan and later migrated to Delhi. Each of these cities had a profound impact on her artistic perception and practice. “Chandigarh, which was designed by le Corbusier, influenced me not just because I spent my early life there, but also because of its contribution to my visual vocabulary and aesthetic”, she says. Le Corbusier’s architecture and spatial planning, geometrical forms and the balance between natural and manmade structures influenced her early works in charcoal. While she studied printmaking in Santiniketan, she also got to explore the vast expanses of nature around her. At the time, she was beginning to understand the indispensable co-relation between natural and human sustainability. She later migrated to Delhi, a city with many problems and few solutions. She’s spent a few decades in India’s capital and constantly drawn inspiration from the seemingly continual processes of construction, repair, and expansion work in the city as well as from its mighty and murky Yamuna river. She has created installations and land art in numerous places across the world (some of which we will get into in our conversation below) and has widely exhibited in galleries and museums globally. I speak to her about her use of material, the impact of her works on the viewer, and how she manages to keep optimistic in these times. Aashna Abrol (AA): When working on something temporary like land art, how do you reconcile with the fact that it’s going to disappear one day, probably soon? Vibha Galhotra (VG): Land Art, in which the artistic intervention is carried out in the natural environment using natural elements and materials post which the final work is left behind in nature which may preserve the work or cause it to perish, is ephemeral in most cases. Permanence, I believe, is a myth. Therefore, the urge and joy of creating art should not be guided by the fear of losing it. For me, art is a constant journey and experience, without the need to preserve it. As with all of my practice, the process remains intuitive wherein I believe that the material speaks to me after which I, as an artist, transport that energy to the viewer through my work. In the case of Land Art, the space I am in and the materials available on the land guide me and it becomes a meditative interaction between the land and myself. In the broader respect, the work is influenced by my meditations on beliefs, knowledge systems, socio-political structures and cultural practices of the place.
Aashna Abrol (AA): When did you switch over to more permanent materials and installations such as your signature material ghungroo? What is its role in propagating your message of environmental conservation?
Vibha Galhotra (VG): I don’t think of the move from ephemeral to more permanent materials as a switch. Being fixated on any material or form is stagnation and I enjoy the process of constant experimentation and the flow of creation.
For me, the choice of material is intuitive and the work or idea guides me towards the material. It is imperative that the material not only synchronizes with my thought process but also conveys my concerns to the viewer. Since my work deals with the human relationship with the environment - their interdependence and antagonism; the dying social practices; and the clash between beliefs and realities, old and new, construction and destruction, and other such environmental juxtapositions, I like to work with materials in a way that brings forth these dichotomies.
Ghungroos, which are used in traditional Indian dance to create sound, are silenced in my work. I play around with this irony extrapolating it to highlight the absurdity of the situation wherein, we humans destroy the resources that sustain us in the first place. Through my work I raise the fundamental questions of WHERE DO WE COME FROM? WHO WE ARE? WHERE ARE WE GOING?
AA: Tell us about the transition from idyllic Santiniketan to a city like Delhi.
VG: Delhi is immensely different from both Chandigarh and Santiniketan in all aspects, be it in social, political or economic terms. I, too, was no longer a student but rather a migrant to a new city in search of work when I first came to Delhi. Subsequently, as seems natural, I faced many adversities to survive. The transformation within me translated into my work which evolved with my new experiences and understanding of an urban utopia. I was perturbed by the lack of space not just on a physical plane, but also the indifference towards bio-networks wherein people turned a back towards everything that did not befit capitalistic motives. The maze of structures in modern society has created a vast gap between the natural world and us. The web is only getting thicker and it makes me wonder till when we will be able to sustain it, or rather, when will we understand that we can’t.
AA: Your show Beyond the Blue (2020) is on interplanetary migration. What inspired this topic?
VG: Beyond the Blue is a body of work that I started researching and working on in 2016, continuing my work on the new age problem of Anthropocene or human-impacted climate change. My work was both inspired and informed by literature from researchers, scientists, activists, eco-warriors and other practitioners about the rather dystopian capitalist and other compromising socio-political structures we operate in.
Building on this research, I started exploring the new-age ideas of inter-planetary migration to escape the ecological catastrophe on our own planet. The idea of migrating to Mars has in fact fueled a space race between the so-called superpowers of the world as if the country or person who finds water first will get to colonize or claim ownership of the planet. This kind of ideology and modus operandi can propagate further inequalities in society, going so far as to unsettle or even displace the existing structures that sustain us.
AA: You are known to do extensive research on your topics. Can you illustrate with an example how you translate this into your art?
VG: Reading and researching is the first step in the inception of a new body of work. The literature helps me understand the causes and consequences of the problems I observe. Intuition has a limited role at this stage and I go through the data and research, allowing time for it to brew inside my imagination till ideas start evolving. The works then emerge from within as an abstracted amalgamation of the knowledge I acquire and the reality I experience.
AA: Can you tell me a little about how The Black Cloud Project came together and the people you involved in it?
VG: Black Cloud is a project that is really special for me. While I did a pilot version of the project in Bikaner, I feel that the project is yet to actualize till its full potential. In Bikaner, I carried out the project with the help of local kite-flying clubs. I heard about the latter through a friend learning during the two trips to the city that the sport took place on a day-to-day basis.
The actual project was planned as a performance with 500 people who would fly black kites that would collectively create the shape of a cloud in the sky metaphorically symbolic of the air pollution that is choking us all. The pilot was intended to understand the physics of the project including aspects like the air speed required for implementation as well as the distance requirement between people and body movements so that people do not bump into each other.
The actual pilot involved 65 participants and on the third day of the trial somewhere in July of 2014 on a day when the temperature was 50 degrees Celsius and the air speed was 8mph, the project pilot was finally completed successfully. The pilot gave us an understanding of the requirements to implement a scaled-up version of the project, which would require a minimum air speed of 5mph. In addition, the participants would be required to sign an agreement to reduce their carbon footprints. The large-scale iteration of the project is yet to take place.
AA: What kind of impact have your works had on the spaces and places that they are sometimes based on, for instance, the Yamuna River?
VG: My works are an amalgamation of my observations, thoughts and experiences of the time and space I inhabit. While I admit that my practice may not have a direct impact on the river, but the work does raise crucial questions about the water body, ecological damage, its implications for the larger society as well as concerns about human behavior and the future of civilization among the viewers. It has made people more aware about their surroundings and in some people it has inspired a sense of personal accountability. Any actual impact, however, requires large-scale collective behavioral change. Even still, all collectives start with a single unit. That unit, I believe, is my role.
Galhotra’s exhibition forced viewers to see and acknowledge what has long been ignored as part and parcel of urban life - stray bits of concrete everywhere, the air we breathe, nearby water bodies and where our waste goes.
AA: How did a city like Delhi react to what you were trying to show them in the exhibition [In] Sanity in the Age of Reason (2017)?
VG: This is an interesting question. As I said earlier, the impact might be slow, but it is visible. I believe that I experienced some success in the exhibition [In] Sanity in the Age of Reason, which revolved around the Panchatatva i.e. five elements (air, water, fire and earth and ether) in the context of the environment. The exhibition touched the hearts of people and was widely covered by the media and some research agencies. Post this exhibition, the film Manthan and Breath by Breath (staged photographs) as well as the work Acceleration have been widely shown and published about across the globe echoing my concerns and raising a voice for the now absent.
AA: What do you feel about the environmental disasters that are occurring repeatedly with little to nothing being done about the situation?
VG: These are not environmental disasters but instead manmade ones. Rivers flow on their natural course. Subsequently, when there is heavy rainfall, the natural ecosystem of water bodies searches for its old creeks where excess water can flow. However, human greed has led us to construct structures that change the natural course of water, which leads to modern-day waterlogging. The poor planning of the city and the constantly changing governments with their “varshiyeyojanas (annual plans)” is only emblematic of the human-made catastrophes.
AA: Do you believe we can stop or slow down the type of damage we are doing to Earth?
VG: This COVID-19 pandemic, by forcing us to slow down, has suggested the solution of Controlling consumption and thereby excess production, which in turn can reduce the carbon footprint. The period then is an ideal time to reflect on our behaviors and lifestyles, which require massive changes in the direction of taking responsibility of our environment. Slowing down is the only solution.
AA: You have expressed concern over the type of carbon footprint even art leaves behind. What are some of the things you are doing to reduce this?
VG: Now, I mostly use pre-fabricated, found, recyclable or biodegradable material in my work.
AA: What role does art in general and your art in particular play in highlighting these issues to the public? Do you think art can convince people of the impact of their actions?
VG: Yes, I do believe that art has the capacity to impact societies. There is plenty of evidence of the same in history. While visual arts has a slower impact compared to performing arts, but it definitely raises questions regarding the pressing issues of our times. My own practice is an example of the same. I was not born responsible or with an active concern for the environment. But art and writing has changed not just my heart and mind to observe the ecological changes closely, but also the nature of my practice as well as my daily life.
AA: You have spoken fondly about the team of women that you work with in your studio. Tell me about them. How did you meet them and how has working with you influenced their lives?
VG: I set up my studio space in one of the urban villages in Delhi in 2010 as I wanted to create large-scale works and needed a reasonably priced space to do the same. At the time I was experimenting with fabric, beads, ghungroos, and other crafts involving the use of thread and needle work. It was humanly impossible for me to implement such large scale works all by myself and keep up with the demands of my profession. It was then that I requested my landlady to help me find women who might be unemployed and were interested in working with me. Slowly my studio was brimming with women from the neighborhood. Some women came looking for respite from their daily lives, to have some tea and do a little work. Soon, I asked them if they would like to work permanently with a monthly salary. Now, I have a staff of eight women who have been working with me for the last 10 years assisting me in creating work. I am immensely grateful to have such a dedicated team who takes care of my studio as they would of their homes.
Images courtesy: Vibha Galhotra Studio