Politics of Public Space

Just last week, I was in the midst of an angry mob of 35 people on the streets of Puri, Odisha, India. Angry and demanding that an artwork that had appropriated the image of the city’s presiding god, Lord Jagannath should be taken down. The image itself was about the artist’s angst about her husbands loss of eyesight and externalising the loss into the large eyes of the idol. The work was a series of 7 depictions from the operation to the loss of the eye. As Puri is a city of temples, it was my decision to hire a cycle rickshaw, a cycle trolley and a mini van as mobile galleries and take the exhibition around to the public. All the works were hung and we set off walking alongside with performances such as artists in dog masks (homage to the multitude of stray dogs) and sounds of traffic being played on the accordion. First stop on the main C T Road, we commence with artist performance and draw curious crowds, keen to understand what is on display. Feeling energised, we walk on and soon find a busy market area to stop and invite people to come and engage with the works. Many are curious and keen to understand. A group of 30 surround us, keen to engage with the artists and the works. Comments of how wonderful the works were, the social message of the effects of addiction to Paan (betel leaves prepared and used as a stimulant) and the fact that god is in all of us and we are in the lord could be heard all around us. As the Indian artist explain’s her inspiration for the drawings, few became belligerent and start to argue with the artist ‘This is our god…how would you feel if we did that to your god’!!!! Soon a small group of men demand that the work be taken down and start moving towards the van. Within seconds, the situation escalates and rough hands tear the work down and go on to destroy the rest of the works. They threaten to beat the group and forcefully shut the show down. We managed to get away from the place unharmed and herded ourselves into a cafe to ponder over fallout of the event. Public space is highly contested directly proportional to the political and religious context unique to the space. It might theoretically seem a democratised space but its occupation and use is strictly sanctioned. The individual is relegated to the bottom of the pecking order whilst the collective is dominant in its occupation. The larger the collective and the more local it is, the more its authoritative legitimate claim to the public space. The questions I ask myself is, at what stage in the making of art does one need be aware of the politics of the local? Should they be sensitive to the local sentiment when presenting the finished work? Should they compromise and redact their content in order that the work be more accessible? Should they maybe be more subtle their work and be subterfuge in their presentation?