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How art helps us talk about air pollution

In recent years, artists, prompted by what they see around them, have sought to raise awareness and shape the narrative on air pollution

Tarun Sharma's art installation
Tarun Sharma's art installation

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In artist Gigi Scaria’s video installation, An Elevator From A No Man’s Land, projections on the walls of a fabricated elevator take you on a virtual trip through a dystopian yet uncannily familiar world. Dense clouds of smog give way to an unending urban landscape—dotted with landfills, slums, high-rises and construction sites—before taking the viewer skywards into more clouds of smoke. Suspended particulate matter clogs the air, almost till it disperses into the ether, before the video swoops suddenly, past the many-layered built environment, and ventures into the substratum, focusing on mined earth and then molten lava, before moving upwards again.

Scaria, who has often raised issues of sustainability, development, pollution, societal inequity and civilisational advancement through his work, thinks of this installation as a metaphor for a search of sorts “for knowledge, comfort, a process. Basically, it is a journey cutting through the earth and looking at what has been done to it to create that air which goes up,” he adds.

It’s one of the latest examples of how artists, prompted by their own experience or what they see around them, have sought, in recent times, to raise awareness and shape the narrative on air pollution, blamed directly or indirectly for close to 2.46 million deaths in the country every year, as a February 2021 article in Lounge pointed out.

An Elevator From A No Man’s Land was one of the works displayed at the nine-day Air Expo, a public art project at Delhi’s Select Citywalk, Saket, that ended on Friday. The Air Expo was the first part of Does The Blue Sky Lie?: Testimonies Of Air’s Toxicities, a three-part project conducted by Khoj, a not-for-profit contemporary arts organisation. As the exhibition note puts it, the project “explores the troubled ecology of Delhi’s air” and “asks us to think about the air we breathe and what drives it to be toxic, even when it is ephemeral, invisible, removed from our consciousness by the deceptive blueness of the sky”. Renowned artists, organisations and action groups come together, employing various media to get viewers to think about air pollution.

The Air Expo has been followed by an art exhibition (on till 21 May) at Khoj Studios, showcasing the work of artists like Abhishek Hazra, Thukral and Tagra, Pradip Saha, Saraab and Sharbendu De. The final part of this initiative, which begins on Saturday and will run for a month, is Café Classroom, a series of informal talks on climate change, the natural world, and the decisions and policies that shape these. Curated by Saha, these will be held at the Khoj canteen.

Niyati Dave, curator and programme manager, Khoj, who is leading the initiative, says “a project around ecology and pollution seemed really immediate to us”, given that just about everyone in the city suffers its effects. “It is so tangible and affects people regardless of where they are from. But it affects people differently, and that is something we tried to explore through the project,” says Dave, adding that the idea was to try and use art to drive social change. “What does it mean that you need to enjoy a socioeconomic privilege to enjoy something like air?” she asks.

“I think of it (art) as a superpower,” says Tarun Sharma, aka DrawTarun, a Delhi-based artist who is currently working, independently, on a body of work that revolves around environmental issues, including air pollution.

Also read: India Art Fair 2022 celebrates resilience of the art community

It’s not the first time he has explored air pollution through art, says the artist, who has struggled with breathing issues since class VIII. Matters came to a head in 2015, when he was in the second year at College of Art, Delhi. He had chosen to specialise in printmaking, and the chemicals used in the process, coupled with bad air, impacted his already-compromised lungs. He was diagnosed with acute bronchitis and remained bedridden for three months. “The doctor said to leave Delhi or leave art,” recalls Sharma.

This phase changed the way he worked. In 2019, he came up with My Etched Lungs While Living In Delhi (World’s Most Polluted City), a mixed-media work made of found materials like used plywood, used woodcut blocks, used zinc etching plates and Asthalin capsules. “It is our collective responsibility as artists to raise larger issues,” he adds.

So, what makes art such an effective medium to talk about something that is mainly dependent on data, science, education and policy for effective change? In a December 2021 interview with Outlook magazine, artist Vibha Galhotra, whose 2016-17 performance art piece, Breath By Breath, directly addressed Delhi’s dismal air quality, pointed out that artistic intervention helps “creatively translate the scientific data and visually communicate this pathetic state of air quality”. She added that “art is something which reflects on time and makes issues of the time more accessible and understandable to the masses through visuals”.

Brikesh Singh, convenor of the Clean Air Collective, a knowledge platform for disseminating and indexing information on air pollution, adds, “Art takes your issue to an audience that on a day-to-day basis is not consuming news or content around these issues.” He recalls a 2019 photo exhibition titled Breathless—Documenting India’s Air Emergency, launched by Help Delhi Breathe and the Clean Air Collective, which focused on the experiences of people most impacted by air pollution. The exhibition, in June 2019, put the spotlight on Delhi at a time when no one was talking about air quality. “It was still a winter, stubble-burning issue,” he says, adding that the exhibition—which had stories and profiles of people from six cities—aimed to put names and faces to statistics. “We wanted to document these people, their names, the opportunities lost due to air pollution.”

The pandemic may well have propelled conversations about ecology, global warming, climate change and pollution to the forefront. “The discourse has moved from air pollution being seen as a seasonal issue to a perennial one,” says Singh, pointing out that the conversation has spread to cities other than Delhi.

Also read: Thukral and Tagra play the game for change

In the 2019 election, some political parties mentioned clean air and pollution in their manifestoes; a National Clean Air Program has been set up for 142 cities, and more agencies are now involved in cleaning up the air. Despite this, however, Delhi’s AQI continues to be dismally high—Central Pollution Control Board data for 27 April states that it was 284, far worse than Chennai’s 42 (up to 50 is good; 51-100, satisfactory).

“There is an acknowledgement of a problem, and we want to solve it,” says Singh, adding that it needs to be a collaborative effort between the government and civil society. Hopefully, says Dave, interactive and accessible art projects will help keep the conversation going, “whether it is pushing policymakers or individual actions like taking public transport”. For “air, though largely invisible, is the medium for everything we do”.

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