Reimagining the Home/Homeland: An Artistic Inquiry

This visual essay is on an installation that appropriated the architectural structure of a flood-affected home with reference to the 2018 floods of Kerala. It was made using mud bricks with niches. The work was conceived as a “process” in which viewers participated by keeping objects and written texts in the niches. Their contributions highlighted dynamics of class, gender, and cultural composition of the state and alluding to history. The image of home is extrapolated to the concept of homeland through a visual thinking process as the work progressed. The installation process concluded with the dismantling and distribution of the bricks among viewers.

This visual essay is on an installation that appropriates the tangible structure of home as a venue for a dialogue with the viewers. Home as a space is usually understood as reflecting intangible dimensions such as love, care, hate, oppression, hegemony, and power that plays within this architectural space of a home. This multidimensional nature of the home prompted me to consider the possibilities of extrapolating it to the image of homeland. Since home and homeland are both a product of collective actions and imagination, the installation was also conceived as a site where these emotions are brought together. The making of the installation titled “Reimagining the Home” was envisaged keeping in mind the devastating floods that occurred in Kerala last year that damaged many homes and caused catastrophe to both built material as well as people’s psyche. Built and displayed at Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad campus for a week in February 2019, the installation consciously allowed viewers to interact with it, which in turn shaped the form and content of the installation and eventually brought about narratives which were not presupposed. The result of this exercise was that the home emerged as a site of both joy and happiness but also infused with memories, conflicts and challenges that it was not initially conceived as. This visual essay will take the readers through the whole process of making it, interaction with viewers and the dismantling of it.

The floods of Kerala in August 2018 have been a major impetus behind the shift in my thinking on home and homeland. Questions such as what is homeland when there is no home at all became the larger concern. Being an artist who hails from Kerala, the floods became an important backdrop for me to locate my artistic endeavours. For the mainstream populace of Kerala, floods and other such catastrophes were events only to be watched on television or to be experienced by a few. Catastrophes in Kerala used to be a regional phenomenon and the pain and suffering was meant for a few. Such natural calamities have never affected Kerala as a whole in contemporary society’s memory until 2018. The floods redefined the way of life in Kerala. The knowledge gained through that painful experience was not describable by any conventional means, unlike the information gained through newspapers or seeing news footage on television. It was an experiential knowledge—knowledge that forced many to reconstruct their perceptions about life.

Being in a similar position, this installation began as my reimagination of my own preconceptions about home, homelessness and survival. It draws inspiration from the aftermath of the floods when one person’s home became everyone else’s home and the notion of sharing and caring came to the fore in spite of various differences—of class, religion, region, etc. My installation work juxtaposes this moment and the painful image of houses destroyed by the flood and tries to transform the home as a site for regaining the gesture of giving. 

This work takes its visual and conceptual shape in the form of the cross section of an interior of a house made of baked mud bricks. The bricks have niches where viewers were asked to place objects or write something about home and place inside the niches. This work acquired its meaning by the audience’s contribution and it (brick) would be shared among each other.
The ever-changing nature of art and its ability to reorganise itself and reshape our perceptions about images, ourselves and the world at large helps to push further the possibility of an art object onto a process in time. Geeti Sen (1996: 6) points out that “art is much wider in its canvas than just iconography and pure aesthetics”. She also refers to the importance of viewer’s (rasika) participation as the final stage in Indian creative process. This installation makes use of the viewers’ active participation at various levels of meaning making and aesthetical experiences. The artist and the viewers exchange their positions during the various stages of making and seeing of this installation. Therefore, I had the privilege to gain the dual identity of maker and a viewer in the larger process of this installation called “Reimagining the Home”.

Medium and Concept

Baked mud bricks: The mud brick was one of the central media that this work was materially and conceptually built on. Baked bricks were one of the earliest artificial building materials. Production of brick involves earth, water, fire, air, and space. According to one of the Indian philosophical thoughts, the human body is made of five elements (panchabhutha) which is earth, water, air, fire, and space (Holdrege 1998). Hence, the brick could be seen as an artefact that is a manifestation of the human body itself. 

Objects placed in the niche of the bricks by visitors turn these bricks into personal spaces; the empty clay receptacle (here conceptualised as a metaphor for the human body) was thus symbolically bestowed with a soul. The installation was dismantled carefully after some days and the bricks of the wall with objects, images and writings in it were distributed to the viewers, transferring ownership. The sharing of bricks with images contributed by viewers was conceptually equivalent to giving one’s own body and soul to the other for safekeeping. The act of giving oneself to the other is the ultimate gesture of trust, resisting the will to ownership and privatisation of the present. The bricks were gifted to the people who are interested in collecting it. They could keep the brick with objects or texts given by anonymous people as their own.

Wet mud as binding material: Each brick with objects and texts provided by people of different backgrounds was fixed to another brick using wet mud as the binding material. The binding material was made possible by the meeting of land and water (wet mud). It was the medium that materially and conceptually brings the bricks together and forms the walls of the home. Kerala’s flood in August 2018 was the historical site where the medium of wet mud as the binding material was conceptually drawn. The period during the flood was the time when people of extreme political, ideological, religious, class and caste differences happened to be helping and sharing with each other. Kerala had witnessed for a brief while, how the wet land could bind the polar opposites.

This work was designed as a site where an influx of thoughts, emotions, intuitions, reactions, and play are expected. The installation was not a mere object to be contemplated; instead it is a site of diverse events that could possibly happen. These events shaped the visual and conceptual understanding of the installation. The installation would eventually become an event in the memory of the people and the distributed bricks with objects or texts, tangible proof of that.

In addition to making the installation, I also took notes about activities around the installation and also about the objects and texts contributed by the viewers. Interactive art projects like this deconstruct the traditional relations between art, artists and the viewers. This helps artists to come out from popularly attributed adjectives such as genius, eccentric and mad and transgress themselves as interlocutors in contemporary societies.

Process Behind the Making of Installation

Finding land and getting permission from state authorities is a part of building a house. This installation also went through such formalities. After many requests, I got some space near the dining hall of the Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad (IITH) where I am a doctoral student. The process of getting a place and the permission to build an art installation about home reshaped the artistic process and added a significant part to the conceptual narrative, which I had not thought of in the beginning. There was some discussion about moving the installation to a different venue. The very architectural nature of the exhibit and its building and display in a public place instead of the interior of a white cube gallery space interacts differently with outdoor space. Inside a gallery any object on display, whether it is a readymade or “found object” or an object made by the artist will be presupposed as art.1 On the contrary, the object on display in public space has its ambiguity in the very initial moment of its perception. Hence, the question “what is it?” comes before the question “what is it about?” 

At this installation, people came with doubts and speculations and tried to uncover the mystery. One student from Kerala came every day to help. It is common in Kerala (especially in villages and small towns) to help friends and neighbours in their household events. The artists, at this moment, enter into a dialogue with the audience on the process of building a home. The viewers mostly consisted of IITH fraternity. Some of them left behind artefacts in the niches of bricks and some wrote their views on the notebook kept nearby. Conversation with the viewers developed as it progressed. In the following pages, images from the installation will be accompanied by analysis of viewers’ interactions and their underlying meanings. 

Visual Minutes from the Artistic Process

Installation at its initial stage.

An installation site is one of many events that shapes the form and the content of the installation itself. The initial form is the dissection of the image and concept of home, which reveals its anatomy as well as its social relations in course of time. 

A viewer placing her contribution.

Interaction with the installation by viewers is a crucial part of making of the installation. Viewers use their agency to occupy a space in this home initiated by the artist and transform its meaning by their actions. This process suggests that home/homeland could be a potential site for its residents to create their own beliefs and likes even though it contradicts with others.

 

An anonymous viewer’s contribution.

Here, the installation’s structure resembles the houses in villages made of mud mortar and bricks. The tetra pack, an inevitable thing in the consumer world today predominantly among the upper strata of the society, comes to the lower strata also and finds itself unfit there. This very act makes one’s home into a dustbin where people throw waste such as used tetra packs.

Viewer’s contribution.

The joker card that is valuable in some occasions and discarded as unnecessary in most occasions in a card game is a metaphor pointing towards the power structure in home/homeland that uses individuals or communities according to the requirements. Home is not always a place of love, care and warmth for many instead, it is a joke for those who get exploited within it. The joker on the wall of this installation could also mean that the home is where one can play games (a fun place).

Paper boat placed by author.

This is a small paper boat which is made of newspaper with the images of the relief camps during the 2018 floods of Kerala. The fisherfolk from various parts of Kerala voluntarily came with boats and saved thousands of lives. The mainstream Kerala society with their literacy and imagined superior cultural capital had hitherto perceived the fisherfolk community as inferior, so the smell of the fish was a mocking term. This paper boat is an amalgamation of flood, news reports, suffering in relief camps, social discriminations, revelations, fisherfolk community and many more.

Common salt placed by the author.

Salt is an inevitable part of Indian homes. During the freedom struggle, M K Gandhi chose the common salt not only as a weapon against the British but also used it to galvanise the larger population to imagine India as their homeland. Therefore, common salt is not limited to its commodity value; instead, it is also a historical moment in the making of homeland in the Indian context.

Voter identification card placed by author.

Voter identification card is one of the documents that proves the legitimate existence of a person in a nation state. Such documents were lost during the floods in Kerala making lives difficult for survivors in getting aid for rebuilding their lives. Documents became the person as a citizen rather than the real person with flesh and blood. Voter ID card is a document that attests to the presence of one’s home as well as homeland.

Viewer’s contribution.

This perfume placed by a person from Malabar points to the value of labour of migrants who spent a large percentage of their lives in the Gulf in order to keep their homes in Kerala alive. These migrant workers bring “perfume” and “Tiger balm” in their return home, to give fragrance to the lives of their family and neighbours and to give relief to the pains of those in back home, forgetting their own pains of working in harsh conditions. The perfume is a reminder of the strong ties of remittance and migration between Kerala and the Gulf countries.

Viewer’s contribution.

The packing cover of a contraceptive pill kept by an anonymous visitor challenges the image of a romanticised home. With its sharp feminist gesture, the object brings in physical, sexual, emotional and cultural pains historically women had undergone in a male centric home. The arrival of this object into the home conceptually challenges the artist’s portrayal of the home as a feminine entity by placing a table with feminine iconography at the centre of the installation.

 

Image of womb painted by the author and a plant kept by the viewer.

Viewer’s contribution.

Viewer’s contribution.

Drawings of communist party’s symbol and a swastika symbol came in two of the niches on the walls of this home. Communism as a political view has deep roots in Kerala. The swastika symbol, not very well known in Kerala, points to its Hindu heritage. The overlapping of different religions and political agendas in Kerala is obvious in the last many decades. These two images extrapolate the image of home onto the larger canvas of homeland where violence is entangled with religious beliefs and political beliefs, with the narratives it brought about. 

Object placed by the author.

Intimate photographs of families that got destroyed during the floods is an erasure of a particular visual history of families. Unlike the painting or calendars on the walls of houses, photographs have a personal connection to the residents. It contains the most cherished moments or events in the family. Therefore, the erasure of these tangible memories from the homes is a painful process as well as a loss to the visual and photographic history of a society at large.

Viewer posing for photographs with the brick he collected from the installation.

Some viewers wished to collect a brick with some anonymous person’s writing and personal object as a gift was an unexpected outcome in this long artistic process. This could be one of the most constructive aspects of an art work envisaged of experiential knowledge. 

Towards the end of dismantling and distribution of bricks to viewers.

Unmaking of the home, brick by brick, is also a part of the making of meaning about the home/homeland. The systematic dismantling of the installation and the distribution of bricks with objects and writings of the participants to those who wish to collect is a way of sharing one’s valuables to others. This process gradually erases the materiality of home in a particular location and eventually gets scattered as fragments among the people who collected the bricks. The home exists as a chain of events in time for us to make sense out of it.

Conclusions

This interactive installation began with an outline and concept of the form it has evolved in the course of time with the various people who engage with it. As this very making of the installation itself is part of a large and diverse world of cultural productions, the narratives it produces implicitly reflects on existing narratives. Stuart Hall (2013: xviii) explains “culture” as a “set of practices” instead of a “set of things.” He says, “culture is concerned with the production and the exchange of meanings—“the giving and taking of meaning”— between the members of a society or group” (2013: xviii). He goes on to say that cultural meanings “organise and regulate social practices, influence our conduct and consequently have real, practical effects” (Hall 2013: xix). Therefore, the artwork is conceived as an active site where meanings can be produced and exchanged through active participation rather than a static sculptural piece of aesthetical features. The 2018 floods and the revelations it made in Kerala’s psyche was the vantage point from which this installation is conceptualised.  As an artist who is curious to know what the work can give back, I was actively in conversation with the participants in sharing my urge behind the making of this particular site. This site conceived as home therefore became a melting pot for various perspectives, interests, and arguments, in the form of writing, objects, gestures, etc. This home eventually became a site of different stakeholders and their roles in defining their home. In a democratic society, the space called home/homeland has different stakeholders and there is constant dialogue and negotiation happening in the larger social, cultural and political process of the making and unmaking of home/homeland. Home/homeland could be identified as a process rather than a fixed image of the house and map. This process happens in the social, cultural and political realms through the people’s actions. This installation became an amalgam of such processes and generates its own narrative. The space which is largely perceived as domestic or private, with its own hierarchical constitution, became an artistic vessel here, to extrapolate it into a similar yet complex and real entity called homeland. The installation and the process of making it generates narratives of such diverse interests and the complex ways through which home/homeland is configured and reconfigured. 

 

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