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The digital medium is not a sorry replacement, says Aniket Bhagwat

Noted architect-designer Aniket Bhagwat elaborates on the process of including art into any project, how it becomes collaboration, and why one must ensure the art gets the respect it deserves

“I didn’t do anything different last summer than summers before that. We at the firm were working throughout the pandemic. It sounds unusual to strike this note of normalcy, given how the world around has been — but the fact is that through 2020, we lost just one day of work. The only difference is that it was all work from home (WFH), as we could not access the office space for the first three months after the outbreak due to the lockdown. Thereafter, we got back to it as well!”

This does not seem too unusual a declaration when one sees who it comes from — Aniket Bhagwat, a well-lauded third generation landscape architect practising in Ahmedabad, with a long and prolific few decades of work in the sphere of art and design. Besides his enviable architectural profile and renown in landscape and environmental design, half of Bhagwat’s time is also dedicated to outreach activity, including an initiative for cultural programming in the city, or another ‘100 city parks’ project.

He admitted, “For us at the Prabhakar B Bhagwat firm, the idea of defining a ‘new intellectual normal’ has occupied us a fair amount — and I am carefully not using the phrase ‘new normal’. Is it that we have changed the way we are living life? Or, are we revisiting the way that we would have liked to live life, and only now beginning to find value in that view? Covid has really given us all the strength to believe that there were certain ways in which we looked at this idea of life, whether with certain capitalist other tendencies, that denied us something. And then, the pandemic brought to the fore the idea that it is okay to life exactly the way we thought we should be living it. More than a new normal, it has been more like finding strength in the old normal.”

Bhagwat also believes that several changes in the aftermath must be embraced are positive. “Both in design and art, whether visual or performing, it is time for vocal supporters of disciplines to come out in the open and state their importance. In the last year, we have all been helped and nourished by art around us! We have all enjoyed the nuances of good design and for the first time, people have started appreciating these subtleties. They have understood what it means to be surrounded by good art. This is a good chance for artists to stand up boldly and get noticed, almost like a clarion call to them that work is now ripe and ready. It may be about loss of money in the short run, but art and design have received a boost now that the earlier normal was not able to provide to them,” he said.

But, he also advised caution before getting carried away with the online boom. “It may be a little early to start judging the efficacy of the digital medium vis-à-vis art at this stage. We are all still grappling with this new medium and what it can do for us, how best we can begin to use it. We need to take some time for ourselves to mature with it. However, whatever little art-related tech I have experienced till date has also come across as a great benefit. It is now possible to reach out to people in different corners of the globe at a drop of the hat! People are also now more willing to come on-screen, which they were not earlier, due to an understanding of a new world,” he mulled, adding, “Artists should also stop being too shy now. They tend to be very reticent and reclusive. Instead, it is time to put out your work in whatever forum you like, including social media. This is really the only way the world will notice your art!”

The basement of the Ark building in Baroda

Touching on the space of e-galleries in this ecosystem, he said, “Too many artists stay hidden, which is tragic. It is amazing how often one is surprised or excited by the existence of an artist in your own town that you didn’t know of. And they just feel, ‘I was always around, but you didn’t have the time to look at me!’ We don’t know enough about art around us, and Abir can help get a credible platform to see what is happening in the art work on a reasonably real-time basis. Even if I like a far-off young artist’s work — this forum makes it possible to stay in touch with that artist and know what they are doing.”

There are, of course, some strongly linked pros and cons to be weighed. Bhagwat said, “When you walk into a gallery and see art on a wall, there is particular lighting and a secure distance maintained, tape that tells you not to get too close. Now digital can allow you to see that same art from two inches away! Therein lies its great strength, in the accessibility of a level of micro-detail that is otherwise difficult to see for observers. In fact, I would argue that the digital medium provides a means to see some art like you will never be able to see it, say from a top view, or from underneath. We have to look at the digital medium not as a sorry replacement, but as a positive alternative to look at artwork. If this position of strength is taken as opposed to an apologetic position, the results will be something else. However, if one is a serious buyer, unless you know that artist or it is someone acclaimed, it may be difficult to commit and click buy after just viewing an art piece on a screen. Sometimes, standing before art and sensing it is everything. This might be a challenge, on how to bring potential purchases into the physical space of a buyer.”

Bhagwat’s keen insights come from long experience with multiple stakeholders in the art world. He explained, “We look at the idea of insertion/embedding of art in projects at two levels. For one, our design office is hugely invested in our understanding of ideas and processes of art, which are reflected in our design concept or narrative. We build cultural narratives as part the design, and did the same with the Ark building in Baroda. We love to tell stories through our work, as these are larger than the work itself. We also enjoy the use of artistic devices to be able to communicate the story. The second level is collaboration. I believe very strongly that any artistic or creative process is collaborative with everyone involved, from the architect to client, contractor, mason, carpenter, fabricator and artist. Everyone needs to shed their egos and come to the table, not thinking of it as a single person’s oeuvre, but ‘our creation’. Only then can the process become enjoyable. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it! We have been able to nail this enough times for me to feel reasonably satisfied with our trajectory. We keep everyone involved from Day 1 and engage in some fantastic conversation, with our egos checked out at the door.”

\"\" The Ark building in Baroda

Not every client may be as compliant though. How does Bhagwat tackle it? “I see the relationship anyone must have with art as very personal. I don’t see it at all as commercial. I would not dare suggest to a client that they should invest in/buy some art. If they have queries I am happy to supply information, but I respect art and would never want to shove it somewhere it is not revered. There is no pleasure if I got someone to make a public installation and then it was not valued. There is no greater disrespect to art. As far as communicating art to my clients goes, I would try to serve the cause in every conversation proactively, as also plan presentations and show them the diverse work of artists. But I will finally leave it to the buyers — as their decision comes from personal belief, not always commercial considerations,” he asserted.

As for his own art connection? “Appreciating art is a bit like a love affair — there is a phase when one is courting, which proceeds to infatuation, and then somewhat normalizes… and then there’s even possibly one where you are fed up! Right now, as I have only been buying art for the last four-odd years, I am quite infatuated. The sheer pleasures of walking into space and seeing something you like and that grabs your heart is quite unparalleled. If you can afford art that engages you, I say buy it. Just the other day I bumped into two beautiful ceramic pieces and had the artist over to install them. Now, I can spend hours just looking at them. I do not want to lose out on such pleasures and become a calculated art buyer. At least for now, I wish I could keep collecting without knowing the value of the work. Who knows what stage I will be at a couple of years down the line!” he emphasised.

Summarising the space of art in his life and in that of society around us, Bhagwat shared an anecdote: “There are many encounters with art I have had over the years, and each is always something special, and intensely personal. Something my friend and artist Walter D’Souza (he and Bhagwat worked together on the Gallery Ark in Baroda) said to me about this was deeply intuitive. He is not a man of many words, and while working with him, we had concluded that the art would be integral to the building and part of the process of construction itself. Walter smiled and said he would just make ‘a little comma’ somewhere in the architecture. He elaborated, ‘The purpose of art is to improve the quality of the discussion, not to define the discussion. With this building, you already have a narrative and a vocabulary, and a nice story. Art is inserted into it in little flashes, merely to improve its quality.’ For me, this explains so much of what art is about to us. It comes into our lives and makes them better, more joyous and introspective, described in the simplest way in a memorable conversation.”

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