When I was in school, we were taken to the Egmore Museum for one-day picnics four times in as many years. Four times! I absolutely hated it. Even as a kid, I didn’t quite get the idea of piling all art under one roof and deliberately spending a whole day to see them. Naturally our entire class rebelled, fought, threw tantrums, passionately declared we’d boycott the whole picnic, tried every means possible to get out of it, but to no avail. Resigned to our fate, we’d ultimately just sit and stare at the dinosaurs the whole day, pretending we were at Jurassic Park. The point is, museums are just as unpopular now and its main visitors are still school kids dragged against their will.
Why is that we need to go in search of art in a city? Why have museums evolved to be a model of academic and social exclusivity?
We need to understand that spaces can be both constricting and liberating. By demarcating spaces for art, we limit their public outreach and seeing it becomes a tiresome effort, a chore. For urban art to be inclusive it needs to come out of its spatial boundaries, it needs to become a part of our everyday experiences. It should be present at the oddest of places and the most common spaces, from a bus stop to a traffic signal, from a shopping mall to the open beach, where encountering it would be a part of our daily routine!
Inclusive Art in Public Spaces
This is why the Phoenix Market City stands out amidst the plethora of malls mushrooming in the city. There is more than just the overload of commercialism and entertainment; there is also a liberal sprinkling of art and other installations that make use of the dynamics of the enclosed space! Art greets you at every corner on every floor, and it is surprisingly well organized and mapped. Similarly the VR Bengaluru Mall has very well curated, attractive art installations that stand out amidst the stark black and white interiors of the mall. What makes it so appealing is that I don’t have to go somewhere in search of art, it is interspersed with my shopping experience. If finding art in malls can make such an impact, think about how wonderful it will be to find art in open, public spaces like the Marina beach or our neighborhood parks!
Every time I drive down Cathedral Road, I wish for a red light at the Stella Maris signal just to admire the murals on the walls. There is just something incredibly relaxing about soaking in the colourful expressions in the middle of a tense traffic situation. It makes driving more pleasurable. All this points towards an effort to take urban art outside the walls of institutionalized spaces, to make it more open and accessible. By far, the streets of Chennai have the most potential in transforming the way art in a city is perceived. Every traffic signal, every bottleneck on the roads can be vantage points of an urban arts program.
When I heard about the ‘Conquer the Concrete‘ urban art festival, I rubbed my hands in glee. In a city where street art is nothing more than political and commercial publicity, it was encouraging to see the Egmore Railway station spruced up with murals and graffiti work by a diverse range of local and international artists. It garnered a lot of interest, and was successful mainly because of the support of local bodies like the Chennai City Connect, Corporation of Chennai and Southern Railways. This urban intervention paves the way for a different kind of dialogue between art and the city. Art is more than just a piece in a museum with a ‘Do not touch’ board next to it. It has become a medium of interaction, expression and a symbol of inclusivity.
Engaging the Community
Moreover, public art is a communal activity, whose reach can be powerful for communities and neighborhoods. Artists realize a democratic ideal in outdoor settings that are free to all viewers. The public role in public art is essential to the artist. People enliven a work, are inspired and intrigued, motivated and provoked.  Street art also attracts attention to specific causes and socially relevant issues as a form of “art provocation”
Urban art in public spaces have the potential to reflect the local cultures and be a part of narratives forged with the context. It can revive troubled spaces in the city that are struggling for recognition and identity. It could also prevent public vandalism and keep a place clean. A few days back, somewhere in Royapettah, I saw a wall plastered with huge murals of various gods and goddess with the ‘Do not urinate’ sign below it. Not surprisingly, it works! Whatever the motive, whatever the form, one cannot deny that the changing urban art scene in Chennai is transforming the way our city looks and feels. And I, for one, am glad that I don’t have to go to a museum to see art. A red-light at a traffic signal is enough.