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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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Sahil’s installation could be located in Khirkee, and it could also be anywhere else. His scale to size replica of the structures and landscape in and around Khirkee is built in what he calls a post-apocalyptic setup, where structures are leftovers, connotative of absences rather than presences. His model creates an enhanced sense of desolation, of a landscape that stands on turbulent ground after the trauma of an unspecified disaster or impact.

One of his previous projects, Artist as Suspect/Bomber, Ground Zero sees Sahil place himself, the figure of the artist, as a bomber, who not only creates but also simulates an explosion and destroys his own work. The impulse behind Sahil’s work is what he calls a “morbid curiosity”, an inquisitive desire to examine the nature and dynamics between violence, ‘open’ spaces and threat, a constant undercurrent tension that all architectural structures always exist in.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Sahil’s model of a miniature, abandoned Khirkee is the sheer craftsmanship that went into its making, something that developed into a privilege to witness. This is what is truly impressive about the process of his work- all of it could have been outsourced. Someone else could have crafted those models, and the physical labour and sleepless nights could have simply been done away with. Maybe the model could have been bigger, more extensive, could have been a hundred other things.

None of that happened, and with good reason.

Sahil told me about abandoned heritage houses in Goa, houses nobody lives in anymore, that now stand as containers of the specters of their ancestral past. Sahil’s model is also a child of abandonment. If he chooses to call it post-apocalyptic, his work takes an interesting turn. If the post-apocalyptic is marked by the absence of people and the remains of their days, then one is forced to negotiate the terms in which a place like Khirkee exists and sustains itself in a city like Delhi. Khirkee is already more or less a non-entity, what is so lovingly called an “informal, unorganized, low income neighbourhood”.

It is largely a community of people who have been consistently and systematically pushed to the fringes. It exists only through conversation, and people have to be initiated into mentally mapping Khirkee with the reference point of the colossal mall that stands across the road, further diminishing the reality of this place that is almost a hideout. It is peopled with lives that have either been uprooted or pushed here by marginalizing forces. In other words, Khirkee is a place that contains lives of abandonment in some form, lives nobody notices. The post-apocalyptic becomes an interesting lens to adopt, because it implies that people once populated the destroyed space. Therefore, in some ways, it is through the post apocalypse, an annihilation, invisibilisation that the people of Khirkee finally become visible. Their presence comes to the fore through their absence, and the work becomes a commemoration of people who have been treated as absences, invisibilities

I wouldn’t necessarily choose to call Sahils’ work a modeling of a post-apocalyptic. The term seems to me a limiting, rehearsed explication, especially since the dominant visualization of the post-apocalypse is facilitated largely by the American popular imagination and Hollywood cinema. ‘Abandonment’ and ‘invisibilization’ work perfectly, and in that, the work becomes so much more than a simple rendition of a post-apocalyptic image.

There were also video projections of the interiors of broken old houses in Khirkee as a part of the project, and this addition did something quite interesting. It provided an insight into what the interiors of Sahil’s model would probably look like, but in a different medium. It created a disjunct, removing the viewer from the totality of the model, and left the viewer to depend on her/his imagination to fit those interior spaces from the projection within the 3 dimensional piece.

Sahil’s work was also remarkable for the way in which it conceptualized the space of Khirkee. Much artwork and writing (including my own) has been dedicated to establishing Khirkee as a melting pot of cultures and people, an asylum for refugees and a space of discordant vibrancy. But Sahil’s focus is on the physical structuring of the place, and the consequences of having alleyways with buildings so clustered that the sky remains a stranger to the people living there. It is quite literally a perpetual architectural hazard, where collapse of one structure would lead, in all likelihood, to a domino effect. The abysmal living conditions is the experiential reality of these people, and Sahil manages to divest Khirkee of all the romanticization it has been subjected to. The close quarters create a viable breeding ground for disease and pestilence, and one fire somewhere would mean an entire neighbourhood set ablaze. These buildings are extremely vulnerable to biological and natural disasters, and Sahils’ model successfully captures this claustrophobia, and amplifies it, with the deterioration in the buildings, the peeling paint, the dust and the largely greyscale tone of the entire piece. The safety of a space like Khoj makes it very easy to forget the reality of the neighbourhood just outside. The emptiness of the clustered buildings is loud, highly evident, and creates a view of Khirkee that works as not only a feat of architectural and artistic genius but also a reality check. 

Sahil’s work also encapsulates an element that I choose to value in any work of art- the investment of the artist’s physical effort in her/his creation. I feel it is this investment that marks that final distinction between a work of art and a ‘product’, because selling hired artisans’ efforts under the garb of one’s own label seems exploitative at best. Perhaps stressing on the alternative is idealistic, because some work at some point has to be outsourced, and might simply be beyond the artist’s skill set or time. But I find this physical engagement with one’s work of great importance, because otherwise, it is just another enterprise in manufacturing, something that Sahil manages to avoid wholly.