As written for SBCLTR

In 2013, the charming village of Gunehar in Himachal Pradesh, was given an artistic makeover of epic proportions in the form of ShopArt ArtShop (SA AS) by 4tables, started by Frank Schlichtmann. The aim was to give Indian artists the opportunity to work on arts in a wholesome manner outside the confines of usual, urban-centric art spaces. The results were immersive and stunning, as can be seen in the walls and culture of the village even today.

This process-oriented non-elitist conceptual arts festival is scheduled to take place every three years, and its second edition in 2016 was no less extraordinary. For a month, the village came together to create another unique arts experience, ending in a grand showcase much like a village mela. Not only do the artists feel inspired in the serene foothills of the Himalayas but the village too is exposed to contemporary art in a special way.

From June 3-11, 2017, the village shall be transformed yet again for the upcoming art exhibition IN THE WOODS (ITW). Featuring the works of ceramic sculptor Mudita Bhandari who attended SA AS’s 2016 edition, curator Frank’s spacial art installations, and Nikhil Narendra’s soundscape with found sounds, the exhibition will take place in the forests above Gunehar, giving conceptual arts a whole new context. Given the choice of location, anybody can walk into the open space, experience and engage the art on display, and not feel intimidated.

Frank decided to stay in the village of Gunehar because he found an Indian village to be a better space to live in compared to Indian cities. “People make too much out of a social angle just because you are in a village,” he exclaims. “Gunehar is not really an artist village but a normal village of farmers, workers etc. Since I live here, it has become the centre of my attention and the venue for the work, which in itself is not village-specific unless specifically made so conceptually, like in the case of SA AS 2 when the concept required incorporation of village elements into the arts concepts.”

For SA AS, the artists were picked on their conceptual abilities, after which Frank created a thematic and methodical structure for specific projects, which artists were requested to present concepts for. If it fit, they were invited to realise the project in Gunehar and given the space, material support and curatorial help required.

“The SA AS method is as much about the festival at the end as about demonstrating the conceptual and creative processes involved in creating arts. ITW is different in that it is ‘merely’ an exhibition and the artists are actually working, very traditionally, in their studios towards this. I am in touch with them constantly and we are like a small team, with me being the organisational facilitator on the ground. What made me pick these artists was the wish to, for a change, work with what is still considered conventional arts, i.e. painting and sculpture. I find these artists among the most prolific in their fields because of the unusual form of expression they have found within the realm of their disciplines,” says Frank.

He adds, “Gradually, a concept developed in my mind about an exhibition in the woods, because this ultimately goes into the heart of my motivation for doing what I do, which is to take arts out of restricted, elitist spaces and make it accessible.”

His original brief: “I am interested in exploring the notion of the woods as a legitimate, non-gallery type of space for an art exhibition, raising questions about the different methods of presenting arts. This is not ‘an intervention in nature’ or ‘a dialogue with nature’ but rather, an opening up of an open, natural space to arts (as opposed to the walled space of a gallery). What this means is that thematically, the art-works themselves should not be too influenced by the natural setting. No Andy Goldsworthy-ness.”

What is beautiful apart from the settings of this exhibition is the sense of community that has already emerged in those who are a part of ITW. Mudita believes that in the bigger picture, the role of exhibitions like ITW are more important than one would imagine. “When I moved back to my hometown to set up my studio, most of my relatives wondered what I was doing or how it all worked professionally. Somehow, they even hesitated in asking me about it. But when we got talking and I explained how it works for me – how an idea develops and where it’s coming from – it was amazing. It connected me with them on a completely different level. There’s nothing in art that another human being wouldn’t understand but maybe it has become elusive because of lack of communication. Projects like ITW do a wonderful job of bridging that gap,” she shares.

Frank himself is doing installation arts within the exhibition forest. “Oh, I’m not an artist at all, just interested in arts, among other things,” he says modestly. He continues, “My idea is to convert the space without altering the landscape. That was the initial plan and still is. We still need to do a lot to get it ready, and then finally install the artworks in the space, which will be a great and exciting challenge in itself. We have gotten permission from our district administration, who are also very helpful.”

Another member of the ITW family is Bangalore-based producer Nikhil Narendra, who is also part of a live electronica duo with drummer Shreyas Dipali. An artist of his own right, Nikhil will be producing a soundscape for the exhibition in collaboration with the locals, along with a live performance for the launch on 3rd June. The finished piece will be played out on a sound system in the woods for the remainder of the exhibition. “The aim is to build a soundscape or a collage of sounds collected a week in the forest prior to the exhibition. I am then going to treat these collected samples digitally through various processes to build sonic textures and maybe even interpret the ”found sound” in a more musical and artistic context. The element of surprise is the uncertainty of what sounds I’m going to capture and how I fuse all these elements and make a cohesive piece in the end. I plan on recording the pahari musicians as a primary source for the sound piece. Other sounds will include ambience, nature, conversations, and surface textures,” he elaborates, adding that while he has worked on such projects in the past, recording the folk musicians is something he’s really looking forward to.

On the element of sound, Frank specifies that the exhibition is NOT about nature. “The sound of the forest, the beauty of it, is already there. There is no real meaning in pointing this out through art, which is around us already. A piece of music to be played in a forest needs no birds, wind etc. What it can be is a contrast, something that adds a new dimension to the already existing,” says Frank.

So who should attend ITW? “Our motive is simple – to make it easy and exciting for people to visit an art exhibition. This stretch of forest is on a road that leads from the lower part of the valley to Billing, which is where the paragliders take off from, and which is a popular tourist spot. So we are taking the exhibition to the visitors, and also drawing them into the woods: two things they usually never do while driving up this road. Open concepts like ITW create understanding for conceptual-artistic processes that go way beyond any local implications. For instance, Bir is seeing a growing number of Indian travellers, so when they get to visit an exhibition like this or even visit our art gallery, arts is carried into the mainstream,” says Frank, who strongly believes that the fact that SAAS 1 and 2 happened and got such great media coverage has definitely changed the perceptions of organisers and curators in the Indian art scene, whether they would like to admit it or not. “The numbers we have usually seen in our events, and the diversity of public…I don’t think you can reach those numbers in the cities easily,” he says.

While the intention is noble, making an exhibition like this a reality is no easy task and funding is the biggest challenge Frank faces. “In India, the concept of sponsorship of arts is in infant stages. The little money that is available comes through the (very few) art foundations, international institutions such as Goethe Institute, British Council etc., but this is tightly controlled. Most of the time, they don’t even answer the phone and if they do, they can’t relate to something like this because it’s not happening in cities and through their own efforts. On the other hand, this is what makes the work I do even more important because while a lot of money is spend on mediocre projects, we are proving that great things can be done and find broad public acceptance without much money.”

With the help of Zostel, who recently opened a branch in Bir, we carried out a crowdfunding campaign on Ketto, but could only raise Rs 70,000. The team is currently hoping for Himachal Pradesh Tourism Board to come on board and support the event. “SA AS and ITW are pilot projects and absolutely necessary towards the development of a vibrant Indian art scene. It’s not about how much money can be raised. Instead, our attitudes should be that we will do it anyway because it must be done!” he adds.

For those of you who can’t attend, the good news is that some of these artworks will be integrated into the existing village art museum, which is a free-for-all meeting place to study conceptual art created by artists who have been a part of this journey.

For more information on IN THE WOODS, visit their event page.