Kochi: A rather jarring sight stares you in the face as you step into the Pepper House Library at Fort Kochi: every book and DVD is covered in newspaper. The wrapping creates a strange visual effect that is least expected in a conventional public reading room — forming a barrier between a reader and the books.
Finding an explanation for this puzzlement can be difficult for visitors to the library, a space that hosts a large and varied collection of books and videos for public use.
The person to question is Nilanjana Nandy, a Delhi-based artist and art educator, who has been creating artwork for the past two months in Pepper House as part of a residency programme organised by the Kochi Biennale Foundation. Her performative intervention Cover – Uncover, as seen in the Library, is part of the body of work produced during her time in Kochi.
“An artwork should trigger creative thoughts,” observes the artist, who is an alumna of the College of Art, New Delhi and M S University, Baroda.
When Nilanjana came to Kochi for her project, she began frequenting nearby reading spaces, noticing how each ‘Vayanashala’ (public reading room) would offer a particular selection of newspapers based on political patronage, thus promoting a tailored set of ideologies within a supposedly communal space.
“That was the trigger point,” reveals the artist. “That’s how the concept of ‘library intervention’ came into my mind. I started thinking what happens if this accessibility to information and knowledge is thwarted. Here, what is happening is mere ‘imposition’. That’s how I proposed this intervention.”
Until the end of her residency period, all the covers of books and the DVDs in the Pepper House library are hidden by a newspaper wrapping. Nandy believes it can push viewers to reconsider access to information and public knowledge, which they may take for granted in their daily lives.
Nilanjana says when people go to this famous library, they may know that it is intended as a study space for those interested in arts and architecture. “An element of ‘predictability’ is always there. What happens when there’s illegibility or a barrier to that?” she asks.
Such circumstances will force some to think about what exactly is shaping their thoughts, she elaborates. “But processing happens at different levels. What comes first is one’s immediate view of that visual. However, how one experiences it might not be always visual — people come with their own baggage, and that influences how they decode what they see,” she expounds.
‘Gender imbalance’ is another prominent issue Nandy addresses through her other project Reading Rooms “When I frequented the libraries, I could hardly see women spending their time there. It’s a nice collective space for reading, a community space where everyone can come together and, surprisingly, there are no girls or women. So I used to spend some time there. People can ask if there is any big deal in it. But I believe, by inhabiting this place for about 30 to 40 minutes, I am just being ‘visible’ and there exists a power of visibility,” she says.
About the need for artwork to be politically engaged, she says there should not be any obstinacy that an artist should stick with a particular school of thought. “I understand the standpoints. But why should it put you in a quagmire that you have to be either there or here. Why can’t you be somewhere where you can say a few other things too. I want to say things based on my experiences.”
About the installation project in her Pepper House studio, Alice in a Room of One’s Own, she says “My exhibition here is a collection of the instinctive works I have created in my time here. I have not dwelled as much on the personal versus the public, it is more about the mental space. When a viewer is in the room, one may encounter a few things and may miss out on a few. Any instinctive perusal of the space is welcome and then there is a surprise encounter. It is also about how a spectator will decode, in that sense it’s a room of one’s own for everyone. There is an element of fantasy in some of the drawings, and also just memory from my walks.”
Speaking about her studio space, Nilanjana says when she came here for the residency, she did not have any fixed plans. She began by inhabiting the space and started with her usual activities – drawing, sketching and reading in the library. “I started making my works on graph paper grids, because these were something given and familiar. And while I was working in my space at Pepper House, I realised that there was a grid right over me and that structure came into my work – a narrative grew from there. From the sounds of the ships, to the door frames, a lot of it features in what I drew. Everything I witnessed here is in my work,” she says.