Utopian Places And Spaces: The Urban Ideal In 20th Century India

By Evelina Kuvykovaite (MA student)

On the 19th of January 2016 Professor Deborah Swallow delivered a first lecture in the series Utopia: Constructed, which commemorates 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. By training Swallow is a social antropologist who for many years specialised in Indian art, museology and textiles and worked in institutions such as Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Victoria  & Albert Museum. Since 2004 she has lead the Courtauld Institute of Art as its Märit Rausing Director.

Vastu Purusha (or the Cosmic Man)

Vastu Purusha (or the Cosmic Man)

Professor Swallow began her lecture by considering the architecture of the 20th century. The period’s architecture was meant to convey a sense of a ‘new beginning’ in the world devastated after the two world wars and years of suppression. Modern materials such as iron and steel became key elements of the avant-garde and cutting-edge buildings, which rapidly replaced the old ones and occupied previously untouched landscapes. Architects of ‘tomorrow’ relied heavily on their utopian theories about the ideal city; yet few of them understood how to realise them in practise and how to work with these new materials. The best example of this is today’s many crumbling concrete buildings all around the world.

The lecture then proceeded unto the discussion about the utopian places and spaces in India. Professor Swallow began by exploring various concepts of the ideal city in the classical textual sources. She stressed that in India the spiritual concepts were always intrinsic to its architecture. For example, the concept of Vastu Purusha (or the Cosmic Man) is the rationale behind the architecture of the traditional Hindu temples.

Temple as the body of the deity

Temple as the body of the deity

She then proceeded to explore the post-independent cities of the mid-20th century, which she extensively studied and got a chance to live in for an extended period of time. It is around 1950s when cities, such as Chandigarh, Bhubaneswar and the township of Auroville were either created, or reimagined. Due to the lack of locally trained architects foreigners were employed to design these cities. Their architectural design had to convey the essence of Indian culture. It had to merge the spiritual aspects with India’s historic past, independent present and aspirations for its future. Also, the architecture had to foster contemporary political and social ideas of the independent state. For example, Le Corbusier’s giant concrete buildings in Chandigarh continue to dominate the city and proclaim these days no longer so ‘new’ dawn. Similarly, the Open Han Monument became Chandigarh’s symbol representing ‘peace and reconciliation’. It tells a story about the partition and independence of India and at the same time projects a vision for a brighter independent India’s tomorrow.

Matrimandir in the township of Auroville

Matrimandir in the township of Auroville

Auroville demonstrates a slightly different case of utopian architecture. It was founded as an experimental township by Mirra Alfassa (known as ‘The Mother’). It was originally calculated to populate 50.000 people by 2014. However, today it is home for around 2.500 citizens, who come from around 50 countries. Auroville operates under the unusual economic and political structures and its architecture does not fall under the label of traditional. It was designed by Alfassa and an architect by Roger Anger, who wanted to build an ideal society living in ideal architecture. In the middle of the town the giant golden metallic sphere called Matrimandir is located. It is a spiritual object, which attracts believers from all religions. Similarly, other buildings in the town are futuristic. Their style reflects the beliefs of the town’s founders about the progress and development, which Auroville was intended to bring to the world.

I would like to briefly conclude by saying that although the talk was titled Utopian Places And Spaces these cities and their architecture are ‘real’. It continues to make an impact on its people and act as an example for a new generation of architects. It is a functioning example of the 20th century modernity in India and around the world.

Is the biggest art the art of living? (The Transformative Power of Art 5-6 February 2016)

By Julia Secklehner (PhD student)

Opera-village-image2-600x600[1]Organised by PhD student Sarah Hegenbart, ‘The Transformative Power of Art’ was a conference at the Courtauld Institute focusing on the life and legacy of the German artist Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010), his relationship to Richard Wagner (1813-1883), and notions of the Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total work of art.’ Presented by a host of impressive participants like Schlingensief’s widow Aino Laberenz and the director of Tate Modern Chris Dercon, much of the conference revolved around Schlingensief’s final project, the Opera Village in Burkina Faso – and the question whether this was a continuation, or realisation, of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. The Opera Village, which started in 2010, today consists of 26 buildings revolving around a school and a hospital. ‘How is this a Gesamtkunstwerk?’ you may ask – which, at least in part, was also the crux of the conference.

Defining the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk on the stage as a unity between lyric, dance and sound from his 1849 essays ‘Art and Revolution’ and ‘Artwork of the Future,’ much of Schlingensief’s work corresponded with this idea. Given that Schlingensief, who had his first Tate Modern retrospective in 2012, is certainly not known as well in Britain as in Germany, selected works introduced him as a socially engaged artist, often drawing on Catholic notions of the spectacle, with films and action art projects that involved bystanders as participants, consistently blurring the line between art and life. Please love Austria (2000), for example, let people vote asylum seekers out of the country in a Big-Brother-style fashion after the Austrian right-wing party FPÖ became part of the country’s government. Another piece, the trash film The German Chainsaw Massacre (1990), dealt with the implications of the reunification of East and West Germany in 1989, showing West Germans turning their Eastern counterparts into objects of mass consumerism: sausages!

This narrow selection of works alone exemplifies the work of an artist who not only engaged critically with politics and popular culture, but was also blurring the lines between art and life in an idiosyncratic reinterpretation of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. References to works like Please love Austria were well-chosen given the current socio-political climate in Germany and Austria, yet not assessed within this context. For all the critical and social engagement in Schlingensief’s work, one cannot help but wonder how pieces like Please love Austria would be received today — or how Schlingensief would have responded to the current refugee crisis.

In contrast to these critical works, it seems, the Opera Village was born out of a different kind of social engagement: that of fostering the arts in a place that Schlingensief identified with, far away from the remits of Western culture and ‘European values’ he so frequently exposed. Still, one wonders about the implications of a high-profile Western artist building his legacy in a remote part of Africa (the opera village is located 30 kilometres outside Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital). Aino Laberenz, who is now the project’s director, pointed out that, while she is overseeing things, the bulk of the project is directed by the local community, and there is a particular emphasis to foster cultural exchange, rather than to enforce ‘Western values’ onto the African project. Even though the artist may have started the Opera Village with the best intentions and, as was asserted, a great portion of naivety, it seems that more critical engagement with the socio-political implications of the project, especially given the current situation in Burkina Faso, is needed.

Particularly striking in this context is the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk. If the Opera Village is not a charity project but an ‘artwork’ that integrates art with a social infrastructure, what do the people living there (Burkinabe teachers, doctors and nurses) represent? Are their lives a performance? Or has Schlingensief created a perfectly autonomous artwork that survives and continues after his death and is inseparable from the individuals involved with it? While it has been stressed that the people living in the Opera Village have their own input, their voices weren’t heard at the conference, and by focusing on the project as ‘Schlingensief’s utopia’ haven’t we somehow reversed his ideal by excluding them? As Schiller said, ‘the greatest art is the art of life’. Using the Opera Village as an example for ‘an art of life’, notions of the Gesamtkunstwerk can be re-assessed, yet its relationship to the direct socio-political situation in Burkina Faso remain to be explored.

As such, ‘The Transformative Power of Art’ was a successful and engaging starting point to the reception of Schlingensief’s work in the UK: rather than providing answers, at the end of the one-and-a-half-day event there were more questions than before, some of which, like the contemporary relevance of Schlingesief’s work and a critical, socio-political reading of the Opera Village, are more pressing than others.