Ghosts at the banquet

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Samar Jodha’s exhibition on the Bhopal gas tragedy undercuts the clamour revolving around the Dow-sponsored Olympics, says Janani Ganesan

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THE EXTRAORDINARY
 athletic feats at the London Olympics shouldn’t distract us from the decision of the organisers to permit the Games to be funded in part by the Dow Chemicals, the company that bears, in the words of photographer Samar Jodha, a “moral obligation to clean up Bhopal”. Tens of thousands died and hundreds of thousands have had their health compromised following a methyl isocyanate gas leak in the Union Carbide plant (then a Dow subsidiary) on 2 December 1984. Amnesty International, which has been campaigning against Dow Chemicals’ sponsorship of the Olympics, has teamed with Jodha to put on Bhopal — A Silent Picture.

Jodha added 3D images on backlit light boxes; and a shroud covering imitations of human bodies bearing names and file numbers of the victims

The installation is, in the words of Jodha, “a 20-minute walk from the Olympic park”. The exhibition couldn’t be any closer to the park because, as Jodha points out, “legislation was passed in the UK prohibiting any protest or political statements within a certain radius of the Olympic park.” The photographs included in the installation were exhibited in India last year, “attracting over 95,000 visitors in Mumbai in one week alone.” In London, the installation is larger in scale, set in a seven-tonne shipping container. Jodha added 3D images on backlit light boxes; and a shroud covering imitations of human bodies bearing names and file numbers of the victims. The latter, says Jodha, is a “response to the ‘wrap’ that Dow provided for the main stadium”. “The art is not marked by bold photojournalistic reportage or shrill activism, but by a quiet reflection,” explains Jodha. Its silence is a powerful rebuke.

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Q&A Samar Jodha

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

Samar Singh Jodha

With the furore over Dow sponsoring the Olympics, did your exhibition run into any trouble?
The exhibition has not faced any issues from Dow because Dow has refused to come out publicly and acknowledge the presence of the exhibition. Nor has it acknowledged Amnesty’s campaign asking the London committee organising the Olympics to apologise for accepting Dow as a sponsor.

You had mentioned that you would have rather had the installation near the Olympic Park. Were you denied permission to hold it there?
The installation is currently at Amnesty UK premises, a 20-minute walk from the Olympic Park. Legislation was passed in the UK many months ago prohibiting any ‘protest’ or political statements within a certain radius of the Olympic Park itself, so we did not seek permission.

Do you think Dow should take responsibility to clean up Bhopal?
The issues here go far beyond the ‘normal’ notions of corporate responsibility. It has ceased to be about the legal duty of Dow to compensate financially and it is a moral obligation on the part of Dow to ensure that the contamination is cleaned up. It is not right that some 27 years later a parent should have to give their child water laced with methyl iso-cyanate.

How long has the installation been travelling for? Have there been instances where it has encouraged people into action?
This installation had travelled to New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai in 2011. Over 95,000 people visited this project in Mumbai in a week alone, making it the largest ever-viewed public art project in India. After London, the installation will travel through Europe over the next two years. I am aware that many people have become involved with the Amnesty campaigns as a result of visiting the show and finding out about Bhopal.

Are there new additions to the installation at the Olympics?
The installation in India was much smaller at 20 feet. This one is set inside a 40-feet shipping container and weighs over 7-tonnes. A body of 20 compositions captures the eerie emptiness of the plant. These 3D lenticular images are set on backlit light boxes. Facing the images is a shroud bearing names and file numbers of some of the victims that envelops them in anonymity. This is in response to the “wrap” that Dow is providing the Games’ main stadium and which Seb Coe, the Chairman of the London Games, put it as “icing on the cake”.

Is the project intended towards inciting action?
My concerns are not so much about the specifics of this event but the larger questions about our shared humanity. The installation is not marked by bold photojournalistic reportage or shrill activism, but by a quiet reflection.

Do you think Indian sportspersons and other Indian artistes performing under Dow’s banner, so to speak, should be expressing dissent, akin to the Black Power salute at the Mexico Olympics?
I have not brought this exhibition to London to dampen, in any way, the Olympic spirit. The people within the Indian team have all worked so hard to be here. I do not feel that they should necessarily pay the price for the irresponsibility of Dow.

You work a lot on conflicts. How do you decide you want to work on a particular issue?
My art is not really project orientated. It’s more based on the work I have been doing over 20 years on conflict issues and the effects of the development race, consumerism and urbanisation. The art projects are a continuous process and evolve organically.

How do your experiences of public art and art for galleries differ? Do you feel more satisfaction with one form than the other?
It is not necessary that public art has to sit only within a public space. Many times large art foundations and galleries want to take this kind of work beyond a commercial venture. A good example is earlier this year at India Art Fair I was able to showcase DISCORD, a 35-feet installation on migration labourers without any rental costs.

Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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