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Try Paint with Water on a Glass Wall: Song Dong’s ‘Temple’ a big hit at Biennale

In Kochi
January 10, 2019

Yet again, the Sunday crowd throngs the open-roof circular glass structure at the leafy main locale of Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Both children and adults enter the slits on both sides of the light-green fence with curiosity. Only to get involved in their own artwork. A quick one though, but definitely memorable.

Welcome to ‘Water Temple’, the particularly interactive installation at the ongoing art festival’s central Aspinwall House venue in Fort Kochi. Conceived and presented by Chinese artist Song Dong, it facilitates any visitor to use simple paraphernalia to create murals of a unique kind.

The workspace amid the greenery has its floor made of acrylic mirror. Inside, paint-brushes are kept in water pots of different sizes and shapes. You need to just dip the bristles in water, move the brush-tip along the translucent wall in whichever way you want for whatever time. And bingo, you are a participating artist at the subcontinent’s biggest art festival.

No wonder, ‘Water Temple’ finds a busy stream of ‘pilgrims’, pleasantly jostling for space and busy adding to the images that keep vanishing in a short period of time. Every one of them gets immersed in the activity, with child-like enthusiasm.

Among them this weekend are Europeans Wanda and Eric Theobald. The German pair says they noticed kids and adults alike engrossed in animated artwork inside the structure and got curious. “Water paintings on glass! This is exhilarating, we thought,” says Eric. “It’s so beautiful to just watch it, leave alone trying it yourself.”

“Oh, no! I did paint. We both, actually,” chimes in Wanda. “You sketch something on the wall with water…you see it going so well, and then it all dries up. The process offers a lot of perspective, too.”

Not different is the thrill that Adil Gafoor and Lijo Varghese derive from the installation at the 108-day biennale that is on till March 29. The two teenagers from Kerala were just walking around the Aspinwall compound when they came across the ‘Water Temple’. “We spent quite a long time here,” says Adil. Adds Lijo: “It’s an untiring activity.”

In fact, Song Dong, too, strives to present a philosophical point beyond just fun. It is about the “inherent impermanence” of the world, says the 53-year-old resident of Beijing. Since 1995, he has not missed a single day making journal entries in water on stone.

While the installation is called ‘Water Temple’, the artist has titled his interactive work ‘Writing Diary with Water’. The idea emerged from Song Dong’s memories from childhood, when he was encouraged to practise handwriting without wasting paper and ink. “I continue to perform the act as a therapeutic ritual that leaves no trace,” says the artist, who was raised by his mother after his father was sent to a re-education camp during China’s decade-long Cultural Revolution that began the year Song Dong was born (1966).

The biennale installation is an extension of this process and ritual, says Song Dong. “The interactive sculpture allows the same meditation on impermanence in a shared, secular space as a metaphor for the processes of history, lack of communication and alienation that the world is steeped in,” he adds. “Even the mirrored floors denote the temporariness. The reflection stays only when you are there. When the person leaves the place, it too vanishes.”

At the ‘Water Temple’, Sandra K P, a student of Kendriya Vidyalaya in Kochi, quickly makes a picture of Marilyn Monroe. Just as she paints the bottom half of the Hollywood icon, the top portion gets dried up. “Ah, this is fun,” gushes her friend Deepika Jayan, busy shooting the activity on her mobile camera.

Ten-year-old Siddharta Ramachandran has come to the Biennale with his elder brother and their parents from Australia where they live. “This is really creative,” he says.

Arpan Ghosh, an art mediator around, is amused when he says that not many at the Water Temple bother to read about its details. “The installation is interactive; people just love spending time here,” he notes with a smile.