Published in La.Lit on 4 September 2020
It was Sunday, the ninth day of November, a little past 3 pm, the kind of afternoon that reminded me of a drop of honey – shiny and sweet. As I made my way from Jamal to Durbar Marg, everything sparkled – helmets, windowpanes, even the street. Now and again I felt the breeze flowing over my hair and my cheeks, its coolness a perfect complement to the warmth of Kathmandu’s autumn sun.
As I climbed the stairs of the City Museum of Kathmandu, grateful for the beautiful day, I couldn’t help thinking – Ashmina Ranjit is probably unaware of this weather. She is unable to feel the sun and wind on her skin. She has been inside the museum’s gallery for the past twenty-one hours, sticking a pin into the dress she is wearing with every breath she takes.
Ms. Ranjit’s work, titled “Beyond Recognition”, is part of a one-week programme, an initiative of the New School’s India China Institute, the City Museum of Kathmandu, and Lasanaa, an alternative art space. Just before her 24-hour art event began, a discussion to engage the arts and humanities with climate change had taken place at the museum, followed by the inauguration of paintings by Ms. Ranjit’s father, Mr. K G Ranjit, that explore environmental crisis. The father-daughter team’s artwork is jointly titled “Nature in Flux”. I learned that Ms. Ranjit’s art is a metaphor for Kathmandu’s air pollution. Each breath a pinprick on our body.
After opening remarks, Ms. Ranjit’s performance started at 6 pm. Sitting with a serene expression in front of the guests, a tika of intertwining snakes slithering from the center of her forehead onto her nose, Ms. Ranjit did not address her audience. She took a silver pin with her right hand and pierced the front of her white gown. Then, drawing another breath, she took another pin and repeated the action. Her left hand had a clicker. Next to her, a laptop on a wooden stand kept time. The digits on the screen showed 23:58, and counted down the hours, minutes and seconds.
Those present gradually dispersed and mingled, sipping wine and nibbling on cupcakes. Ms. Ranjit continued. I took one last look at her and stepped out to have dinner with friends.
Around 11:30 pm that night, we returned to the gallery, now much quieter. A few people – a couple of cameramen, Ms. Ranjit’s husband and friends – were sitting around. They would be accompanying the artist throughout the twenty-four hours.
I went closer to her. There had been a shift. What was it? I glanced at the timer and then at Ms. Ranjit. It was as if I could sense every second weighing on her. While we had hailed a cab to Lazimpat, ordered, waited, and devoured burgers, listened to jazz, sipped drinks and returned, Ms. Ranjit had been sitting there, repeating that one simple series – reaching out for a silver pin, sticking it to her gown, taking a breath and clicking a counter. There were seventeen and a half hours to go.
The materials spoke a different language as well. The fabric on her body, her limbs and the pins were busy with preparation. The pins dotted her sleeveless beige coat, made a gentle flurry on her lap, scattered around the chair and flowed out on the red floor. About forty-three thousand had been ordered and sterilized for the project.
Along with the concrete sense of time passing while I witnessed the creation of an artwork, I also felt a strange energy, intangible, invisible, but so present that I could almost reach out and grab it with my fingers. That energy, that quality I felt, was a direct reaction to Ms. Ranjit’s determination and endurance. These three factors – passing time, pulsing flesh and the prickly message – drew me in, momentarily froze me in that space. And I realized – the artist had become art.
I returned to the museum around 11 the following morning. Ms. Ranjit smiled at a guest, an act that rendered her mechanical persona more human. Even though almost twelve hours had passed since my last visit, I did not notice any other change. There were more pins on her gown for sure, but the effect wasn’t all that remarkable. Her feet were propped on a bunch of clothes and a small blanket was rolled and tucked in between her back and the chair.
Later that day, during the twenty-first hour, Ms. Ranjit’s face seemed coloured by a visible layer of exhaustion; her skin appeared a shade darker. “She sticks pins and clicks the counter even when she goes to the bathroom,” someone said. Ms. Ranjit was on a liquid diet – water, juice, tea. A friend pushed some titaura into her mouth. “I felt a bit dazed earlier,” Ms. Ranjit said, “I could not even hold this counter, perhaps due to sleeplessness.” A student approached Ms. Ranjit and mumbled something. Ms. Ranjit responded, a few words, but her voice was still sharp and clear. Somebody else went up to her and kissed her cheeks. She smiled once more.
Visitors assembled during the final hour. We all watched the minutes tick by. Five minutes felt too long. When the timer finally buzzed, we all applauded. Ms. Ranjit declined to say anything formal, but invited guests for a group photo before taking off her art-attire, which will be displayed at the museum for the rest of the week.
“In this work, my concern is neither focused on the trap of synthetic modernity nor the nostalgia of historical harmonies. It is about that liminal space where one is free yet not free, trapped yet unrestricted, the suspension between hope and despair, bliss and misery. In that space, the culture evolving from the present socio-political/natural scenario is both reflected and recreated,” says Ms. Ranjit’s artist statement.
This is the first time in Nepal’s history that an artist has successfully completed a 24-hour performance act. As with any piece of art, it is worth asking – Why does this matter? What does this mean for art and for the humanities? How does this help our environment? How is it significant to you and to our larger society? With this blog, I am inviting all of you to reflect on these questions.
November 9, 2014