Interview: Friso Witteveen

Friso is a Dutch installation artist based in Amsterdam, participating in one of the Biennale's largest Collateral Projects - Janela: Migrating Forms and Migrating Gods. As he has now done several public art projects in India, I was particularly interested in how his work engages the community here. 

You seem to like working in India - you’ve just realised your installation here in Kochi, and a few years ago you've done a public installation in Delhi, on Ramlila Ground. Tell me a bit about your experience here. 

I think as a foreigner, not being born here, you either hate or love India: I think I’m still working on both sides. As soon as the plane hits the ground, you smell India. From that moment, you’re there. 

Working in India in these kinds of projects is quite intensive, and incredible. It takes so much effort to get something done, and within a certain time period. I initially just think, ‘let's make an incredible project’ and then again, I've got to think about ‘how to build this incredible project, here in India?’

What was the premise behind your installation in Delhi? 

Working as an installation artist, you can think of your work on different levels. The most interesting thing when being invited to another country is to think about the place itself, the area, the context. Quite often you see artists working on their own ideas and experiences, and "just show" their own work wherever they are - but being an installation artist, I feel it’s bloody interesting to go into a different way of thinking and working. That’s why I started to research India, and specific Delhi itself, when invited to the 48° Public.Art.Ecology program. 

One of my brothers visited India some 25 years before I came to India, and had brought back several books on the country. When I was invited to be one of the artists, I started to search for images I remembered. I'm visually very strong, and strongly remember images. When I was thinking about India during the conversation with the curator, it was like a carousel in my head (made *choog choog choog* noises like a slide projector) that started working. There was one image that came up during that conversation, and I was like, ‘ohhh shit, yes yes yes’. 

What image were you thinking of in particular?

I was thinking of the Jantar Mantar - I had seen an image in one of the books, when I was probably 19 or 20 years old. I thought at the time, ‘Jesus, that is beautiful - one day I have to go there’. It sounds silly, but for almost ten days I searched the internet to find that particular image, because I didn’t know what it was. I searched for the “pillar-like building” and did found the image on - I think it was Wikipedia - and thought, ‘Jesus Christ, that’s the building - the Jantar Mantar.’ For my installation I took the pillars 'out of the building' and replaced them somewhere else to make people aware of something new - and something old.

What was the significance of making it public and interactive? 

I do like public art myself. I really like it when people are invited to enter a different world. Sometimes there are too many layers in an artwork to understand it directly. If there is more time taken to spend with a work of art, and especially installation art, you can get people interested in a story. That's the magic of installation, and installation art - getting people into the installation, one way or another - not only by walking in, but entering the space. When people start being part of it, it makes them more aware of what the artist trying to tell. 

It happened with the installation ‘Hocus Pocus' in Delhi. The reflection was literally there, in the installation - people who went into Hocus saw themselves in the reflection inside. With Pocus, the reflection was on the outside - opening like a lotus flower. If you walk outside and around Pocus, you saw yourself walk in your surroundings, in your world - reflecting.

Was it in the middle of Old Delhi and New Delhi?

Yes, that was absolutely extra special - even Pooja Sood, the curator was amazed we got the work on Ramlila Ground. The ground is an important environment for political gatherings, and the gatherings are still there. A lot of people use that public space - so it is a kind of magical or holy ground. Made by the English as a kind of ‘buffer zone’, to keep Old Delhi, with all diseases and poor people on one side, and New Delhi on the other side. If you are standing in the middle of the ground, you really feel it - its amazing - new high towers and decadent buildings on one side and on the other side people still living against the fence of the grounds itself, with their houses built against the wall.

Do you think that’s why an interactive installation worked best, so the people of Old Delhi and New Delhi could interact together in this in-between space?

I think that was absolutely the thought of the installation. Part of Public.Art.Ecology is actually to re-think our own humanity on all levels. We partly had to close the ground for the gatherings while making the artwork. A bit scary for me, making it impossible for Indian people to be on their ground just because of an art show. There were no protests on that - I don’t know why. When ready, I tried to explain my thoughts on my installation in Ramlila Ground - getting people from both sides. It could have been "a stupid art project" for only the people of the "high society of New Delhi", but because it was open and free for everyone… everyone could visit my installation and see where it was about.

Did you have to encourage people to interact with your work?

Of course the adults didn’t climb the work, but the children did. Adults were somewhat uncomfortable in Hocus, a bit shy because of seeing themselves reflected everywhere. But that prompted them to move to Pocus, where the reflection was on the outside. Walking outside and inside the spokes, a lot of pictures were taken - it's great to see a lot of happiness in people, interacting with the installation and talking about what it is, together.

Thats the same with my installation here [in Kochi] - can I make that switch now?

(nods) Yes, you may. 

I think it’s a difficult question - can people really experience your thoughts on life by installation-art? My installation ‘Lingam Palace’ here in Kochi is based on the floor plan of Bolgatty Palace in Kochi - built in 1744 it is 'the oldest Dutch Mansion outside Holland' - where within was a Temple dedicated to Shiva, first of its kind in Kerala.  I studied the period the Dutch came here to colonise - which doesn’t refer to a nice period. But colonialism then, refers somehow to what we speak about now - how do you say, the world is becoming one? Globalisation? And globalisation is the word bringing the world together. In a way, it happened three or four hundred years ago with colonization. I know it has a wrong connotation, but Europe and the Dutch "used" a lot of things from India and it enriched the Western world. As it also reflected the other way around. It made the world grow and again people should think about nowadays globalisation. Why did the Dutch build a Shiva temple in the 1700s? Maybe it explains a little about the Dutch in India. Something I tried to explore, as a Dutch artist working in Kochi, 300 years later.

Thanks to Friso Witteveen for the images. For more on Friso's work, see: witteveenstudio.blogspot.com or visit the collateral show, Janela: Migrating Forms and Migrating Gods in Mattancherry, Kochi as part of the KMB 2014.