In the courtyard of an 18th century palace built for the Malla kings who once ruled Nepal, 150 pairs of disembodied feet fan out in all directions from a domed shrine devoted to the Hindu god Vishnu.
The moulds, made from plaster-of-paris and cement, are the centrepiece of the month-long Kathmandu International Arts Festival. The exhibit showcases more than 200 installations, performances, multi-media works, paintings, sculpture and photography in 16 locations across the capital. It is believed to be the largest arts event in south Asia and the biggest with an environmental theme in the world.
“The festival’s theme is earth, body and mind, so I decided to use the concept of feet because that’s our first contact with the earth,” said Nepali artist SaurgangaDarshandhari. “Our steps may progress, but no matter how many steps we take, we remain in earth. When the visitors see this, he or she feels instantly connected to it.”
Artists from 31 countries explore issues such as urbanisation, water, ecology, food security, natural resources, and biodiversity that have been impacted by environmental degradation and climate change.
“We have chosen climate change as our topic because it is of critical importance not only for Nepal but also for the entire world,” festival director SangeetaThapa said.
Mountainous Nepal, vulnerable to climate change despite being responsible for only 0.025% of global greenhouse gas emissions, among the world’s lowest, is a fitting venue for an international arts festival on climate change.
The country’s thousands of Himalayan glaciers are the source of water for 10 major Asian rivers and experts say those river basins, home to a one-sixth of humanity, could go dry in the next five decades because of global warming.
Global temperatures rose by an average of 0.74 degrees Celsius over the past century, according to the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. It says the warming in the Himalayas has been much greater than the global average.
Man’s imprint on nature is all too apparent in many of the festival artworks on display alongside Darshandhari’s feet in the museum courtyards of the ancient city of Patan.
In one corner of Patan Museum, Kazakh artist Erbossyn Meldibekov displays a series of enamel metal pots turned upside-down and reformed into a mountainous landscape as a parody on the utopian aspirations of the former Soviet leaders.
The artwork, entitled “Peak of Communism,” alludes to the central peak in Kazakhstan’s Pamir Mountains which has had its name changed three times over the past century as various ideologies have taken hold.
In German artist Wolfgang Stiller’s “Match Stick Men”, the heads of mannequins from China are fixed onto thick pieces of bamboo and painted to appear as if they are giant burned matches representing weary human figures, stripped of hope.
In another installation art, Nepali artist SanjeevMaharjan has recreated a rural way of life in which firewood collected from the local community is arranged in orderly fashion and the sounds of crows and chopping wood are added to give it a sylvan feel.
“In October 2009, I trekked in Ghandruk in the Annapurna region and came across this,” Maharjan said. “In urban areas, these traditional methods of cooking have been replaced by gas stoves and cylinders. But deforestation is still rampant. The green spaces in the cities have diminished due to urbanisation.”
One of the most spectacular installations comes from Indian artist Sheba Chhachhi, who draws from Hindu mythology to address the dangers of pollution in “Neelkantha” (The Blue-throated One).
Chhachhi uses 260 aluminium towers, light, photographs and video to depict Shiva swallowing a flaming mass of poison which threatens to destroy the universe.
While much of the art is stunning, many of the installations are as disturbing as they are visually arresting.
Nepali artist MeenaKayastha uses scrap collected from a local junkyard to present human heads with thick metal coils snaking out of their skulls in a piece exploring the benefits of recycling.
“Junk once had a life, had importance and meant something to someone who owned it,” she says. “People got things done with it and materials served their purpose. Usage lessened its purpose and air layered rust all over. From the beauty of having purpose, it transformed into junk.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The Applicant.
Image by Deepak Adhikari shows the installation "Where am I?" by Nepali artist Saurganga Darshandhari.