WE CAN’T SEEM to get enough of the White House exploding—at least as moviegoers. No disaster flick is complete without a CGI medley of world monuments meeting their improbable ends, one after the other in a crescendo of increasingly bombastic catastrophes.
But synchronized destruction packs far less thrill when the effects don’t have to be faked. On April 25, 2015, Nepal was jolted by an earthquake that claimed 8,800 lives, leaving nearly 3 million people homeless and toppling countless centuries-old heritage sites. Within seconds, the catalogue of the country’s sacred temples and central tourist attractions was wiped out. When attempting to translate this devastation to film, artist Kishor Kayastha chose to focus less on the physical bricks and more on the rituals that originally animated them, suggesting that the lost structures could spring anew from this same life-giving force.
Kayastha’s Shifting Valley was screened last Friday at the opening ceremony of the inaugural Kathmandu Triennale, which itself was reborn from the Kathmandu International Art Festival. Founder Sangeeta Thapa touts this shift in format as a semantic pledge to a project that began when Thapa was worried that her program at Siddhartha Art Gallery was just not enough to nourish the city’s contemporary art scene. “When you’ve got a roster of thirty artists showing over ten years, it starts to feel repetitive,” Thapa confessed. “I realized there was still more we could do.” In 2011, she simultaneously launched the Siddhartha Art Foundation alongside the first KIAF, which was followed by a second edition in 2013.
At the opening, Thapa assured the crowd of artists and attending dignitaries that her decision to dedicate the freshly refigured triennial to the victims of the earthquake was not intended to fetishize the destruction but rather as a means to understand its impact, and thus more fully appreciate the country’s resolve to press forward. With this purpose in mind, tapping a foreign curator might have risked simplifying the narrative, but S.M.A.K. artistic director Philippe Van Cauteren proved an ideal match, pulling off a surprisingly seamless blend of international and local artists. For starters, he leveled the field by insisting that visiting artists come “with empty pockets,” to create work only through direct engagement with the city. He then recruited European collectors including Marc Vandecandelaere and Marleen Scevenels to not only underwrite the production of works by local artists but also help serve as on-site assistants, stacking cookies for Song Dong, molding clay sparrows for Ricardo Brey, or creating “rocks” for the community-authored project instigated by Mithu Sen.
Of course, part of Van Cauteren’s success was due to the generous loan of S.M.A.K.’s institutional infrastructure. The Ghent-based museum sent a small delegation to collaborate with the triennial, including a communications team and production manager Bjorn Heyzak. “I always involve my museum in my projects,” Van Cauteren noted, as if this was a peculiar thing to have to explain. Thinking back to his 2015 Iraq pavilion in Venice, he clarified, “That was a little different. For some reason, none of my team wanted to come with me to Baghdad.”
Limited to a slender two-week run, the Kathmandu Triennale is split among four venues, each reflecting a specific exhibition typology: the commercial Siddhartha Art Gallery; the palatial Patan Museum; the nonprofit Nepal Art Council; and the Taragaon Museum, a private initiative dedicated to preserving scholarship on Nepal’s cultural heritage. “You have to understand, Nepal was a closed country up until the 1950s,” Taragaon founder Arun Saraf told me over dinner at the Yak & Yeti Hotel’s much-loved Chimney Restaurant. “When Nepal suddenly opened to foreigners, you had all these social scientists pouring in to write their theses and document the traditions before they disappeared or got contaminated. But now those scholars are in their eighties and their kids don’t care about Nepal, so where is all this research? Just in an attic somewhere.” Saraf and his wife, Namita, founded the Taragaon Museum in 2009 as a showcase for these academic efforts. Doubling down on the cultural-heritage angle, they sited the museum in the old hostel by the same name, which had been designed in 1971 by Austrian architect Carl Pruscha, whom the United Nations had recruited to work on preservation in the Kathmandu Valley.
The Sarafs probably could not have imagined the relevance the documents would take on less than a decade later. When I first heard the triennial’s theme—“The City”—I have to admit I winced. It struck me as just the sort of cop-out catchall one could expect from a European adventurer besotted with Bhaktapur and the thrill of a good haggle. But by taking on this seemingly banal subject, Van Cauteren pulled a maneuver similar to Kishor Kayastha’s Shifting Valley, moving the focus from the city’s broken body to its less tangible qualities.
Nearly two years past, the earthquake still looms large over Kathmandu. Buildings slump, bricks bulge, and cracks run along the facades of holy temples. In Patan, families squat in the ruins of their former homes, while a forest of wooden poles prop up houses against further collapse, ensuring that the streets can no longer be navigated according to the old routines (if they can be passed at all). This situation is reflected in the exhibition’s recurring motif of cartography. Mapmaking manifests in manifold forms, from Francis Alÿs’s inscription of a trail of melting ice through Mexico City to Alice May’s collaborative cityscapes, sketched in the back of shared cabs. There’s Lois Weinberger’s concept-based cartography; Jorge Macchi’s exquisitely excised roadmaps; Sunita Mahajaran’s gauzy textile collages of city terraces; Birendra Pratap Singh’s woozy street scenes, embedding buxom, bare-bellied women into architectural elements and open windows; and a photogenic contribution from Pokhara, Nepal–based artist Amrit Karki, who spent several months convincing residents of the suburb of Kirtipur to let him paint a red frame over a certain section of the hillside cityscape.
Understandably, another common theme was ruin, but only in the sense of intentional collapse. At the Nepal Art Council, Ciprian Mureşan constructed a miniature cardboard copy of Bucharest, a city hit by an earthquake of its own in 1977. Visitors were encouraged to walk across the model Carl Andre–style, reenacting the devastation. One floor up, Song Dong had enlisted an army of volunteers to help stack Toblerones, tea cookies, and brightly colored candies into a mandala-like portrait of the capital. A live-feed camera was rigged to the ceiling to capture the gradual demolition of this cookie Kathmandu, as visitors helped themselves to the sweets over the two-week exhibition period. At least, that’s how it was supposed to work. “Once word got out that there were free biscuits, people just came with bags,” Thapa lamented. The entire piece was wiped out before the end of the opening, leaving only empty pedestals and some brief video footage of the feeding frenzy.
Van Cauteren’s initial introduction to the city’s art scene came in 2015 when Bengaluru-based curator Veeranganakumari Solanki Jamwal invited him to lead a workshop at the university. The student base remained strong throughout the triennial, with swarms of smiling volunteers at each venue. “It was actually a little disconcerting,” Alÿs admitted. “Ever since I arrived in Nepal, I’ve been surrounded by students, and then suddenly at my public talk, I look out and I see all these international art people.” While it’s true, curators Katerina Gregos, Cosmin Costinas, and Diana Marincu, Artland Project’s Ali Newling, and Dhaka Art Summit’s Emma Sumner all put in appearances, dealers were few and far between. When I inquired about Oscar Murillo’s fifty unique zines, handmade with the students and then left scattered about the venues, Van Cauteren shrugged. “Oscar’s attitude was, ‘If they get stolen, they get stolen.’ We don’t have gallerists hovering over our shoulder here. It’s a total break from standard methodologies.”
Not entirely. Like other -iennials of note, the exhibition boasted a hearty parallel program, which included a commune of Poznań-based artists roosting in the Patan microcommunity of Saugal, a showcase of the Bengal Foundation at Park Gallery, and roving open-air screenings of Michael Candy’s short film Ether Antenna, which played out Buddhist narratives with a cast of charming, homemade robots wandering the Himalayan hills. True to some of these tales, shit got real, fast. If the first chapter had me aww-ing at its Short Circuit–like antics, by the end, I was shielding my eyes from the abject antenna-on-antenna violence.
Also grappling with some hard truths was the group exhibition “Built/Unbuilt: City/Home,” staged upstairs at the arts complex of Tangalwood. Curated by art historian Dina Bangdel, the show pairs three local artists with three artists based in Qatar, a country home to over four hundred thousand Nepali laborers. Having sat through my share of well-meaning panels on labor politics in the Gulf, hearing the Nepali perspective certainly gave me pause. For starters, there’s the intriguing distinction between the words for where one lives and where one works. Artist Mekh Limbu underlined this disjuncture with a project built on his father’s experience constructing houses in Doha. Using Google Maps, the artist printed out thumbnail-size street views of some of the two hundred houses his father has built. He balanced these against a single photo of the family house in Nepal, which his father has been able to visit only six times over the past twenty-one years. During the opening ceremony, Limbu’s father was called onstage to be honored for his efforts by a crowd including the Qatari Ambassador. Later, in the accompanying panel discussion, someone broached the delicate elephant of “what the international media calls ‘modern slavery,’” especially in a moment when skilled builders are so desperately needed in Nepal. “If it wasn’t a good deal for us, we wouldn’t be taking it,” Limbu replied, slightly indignant.
Shifting perspectives also marked Emelina Soares’s work, a floor mandala created using natural earth linked to the artist’s personal history: red clay from India, asphalt and limestone from Qatar, and gray sand from Nepal. Unlike with the Song Dong or Muresan installations, the crowd was noticeably reticent to participate in the demolition of the immaculate carpet by accepting the artist’s invitation to walk across it. “Everyone who encounters me changes me. I want to show that,” Soares assured the room. She found further inspiration in the Nepalese attitudes toward destruction. “They just resolve to build it all back up again and that’s that,” she marveled. “No one minds the mess.”
I was still thinking about this the next day at a conversation on public art, where artist and educator Sujan Chitrakar brought up ritual masks. “It’s a question of sustainability,” he argued, referring to the tradition, rather than the materials. “They say traditions can only last one and a half generations. If you wait two, then you’ve lost it. This is why you burn your mask after each performance, so that the artist will have to make it again the next year and thus keep the tradition alive.”
Chitrakar’s point was lovely but it reminded me of an opening-day conversation I had with banker Prithivi B. Pandé, whose wife, Pratima, is the director of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust. He detailed some of the foundation’s ongoing restoration projects, lamenting that work on one temple was stalled after some local scholars had raised public outcry over the use of modern reinforcements. “They want it built exactly according to how it was originally constructed, with no extra foundations or supports. And what happens when it falls down again? They say, ‘We build it back,’” Pandé said. “Don’t get me wrong, I sympathize. But they’re not the ones trying to raise funds for this.”