Concrete Kingdom: Sculptures by Nek Chand

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Concrete Kingdom: Sculptures by Nek Chand
Bangle Boy, Nek Chand (b. 1924), Chandigarh, India; c. 1984. Concrete over metal armature with mixed media, 43 x 17 x 12". Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York. Gift of The National Children's Museum in honor of Gerard C. Wertkin. Photo by Gavin Ashworth.

NEW YORK.- The artist Nek Chand (b. 1924) is revered in India for his magical environment, Rock Garden, located on the outskirts of the city of Chandigarh, that is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country. The work of this visionary sculptor is showcased in Concrete Kingdom: Sculptures by Nek Chand, on view through September 24, 2006. The exhibition documents this site-specific installation that is a testament to Nek Chand's life philosophy as a follower of Gandhi, his spiritual inclinations as a Hindu, his devotion to the landscape and his masterful ability to recycle.

The American Folk Art Museum recently acquired 29 sculptures from a miniature Rock Garden that Nek Chand built for the National Children's Museum in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. These new gifts to the permanent collection, along with 5 already owned by the museum, will be featured in an installation echoing the design of the original Rock Garden in India with its thousands of cement animal and human sculptures. The artworks will be arranged in numerous groupings on tiered pedestals surrounded by large-scale photographic images that will contextualize the sculpture and demonstrate the grand scale of the world's largest and most significant folk art environment. The exhibition is organized by Brooke Davis Anderson, curator and director of the museum's Contemporary Center; Lee Kogan, curator of special projects for the Contemporary Center and director of the museum's Folk Art Institute; and Juliana Driever, guest curator responsible for the photographic component of the show and director of exhibitions at the Queens Public Library. The exhibition examines the political and cultural climate within which Chand worked. It also explores the artist's transition from a private vision to a public one and how the mission of Rock Garden has adapted to reflect the needs of its community.

During the volatile partition of India in 1947, Nek Chand was forced to leave his Punjabi village and settle in the newly planned city of Chandigarh, designed by world-renowned French architect Le Corbusier. He became a road inspector for the Public Works Department. In Chandigarh, Nek Chand witnessed the formation of India’s first modern city and learned the methods behind developing such a complex. In 1958 he began the construction of his fantasy environment in secret. He collected rocks, usually odd shapes, disposed materials, and other recyclable items, such as shards of glass, tiles and broken crockery from the destroyed villages that once stood on the site where Le Corbusier's city was being built. Nek Chand stored them in a secret clearing in a forest on public land at the edge of the city, assembling these found materials at night and on weekends. Inspired by the poured concrete techniques of Le Corbusier, he used water, concrete, and primitive tools to create his private garden. By the early 1970s he had filled his outdoor art installation with more than one thousand concrete figurative sculptures embellished with the recyclable materials he had collected. However, this private place and secret act took place on public land. When the local Indian government discovered it in 1975, they wanted to destroy Chand's creation, but after numerous public protests, Rock Garden was finally embraced by the politicians and leaders of the region. The artistic importance of the site was recognized and Rock Garden opened as a public park in 1976. Chand was appointed as director and awarded a staff of apprentices to continue his efforts. Today, with over two thousand figures, this remarkable landscape covers more than 25 acres. Rock Garden is the second most visited tourist site in India; only the Taj Mahal attracts more people.

A Gift from One Museum to Another
In the mid-1980s, Nek Chand was invited to build a Fantasy Rock Garden for the National Children's Museum in Washington, DC. He created approximately one hundred sculptures representative of the much larger project in India. When the National Children's Museum had to relocate in 2004, the American Folk Art Museum received 29 of these artworks from the recently dismantled Fantasy Garden. A gift from one museum to another, the artworks create a perpetual link between New York and this remarkable art environment in Asia.

Sculptures in the Exhibition
The unity in nature implicit in Nek Chand's oeuvre resonates with the Hindu belief in the interrelationship of everything in the world. As a self-taught Indian artist, he translates traditional and vernacular artforms into his own visual vocabulary. The works in the exhibition are representative of the types of sculpture found in Rock Garden of Chandigarh. The arrangement of the figures in the museum in undulating tiers recalls the prominent architectural elements of Rock Garden. Chand's figures are frontal, upright and three-dimensional and vary in size from 1-1/2 to 6 feet high. They are created and shaped with cement built over an armature of found metal, often the frame of an old bicycle, and brick dust is added to the mortar mixture to create color variations on the surface. A master of recycling, the artist frequently embellishes his figures with broken tiles and ceramic kitchenware, bicycle parts, glass bangles, foundry waste (such as clinkers and slag) as well as natural materials—stones and other miscellany. The figures range from graceful women draped in saris or encircled in multicolored glass bracelets to men dressed in white broken crockery to crouching monkeys perched on tile pedestals. They are engaged in the activities of daily life—ladies fetching water, boys carrying flowerpots, and long-limbed soldiers marching.

Five of the concrete sculptures in the exhibition are early, unadorned figures. The freestanding male and female figures are described by Chand as villagers and are similar to others installed in the Rock Garden. There are two early relief works that are traditional mithunas, affectionate couples who symbolize the essence of life. These works were made solely for personal enjoyment and were a gift from the artist in 2001 to the American Folk Art Museum.

"Nek Chand's magical environment testifies to the maker's life philosophy as a follower of Gandhi and his spiritual inclinations as a Hindu," comments Ms. Anderson. "The stoic presence and elegance of Chand's figures fulfills his intent to create a 'Kingdom of the Goddesses and Gods', an evocation of an organic world where all living things can unite in mutual respect and peace."

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