From a sea of junk

Features Issue 134 Jan, 2013
Text by Kapil Bisht / Photo: Ecs Media


There was an overwhelming reek of gas. Junk was scattered everywhere. Empty whiskey and vodka bottles, crushed beer cans, oxygen cylinders, gas stoves, sections of aluminum stairs, pans, and all the paraphernalia one would find in a mountaineers camp were strewn about. A section of the mountain itself seemed to have come down with the pile of junk hauled from Mount Everest. I was in Prajwal and Kripa Shahi’s house, where a group of artists were working with garbage brought down from Everest. They were participating in an art symposium entitled Mt. Everest-8848 Art Project I, organized by Da Mind Tree.

Prajwal Shahi started Da Mind Tree with his friends Shiven Thapa and Krishna Bahadur Thing. The company was set up primarily to conduct research. Though they planned to work on environmental issues, it was never their topmost priority. But when the opportunity came to do something as unique as turning junk from the top of the world into art, Da Mind Tree found its calling.

The first step was to select the artists. Prajwal, Krishna Thing, Sudarshan Bikram Rana, and Sunita Rana – all artists – were already involved. They selected 11 more artists. The team included veterans as well as greenhorns, sculptors and painters, traditional as well as modern artists. “I wanted exposure for new faces,” says Kripa Rana Shahi, director of Da Mind Tree, explaining their selection criteria.

Whenever I spoke to any of the artists the conversation needed to be conducted in raised voices or timed with the stopping of hammers, cutters, or welders. The house, with the sounds and smells and the artists toiling with the physically demanding material, gave the impression of a foundry rather than an artist’s studio. That departure from the stereotypical notion of art was what the team at The Art Club Nepal, the art branch of Da Mind Tree, wanted to achieve. “People understood artists as decorators of living rooms,” says Sudarshan Bikram Rana. He believes art and artists can do much more. “Art has contributed to the rise of civilizations. I thought, ‘Why can’t it contribute to environmental issues?’”

The art symposium was The Art Club Nepal’s way of drawing attention to one of the most crucial environmental issues—the need to save Mount Everest from pollution. Kripa, who manages Da Mind Tree with Prakash Shrestha, says it was also a way of fulfilling the company’s CSR. “The time, energy, and effort spent in organizing and running this art symposium is Da Mind Tree’s CSR. It is Nepalese doing something for Nepal,” she says.

High Altitude Clean-Up

In 2011, the Government of Nepal, along with numerous organizations, launched the Saving Mount Everest 2011-2012 project. The project’s aim was to rid Mount Everest and its vicinity of the garbage left behind by the many mountaineering expeditions over the years. To collect and bring down the garbage from those perilous heights an expedition, known as the Saving Mount Everest Clean-Up Expedition, was launched. The expedition team consisted of 40 members, of which 22 were experienced mountaineers.

For over a month in the summer of 2011, the expedition set up camp in the Everest Base Camp and Camps 1, 2, and 3. From these locations on the mountain, the climbers set about collecting garbage, and in a month’s time they collected over eight tons of garbage. The collection was a feat on par with climbing Big E itself: The team collected and brought down garbage from the Base Camp (5,360 masl), Camp 1 (6,100 masl), Camp 2 (6,600 masl), camp 3 (7,200 masl) Camp 4/South Col (7,906 masl) and South Summit (8,749 masl). The waste included the usual mountaineering paraphernalia like oxygen cylinders, gas stoves, old tents, ropes, crampons, and bags. Remains of a helicopter that had crashed in 1970 were also retrieved.
After the hard task of bringing down the trash was completed, it was the turn of Da Mind Tree and its team of artists to take the junk to the level of art. The symposium was launched with the goal to make works of aesthetic value out of a huge pile – one ton – of rusting objects.

Making a Statement

The project has been as much about making a statement as creating art. The team at Da Mind Tree wanted to make the project self-sustaining. This determination amplifies in the light of the fact that no one is receiving any remuneration for their daily work. Small contributions have been made from the corporate sector and individual donors, which covers only a small portion of the considerable costs needed to run such a project. The Shahi house in Bhaisipati became an artist’s studio; participating artists ate, worked, and even lived there. In the absence of a steady source of funds, the Shahis had to meet most of the expenses of the project. And their family had taken in the artists as their own. One evening I saw Prajwal’s mother bring over a dish she had especially made for the group to encourage them.

“If we can litter the mountain, why can’t we clean it?” asks Sudarshan Rana, stressing on the need for Nepalese to take the initiative for cleaning Everest. Prajwal, who was fascinated as a schoolboy by the famous Rock Garden of Amritsar, in India, wanted to earn Nepal some recognition with the work. “We wanted to show that we Nepalese can do something on our own,” he says.

The artists in the symposium have proved Prajwal right emphatically and beautifully. Raju Pithakote, a soft-spoken and eloquent man, showed me his work in progress. It was a torso of a woman. For arms, he had used the vertical sections of an aluminum ladder that mountaineers use to traverse chasms. The head was a tiny orb of lustrous steel. He told me that it symbolized a mother. Then, added: “I am happy if people give their own meaning to my work.”

Most of the 15 artists that were part of the project had adopted a theme for their creations. Raju’s was optimism. The other artists stopped to listen when he began his eloquent elucidations of his theme. “I want to plant a tree on Everest. It may not be practical but I want to say that we need to let Everest breathe. We need to give clean air to the mountain, not carbon,” he explained. He believed everyone can learn from the process of creating art from junk. “We need to think positively. Just like something beautiful can come from junk, similarly all the unwanted aspects of society can be turned into something beautiful.”

At the touch of the artists, the junk had become raw material again, had not just taken new forms but new lives. ‘Up-cycling’ was the important word, the emphasis being on the fact that the material was being turned into something more valuable. “Our creations will probably sit in rooms and offices. They will always remind the people who see them of Nepal’s mountains and of the need to save them,” said Sudarshan Bikram Rana. Prajwal believed turning trash into art also served a practical purpose. “There are no metal recycling plants here, so we helped fill a gap. If no one cleaned up the mountain, trash may build up to form a mountain itself,” he said.
I asked Sunita Rana, director of The Art Club Nepal, what she was making. She had cut an oxygen cylinder into three sections. “I am going to make big ants out of these. The ants symbolize unity, teamwork, and diligence. That is what happens on Everest,” she said. The motif in Sunita’s works was birds. “Birds reflect the desire to climb mountains, of dreams of flying, and ambitions. They represent the souls of all those who have tried to climb Everest, no matter what the outcome.”

Journey Toward Future

The art project’s slogan is ‘Journey Toward Future.’ Sudarshan explained it was a journey toward a common future. “Our motto alludes to the human race’s journey. Art has been a thing that has always been there. It has peaked and waned with the rise and fall of civilizations,” he said. He believes that art has been the source of problems, but that it also has the power to solve them. “Art, in its simplest meaning, is imagination. And imagination is what breeds all creation. Today’s imagination will shape tomorrow’s reality. We want to build a bright future with this art project.”

Sushma Shakya, an artist and art teacher, showed me her sculpture. It had nine feet—a representation of the nine days during which Kami Sherpa climbed Everest thrice. Another of her work was especially captivating. She had built a boat from iron sticks. It signified the five elements: Its sail stood for air; the sea was water; a globe represented earth; fire was represented by a burner; wings signified sky. The sculpture had a mountain on top, whose glaciers flowed into the sea, completing the cycle of water.

Although symbolism does not come easy, it is not the hardest part. “Working with junk, especially metal, is challenging. We have only what we have been given. We cannot buy. We need to mould the concept to suit the material,” says Sushma.

Under the Material’s Control

The material may dictate concepts, create limitations, but Anita Khanal sees immense beauty in the junk. “When the junk first came here it was rusty, grimy, ugly,” she says, pointing to a heap of beer cans and pot lids. She has seen a metamorphosis unfold during the course of the art project. “Slowly, the junk became beautiful.” She compares this transformation to that of a butterfly. One of her creations is a big S fashioned from flattened tin cans, with butterflies hanging from it. The ‘S’ stands for Sagarmatha, the Nepali name for Mount Everest. In one corner of the courtyard I found a lid of a pressure cooker on which someone had written “BEAUTIFUL JUNK, 8848.”

Keshab Raj Khanal is the recycler among the group of artists who have worked for weeks with junk. He moved around collecting bye products from the other artists’ works: bits of tin shards, caps of bottles, pieces of iron. His theme was “presentation of waste beautifully.” His motto was not to let anything go to waste. He pointed to one of his works, an old canister of cooking gas that climbers used on Everest. Flowers sprung up from the canister at the end of wires. Most of the sculpture was made from what other artists had discarded. “I am recycling from here,” said Keshab. He hoped that his works would end up in someone’s room as decorative pieces, thereby proving that waste can be beautiful. “I intend to use the tiniest pieces here,” he said, before going off on his search for those pieces.

The project has called the process of turning junk into art up-cycling. In every artist’s work there was a strong feeling of continuity, innovation, and life. But Rajan Kaphle’s works were poignant. One was a plywood board from which the outline of a climber resting on a rock had been cut. The silhouette symbolized all those who had died on Everest. Rajan planned to fix an oxygen cylinder in the gap. “It is a reminder that often things outlive the people who use them,” he said as he sat on an old pressure cooker, hammering nails on to the cardboard.

Rajan, too, found working with junk challenging. “The materials we have demand something of us. We cannot control the process entirely,” he said. That to him was not a big concern, as the material itself was unique. “This is comparable to dirt from the moon. We will never go to Everest. There is a different value to this thing because of that fact,” he said.

Not having complete control over the materials, literally, proved to be a serious issue. Two of the artists, Bhuwan Thapa “Bahuvi” and Tara Prasad Ojha, suffered nasty injuries when an oxygen cylinder exploded. Both of them had to be operated on. Working with the material posed similar hazards as mountaineering; no amount of precaution or training guaranteed safety. And in a show of courage and resolve matching a mountaineer, Bhuwan Thapa was back at work within nine days of fracturing a leg. Full of nicks and cuts, the artists themselves were taking as much beating and burning as the material they were trying to turn into art.
Krishna Thing’s sculpture rose from a pedestal of lotus fashioned from old pots, pans, and canisters. He told me it was a stupa. “We Buddhists worship a stupa when we are alive, and stupas are erected in our memories when we die. For Buddhists, death is a celebration,” he explained. He had chosen flowers as his motif to show the celebratory mood.

This duality of existence of humans applied equally to the junk. There were oxygen cylinders that must have once sustained a flailing climber. Among the pile of metal were a few pieces of a Nepal Army helicopter. Champagne, wine, whiskey, and beer bottles were residues of success and happiness. And yet, possibly, all these could have been brought down from the mountain while the people who used the cylinders, drank from the bottles, and flew in that helicopter never returned.

The artists of the Mt. Everest 8848 Art Project have given a new life to the junk. Their work is a message to everyone to be less wasteful. Murtaza Shah, one of the members of the motion picture team of the project, said he had changed after witnessing the artists working with garbage. “This project is a step towards regaining the equilibrium in Nature that we humans have disrupted,” he said.