THE IDEA OF CONFINEMENT in Brian Hodgson’s twenty-three years of being enclosed within the Kathmandu Valley, from 1820 to 1843, is a point of departure for my project. Hodgson was a junior officer for the British East India Company, and later the British Resident to Kathmandu. He was also an eminent naturalist. While John James Audubon was identifying and painting species of birds in America, Hodgson did his work in Nepal, an almost inaccessible place for its geographic seclusion.
Hodgson kept an aviary; hunters brought birds to him. He wrote scientific descriptions of the birds and commissioned drawings of them, mostly by anonymous Nepali artists, with the idea of publishing an illustrated book on the birds of Nepal. Only one of the artists, Raj Man Singh Chitrakar, is named in the book. The 738 renderings of 563 species were bound in six never-published volumes and were housed in the Natural History Museum of Britain. Seven of the species Hodgson selected are now extinct in the region, and one is most likely extinct worldwide.
Hodgson’s project might have been inspired by the idea of completion, whereas mine addresses implied personal, institutional, and symbolic relationships. Hodgson’s opus on Nepali birds included two appendix volumes, and I am bringing the larger of these two to Kathmandu. The drawings in this book are more diverse in style and they range from drawings made earlier in the project, in which birds were isolated on a background, to late drawings, where a stylized natural environment appears. I am interested in how these drawings act as worksheets, carrying descriptions and measurements. They include not only Hodgson’s handwriting but also that of the draftsmen, some with side-by-side translations. The visible working process imparts a quality of lightness that goes beyond pure documentation and traces the collaborative relationships that made the drawings a kind of a collective work.
On the ground floor of the Siddhartha Arts Gallery, the volume of The Birds of Nepal will be shown in a display case, opened to a single visible page. The other drawings in the volume will be shown as a slide projection on a suspended sheet of Nepali paper hung close to the display case. I will also make visible, as a sculptural part of my work, the machines monitoring the exhibition conditions—temperature, humidity, and light—that were requested in the loan agreement. Additionally, I am making a wall-size drawing in pencil, with imagery sourced from the volume on passerines, but the birds will be shown as negative spaces. Finally, there will be an installation made of silk threads in shades of blue, to which feathers from Nepali birds will be attached. The threads will reach from floor to ceiling and will be anchored by different ornithological field guides to the Indian subcontinent and Nepal from the past fifty years. The feathers will be gathered from local streets and parks.
As I thought about how and what to do for an exhibition in a country I have never been to and have yet to make a connection with, the relationship between the locals and Hodgson’s outsider status was a way for me to begin. I cannot assume what this gesture of bringing the drawings back to Kathmandu, a historic exchange, will mean from a local perspective, but that is something I want to figure out, in creating a space for encounter, an in-between space of communication.
as told to Jo-ey Tang
published on artforum / 500 words