Saturday, 24 November 2012

KIAF - 2012 - On practicing the Buddhist principle of non-attachment

November 24, 2012 - You can go your own way....

Traffic enjoys complete freedom of expression in Nepal

The installation of 'Endangered Species' is near completion. Hit by a debilitating bacterial infection on Tuesday shortly after my last posting, energy levels dropped to zero and I was faced with relying on an absolutely brilliant group of volunteers from KIAF to take the work by van to the site and begin putting the thing together. Ignoring the effects of being ill wasn't the wisest thing to do, but I wanted at least to get them started.

By lunch time everyone was on site, and with only a few minor changes to the structural elements, we had the panels up by early afternoon. While the bacterial infection was doing its best to take over my body, I was out of the zoo past the street vendors into the blazing afternoon sun looking for a chemist in Jawalakhel (the 'hel' part of that word is so apt given how I was feeling).

My symptoms were among the most common experienced by travellers - especially those who come from exceptionally clean developed nations - and Finland is squeaky clean as nations go - so the chemist was quick to give me what was needed to counteract the resources being systematically drained from my body.

Back at the zoo, I started drinking the Electrolyte solution by the litre and overseeing the setting up of my work while chattering school children in trim uniforms were herded about by their teachers like sheep from one cage to another. Naturally if you drink you need the toilet, and by some amazing stroke of luck my installation is less than 5 meters from the public lavatory.

I don't intend to labour the point, but after a few litres of the Electrolyte, I paid my 3 Rupees to the young woman with her baby sitting by the entrance, and braved the assault on the senses inside to relieve myself. Fifteen minutes later I returned and paid another 3 Rupees, and becoming slightly self conscious on my third visit, she looked up at me with a bemused smile which soon morphed into one of pity. I shrugged my shoulders and said something about needing a season ticket to the toilet which clearly didn't register and I resigned myself to the 3 Rupee deal as a small price to pay for such convenience. I was certainly her most loyal customer ever and given that she had a young family to support I was at least doing some good to somebody.

The medicine wasn't working fast enough, nor was it dealing with the underlying infection and after another night of extreme discomfort I headed off to CIWEC (Private Travel Clinic) on the advice of a Finnish friend following my FaceBook postings.

There are not may places in the world where you get private treatment for 65 USD including the medication. Here I am two days later feeling pumped and ready to rock. Is this me? A few runs up and down between Mangal's apartment and our own - equivalent of 2 x 8 flights of stairs and I'm feeling confident that I'm back on form.

A shop front in Patan
Yesterday I took a leisurely walk over to the Camera Circle to pick up a faster Internet connection to upload videos. I poped into the Zoo on the way to see what remains to be done with my art work, and make a mental note of what was needed. With camera in hand I took some back alleys and found myself absorbed in the tranquility of the narrow winding lanes. It doesn't take long to engage people on the street. The greeting 'namaste' with the two hands in prayer form at the face is a tricky one with a camera in one hand and a soft box in the other, and I wondered if this was somehow an unacceptable compromise.

In the evening I realise that in 2 days I've managed to misplace my new cap and lose my sleeveless fleece. The cap was lost on the way to the clinic. The fleece is pretty much a mystery but in this atmosphere of Buddhist temples and burning incense I notice that I am bothered only momentarily before entering a state of non-attachment.

Two young boys in a doorway, Patan

Three men take a chai break outside a tea shop in Patan

A local laborer in Patan

Young boy, Patan

Grandmother, inside a Buddhist Temple, Patan

Grandfather, inside a Buddhist Temple compound, Patan

Young boy, Patan
Today late afternoon is already here and I've been to the zoo to get the last bits of painting done. The Cambodian artist Leang Sekon's work is only half done and I spent a few minutes with him sitting alone on a bench near his plastic Naag, talking about the challenges he was facing given the scale of his piece. Later I took a too-expensive taxi into Kathmandu to see Juha Rouhukoski who was also still in the process of putting his environment together. Artists using electricity face serious challenges as there are several power cuts during the day and they are often during the middle of the day when most visitors will have the opportunity to see their works.

I've stopped taking taxi's all the way home - preferring to stop in Jawalakhel because 1) I love the name of that place; 2) taxi drivers know exactly where it is, and 3) I get a chance to explore all the tiny lanes and courtyards leading back to Sasto Bazar. Every day turns up a new unexpected opportunity to connect with Nepalese locals and I'm having too much fun handing my lighting equipment over to some young guy standing around so I can concentrate on the subject. Photographer's dream this place.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Nepal - KIAF 2012 - Down to the river (and pray)

November 20, 2012 - Cinderella's dream

The last few days have been a mix of wanderings and plans. We have been looking for the plywood panels to mount my 'Endangered Species' work on. Everything here has its own flavour. The plywood is peeling at the edges, locally made screws have faint threads on them and I haven't quite decided what the paint we are going to use smells like.

The banks of the river
On the wandering front the weather has warmed up and from this lunchtime cafe we can see the tops of the Himalayas through the haze of Kathmandu. Eeva and I have been walking the streets - down to the river - probably the most polluted in the world. The tourists disappear after about 1 km. Soon the smell of the river begins to hang in the air and people walk about with their saris or special surgical type masks covering their mouths. It is a sewer in every sense of the word. Down below trapped against concrete barriers is a solid mass of waste. It was there that I saw 2 policemen throw a plastic bag of rubbish over the side of the bridge and down into the mass of plastic bags below. 

Tapio Reinikainen - an old friend of mine from Finland tells me that some districts of Nepal are now declared 'green' and by that he means they are truly environmentally friendly. Everything is controlled - factory emissions, sewage, rubbish collection and even smoking in the town is not permitted. This seems hard to believe as Kathmandu streets are generally piled with rubbish and refuse of every description. 

The microbus driver
Across the river we meet up with a microbus driver who beacons to me to come across the field to him. He is friendly and open - with almost no English - but seems keen to have his photo taken. For this I decide to bring out my flash, wireless trigger and a 30cm Lastolite soft box; a bit of an effort, but the brilliant daylight and strong shadows of his van would have too much contrast. 

The microbus driver, young boy and child, Kathmandu
So in the early afternoon heat I'm there instructing one of the boys that is with him to be my lighting assistant and for almost half an hour we engage a few more people in the exercise. 

Photo: Eeva Wornell iPhone 645Pro

Young Kathmandu boy

Man in the street, Kathmandu
In the end we buy a bottle of Coke from the local store and sit outside in the shade to drink it from the bottle. The shop keeper gives Eeva a freshly 'washed' glass but before she can put her mouth to it I freak out and she stops. Our immune systems just can't cope with the long list of possible illnesses from an untreated water supply. You need to be on your guard all the time. Its just not a walk in the park.

Cinderella Beauty Parlour

Crystal (as in clear) Beauty parlour

Crystal Beauty Parlour
We pass the Cinderella beauty parlour - closed today and possibly the dream has long been forgotten. The streets are lined with them - but they are moslty closed and boarded up. Outside in the middle of the quiet road a woman huddles over her little girl and picks lice out of her hair as we walk by. Yesterday I passed a 'Registered Apple reseller' on a main street in Patan - went in and the woman behind her IBM Thinkpad said - oh that - no we don't do Apple - its just the sign'.

On the way back into Patan, we crossed another small bridge and the fast flowing water was more pungent that earlier. Tapio tells me that the PH of this material can be as high as 3. That means a caustic bath that will burn your skin off.

The 'favela' type dwellings under the high rise apartments under construction.

Shanty village at the edge of the river
High rise apartment buildings painted bright white are being constructed behind the cow sheds where families are living in favela conditions. We cross the wide part of the river again and head back into town for the evening.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Nepal - KIAF 2012 - Bhai Tika

November 15, 2012 - Of workshops and brother love

With the New Year celebration starting to take a firm hold on the community the motorcycle horns were beginning to pale against the crack of the fireworks being let off by children who took extreme pleasure in throwing the things into confined alleyways where the sound naturally amplified against the hard brick walls.

Fireworks master
Their screams of delight were almost inaudible after the deafening blast, but one could see impish smiles disappear around corners and vanish moments after.

A few months ago I had put some feelers out to see if there would be any chance of arranging workshops; photography or print related while I was in Nepal. It was a busy time for me and it was difficult to put all my energy into finding a partner to work with so I let go of the idea for the time being thinking I would do more about it when I got here. Somewhere along the line something must have registered in someone's mind because yesterday I got a call from Kailash Shrestha of running his own series of workshops for photographers and a text message from Sharareh of KIAF and in under an hour we had our first meeting. So it seems things are actually coming together and we will meet again on Saturday to firm up the plan. In the mean time I'm trying to see if I can get a printer arranged through the Epson dealership locally and some media to print on.

Sangeeta's relatives at the Bhai Tika celebration
Today it is Bhai Tika celebration - where sisters honour their brothers in a ceremony that seems to be spread out all day depending on who lives where and what family obligations people have. As most families live several generations in the same house it seems to be a logistical piece of cake to get everyone together. KIAF had arranged that we experience the Bhai Tika first hand at the home of Sangeeta Thapa - the Chairperson of the Siddhartha Arts Foundation and we took a 30 minute bus ride the 5km across town to meet the family.

As I am the last to leave the minibus, I find myself straggling a bit behind and as the others are invited into Sangeeta's back garden I am beckoned up an external flight of stairs in the neighbouring house by some young boys. Separated from the others I find myself in a rather formal looking terrace room  lined with glass windows on the top floor in which the Bhai Tika ceremony is taking place. The room is filled with senior members of the family who look like they have just stepped off the boat in Hawaii with colourful garlands around their necks. I am encouraged to take photographs by these complete strangers as if I was a distant relative requiring evidence of a family I have long forgotten. It is always a surprise to me how unconditionally open and friendly people can be when welcoming visitors from abroad sharing their culture with generosity and flare.

Bhai Tika in Kathmandu
Applying the 7 colours of the rainbow to the forehead
Applying the colours to the forehead
They continue with their ceremony absorbed in the ritual of applying Tika which seems mostly to consist of touching people's foreheads (with glue and rainbow coloured powders) which the guidebooks go to great lengths to inform is strictly forbidden. There are bowls of fruit and colourful decorations everywhere and is a blend of Easter bunny meets Thanksgiving - and possibly the sweeter side of Halloween.

Downstairs back with our group I meet the family dogs - separating me from my artist companions - which are closer to Shetland ponies in size and not keen on my iPhone on a stick which I discreetly put down and out of sight so I can pass to the garden.

After the event in town we are back in Lalitpur, Patan and I soon want to get out in the last hours of light to see what I can find. My objective is portraits and I take only my 50 mm f/1.2 and my iPhone as tools. I will regret this later - regret my laziness and lack of imagination that when you are in an unknown culture you will always be surprised and therefore laziness is an unforgivable trait for a photographer to possess.

Photographing people, up close, is a commitment. I have a feeling the reason most people don't like photographers is because they steal.  Taking a genuine interest in people requires that you make contact, and in order to do this you need time - and plenty of it. You need to find a way into their lives which has meaning - after all it is a cooperation. It is something that needs to be done together - so lets make friends if only for a short time and the language of words is not the only way we can communicate.

Sister and brother, Patan
Man outside with garlands and Tika on his forehead
The girl at the cosmetics shop, Patan
In the street I meet very agreeable people and a new problem starts to present itself as one would expect. Having made friends and got some photos I am invited to take a drink and realise that this could end up as an all evening affair which wouldn't be a bad thing in itself, except for the fact that my impossible objective is to maintain my freedom and engage the community at the same time. Very soon we bump into Shailaja from KIAF and her brother on the way to the family home and Eeva and me are invited to meet the family. Having made an evening commitment with Mangal for 6pm and then 7pm the plan gets completely changed as we become more and more absorbed by the festivities which the following video will testify.

There are few experiences I have had in my life which compare to this in terms of intimacy and openness on the part of people whom I have never met before. The video speaks for itself - a rather longer one than normal - and reduced in size because of the very slow connection we have here I will upload the HD version when I get back to Finland.

Shailaja applies the Tika
One of Shailaja's uncles
The men sit in front of candles and mandalas made from coloured powders on the stone floor with candles burning.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Nepal - KIAF 2012 - Patan House

View of Patan House from the inner courtyard
November 14, 2012 - Patan House - The taxi ride into Patan ends where the road narrows and its a short walk to Patan House - not a B&B; nor is it a hostel or hotel. (Mangal - our host explains on our arrival that it is a residency and we are now part of the family.) I lift the 23.5 kg of my destroyed luggage out of the back of the taxi now being held together mostly by the coloured belt strap and realise that the only way I'm going to get this safely to our accommodation is lifting it to my head which I manage to do without toppling over (domino effect on these crowded alleys) and trying not to look like I'd spent the previous 24 hours sitting down at 42,000 feet.

The view from our front balcony window
Mangal shows us our apartment - a cool 70 square meters of completely empty room except for a very comfortable bed and stylish bathroom. We are pretty much the first people in here as he has spent the last 5 years building this entire building from the ground up. He takes us up to the roof terrace from where there is a clear view across the chaotic architecture of Patan to the white sharp peaks of the Himalayas.

Back in our room we open our suitcases (or what is left of mine), unpack and hang everything up on the floor. Ok, so my tripod didn't make it in one piece either and I tried to imagine exactly what special manoeuvre the luggage handler needed to do to smash something so deeply imbedded in my clothing. Stripping the flight tags off the handle I notice that there is another red one which reads (Heavy!) and decide that this must have been put on to indicate that you shouldn't lift this piece off the plane - rather push it over the edge and let gravity take it to the luggage trolly.

We have a balcony up here on the 4th floor looking out into the small square with it's mix of sacred shrines and water fountains. Up and down the marble stairs a few times I realize that the entrance to each flat looks identical with no markings on the doors and I often end up on one of three floors trying to get into the apartment with only a 30% chance of success. The noise of dogs barking, children playing and the incessant honking of horns from motorcycles fill the air. Despite the racket all round, there is no sense of urgency and one feels that the whole day could pass in this state with people wandering in and out of my frame with that random sense of direction normally reserved for the CRT screen savers of the 1990's. 

Patan is a mass of small narrow streets with many not wide enough for a car. The flow of people, animals, and dogs is in both directions and there are small shops everywhere. We pick up our sim cards, exchange phone numbers with others from the KIAF team and then head off to buy a few essentials but we end up coming home with only an assortment of bags full of irresistible sparkling coloured garlands, and festive decorations from the market place and proceed to decorate the windows and balcony with the festive array of New Year's colours.

Doorway decoration, Patan

New Year's Festive decoration on the street
New Year's Festive decoration on the street

Two young girls on a side street of Patan

Electric Avenue - decorated.

Mangal's nephew - the airbrush artist

Our host Mangal and his wife are a dream. You cannot enter their home without receiving food and drink in copious quantity and their hospitality is as hot and spicy as what is on the table. Vishnu is very open and friendly too, and doesn't seem to follow the guidebook specs of a Nepalese wife. It is clear from the start that she derives real pleasure from providing food for her extended 'family'. Their kitchen is a crossroads of international faces coming and going and after a few days it is quite impossible to keep up with the names. When Mangal said that we are family he apparently meant it, as everyone who enters seems to know them well enough for the regular formalities between landlord and tenant to be completely absent.

And so as the sun set over the Himalayas and the cold damp air swept in through the lattice windows of our new home base - I decided to put on as many clothes as possible and head to bed with the idea that I would be less able or willing to put clothes on in the middle of the night if I was freezing than take them off. Lying there wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy listening to the sound of dogs barking and muffled voices I managed to drift off to sleep with my nose exposed to the cold and only a very remote chance that I would wake up fermented in the morning.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Nepal - KIAF - Pain progress

Doha International Airport - Qatar
It is the norm rather than the exception. I need to be at an airport in plenty of time for screw-ups - my own and other people's. Remember my last hop over to Tanzania when the guy at the Finnair checkin desk decided not to allow me to board because I didn't have an onward bus ticket from Nairobi to Arusha?

That little hiccup got resolved (read about it here) with a clear 5 minutes before the checkin desk closed as my heart that was trying to escape the confines of my rib cage . On this flight though to Kathmandu I had poured over the documentation a dozen times looking for the hidden catch - didn't find any - and enjoyed our ride out to Vantaa with Philippe, Tuula, and Jooel with hours to spare and that feeling of relaxed tension that a frog on a lily pad has waiting for a fly to pass by.

I didn't expect the 'These tickets aren't valid' to be the first sentence uttered by the woman at checkin. The record locator at the self service box had suggested we seek assistance - and as if that wasn't a sign of things to come I really couldn't see where the problem was.

I took the paper back from the girl - scoured the details - payment summary - payment date - confirmation of payment - detailed itinerary - and finally handed it back. This is not my problem - I thought to myself. Eeva started in on her own creative interpretation of where the problem could have occurred - and as these ideas seemed to be picked at random from remote places in her head I said nothing. There was nothing to say. If there was a glitch - it wasn't a glitch I was going to assume ownership of, and I waited for the girl behind the desk to solve it.

Glitch solved itself - at least when the problem occurs in an airline booking system one can assume that the words 'These tickets aren't valid' are soon forgotten and one doesn't need to rub salt into the wound. I'm not quite sure what would have happened if I had taken the woman's word for it and said - 'Well these things happen - so lets book and pay for some new ones shall we?'

Issued with valid boarding passes and the luggage checked through to Kathmandu we took a coffee with the Gueissaz's and boarded the plane.

Long haul flights are special. They require that you stay awake for long periods of time, find your way through airport mazes and security checks and indulge in sporadic snacking. Its fun of course; people watching, clock watching, luxury car watching, exploring public toilets and of course the main reason for airports being there in the first place - the Duty Free boutiques. It always amazes me how people end up buying stuff at these places as they seem to be Duty Inflated-beyond-belief-prices shops. Do people completely abandon their sense of thrift when they stroll through these temples of commerce - or is there that slight feeling that flying always feels like a holiday and therefore normal behaviour doesn't apply?

I'm usually resembling my usual self by the time the plane has started taxiing. I love the feeling that there is no turning back - and perhaps I should do more things in life which demand the 'no turning back option'.

No pain - no gain.... Qatar Airways
We departed on Monday 12th of November and arrived around noon on the 13th. Kathmandu is everything I expected and more; the noise, the people, the pollution, the gentle feeling of local communities, and of course the visual ambiance which is a mix of extremely drab and very colourfull. Off the plane and through the luggage collection I discover my slightly smashed suitcase - wheel broken and the side of the case ripped open - and inevitably my Giotto tripod also invalided through rough treatment. Well - it could always have been worse. Arriving safe and sound in body and mind having been hurled through space at speed is always worth noting as something of a miracle and in the days to come there will be plenty more opportunities to marvel at just how much of a cultural leap we have taken.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Nepal - KIAF - From Kuhmo to Kathmandu

Old piano - Kuhmo, Finland 2011

Some time in the summer of 2011 way up in the middle of Finland I started working on an artwork that was a bit of new direction for me. Using my iPhone camera was rapidly becoming my favorite way to work spontaneously. It had all the advantages of a small compact camera, except it was smaller and more compact!

My wife is a flea market junkie. I am not. I tolerate them when we are together, and can even engage in 'people watching' when the mass of seemingly unrelated contents of the tables become too much to focus on.

But on that bright and sunny summer's day in that remote Finnish music festival town of Kuhmo I found myself with a new passion - and a new obsession.

There are of course several flea markets scattered around every Finnish town and village and if you have the 'nose' then finding them isn't a problem. In this particular one I was drawn into a blue room, radiant with the penetrating summer sun and discovered several trays filled with children's toys.

Portrait of an Amazon Arrow Frog - Kuhmo - Finland 2011

And so I started taking portraits - untangling the mess of jumbled up animals, dusting them off, finding a small corner of a shelf or tray away from the glaring light and finding their 'best side' for a shot. It wasn't long before the frustrations of a low battery put an end to the session and I was off to a local cafe - but the seed for my work was sewn that sunny afternoon between those delightful airy chamber music concerts, and for several months I found myself wandering through dozens of these flea markets in search of abandoned toys.

In all the process took about 5 months, but the idea for the name 'Endangered Species' came sometime during those dark autumn days. And then the notice for submissions to the 2nd Kathmandu International Art Festival (KIAF) came to my postbox - and even before the work was finished I had put in the application to take part in this exciting collaboration with artists from all over the world.

And so tomorrow the flea market junkie and I depart for Kathmandu to take part in this great festival on the theme 'Earth, Body, Mind' and explore as much of Nepal as time permits. 'Endangered Species' has already arrived - several weeks ago after debuting with Epson Europe at Photokina in Köln.

'Endangered Species' at Epson - Photokina 2012

Just how I decided to put this thing together I'll tell a bit later. For now its still time to pack a few things and print some small gifts. Its getting dark here in Finland and as I write this the days are still getting shorter and the snow can't make up its mind whether to stay or not.

Map of Nepal
Tomorrow we are on the move - a short hop to Sweden, then Qatar and on to Kathmandu. See you next in the foothills of the Himalayas!

Check out the web pages of KIAF - 2nd Kathmandu International Art Festival 2012