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Swiss artist Katja Loher mixes up audio visual media, glass art installation and live acts to create a unique brand of art aimed at raising concerns for ecological issues. The world has never needed this more

Words AnindaSardar

The Oxford Dictionary defines optimism as ‘hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something.’ To me, Swiss artist Katja Loher is the very personification of this idea. I first met Katja last year, courtesy my friend Abhishek Basu, founder of the Mauritius based Basu Foundation that promotes Indian art in global circles and vice versa. The core philosophy, from what I can recall of our conversations, is simple. Art cannot exist in a silo. Art flourishes through exposure and exchange, of ideas, techniques and knowledge. Naturally, Abhishek and his Foundation works with embassies of different countries espousing the cause of art around the world. 

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Back to Katja, I actually saw her work before I was introduced to the artist. It was the most wondrous installation I had seen, smack in the middle of Photosphere at the Indian Habitat Centre (IHC) in February 2019. The installation depicted five elements – earth, wind, fire, water and love, as delicate glass nest eggs that needed to be protected by keeping them cocooned inside a nest. A combination of audio visual elements, colours, forms and even fragrance had been used to create the unique installation. The only living element was a human posing as a bee, a nod to the Bee Manifesto that is very close to Katja’s heart.

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“I’m engaged with the ecological concerns of our planet, treating themes such endangered flora and fauna, air pollution, waste management, climate change and the fundamentally unsustainable relationship between man and nature. With my work, I seek to sensitize viewers to the beauty but also the vulnerability of nature,” Katja, dressed in her characteristic colourful robe explained. “Bees became a metaphor for my work because I am interested in three aspects. These tiny creatures, that are perfectly designed to perform the crucial act of pollination, are vanishing in an alarming rate, thanks to colony collapse disorder or CCD. I did my first work on the CCD a decade ago.”

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“Bees also have a very precise and intelligent form of communication through their body movement or dance. The medium to communicate the messages in my art work is choreographed dance in a bird’s eye view. I am fascinated by their non-verbal way of information exchange.  They are communicating with another by dancing, they are able to translate exact direction, distance and quality of flower their waggle dance.”

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“Finally, the social structure of a bee hive is that of a matriarchal family headed by a queen. Bee Aware, the worker bees are all female, they do all the work in the hive and only the female bees are pollinators!” The Bee Manifesto was written a couple of years ago. “We are treating the Bee as a tribe, which is equally important as us. Pointing out to this small and sensitive creatures that are one of the key species of our eco system. One of my ongoing performance practices is to go around on art events and in neighborhoods dressed as bees and hand the people the Bee Manifesto.”

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I ask Katja about her friend Jhony Rabayo who had been patiently and mutely playing the part of the bee throughout the evening. I couldn’t imagine it to be an easy job for a human being to play this role and I said as much to Katja. “In my work dancers take on the form of creatures in a multi-coloured game of perspective and scale that ennoble the existence of tiny beings that come communicate with the humans. Performers in elaborated costumes mimic the metamorphosis of the butterfly and the somatic sonar-type communication between individuals in ant colonies, flocks of birds and bee hives. Jhony has been collaborating with me on many of my exhibition journeys. We have visited Venice Biennale, India Art Fair, the Indian Museum Kolkata, a humble neighborhood in Kolkata dressed as bees.”

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But what of the art form itself? Of the idea of fusing technology with creativity to lead to such powerful expression of art? “I believe that art is an extension of us and the media evolves from it. I found the media Video-sculptures is the way to translate my dreams and messages. Video gives me the opportunity to open walls, floors and ceilings and infuse spaces and environments with magic from where involve important questions and messages.”

As for installation art, by the time Katja went to art school in Switzerland, this medium of artistic expression was already well accepted in Europe and even America. With increasing globalisation that has led to people from around the world to be exposed to various forms of art, installations are fast becoming popular in places like India, China and South America. It is here that Katja’s path crossed with those of my lawyer friend. “Basu Foundation opened the portal for me to India. Inviting me to the residency and introducing me to their network has created many opportunities and connections for future projects and exhibitions with my art work. India has been a deep inspiration for the production of my art work.”

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As the evening drew to a close, I thanked her for her time and told her what a refreshing experience it had been to meet someone like her. She flashed a wide guileless smile and told me we should remain in touch. I promised to, before I bid farewell and headed out of the IHC reflecting at the incredible vivaciousness that seems to have infected me. And that, perhaps, is the other kind of magic that Katja Loher leaves you with. An incredible sense of optimism that if we all get together then perhaps we will be able to make a difference to a world that we have threatened for so long.