The public eye

Dec 05, 2018, 10:44 IST | Dalreen Ramos

Often described as the Chinese-Canadian Andy Warhol, artist Paul Wong walks us through Colaba as he sees it

The public eye
Paul Wong

I'd rather stay here than in the Taj. Anyone can live in the Taj. All you need is money." Paul Wong steps out of Bentley's Hotel with a certain delight that most Mumbaikars would perhaps experience at the luxury hotel by the Gateway. It's Wong's first time in India, but he isn't just a tourist.

The hand lettering of the warning signs on Oliver Street  is rarely seen in design practice today, according to Wong, with everyone using vinyl that doesn't give it a faded appearance like  this surface
The hand lettering of the warning signs on Oliver Street is rarely seen in design practice today, according to Wong, with everyone using vinyl that doesn't give it a faded appearance like this surface

The 64-year-old Canadian multimedia artist visited Delhi — where his two-week long exhibition Private/Public/Lives was showcased — and Bengaluru before coming down to Mumbai for a lecture at a city museum today. Wong is also set to participate in the Kochi Muziris Biennale later this month. But despite his many travels, he holds Colaba close to his heart. Because, he can keep walking.

Wong in his room at Bentley's Hotel in Colaba. It's faded Art Deco style inspires him to take strolls in the neighbourhood, where the multimedia artist creates new material  by filming slo-mo videos on his phone
Wong in his room at Bentley's Hotel in Colaba. It's faded Art Deco style inspires him to take strolls in the neighbourhood, where the multimedia artist creates new material  by filming slo-mo videos on his phone

Our starting point is at the intersection of Oliver Street and Garden Road where a signboard reads "Polio-free Mumbai". "You wouldn't really notice that, would you?" Wong asks us. We wouldn't, we admit. Even the lettering on the walls of the colonial-era mansions fascinate him, and he draws our attention to the minute details, as reflected in a no-parking instruction. The artist tells us that the lettering is hard to come by in design practice these days. "You won't see letters painted with a single stroke. Everyone is working with vinyl, so there is no possibility of seeing the beauty of letters fading with the structure," Wong explains.

A wooden cart in Colaba market with straw baskets caught Wong's attention
A wooden cart in Colaba market with straw baskets caught Wong's attention

We proceed on our walk, replicating the route Wong took a day back. And along the way to Colaba Market, we stop and watch the arrangement of fruits boxed up by the causeway. Even the bustling chaos in the market doesn't come in the way of Wong's eye for public art. A wooden cart with straw baskets or cement bags neatly stacked on top, for instance, is evidence of how much of an expert the worker is at the task. And we think that's a fitting definition of how we see public art — isolated from its maker and activity revolving around it.

Paul Wong at Sassoon Dock. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar
Paul Wong at Sassoon Dock. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

We reach our final destination, Sassoon Dock, where the pop of colour on tempos complement the dull setting of the weathered structures owned by the Mumbai Port Trust. "If you had colour on your car back in Vancouver, people would ridicule you," Wong shares, filming slo-mo videos on his iPhone as we walk to the waterfront (these may translate into new material in the future). He adds, "I'm not an art historian, or an architect talking about Art Deco. I'm not an environmentalist either. But what I work on translates essentially into making something out of nothing. And this is an incredible canvas."

The bark of a tree has grown out of a shed's facade at Sassoon Dock. Wong interprets the tree as adding life to a jaded structure
The bark of a tree has grown out of a shed's facade at Sassoon Dock. Wong interprets the tree as adding life to a jaded structure

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