B Gowtham, 27, wants to see fear in people’s eyes. Don’t get him wrong. This Chennai-based engineer-turned-artist is not a sadist, nor a criminal mastermind from a rusty Bollywood revenge film. Gowtham, in fact, has just created an artwork that is currently going viral across the country for using some unusual and creative methods to get Indians to stop stepping out during the 21-day lockdown to slow down the escalating coronavirus outbreak in the country. “When people see the artwork, especially in crowded marketplaces, I feel their fear. They would even sit down for a few minutes,” Gowtham tells VICE. If you’re still wondering what this diabolical creation is, it’s this:
Over the last few days, the immensely popular “coronavirus helmet” has been worn by a police inspector in the capital city of Tamil Nadu while stopping unsuspecting vehicles and pedestrians roaming the streets despite the lockdown. The helmet, upcycled from old newspapers and a broken helmet, does the job of stopping them short, with red angry spikes jutting out of an old helmet that effectively mimics the structure of the coronavirus, which is made up of a shell of thick spikes that latch onto human cell receptors.
“Despite the (lockdown) situation, I see commuters on bikes, some not even wearing masks. So we created certain scripts for the policeman wearing the mask, like ‘If you come out, I will come in,’” says the 27-year-old, who is also the founder of a Chennai-based art organisation called Art Kingdom. “We mostly stick to our native language, and talk about the importance of wearing masks, social distancing, and not travelling with too many people. Despite Section 144 imposed in most cities, people still come out with their families. So yeah, the job of the person wearing the helmet is to talk like he is the coronavirus.”
Gowtham, who is heavily into art that responds to social issues like women’s safety, climate crisis and animal rights, tells VICE that this artwork is an extension of his own research on coronavirus, as well as the need to do his bit to help out the city in spreading awareness. “I’ve been researching for the last two months, and before the severe measures and lockdowns started, I knew that if it comes to India, we’re done,” he says. “I wanted to do something early but I knew it wouldn’t make an impact then. But then the curve started to increase. Lockdowns were imposed, and the government acted well in preserving the citizens. So I wanted to do my bit and on the first day of the lockdown, I went and spoke to the police about doing this. I wanted to make their jobs easy. I’m also thankful to the police, the doctors and the cleaners across the country, for being our superheroes.”
When Gowtham went to the cops with his proposal, he met a police inspector called Rajesh Babu, who immediately agreed to collaborate with him. So far, there’s only one such helmet, but Gowtham says if there is more demand and even interest in funding more such work, he is happy to make more. “Rajesh sir was very happy to do these experiments. He wanted to do something creative too, so when we spoke, our wavelengths just met,” he says, adding the need to allow the authorities to use creative forms like art and music to connect with people at a time like this. “You saw how the cops in Italy and Spain came out and made music for people, with their guitars and trumpets. Why can’t our police do something creative for the people? There’s a saying in Tamil that I keep writing on my work: ‘Art will make this universe a better place.’ This is just a part of that.” So far, the response has been positive and several commuters have thanked the duo for this effort.
The coronavirus helmet worn by a cop has also gone viral at a time when news of police brutality during the lockdown has emerged. But Gowtham wants to change that narrative. “The police forces should not be associated with violence. It should be with creativity,” he says. “People generally don’t have a good impression of police forces, but I feel the police have a major role in sensitising people when they need to, and deal with people when they’re being a nuisance.”
As an artist, Gowtham is also wary of people calling this “performance art”, a form that brings together scripted and unscripted performance within the fine art context. “If it was performance, I would have taken actors for this, but I wanted to work with government officials who are actually working for and with the people. This is not entertainment,” he says. “We have lost all our sensitivities and common sense in entertainment. As a creator, I want to make an impact, not entertain.”
Interestingly, the coronavirus helmet is actually the second artwork in his process of sensitising people through his work. The first one was a placard with what Gowtham calls a “cute, emotional corona” with the writing, “If you come out, I will come in.” This placard was placed at police barricades on the streets. The third, says Gowtham, is going to come later this week. “This work will be more intense, and will talk directly about the benefits of social distancing,” he says. “The lockdown will possibly extend because the curve is critical at the moment, and I feel people will be reacting accordingly. This work will respond to that.”
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