Bhopal & the Olympics: A Time to Remember
In the constant effort to make history, it’s all too easy to forget that some things already have one. Last Friday the world watched the official opening of the 30th Olympic Games, with Danny Boyle’s imaginative opening ceremony earning rapturous reviews. During the near-four hour broadcast viewers were constantly urged to look forwards. The Games’ tagline, “inspire a generation”, was repeated throughout whilst the BBC’s commentators reminded audiences of the opportunity the games provided to “forget” the struggles faced by participating nations.
It is this temptation to gloss-over history that Samar Jodha’s installation, ‘Bhopal: A Silent Picture’, attempts to address. In 1984, on the night of December 2nd, over 40 tonnes of lethal gas leaked from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide, in Bhopal, killing between 7 and 10 thousand within days. Winds carried the toxic methyl isocyanate to settlements nearby where thousands died as a result of inhaling the gas in their sleep. And as a direct result of exposure, a further 15 thousand are reported to have died since. Bhopal’s residents continue to suffer today: many are afflicted by debilitating chronic illnesses, several generations have been born with birth defects and 28 years on, the city’s water and soil remain contaminated.
In Jodha’s own words, the sheer scale of the tragedy “strip[s] away understanding” and makes it “hard [for people] to empathise”. The installation’s aim is therefore to bring about a reimagining; it marks an attempt to “make the loss real”. Rather than asking observers to try and comprehend the number of victims, Jodha asks instead that they “consider [giving] their own child contaminated water to drink”. One of Jodha’s uncles worked at the plant, whilst at the time of the leak another was a doctor in a government-sponsored hospital. It is this sort of close connection to the tragedy that Jodha’s work sets out to evoke.
Union Carbide made a settlement of $470 million over the disaster in 1989 and the Indian subsidiary was sold to a third party in 1994. Dow Chemical Company acquired Union Carbide in 2001, and has since maintained that the responsibility to make reparations now lies with the government of Madhya Pradesh.
In July 2010, Dow signed a £63 million 10 year sponsorship deal with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and it was Dow that put forward £7 million to finance a ‘wrap’ that now encases the London’s Olympic Stadium. This close association between Dow and the London Olympics has sparked renewed protests, across the globe, by those that argue Dow has failed in its responsibilities.
In the face of corporate intransigence, Bhopal’s residents continue to seek compensation. For the artist, it is this continued struggle that makes the Bhopal disaster a symbol of all “conflict situations”. Jodha is, as a result, determined to change the terms of the complaint. Dow Chemical may not have a legal duty to compensate Bhopal’s victims, but he feels it does owe them a “moral obligation”. The terminological change is a significant one: by framing the argument in terms of morality and not law, the appeal for justice becomes one about human decency, and as such the appeal becomes much more difficult for Dow to refute.
The acute attention to detail of Jodha’s multimedia installation heightens its poignancy. The container itself is a representation of a train that carried dozens towards leak, people who were unaware that “death was silently creeping across the land”.Vacant black and white pictures of the now sealed-off pesticide plant visually manifest the sense of loss and passing. And a pall-like shroud bearing the names of the dead fully realises Jodha’s effort to break down the tragedy to the level of individual. But it is the soundscape that is the most haunting. As Jodha explains, on the night of December 2nd “neither did any machinery shut down and nor did an emergency sirens go off”.
Death came without warning. In the installation, between the racket of crickets and the sinister hiss of the gas leak, the first and last human sound we hear is the breathless gasp of one of the disaster’s victims. Last year the installation travelled between Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai and after attracting over 85,000 visitors in a single week, it became India’s most visited public art project.
The multimedia container will now tour festivals and campuses across Europe before, as Jodha hopes, the installation is set down in Bhopal as a permanent memorial to the disaster’s dead. The installation’s timing is patently politic but Jodha’s intentions aren’t to “dampen” any of the enthusiasm surrounding the Olympics. “Combat in the sporting area” is preferable to “combat outside it”, he says. Instead, the installation is timed in the hope of aiding the “struggle against forgetting” one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. After all, what better time is there, when we’re all looking to the future, to remind ourselves that we must not forget the past?Tagged in: bhopal, Dow Chemical, Dow Chemicals, London 2012, olympics, Samar Jodha
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