American pays 17ft tribute to Gandhi

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By AMIT ROY in London
  • Published 21.08.09

London, Aug. 21: Depending on the onlooker’s point of view, American sculptor Joseph DeLappe is either engagingly eccentric or the world’s No. 1 Gandhi devotee for he is going round putting up distinctive 17-feet tall cardboard statues of the Mahatma.

His technique is to programme a computer to draw paper templates, which are used to cut out large cardboard shapes by hand and then to stick the pieces together with hot glue.

The first Gandhi statue went up in New York, the second in China and the third in Belgium.

DeLappe, 47, who has yet to visit India, spoke to The Telegraph on Thursday from Ireland where he is on holiday with his wife, Laurie.

“To build a fourth Gandhi in India would be really amazing,” said DeLappe, who, by way of research, has read Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

His third Gandhi was recently dismantled, the pieces brought to Northern Ireland and have just been re-assembled for “graceful” display in the atrium of the University of Ulster’s ultra-modern building in the centre in Belfast.

“There is something (appropriate) about having Gandhi in Belfast with the history of its troubles,” DeLappe remarked.

Professor Kerstin Mey, director of art and design at the university’s research institute, said: “The reaction has been very positive.”

According to Belfast Telegraph, “a major political figure is visiting Belfast.”

DeLappe is an associate professor in the department of art at the University of Nevada where he directs the “digital media programme” and has been working with electronic and new media since 1983.

The Gandhi statues are only a part of DeLappe’s story of his highly individualistic experiments with truth.

“In 2008, from March 12 to April 6, over the course of 26 days, using a treadmill, I re-enacted Mahatma Gandhi’s famous 1930 Salt March,” the sculptor disclosed.

He experienced “physical pain” and lost 7lbs (3.15kg) during the walk. “I felt uncomfortable as a white male doing Gandhi’s walk but then I thought Richard Attenborough, a white man, had made the film Gandhi. I came out a different person.”

Inspired by the experience, DeLappe invented a virtual world on the electronic media, created a sympathetic “avatar” called “Mgandhi Chakrabarti”, stuck him in prison and got him to blog daily, Amitabh Bachchan style, on a wide range of issues. But why “Chakrabarti”?

While DeLappe picked MGandhi as the first name, the surname had to be chosen from a list offered by Linden Lab, the Silicon Valley handlers of the online site, Second Life.

“I chose Chakrabarti because it includes the word, ‘Chakra’,” said DeLappe.

And why are his statues 17ft in height?

“The figure was made to the same height as Michelangelo’s David — a fitting conceptual connection to this iconic work of art history depicting the Biblical figure of David just before slaying Goliath,” responds DeLappe.

It is not too hard to work out that Gandhi was similarly putting paid to British colonialism.

The first Gandhi went up at the Eye Art and Technology Center in New York where DeLappe also did his treadmill walk; the second in China was part of the Third Guangzhou Triennial at the Guangdong Museum of Art; and the third materialised at the Academie Mechelen in Belgium.

In Belfast, DeLappe’s offering is the star turn in an exhibition focusing on the “cutting edge electronic and digital art of 75 artists from 25 countries”.

What the Mahatma would have made of this is hard to say but the virtual Gandhi, struck by the same condition that is affecting Shashi Tharoor among others, has taken to “twittering” from inside his cell.

DeLappe pointed out that after the Salt March, Gandhi was arrested on May 5, 1930, and taken to Yerwada Jail in Pune. “He was imprisoned for nine months and released on January 26, 1931.”

It will be the same with DeLappe’s avatar: “MGandhi will be released from prison on January 26, 2010.”