January 26, 2011

Good Things Come In Small Packages

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India’s newest super-efficient Nano car is now on display at the Johnson Museum.The newest exhibition at the Johnson Museum looks like an avant-garde installation in a Chelsea gallery: artfully arranged scrap metal pieces suspended from the ceiling, metal wires intersecting rhythmically in space, industrial patterns of commercial objects printed on cardboard, a 3-D poster made of white paper cutout, topped with a large bright yellow balloon in the shape of an ice cream cone. However, the purpose of the exhibition is a long way from the contemporary art scene.

In 2008, Indian automobile company Tata Motors unveiled the Nano, the world’s cheapest car. With the appearance of a Smart Car-sized minivan, a weight of only 1320 pounds and a price tag of just one lakh rupees (approximately $2,500), this car is designed for India’s burgeoning domestic car market. Financial Times called it “a symbol of India’s ambition to become a modern nation” and “a true triumph of homegrown engineering.

At only twice the price of the ancient two-stroke scooter — India’s most ubiquitous form of mechanized transportation — the Nano is expected to transform India’s culture and economy. In the past couple of years, India’s rapidly growing urban industry has been receiving a lot of media attention, but India’s economic development is extremely polarized. While many upper class areas in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi rival modern western metropolises in terms of income and amenities, rural India is still plagued with a severe lack of transportation, sanitation issues and other common global south problems.

“We are trying to provide rural India with a means of transport, which does not exist now,” said in a statement Ratan Tata ’62, president of the Tata Group. “Everyone is focusing on urban areas. Urban alone is not India. People need connectivity and we hope to make that change.”

The marvelous exhibition at the Johnson museum is fascinating for artists and engineers alike. A red Tata Nano is completely disassembled with each part suspended by a metal wire that connected to an appropriate colorful label on the walls that displays its price in rupee and U.S. Dollars. With 70 percent fewer parts than the simplest European car, the Nano is dissected into only 16 parts that range from the $22 rear window and bumper to an engine that costs $994. The engine is attached to a massive yellow ballon that continues on the second floor of the Johnson Museum, which is quite small considering it represents the Nano’s average total annual emissions. In addition to a comprehensive tour of the internal structure of the Nano, the exhibition also includes video panels of the Nano in action on the muddy roads of rural India, as well as fun facts about the car’s design. The car, for example, was originally designed with only one rear door to accommodate women wearing saris, but Ratan Tata insisted on a four doors design to fit the image of a conventional family vehicle.

Just like the Nano itself, the exhibition is a lovely marriage of design and engineering. Although the Nano is the cheapest car in the world, a more appropriate take-home adjective would be “futuristic,” “chic” or even “glamorous” in some sense. The Nano is displayed as an installation sculpture rather than a science exhibit, carefully lit and arranged in a way that transforms its simplicity and efficiency to into elegance. The choice of vibrant colors and the periodic background whirring of the big yellow balloon illustrates the optimism and restlessness of the Nano, accented with several Andy Warhol-esque posters that illustrate the relative cost of the Nano for people with occupations from Architect (two Macbooks, 60 art pens, 20 S,M,L,XLs) to farmer (one third of a tractor, two motorcycles, three cows, 500 ten-kilogram sacks of wheat). Every corner of the exhibition is refreshing and energetic, except for a white, beat up old-India golf cart labeled “concept vehicle,” parked quietly at the entrance, almost blending into the color of the walls around it and demanding to be overlooked.

Original Author: Lucy Li