If you drive around Lahore’s Istanbul Chowk, you will see in its centre a rounded structure perched atop a silver pole. At first glance, it looks like an artificial tree, its white leaves flecked with yellow. But look closer and its branches turn out to be the fronts of tiny houses and its leaves become windows. This is an organic city of birdhouses, lofty in both concept and location. The installation is the brainchild of Atif Khan, a Lahore-based artist selected by the Lahore Biennale Foundation (LBF) for his idea of a sculpture that is equal parts aviary and art.

Located at the intersection of Lahore’s walled city and its relatively newer colonial parts, the installation – with its plethora of birdhouses – resembles a contemporary vision of the vertical dwellings that crowd Old Lahore itself. The same kind of dense dwellings exist in the medieval parts of Venice, Marrakech and, for that matter, Istanbul; that the installation establishes a visual link with other historic cities where contemporary art is a huge part of visual culture is both clever and timely. Pleasingly, it will also house actual birds right in the middle of a crowded, noisy city roundabout. That it can create a link to other also cities located on the cross-currents of centuries is one of the many strengths of this piece of art. The other is, quite simply, that it exists.

Public art is not something that Lahore – or Pakistan generally – invests much real estate in. The government usually shuns art projects, and most of our roundabouts and traffic lights sport sad reliefs of national leaders, amorphous religious calligraphy or anatomically ambiguous horses; a trend as disappointing as it is bewildering. It is disappointing because Lahore’s aesthetic sense is then left to only its architectural landmarks and buildings that serve as the closest thing to public art that we have, and that have existed since before Pakistan did. It is bewildering because of the sheer number of internationally renowned artists we have produced who would only be too happy to create public art pieces.

Contemporary art is sometimes viewed as totally separate from what the public can access; accused of being elitist by nature, and reserved for drawing rooms and galleries. That is not true — or at least it need not be true. Large, public projects like the one at Istanbul Chowk need institutional support from donors, city managers and government offices. We have no large museums with endowment funds that can do such projects (the Lahore Museum, for all of its treasures, seems completely oblivious to being current in any way), and our governments are more concerned with other things. Whether this is by design or circumstance is irrelevant. The result is that our cities are bereft of the wonderful things that happen when beautiful, thoughtful art pieces are put in large public spaces.

The LBF’s efforts, then, are seminal and remarkable, for they intend to turn the city into not just a catalogue of things past but also want Lahore to represent the ideas that are burgeoning now. In facilitating Khan in his creation of the installation, we are essentially reclaiming a public space that has been left lost for decades (unless you count monuments to warfare). Its loss was insidious and veiled, and often so slow that we did not even notice. We take it for granted now that public spaces are only high-threat locations, crammed with armed guards, checkpoints and barbed wire. We take it for granted that we should feel unsafe in public areas and that they are to be crossed quickly, quietly and without attracting the wrong kind of attention.

Small interventions, like the one at Istanbul Chowk, remind us that not only is it our right to have something thoughtful and beautiful to look at, but that it is also our duty. So why give money to public art when we can fund education or water purification? It’s not an either/or. Art does not stop wars, or replace guns or get people jobs. Art does not change events, because that was never its purpose. What it does do, every day, is affect people. Art-enriched societies, where beauty and thought and perspectives are celebrated publicly and without clause, change the way people think, and act, and vote. Art may not change the world, but it does change people.

Photo: Artist Atif Khan’s installation, City within a City, at Lahore’s Istanbul Chowk | M Arif, White Star

This was originally published in Herald's Annual 2016 issue. Through a selection of photographs, the Herald took a look at some of the events and developments that were extremely significant in 2015.To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.