LOWTIDE : UNEARTHING THE ARCHEOLOGICAL IMPULSE IN THE FORMATION OF A BUDDHIST NATION
A Tale of Two Cities
A Tale of Two Cities India and Sri Lanka was made possible by the combined efforts of the artists, Theertha International Artists’ Collective, Colombo, Sri Lanka, Espace, New Delhi and Serendipity Arts Trust in the spirit of building artistic communities in the region and creating long-term spaces for learning and sharing. The exhibition was also a means for the artists to speak collectively on the issue of faith-incited violence albeit through quite well established individual art practices.
The yearlong travelling exhibition, A TALE OF TWO CITIES Traversing Sacred Geographies: Varanasi (India) and Anuradhapura (Sri Lanka) that concluded on 08.09.2017 is a timely critique of a rise in religio-political movements across South Asia.
During the course of the exhibiting making programme, the eleven selected artists from Sri Lanka and India travelled to the two ancient cities with the curatorial brief to interpret the “contested ideologies juxtaposed with the metaphysical and the poetic.” What emerged is the artistic use of a complex mix of archaeological imagery that at the same time represents unease with the paradoxical matching-up of the sacred with the violent impulse imbued within iconographies of religious nationalisms in India and Sri Lanka. As an exegetical devise, I shall draw upon the artist statements that were used by curatorial design to bring in the artists’ voice to the gallery. At times however, the statements served to further widen the gap between the work and the words that failed them, is ultimately left to the reader. I think of the gaps as discursive openings that operate beneath the consciousness of the individual artist. I am borrowing Foucault’s (1969) schematization of the “archaeological” method to consider the complex nexus of institutional relationships (religion, state) at play between the artist and the work. While being sympathetic to artist collectives and the politically pressing issues discussed in this exhibition, the desire is to also think of the collective activities and the artworks critically as art and artistic practice. Not as simply as an aesthete, but as an exercise to think of art that has the potential to rupture the status quo.
Red Dot: ‘On Sacred Ground’
The first work to come into view upon entering the gallery at Colombo is the overhanging ‘pankha’ sets ‘The Plain of Aspiration’ 2016. Reminiscent of temple interiors, these embroidered drawings picturing Buddhist iconography are by print media artist Paula Sengupta who combines the craft of the textile arts and story telling that according to the artist owes much to the medium’s “capacity to absorb, assimilate and disperse…contested histories.” The overall effect leaves an uncertain impression of what these might actually be. The viewer is compelled to decode the appliquéd figure of a soldier amidst the floating ‘apsara‘ (celestial maidens) and the idyllic setting of a monastery in the mountains. At the far end, Manjunath Kamath’s sculptural assemblages of painted terracotta, cement and iron ‘Restored Poems’ 2016 make an intriguing appearance through the ‘pankha’ hangings. Welded as though a material progression towards the reassembly of the makara, the reclining Buddha of Isurumuniya Temple, and vestiges of the famous Sigiriya ‘apsara’ like forms through the ravages of time. On the opposite wall, Pradeep Chandrasiri’s double-handled sword is a take on the ‘kastane kadu’, the ceremonial sword, which is a traditional symbol of bravery and sovereignty of the Sri Lankan nation except; fixed in a charred plaque. Seen as a group the works in the first room make opening assertions of the exhibition as the artists grapple with disputes of militarisation, armed ethnic conflict and the archaeological site as a ground for the formation of identities. Through the neat combination of the wall text and catalogue we learn that curatorial advisor, Ruhanie Perera takes “On Sacred Ground: ‘The Living Sacred’ as a curatorial approach.” In this endeavour she joined the artists on their journey to the two cities. The result is a short film made during the site visits that fills the gallery space with conversations that one makes sensible in snatches while viewing the work “… Is easily a tool for mobilising violence so, I think we are a victim of that…” Could it be as per Claire Bishop’s much referenced observation “artists have internalised a huge amount of pressure to bear the burden of devising new models of social and political organisation”?
For instance, Manisha Parekh’s response to the provocation is a series of formal compositions titled ‘Home Shrine’ 1, 2, 3, and 5 2016 appear incongruent in this setting. And contrary to the artist text, are somewhat monotonous as registrations of “rhythms and sensations of the process of a thought.” Pala Pothupitiya joins the dialogue with sets of drawings depicting overgrown and over run ‘dagobas’ side-by-side models of the very same stupa like structures titled ‘Victory Dome’ 2015-16 encasing a throne, a crown, followed by the sword, followed by the crown with the final domed model purposefully left empty for the imagination and perhaps to signify the expected reappearance of a similar order in the chain of events to come. In the words of the artist, “ … the different stages of my process, the visuals of the throne, crown, and sword kept occurring to me… the history of ‘protecting’ Buddhism as a history of violence and war.”
Chandrasiri interrupts this thinking about the nature of protecting Buddhism and violence as he contrasts his ‘The Charred’ 2016 with a large canvas ‘Return to the sensory’ 2016 by creating a meditative space through repeating patterns abstracted from the surface flow of the Ganges in acrylic paint, ash and turmeric. Bandu Manamperi’s outdoor display of ash mounds and fiberglass intervention ‘Moonstone 1’, 2015 mimics the fine carvings and the rhythm of scrolls depicted on the Anuradhapura moonstones, however. Given that the moonstone is the first step to a temple, monastery or palace, and operates as a symbolic offering of one’s self entering a sacred place, it did make me wonder what Manamperi expects of his viewers, and how does one enter this wasteland of ash and ruin? Why were the ashes encased in a glass box? In his own words, “I wanted to work with the symbols and imagery that have dominated the architecture and rituals ingrained in the two cities…I wanted to reflect on how we are bought into meaning as pilgrims in a sacred place, or as consumers of image culture” is to me far more revealing of the artist’s frustration at being thrust upon these sites that are traditionally motivated by a spiritual yearning.