Thursday Feb. 05, 3 pm - Riding a rickety bus with a good-natured conductor to Fort, looking forward to the Colombo Art Biennale (CAB) Curated Walk through the Rosemarie Trockel Exhibition by Ulli Groetz at the Museum of Economic Development. I have visited just about all our Museums, but have never heard of this one.
I can't find the place. The map given in the CAB booklet is vague. All other venues are easier to find, with proper addresses. This address is marked as 'Central Point, Colombo Fort.' Pardon my ignorance. No one has heard of Central Point, and I rushed back to the next event, which is at the Goethe Institute at 4 pm. There, I'm chargrilled to discover that 'Central Point' is a place I have passed maybe a thousand times over the past thirty years or so.
At the Goethe, Gihan Karunaratne is giving a lecture. Titled: "Not so Strange Bedfellows: Art and Technology." He is a Sri Lankan born British Architect now based in Colombo. After an argument with a crooked three-wheeler driver, I'm late. It's all about urban planning and map making. The audience, mostly young, seem to be architects, urban planners and/or students. Karunaratne uses a series of hand-drawn maps of Central London to explain how people connect, network, move about using existing urban infrastructure, communications and other facilities. In other words, he uses a form of abstract art (for mapmaking is an art) to explain the heart of a metropolis.
While explaining how British police sealed off a section of Central London for several hours during a G-20 demonstration -- trapping bystanders, those in transit, workers as well as demonstrators -- for several hours, he shows a video clip of police brutality filmed by a Guardian journalist. The clip shows a line of policemen blocking a street. A middle-aged man walks away from them towards bystanders. He isn't violent and has his hands in his pockets. A policeman shoves him from behind and he falls down. He keeps talking to them while sitting on the street. The clip ends.
" The audience, mostly young, seem to be architects, urban planners and/or students. Karunaratne uses a series of hand-drawn maps of Central London to explain how people connect, network, move about using existing urban infrastructure, communications and other facilities. In other words, he uses a form of abstract art (for mapmaking is an art) to explain the heart of a metropolis "
The speaker tells us that the man died a few minutes later. The police commissioner told the press that the man refused or obstructed medical help. Whatever is the truth of that, there is clear evidence here of police brutality against some one passive and defenseless.
After the lecture, I sat in the garden and connect it with the unstated CAB theme, which was about violence - political, gender-based, ethnic, or simply casual. This runs like a broad sweep of highlight ink over the stated theme of 'Making History.' I couldn't attend everything, but a good many presentations I saw carried those tones and overtones of violence, forcing us to think.
But art is as much about audience participation as it is about artists and creative processes. I recall with dismay the bland faces of this youthful audience during my question-answer session with Gihan Karunaratne. He has lived the last two decades in Britain, and therefore can be excused for being out of touch with our daily realities. But what about the audience? When I asked him a question about that video clip, the rest of the audience remained neutral or, worse, indifferent.
" Open umbrellas are hung above the speakers. This is weather protection, but also a design element. A white board displays the Hashtag of the day - Weliveriya riots, and similar protests elsewhere - Thahrir Square, Turkey etc. "
I remember all the talk of a Sri Lankan 'Thahrir Square' at the height of the Arab Spring. Looking at these people, you know right away that they will be following the event, if it ever happens in Sri Lanka, from their TV sets, Face Book or Twitter.
Confirmation of that is amply provided as they walk out after the event. I'm sitting in the institute's garden, watching another event. This is a 'permanent' exhibit open daily till CAB winds up. It's by Thor McIntyre-Burnie, who did the very effective cooking pot-turned -riot helmet piece at the JDA Perera gallery. That too, is about the use of brute force to crush a people's demonstration at Weliveriya.
That video footage of British police brutality is what links Gihan Karunaratne's event with the other exhibits. It has a direct link with what's happening right outside in the institute's garden, with McIntyre-Burnie's installation which has seven audio speakers. But this audience, insensitive to society's anxieties and turmoil, fail to see it.
That's the tragedy (or tragic-comedy) of Sri Lanka noted by Adrian Schvarzstein with his improvised theatre of mime at Park Street Mews on Tuesday Feb. 04, when he reduced us conceptually (with biting sarcasm) into a nation of people running around with brooms.
The seven speakers, some improvised out of scrap materials, are circular in shape. The base is a number of hollow squares made of cement. These serve as seats, and the speakers are suspended above and around them from a tree. Some transmit light as they work (a motorcycle signal arm provides one such light). Open umbrellas are hung above the speakers. This is weather protection, but also a design element. A white board displays the Hashtag of the day - Weliveriya riots, and similar protests elsewhere - Thahrir Square, Turkey etc. Each speaker broadcasts in succession comments on these events in English. Some are Sri Lankan. Others sound like the BBC.
The ideal time to view this is as it grows dark. The pulsating lights look eerie. Combined with the continuous, measured broadcasters' voices, they produce a hallucinatory effect, as if we are trapped in a post-nuclear armaggedon world. But this sort of exhibit can be very difficult for many of our viewers to grasp, because it's not realistic representation. Our art education at school or university doesn't prepare us for this. This is why CAB 2014 amounted to cultural shock to so many