Making History Colombo Art Biennale 2014 a review

2014-02-28 04:50:18

To Colombo Art Biennale 2014 (CAB 2014) was controversial, with a cultural ‘cold war’ brewing from the start. The main exhibition was housed at a university which produces artists (in painting, sculpture, pottery) but attendance by students was abysmally low.

“Do you call this art?” Someone asked me indignantly. He was outraged that considerable amounts of money have been spent on ‘junk’ –  he took Bandu Manamperi’s ‘Iron Man’ event as an example. But I think that amounts to missing the point.

 The artist irons his shirt at a number of public places – the Independence Square, old parliament, Galle Face Green, puts it on, and walks away. It challenges our preconceived notions of what an artistic event should be, and has layers of political meaning and comment attached to it.  If tattooing is an art (and that’s usually for public consumption as well), why can’t this be?

The notion that art can be made out of junk or ‘happenings’ is alien to us. This is a 20th century Western concept. From the time Picasso used newspaper in his Cubist collages and welded together a racing bicycle seat and handle to look like a deer’s head, artists have been making art out of junk. Even the notion that art has to be permanent was discarded. ‘Happenings’ and even some installations done since the 1950s were ephemeral, ceasing to exist after the event. These developments challenge our ingrained notions about art. CAB 2014 kept poking us in the eye to change our way of looking at objects and events meant for aesthetic gratification. But you can’t get poked in the eye if you are already blind with complacency about a traditional view point.

The best example of the above was the ‘People’s Tower’ by Olivier Grossette at the Independence Square the day before CAB closed. Made entirely of cardboard boxes held together by gum tape, it took scores of volunteers to put it together at Park Street Mews. The unveiling (and quick destruction) of this object at Independence Square amounted to culture shock, puzzling some people as to why so much time and effort was put into a structure that was pulled down within one hour.

But the People’s Tower was really a metaphor for fragile civilization. It showed that creation is hard work, while destruction can be swift. This isn’t the kind of art we see at the National Gallery, but it’s a theme which has repeated itself again and again in history – destruction of Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Ming Dynasty, the Mauryas, Anuradhapura, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Europe 1939-45 and, more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan.

As for CAB 2014 being ‘elitist,’ the origins of Sri Lankan art is surely elitist – with royal patronage in ancient times, and oligarchic partronage in modern times, with the difference that ancient artists usually came from peasant stock, while the pioneer colonial generation of artists came from the aristocracy and the wealthy merchant class. The entry of ‘commoners’ into our modern art is relatively recent. The National Art Gallery amply proves this point. Nor has it kept up with developments since the time of Mudliyar Amarasekara, and CAB 2014 underlined boldly the crying need for a modern museum of art (or a museum of modern art, since there are scores of archaeological museums with ancient art and artefacts on permanent display).

Of course there was a lot of snobbery during CAB 2014, but that exists at all levels of art. While many events were free, some paid events (‘tours’) were overpriced (up to Rs. 10,000 per person). It’s true that museums of art in the West charge high ticket prices for special exhibitions. But the viewer will get a chance to see world-famous examples of painting, sculpture or antiquities from all over the world, including private collections. Whether CAB 2014 offered the same scope is open to debate.

But what was offered free amounted to  an exciting, provocative sensory experience? There was much to learn from it, if only one had the sensibility and an open mind to learn. Pala Potupitiya’s welded metal sculpture, ‘History Maker’ with its tear-ducted eyes and exposed genitals belongs in a museum of art. Pradeep Talawatte’s giant (152 X 853 cm) mural of digital colour photographs is funny, sad and a deep political satire at the same time. It shows street scenes of a war-ravaged northern town, under reconstruction. An almost life-size image of a standing young man are repeated throughout the design. He’s dressed in a striped dress which barely covers his torso. It could be a frock (making him effeminate) or concentration camp garb. You’d have to be blind to miss the implications.

Shani Jayawardhane’s ‘The Next Page: Silma’s Story’ is a series of 12 black and white photographs with a Muslim family as subject matter. Accompanying text tells us their experiences during an anti-Tamil riot. ‘Her stories’ by Radhika Hettiarachchi and Shanika Perera is a series of stark black and white graphics illustrating socio-political data. One (Kilinochchi) illustrates the plight of a Tamil family which escaped riots in Anurdhapura only to be caught up in a vicious war in Kilinochchi. Another (Kurunegala) shows the plight of a young Sinhalese war widow (‘I was told at the police station when my husband was killed in the fighting. When I started crying, the policeman told me sternly that this was an official place.’)

Nina Mangalanayagam’s colour photographs ‘The folds of the Fabic’ showed the transition of a young Hindu bride. The book ‘Trincomalee: My Father’s Stories and the Lost Photographs by Liz Angel Fernando showed, in very sparse pictorial terms, a colonial-era family’s saga in a melting pot. Indranatha Thenuwara’s bicycle installation spewing black paint could be interpreted as a stark symbol of industry and pollution, a headless beast stuck in an ugly industrial groove.

Kumari Gamage’s strongly acted out book reading and question-answer sessions in Sinhala was the exception which proved the rule, that ‘elite’ art can accommodate everyone, provided they have something to say. Not every item was successful. The illuminated barbed wire looked like kitsch. There were many other interesting, and intriguing, presentations. Unfortunately,  space is limited hence no details can be mentioned here.

CAB should certainly strive better to draw out ‘the masses’ in future (booklets in Sinhala and Tamil should be available) or the cold war will simply escalate. But this is more a question of both sides stepping forward and meeting half way. It’s always good to remember that the fault lies not in the art but in us.

Photo by Harini Akmeemana

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