We sprinkled our dog’s ashes on a mild Friday in late December. We took her remains to her (our) favourite places, we reacalled many moments from her 16 years and my youngest son and I cried a lot. Damp-eyed we enjoyed the winter sunshine and took our coats off to feel the sun on our skin. Some of the ashes dissipated on the shoreline of the harbor, or flew into the wind and some mingled with the silty sediments of the river bed at Iford. Other dogs splashed through the water soon after we’d tipped the remainder of the ashes in, those dogs unwittingly taking Daisy swimming again.
In many ways, it feels as if I’ve not been away. There are small things which remind me. We run out of breakfast cereal and I’d forgotten that I hadn’t actually bought some only last week, but two months ago. Life carried on without me, homework was completed, science fairs, carol concerts, sports clubs were all attended. My routine, the rhythm of our lives, especially with children who are at school, is a sort of relentless and glorious thing. It was an easy return. My partner Adam and the kids arranged a surprise party for me as a welcome home – a 39th birthday event with 70 friends and family crammed into our garage. They shocked me beyond words. It made me feel incredibly loved and cared for. For my birthday my Dad bought me a superman alarm clock and I did feel a little bit like Superman in the sunshine after an encounter with some kryptonite – regenerated, refreshed, renewed. I see now even more that my friends and family are my source of strength. It’s sappy and sentimental, but it’s true.
But more than that, walking at Hengistbury Head, with the ashes of our old dog we pass the bronze age burial mounds and the ancient hill fort, the iron ore, the sandstone and the chalk. When I was away I dreamed about this place where I grew up, where I’ve spent hours and hours of my life, the land I’d stared at from classrooms and my childhood home. This landscape is home.
As we were completing our ritual, we bumped into our friend Pete, who was walking his dog. He told us about the grey piles he sees scattered on the top of the headland every weekend on the clifftop, little heaps of people’s ashes unofficially placed here along the edge, grandparents, partners, parents, pets… all surrepstitiously deposited. He marks their presence and greets them as new friends. He says that they generally arrive over a weekend when families take time to get together, and he tells us that “some piles stay there for months – years even, sometimes the ashes form an almost-concrete along the cliff”. He welcomes these new inhabitants on his daily walks, before they drift off.
And I think, this is my home. My family. My friends. We sprinkle our dead here and have done so for thousands of years. My connection to this place is so strong, this ancient ceremonial landscape, this familiar rock. I like leaving it for a bit. Finding new connections. But I really like returning.
Sunday 10th and Monday 11th December Days 41 & 42 Exhibition
I have a very enjoyable day. Clear of hangover.
I drink a cold Lion Beer in the courtyard at Barefoot and listen to sophisticated jazz. It feels very international here in Colombo, familes are enjoying the four piece band and I chat to folk from Singapore and Mumbai and Germany and France and Japan. It’s a sort of paradise, sunny and affluent. I’ve spent a small fortune on ethically sourced items from Barefoot for my family. I’m wearing the green dress made from handloom fabric by the ‘England Tailor’ shop in Hikkaduwa and I get asked about where I got the dress as it’s “so beautiful”. I love this dress too. Anders and Kyna join me and Anders says how strange it is to “be in Europe again already”. He’s right, the courtyard feels like I could be anywhere warm and rich in the world. It’s the kind of place the word ‘cosmopolitan’ was invented for.
Helen and I have lunch and we repair to the gallery and the Human Rights Arts Festival commences. There is music and singing.
The exhibition seems to go really well. I present and demonstrate my horn, I enjoy the event and meeting and talking to people about my work. It’s an honor to be invited to exhibit here and to be part of the celebrations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s good to be in Thenu’s company again, and grand to meet the artist Kingsley Gunatillake who is also exhibiting work.
But I keep thinking of Hikkaduwa. I miss the sea. I keep replaying the verse of one of my favourite Joni Mitchell songs in my head:
The wind is in from Africa
and last night I couldn’t sleep….
Oh it sure is hard to leave here Carey,
but it’s really not my home
My fingernails are dirty
And I’ve got beach tar on my feet
And I miss my clean white linen
And my fancy French cologne
After we do our part, we go to the bar at Cinnamon Red, which is on top of a large high building made of glass and steel. We look out over Colombo. There are Christmas decorations everywhere and palm trees and warm rain falls. This feels worlds away from where we have been in Hikkaduwa. It IS worlds away. Others peel off and Helen and I carry on drinking together and talk and hail a tuk tuk driver who gets lost finding our digs and drives us round and round different parts of Colombo. We manage to find it amusing rather than, as I imagine we would have done at the start of our trip, alarming.
On Monday morning, the host of the Guest House we are staying in, Padmni, tells us about her ceramics collection and about her cups which she bought out in Jordan, which read on the bottom ‘made in China’. Her family lives or has lived all over the world. She’s an engaging and interesting woman. I remember thinking that globalisation is what we make of it.
On the drive to Colombo airport, the signs read:
Prisoners are Human Beings
Smak – full of natural goodness
Samantha digital cinema
The all new fragrance….
A true gentleman wears….
At the edge of the city, we join the Katunayake Expressway, we see the edge of more jungle, pylons, the grey sea, adverts for the development of ‘Port City of Colombo’ hoardings proclaiming the building of a new ‘World Class City for Asia’.
When we arrive at Heathrow I feel bad because I abandon Helen at the luggage claim area – my family are just outside waiting for me and I run to them. We hold each other tightly and cry happy tears in a messy group. I am so lucky. I am so fortunate.
Saturday 9th December Day 40 Deinstall-Reinstall
I spend the day with a special kind of hangover.
I swim in the sea for ages this morning. And then I go on another soundwalk, so that I can record it. I’m keen to lock in these sounds for myself. This is the version I will use on my soundcloud. More than anything, these soundwalks are a record of this place and it’s a good way to say goodbye to Hikkaduwa. The art works along them will eventually disappear, I’ve used water based paint which will fade, or they will be pasted over soon enough. I like the ephemeral nature of the artwork.
You can hear my Geophonic Soundwalk here: https://soundcloud.com/gobbledegook-2/geophony
But I’m still hungover.
I pack the rest of my things quickly, badly, I load the audiophone into a van, chuck a few more stray things back into my suitcase. I sleep most of the drive to Colombo. I’m muzzy and headachey, but thankfully not queasy as we ride to Colombo with our cases and our artwork. My install of the audiophone in the JDA Perrera gallery takes a few minutes, and I’m ready to go. Everyone else has hours of more preparation.
It feels strange to me to put anything in a white box gallery space. I usually present my work in outdoor contexts – for spaces where people might happen upon it, because they’re using the building not necessarily for ‘art’. I’m not sure how comfortable I am in putting it in a gallery – but it’s an honour to have been asked and it’s interesting to think about how it makes me feel.
I drop cases at our digs, have a snooze and then venture out by myself. I drift around parts of Colombo in tuk tuks, I have a wander round a department store which wouldn’t look out of place on Oxford street, same stores, same type of affluent people shopping. I think it is meant to be cheaper for the brands which are there, but as I never buy anything in those type of stores anyway, it’s all moot. In the Paradise Road store I’m told by some helpful Germans that loads of the stuff is actually made and then bought in from China, so I’m much better to go to the Barefoot store in Colombo which is all ethically made in Sri Lanka. I still buy things.
In the evening I meet my colleagues back at the gallery and we have dinner over the road in a bizarre restaurant called the Ceylon Cafe, which is almost entirely decorated in gold. A jazz saxophonist serenades us. We are the only people in the restaurant. I find out about the waiter (Mohammed) whose brother owns the restaurant. He is extremely well travelled and his mother has been ill. Later, Helen says a lovely thing to me about how she finds it amazing that I so quickly engage with people and find out loads about them in a short space of time. It’s a compliment which really stays with me. I find people extremely fascinating. I like talking, connecting. I have found that Sri Lankan people seem particularly ready to share something of themselves.
The gold restaurant is an odd place, but I’m floaty and happy. These past few days I notice that I feel strangely like I’m myself again, as if I’ve been in a sort of dream for most of the past 6 weeks and I’ve woken up.
Friday 8th December Day 39 Geophony Soundwalk
I wake early, and swim as usual. After I record a Soundwalk of the route and we have a rehearsal for our group piece, Helen and I make a brief pilgrimage to Arthur C Clarke’s abandoned house which lies between Hikkaduwa and Dodanduwa. It was interesting to see this dilapidated place which once would have been so grand.
We’re all getting ready for our ‘Moving Out’ show this afternoon/evening. My Soundwalk maps are printed, I’ve fly posted the Jungle and wall on the Galle Road and my audiophone is up. My impressions of stratigraphy/lithology look so lovely rendered into recycled paper which form the horn. I’m keen on not using headphones in my work, I want to do the reverse almost – ask people to listen to what’s actually around them, with the Hikkaduwa Soundwalk I want to invite the listener to make their own soundscapes, not form it for them. I have formed some of the visual content on the walk though, with the murals I’ve made, and the posters I’ve put up. Some of the images are quite subtle. I’m particularly pleased that there are 11 tuk-tuk drivers around Hikkaduwa who have ‘Even Rocks Don’t Last Forever’ bumper stickers on their vehicles.
You can download a version of the walk suitable for viewing on screens here:
Or you can download a printable booklet version of the walk here:
I am not performing, rather demonstrating how the audiophone works. In my mind, I’m not here to perform, I’m here to develop new work, which is partly why I’ve completely resisted my normal desire to ‘do a turn’. I do thoroughly enjoy taking part in Helen’s gorgeous work though. She draws a stave on the beach and I (and later Kyna and Rae Yen) sing the notes as she writes them, only for the waves to wash the notes and the stave away. It’s a brilliant idea.
As we could invite our own guests, one of us (I’m not sure who) invited all of the Coir Factory workers to the event. There was no one else to make sure that they are welcomed apart from me, so they present me with a beautiful coir crown wall hanging. I enjoy chatting to Ravi and the team and their kids very much indeed.
I’m not sure that anyone has actually been on my soundwalk, in fact I’m pretty certain that they haven’t, but the evening seems to have been a success. Different people all want to keep the horn – which is grand, and there have been lots of positive comments about my work and what I’ve created. I’m pleased with the ideas I’ve had, and the project I’ve been developing. The main thing is that I have a piece in my head now which I’m desperate to make. It will be very different to what I have presented in Hikkaduwa, but it has become what it will be because of my time here.
Chaminda’s rice and curry feast is also extraordinary. He is a brilliant chef and I will go back to the UK more than half a stone heavier than when I arrive. Our collaborative singing and dance piece goes down well. We start by singing-droning Helen’s Fisherman’s Song theme together and eventually swell it to a dance piece scored by Ander’s remix of the theme. At the end we cram into Sudu’s tuk-tuk and are driven off. The audience seem to enjoy the work at least.
After the evening has wrapped up at Sunbeach, I continue to drink and chat with Caroline Diehl who is staying at Sunbeach. Caroline is an extraordinary and charismatic person, utterly positive, compassionate, interested and interesting. We’re also with Darren and Ben, Jonna and Thomas . Darren is the ‘resident surfer’ here at Sunbeach and Ben is here on a two-week surfing holiday. Jonna and Thomas are from Sweden and are travelling for six months around this part of the world.
Eventually everyone else has gone to bed barring Darren, Ben, Jonna and Thomas who persuade me away from Sunbeach and buy me drinks at the sort of terrible-brilliant Club Vibrations (not much persuasion is needed). Darren makes sure we are waved straight in by the bouncers and we have a really good night. We dance and laugh (a lot). I dance with the Salty Swamis team and the mask-dancer, we watch the live drumming and DJ set taking place on the stage. I’m giggly, silly even, I feel more like myself than I truly have in weeks. A proper late night out with proper drinking and dancing.
Thursday 7th December Day 38 (nearly) Moving Out
I spend a good portion of my day in downtown Hikakduwa, sitting with Chamera in Ruwan Print Studios. I’ve asked him to print several large posters for me to fly post on walls, and he’s helping me to translate them. He explains to me that in Sinhalese the verb is first. Instead of ‘Listen to the Jungle’ a more direct translation would be ‘To the Jungle, Listen’. He expresses surprise that I want to put the Sinhalese words above the English words, he’s much more used to it being the other way round – English first. There is such an interesting project here, about the signage of Sri Lanka, and the different usages of the three ‘official’ languages and how and where they are used (virtually no Tamil in this part of Sri Lanka, with locals advising me not to use it as it’s still such a politically charged subject), but I keep reminding myself that I am not here to make that work. And I am running swiftly out of time.
I had been trying to make the job easier by using google translate, but it’s actually worse than useless as the translation is so poor. It’s even been a tortuous process to cut and paste the word ‘earth’ in Sinhala from google into a word document. And my computer is not co-operating at all, rather it is switching the font name to ‘inherit’ and not translating it at all. I think it’s amusing at first, some coder’s geeky joke about inheriting the earth, but then it becomes frustrating and I give up.
I visit Nalinder the wood carver across from Sunbeach for the last time – he has carved me some wooden heads which I will make puppets from when I’m home. Some of the scale and colour of hair is wrong but they’ve quite lovely faces. I also take some photos of Chathura posing on the beach mat. He’s the person least likely to relax on a beach so I find it sort of amusing to photo him on it. I think he finds it amusing too.
Back to my second trip to Ruwan Print Studios, and I become slightly flustered when Chamera asks me if I’m married or not. I think the sheer amount of time that I’ve been hanging out working with him in the print shop means that the rest of the staff, (mainly made up of young women), have been teasing him about it. I think he’s actually proving to the rest of them this really weird, greying, older woman isn’t actually trying to court him. But this conversation leads us into more interesting topics about where he’s at in his life – he has a girlfriend, but he’s not interested in marriage at the moment – he wants an easy happy life and he thinks that marriage doesn’t lead to that, despite his family thinking he should get on with reproducing. He’s 26 he’s not ready to compromise his lifestyle. I fell pregnant when I was 26. I tell him he’s very sensible but that families seem to be the same the world over, but that I like being with my partner in a permanent arrangement very much indeed.
Samuel, who is one of the owners, makes me a cup of tea and I have some cake and fudge with the team all behind the counter. I have a really nice day with kind and interesting people, people who have become my friends.
This evening we take Chintika and Sudu (who have driven us round in tuk-tuks and been our unofficial guides and fixers for the past 6 weeks) for drinks to say thank you for all their help. Five of us (Helen, Kyna, Anders Flick and I) are going to hand out flyers for our show at Sunbeach tomorrow night. We end up flyering very little (only really at Gamini’s and Ranjith’s) as we end up at the New Lion’s Paradise Hotel with the bottles of Arrack having picked up a few more friends along the way. We swap songs and drinks and laugh. Kyna sings beautifully, her voice is so pure and quite, quite lovely. Then our group of artists start to peel away. When only Anders, I, Chintika, Sudu, Indie and the other Sri Lankan guys are left, we sing more together, by this beach. I’m less self-conscious now, because of the drink and the company and I very much enjoy singing with these men. I even sing the song I’d written – which Indie beautifully completes by singing all of Ipadi Lowe. Anders is a demon on his Dholki. It’s a lovely night.
One of the guys who lives at the hotel asks nicely if I’d like to join him in his room later. I decline politely, but there is no threat at all in the interaction, more a sort of gentle flattery. Anders and I leave, and walk round the corner so we can hand out a few more flyers to the club up the beach and find ourselves in the alley by Miracle’s Café where a party is taking place for Dixon’s birthday. Anders is extremely good-naturedly required to play Dholki for them in order for us to pass (and he does do brilliantly) but I’m suddenly on high alert and sweaty palmed as the chef who had been so predatory towards me in the previous week is there, edging his way nearer to me. Suddenly, for the first time in days I feel danger again. I won’t let one bad guy spoil such a good night, but I am very ready to get back to Sunbeach.
We are nearly Moving Out. Nearly. I am nearly home with Adam and my boys. I’m busting with the desire to see them all. Just one more day in Hikkaduwa.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday 4th – 6th December
Days 35 – 37 Stitch-Song-Swim
We’ve all been working on each other’s projects in one way or another – it’s been a lovely thing to be an active participant in someone else’s work. I’ve sung for Helen Ottaway in corridors and in the jungle. I’ve taken photos of her with piano keyboard I painted for her from old wood (she was without a piano in Sri Lanka) and she’s been my sounding board and confidant.
And I’ve been sewing with Kyna and Anders on the beach at Dodanduwa boatyard. Kyna had written a poem about her ‘other mother’ (her aunt for want of a better title, the mum to her brother), who had come to Sri Lanka a few years before her death when she was my age, 38. Kyna had wanted to talk about her feelings of grief and about death in her artwork, and she had had three beautiful large catamaran-style sails signwritten by a local artist with her words. Kyna invited me to join her and Anders in three nights of sail sewing at the harbor in Dodanduwa as the sun went down. It was very beautiful. On each night, as soon as we had laid the blue sail on the sand, a small crowd of fishermen would form around us. And the men (all men) helped us to stitch around the full length of the sail. Whilst we sewed, we told our own stories and spoke about our families. The very recent cyclone had claimed the lives of several of the fishermen in the village and death and sadness felt very present without us pushing any sort of conversational agenda. We found out about each other’s lives and shared stories of our families, mothers, fathers, children, friends and work and travels. It seemed to me that the sail sewing was not about the grief of loss at all, but about life and living. Kyna took beautiful photographs of our hands at work, Anders helped pull a boat onto the shore, we enjoyed each others company. We swapped stitches and stories.
On my work, I’d asked Chintika and Sudu to help me source some straight branches from the jungle (they have a contact who is a woodcutter) and I re-visited the coir factory who, amongst other things, sold me some of their twine to bind the wood together. All of this was in order to construct my design for the cradle the audiophone sits in, I’d hoped that it would look organic to reflect the style of the horn itself. This job is something which would have taken me about 5 minutes with my maquita and a few good screws back home, but here in Sri Lanka, after couple of hours of doing and re-doing my clumsy lashing, remembering how to tie clove hitches and generally feeling frustrated by the whole thing, I asked Anders if he’d mind giving me a hand. He’d brought his hand axe which made the job quicker and neater and well, actually possible. I hadn’t really realised how much I rely on power tools and well-made ironmongery. I like the aesthetic of the piece though – using only the tools and materials easily at hand has helped to create something far more lovely.
I’ve also finished drawing my map for the sonic walk, walking around Narigama with paper in hand, trying to avoid getting soaked or killed on the road through my inattentiveness. The traffic really is extraordinary. Early morning on Tuesday I walk the route to make sure that it ‘works’ – when I got to the part by the jungle I watch a trio of monkeys playing. I caught a photo of on leaping from the edge of a frond to an electrical cable to cross the railway line.
The level crossing guards were clearly so used to seeing them do this they paid no attention, but were interested in the woman with a big piece of paper just standing still and listening to things. I imagine that if you work there, that you will be used to people moving about all the time. Not standing still. Stopping when the crossing isn’t even in use.Quite often the guard is asleep, or has walked off for a bit. The rusty stop sign often falls off the barriers. But the whole arrangement does seem to be effective, it just has the appearance of being shambolic.
On Tuesday evening we recorded a song, a song about rocks. I wrote it in the first couple of weeks of arrival. Anders, with his enthusiasm and lovliness managed to set up the recording of it, I even managed to pluck up the courage to ask everyone to sing or play on it too, backing vocals, guitar, drums, keys. It sort of captures a proper moment of collaboration, beyond what people’s art forms are. It’s a very rough around around the edges song, but it’s certainly something to take home as a sort of portrait of my time here. At the end it all fades to the sea, that raucous sea. The verse is inspired by the bedrock and, although it sounds rather grand, the universal declaration of human rights. The chorus is borrowed from an old Sri Lankan song, Ipadi Lowe, which Anders found in his research.
You can hear the song here: https://soundcloud.com/gobbledegook-2/even-rocks-dont-last-forever
Last week we shared some elements of our practice and this week we are working on a small group collaboration element to our evening event on Friday. I’ve taken a bit of a back seat to my usual mode, but I’m along for the ride and happy to be involved. The group performance involves all six of us singing and dancing. It’s been fun working on something together, in comparison to my usual self my voice feels small and quiet in this situation, but we need to work fast and too many voices and opinions will spoil the broth.
On recording. I’ve not yet used my zoom recording device once. It’s strange. I’m here making a piece about listening to sound, and not once have I used my equipment to capture the extraordinary sonic environments here, which are all so close to each other. I’ve instead made a whole piece about it.
Perhaps before I go, I will do it. To be reminded of how noisy and different it is to my usual environment. Or perhaps I’ll just let it go – it’ll be in my memory. There are two other sound artists and composers here who certainly do record things all the time, so perhaps that has something to do with my reluctance.
There are a few sounds I will very much miss though – I wake to a bird with such a regular pattern of song that in the first few days I thought an electrical item was being turned on each morning to loud beeping. It’s a beautiful bird. I don’t know what it is, but its song is so distinctive. Then there is sweeping. A near-constant sweeping in the morning. It starts for me at around 7:30 outside my bedroom window. Keep the jungle out. Keep the sand out. Shhh. Shhh. Shhhhhh. Shhhh.
And the sound of this sea here….. it’s still so loud, even though the sand bar has moved after the storm and it has become markedly quieter. I swim every day. I really will miss this warm sea.
I should also mention that I finally witnessed a Kelvin Helmholtz cloud formation on Wednesday evening – I even managed to photo it just as it was dissipating (Helen managed to get me in shot for one of the photos too). I’ve been looking for this specific pattern of water vapour for about five years now, I’d even written a Buzzcocks-style song about the search so I toasted the sighting thoroughly at Gamini’s bar.
I admit it’s a fairly niche excitement. But it pleased me all the same.
Sunday 3rd December Day 34 Geology: Always Beneath Us
Today. Today there was sunshine.
27th, 28th, 29th, 30th November and 1st and 2nd December Days 28 – 33 Severe Tropical Cyclone Ockhi
We’ve had a tumultuous few days. And a whole week has passed without my blogging.
From Tuesday to Friday we have been sharing our practice, working in our little group of six artists to give an insight into our own creation processes. Some of which has been met with great warmth, open spirit and interest. We’ve been in the jungle mainly, making, talking, singing. Mikey Martins from Hull Freedom Festival has arrived, he’s a very nice bloke and fits in quickly, he’s easy company.
But, the weather, the weather has been wild. A very severe tropical cyclone ‘Ockhi’ hit us, a huge storm which has railed on and off for days. The power has been out (on and off) for much of that time. We were very lucky in Sun Beach where we’re staying, but glass doors were blown from their hinges and upstairs bedrooms flooded. There were three nights of total darkness with no power or water. The whole of Hikkaduwa has been without internet, some of our meals have been had in our rooms (especially during the storm) or eaten by candlelight on the patio whilst the storm raged. We’ve been incredibly lucky. We are so lucky to be in a solidly built hotel, with concrete floors and good access to indoor sanitation in our rooms, at least if the water wasn’t on we could flush the loos with rainwater.
Many people in Sri Lanka were not nearly so lucky. There are varying reports of death tolls, but it seems that 4 fishermen in nearby Dodanduwa lost their lives and country-wide at least 15 people were killed and many thousands of people have been displaced from homes.
And then there was the prophecy. A really scary prophecy by an Indian man called Babu Kalayill foretelling of a tsunami, which would take place alongside a huge storm. Babu uses his extra sensory perception method to predict this Natural Disaster and had become something of an internet news sensation in Sri Lanka. He foretold that the tsunami would happen before the 31st of December this year. Ockhi seemed to fit the bill for many people, even our local tuk tuk drivers were thinking about selling up quickly and heading for the hills.http://timesrilanka.com/2017/11/17/babu-kalayil-tsunami-prediction-december/For people who have lived though the 2004 tsunami, who went through the aftermath and picked up lives and businesses, despite the huge losses, this is a horrible and terrifying prediction. I have spent weeks now reading geological reports about the 2004 Tsunami, the seismological factors behind it, I know that weather has nothing to do with the circumstances around it ….. and yet…. and yet…. huddled under my mosquito net, at 2 in the morning, feeling scared and homesick, it was very hard not to worry that there was a grain of truth in this nonsense prediction.
Anyway, Helen kindly lent me her headtorch as I’d neglected to bring a torch (my phone has one I reasoned, but hadn’t considered that there would be no power to charge it with).
Thursday evening, some of us sat and played songs with some of the hotels new guests and Darren, the hotel’s ‘resident surfer’, who comes to Hikkaduwa from Bermondsy for three months every year. He’s a nice bloke, as is his mate Ben. He tells me about how when he first came to Hikkaduwa, seven years ago at 1 in the morning and how he couldn’t get over the roar of the sea. He, Ben and I are all 38 years old, really within weeks of turning 39. We have similar cultural reference points (Point Break, the 50 year storm). It’s nice. We sit and sing and play the ukulele. We’re making our own entertainment. I don’t think any of us are managing very much of our artwork, things stutter to a stop when you have no internet, or power for your computer. I’m very thankful I brought a power bank for my phone, but it doesn’t last that long, and there is no service anywhere anyway….
BUT Hikkaduwa is bursting back to life. Clear ups are quick. We’re at the start of the season, people know how important it is to keep moving, keep clearing, get back to normal again.
There is a lot of damage down the coast, businesses roofs have been blown off, all the repairs which are afforded at the end of the season are not able to take place because this bad weather has come so near the start of the season.
The one thing I have managed to do is to distribute a few of my bumper stickers for the Sound Walk I’m creating. CHINTIKA happily put the sticker on his tuk tuk. He asks what it meant. In the UK I might try to avoid this conversation, to ask what he thimks it means instead, to ask my audience to make meaning, often when I’m working with children and young people this engenders the most exciting responses. Here though, at that moment, it felt like a slightly silly thing to do.
So I told him, that to me, I suppose, that I think that human lives are very short indeed. That rocks have lives too, in a way, that these things we think of as being permanent are not really. This coastline will recede. The limestone will erode. Even Sigaria will fall, in time.
Everything changes. We are all part of nature. It’s a good idea for us not to forget that.
Chintika thinks about it. “So it’s quite Buddhist then?”. Yes. Yes. I reply. I think perhaps it really is.
26th Nov Day 27 Sri Lika
A LIST OF GOOD THINGS ABOUT BEING IN SRI LANKA:
Watching a sea turtle lay her eggs on the beach
The fruit and veg market
Galle’s garment district
Gamini and his family
The tailor shops
Riding in tuk-tuks
Small factory visits
The sun (when it comes out)
Conversations with strangers
Sun Beach Hotel
The lagoon safari
My new dress
Dodanduwa boat yard
Lots of Sri Lankan people
Tea plantation visit
Rice and Curry
Saturday 25th November DAY 26 Rocks are not Inanimate
Yesterday, I spent some of the afternoon in Ruwan studios, the print shop, which I’m frequenting a great deal, Samuel has translated my text into Sinhala for me referring to his large English dictionary for help. There was some consternation and referral in the process. Translation is a very tricky business, especially when the words are less than straightforward. I’m learning more about the absolutely beautiful Sinhala language because I’m trying to write some of it on a wall. Graphic Designer Chamara, (whilst listening to Despacito, Shake it Off and Shape of You) patiently sat and showed me font after font until eventually I chose one which looked simple enough for me to create a stencil template from. He explained to me how much he loves the writing of Sinhala – that it’s the most beautiful script in the world. In this tourist town, Chamara does most of his designs in English – despite loving Sinhala so very much. I find when I’m painting the text onto the wall that it is very lovely to write, the curves and circles of the brush move beautifully within the words, there’s a natural flow to it. Chamara also wanted to know what on earth I actually mean about the rocks being slower – I say that perhaps that is really the point, that when they read it people will have a think about rocks. Sort of like a poem. It made him sort of smile. He thinks I'm a crazy artist.
And then, with proper nervousness (see yesterday’s entry), but definite attitude and the precaution of writing a clear note and date and time on my desk, I go back to Miracles Café to sign-write the Sinhala lettering I’ve spent ages cutting out last night. It’s the translation for the words ‘Rocks are not inanimate, some are just slower, others much faster’.
In Miracles, one of the employees is Menaka, who has downs syndrome. I think that Krishan is part-carer part boss for him, although I could be wrong. He’s super lovely and we smile and chat as best I can (my Sinhalese being non-existent and his English likewise). I really start to relax.
I write up the words, checking with Krisha about where the letters should be placed in terms of the sense of the piece. I chat for a long time with an older man who tells me he loves my words – “this is really important! The coral we had here was living and beautiful and red and blue and pink and now we don’t have any because people took it all and it is dead”. Then Chamila and his father and the police chief pop in and we chat too. Tall Gamini I’d met at Sunbeach comes by with his friend Sena, I’m enjoying myself now. I am kindly given some milk tea, which is made with evaporated milk, it is so sweet my teeth itch. Dickson comes by and says hello – I’m nearly finishing. “I love it! I’m very very pleased!” he says. Then looks at the Sinhala. “Although….” .It turns out that I’ve got the placing of the sentences wrong. In that they were even sentences in the first place. Dickson advises me where they should really go, and Chamila and his dad and the police chief all help work it out. It’s quite funny and jovial, even though I had checked it several times with Krishan it made me laugh – it could say “my first car was a watermelon” for all I know. I get onto repainting parts and letters and, as it’s raining I suggest that I will have to return later on, when the undercoat has dried. I pick up a few things but leave my paints. I pop to the print shop to pick up some stickers I’ve had made and go to lunch.
I return to Miracle’s café in the afternoon.
And that’s when it gets a bit weird. Dickson isn’t there. Kamala, the creepy chef is. It’s really quiet, no one is really around apart from someone else I don’t know, who now seems to be in charge. I just need to stencil the six Sinhala letters, paint them and then leave, job done. Kamala is really near me all of the time. I ask him to back off. I tell him he’s really putting me off. He retreats. He returns. The new guy tells me that Kamala likes my work, “he really likes you”. I tell him pointedly about how my husband also likes my work. Kamala backs off a bit and watches me. Kissing his teeth now and then.
I finish fast, and I’m done, say bye to Menaka and Krishan and leave. I remember that I’d promised the very nice old bloke that I’d do a quick sign for his guest houses, pretty near to the cafe. It feels fine now I’m outdoors. I have refused all other commissions, but knew this would only take about 10 minutes and Sena is a very nice guy. There was a break in the weather so I started. Then Kamala appears. He stands right behind me, far too close. I ask him to go. He tells me he doesn’t speak English. He’s far too close still, shit-eating grin on his face. I tell him I will leave if he doesn’t and he steps closer. I look around to see if there’s any help, I realise I’m in an empty alleyway. Seeing no one – it’s a rainy day here, I put my hand in Kamala’s face, almost touching him and very forcefully and loudly say “BYE BYE GO AWAY NOW”. My heart is absolutely racing. He stands and smiles for longer. Smile is the wrong word here, it’s a leer. We are facing off now. After quite some time he leaves. I start packing up my things, fumbling, dropping them as I go, my job on Sena’s gate post (which up until now was a sweet thing to do), has become unimportant. I rush back to Sun Beach in the rain with my brushes and paints racing along the sand, I can’t bear facing the gauntlet of the vans and the horns and the catcalls on the road.
I stop shaking and start to calm down once I’m back at our hotel. I have a beer. Look at photos of the lovely thing I, and the people of Hikkaduwa made with me. I’m really pleased with it. I am really sad though, that people think that they can treat others like that. I’m sad and angry. Tonight I really don’t want to be in Sri Lanka very much. I’d very much rather like to be home with my kids and partner. Tonight, I have a proper cry with big hot tears.
There is more here about street harassment in Sri Lanka in the links below, there is masses online about it, and those are just posts from the women who have access to the internet and write in English:
also a pretty helpful article:
Friday 24th November Day 25 Eve Teasing
Today, sexual harassment seems to have been a National Sport. Even more popular than say, cricket. On the way back from walking from the print shop today I received SO much sexually-related hassle. Sure, there’s a sort of constant banter of people offering tuk tuks and clothes and food, I find that understandable, I’m in a tourist town and folk are trying to make a living. Also, I sort of get someone trying to chat you up – even if it is quite irritating. But the other stuff, the constant feed of unwanted attention. Ugh. The packs of men. The vans which beep you, the barrage of catcalls from the window, “hey sexy” or other words I don’t have a clue about, but are certainly not asking if I’d like a cup of tea. And the constant unwanted attention starts to grate on you, makes you feel embattled, and actually, in some cases, quite scared.
I was followed up the street by one guy with orange teeth and a sickly smile, he didn’t mange to touch me, but came close with his grabbing hands: “hey sexy lady, you’re my lady, I love you lady, you be my lady”. His persistence was futile, but ended up crossing the road and hiding in a shop for a while. An incident, which was probably only a few minutes long, had an impact on the rest of my day.
Then there is the amount of horns sounded each time that you walk out. Initially I thought it was because the traffic was so bad, but actually, often there are no road hazards, it’s just literally because a woman is walking. I saw an ugly moment with a young Sri Lankan woman who’d just got out of a wedding party and was clearly waiting for her ride. She looked beautiful, dressed in red and gold, and a group of young men in their late teens crossed the road to hassle her. I wish I’d crossed the road to have a chat with her, but at the time was freaking out about the weirdo chasing me. I was starting to think it was my fault, being a white western woman. Or because I have a generally sunny comportment – a resting smile face. But I think perhaps it’s behavior heaped on anyone who has the temerity to have tits.
Or maybe it’s because it’s Friday. Perhaps Friday is harassment day, work finishes early, the Arrack comes out and guys start being mega dicks. But it’s a really tangible thing here. I’m pretty conservative with what I wear – I’m being pretty observant of the cultural norms of this place – I wear dresses which cover my shoulders and knees, kimonos, but none of this matters. You start having stupid thoughts – I’m a slightly stout, currently very sweaty woman in my late thirties, why the hell are they harassing me? I thought this was all done with in my teens and twenties…. I feel cross and hot. I feel like not going out again anywhere but in pairs or in a tuk-tuk (feminist me naturally rails against this). And I know it’s not about any of that stuff really. It’s about who is in charge here. Who has the power, the entitlement. Who can make sport out of someone just walking up a road – be they Western or Sri Lankan. It make me feel impotent. And bloody FURIOUS.
I’m so lucky to live somewhere where this doesn’t happen in such plain sight. I’ve been groped on public transport and assaulted where I lived in London and harassed in the workplace… but I’ve not felt threatened, not like this. In the UK it’s more hidden and insidious. Here it’s brazen.
And the good men, of which there are many, they don’t notice it. Because if they’re out with a woman then it doesn’t happen. I sort of want to throw everything I’ve made, all the beautiful ideas I’m constructing about geology and the anthropocene and climate change out with the bathwater and make a furious feminist piece about ‘Eve Teasing’ and how BLOODY ANGRY I AM.
And while painting my new mural, in the Miracles Café off Galle Road, almost the whole afternoon, the chef, Kumara, is sitting, watching me, eyes boring in whilst kissing his teeth. He’s trying to be sexy. He is the opposite. I think my sex-organs are drying and shriveling in his presence. I occasionally look up and glare at him. My fear/flight sense is in overdrive, I’m sweating buckets. I’m feeling really, really nervous. This is not cool.
And none of the other guys in the restaurant seem to notice or see it. And I’m confused as to why I don’t call the bastard on it. Or just leave.
I start to feel that I’m in a silent war of attrition. That I will NOT let him win. That I will finish my work. Kumara might not know I’m in this war with him, but me winning will be that I complete the mural. I make a couple of mistakes – just paint drips, but I’m flustered and extremely hot. I chose this café because there were so many Sri Lankans using it, I checked in a few times previously, lots of men and women were in there, it looked busy and interesting. Great, I thought. The guy who owns it, Dickson and his staff member, Krisha are lovely. Everyone in the café is eating with their hands as is the customary, it had a nice vibe to it. A French surfer pops in for his late lunch of rice and curry and I relax as the chef has to prepare the chat and we laugh and I start to feel relaxed again.
But Dickson leaves and there is Kumara again, back, sitting on the step, making my skin crawl. My amygdala is on overdrive. I finish as quickly as possible. Really super speedy fast. There is little attention to detail. It’s raining. I’d better go, see you tomorrow. I feel there is victory in the commitment to return. I’m going to bloody do this mural about rocks and humanity absolutely despite this man.
Here’s a piece written about ‘street harassment’ in Sri Lanka: https://www.yamu.lk/blog/street-harassment-in-sri-lanka it’s really accurate on what I have observed here, despite it being written for Colombo. There is quite a lot of stuff about the problem on the internet and in guide books. I spent ages wondering if I’d been imagining it all, or being a bit over the top about it. I’m really bloody not.
Monday – Thursday 20th – 23rd November Days 21 – 24 Kindness is a Virtue Seldom Overrated
I’ve snorkeled every day this week on the coral reef in the Hikkaduwa marine conservation area. It is extraordinary. Really extraordinary. I’ve never seen anything like it before – such exquisite fish! In fact, I nearly drowned myself on my first venture by swearing loudly at how amazing the fish are. There were shoals upon shoals of brightly coloured and striped fish EVERYWHERE I LOOKED. I am a bit of a travel novice. We haven’t been on expensive family holidays with our kids, or worked off the Carribean, we go camping in Cornwall and perform at music festivals in our summers. So this, well, frankly, it just blew my mind. This biodiversity, this abundance, this colour. It’s the stuff of storybooks from my childhood. It’s amazing, utterly amazing.
There were big fish, small ones, loads of coral (albeit that part is mostly sad-looking or dead). There are ones with long snouts which look like small swordfish, yellow and blue stripy ones, angel fish looking ones, black ones with frilly orange edges and brave ones who pout expressively at you. I’m a kid again. I try not to get overwhelmed and try to tamp down my enthusiasm with others. But I am an enthusiast. I like exciting new things and adventures. And this is all new to me. I like giving ready praise to others and communicating and sharing my excitement(s). I think it’s a strength because positivity drives you on. But here…. I have noticed that I have become far more closed off and stuck into my own interior world here. I’m certainly a different person to the one I am at home (cue song: Rocket Man). Maybe, in the way that Samson’s strength was in his hair, my strength is in my family and friends. I’m certainly valuing my relationship with my partner and our brilliant kids so much more, as well as with my wider friends and family. Community is a wonderful thing. I’m realizing that there is great freedom in collaboration with people who you already have an established working relationship with. Powell and Pressburger made beautiful films because they had a great relationship. Here I’m left feeling unmoored.
I’ve been to Salty Swami’s place to work now more than a few times – it’s a bit posh and has internet but I’ve managed to download a bunch of podcasts to listen to and the world music-reggae-chill and white chocolate brownie and shoes off at the door so you can sit with your feet up in front of the fan is actually a bit heavenly. I can cope with this posh. There is internet. Tea is served in a science beaker rather than a tea-pot, which of course in Hoxton would be naff, but here I’m won over by attention to detail and think it’s probably good not to have all the fiddly tea pot bits to wash up. Also. There is a kitten.
It’s not all bad in this Sri Lankan paradise. When the big storm hit on Monday evening we had a sort of storm party and Anders, myself, Helen, Kyna had a jam session and laughed and were silly and sang The Wheels on the Bus for Jack and Maria, which was gorgeous and felt very normal and home-like. I am also collaborating and hanging out a lot with composer Helen Ottaway and on Tuesday afternoon, she gamely allowed me to photograph her in the sea with the plank wood keyboard I’d made for her. I think some of the images looked pretty good and, once I’d worked out its idiosyncrasies, her underwater camera is great. Actually, there are a few in the many I took I was rather proud of having captured. She’s also my ‘sundowner’ companion; we drink of an evening and watch the –always-spectacular – sunsets. This week, I imagine because of the dust in the atmosphere, they’ve all been in sepia.
There have been amazing clouds most days, and huge oceanic lightning storms every night. It’s stunning to watch nature at these close quarters, observe the biodiversity. I’m creating a sort of text/image essay about what I’m doing.
But I keep pondering about how kindness is one of the most important things for humanity. Collectivism and kindness. I was thinking about the filmmaker Adam Curtis’ short on ‘Oh Dearism’. I don’t want to be an ‘Oh Dearest’, although I know that sometimes I am. My work on Disruption and Joy came about because I’m keen to counter the resignation towards the crap things we feel we can do little about in life, to incite joyful moments and to connect with strangers. Being in the market in Hikkaduwa the other day reminded me of just how similar our cultures are. It was so familiar. My dad used to sell on the fruit and veg markets in Essex and East London (I often think this is where I get my love of street theatre from). Even the traders calling out their wares had the same rising musical inflection to it as they do at home. It would be easy to get very distracted and do a whole project on market calling and food….. and kindness. Sri Lankan people are generally very kind and welcoming. I think the British could learn a lot.
Below are a few photos of the reef I managed to snap with Helen’s camera. My photos don’t do it justice. Photos seldom can.
Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th November Day 19 & 20 Disruption and Joy
Let’s hold our hands together
You and I could play
We’ll rush against the raucous sea
Sing our fear away
Even rocks don’t last forever
Listen to the light
The future will be soon, my love
And the future must be bright
I created a piece of Disruption and Joy this weekend, inspired by the people of – and the lovely hand-written sign-writing – of Hikkaduwa. Oh, and the words and articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We’re going to be exhibiting work at an exhibition in Colombo at the end of our residency on this theme (Human Rights Day on the 10th of December).
Article 1All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with freedom and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Article 27(part 1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and it’s benefits
I thought about the ‘spirit of brotherhood’ in the context of Hikkaduwa, and, as so much of my work is about the anthropocene at the moment, that too. I have a long standing practice of social engagement, and Disruption and Joy is intended to be about small moments of positivity, and I enjoyed bringing some of that to another street, in another town, in another country. https://www.gobbledegooktheatre.com/disruption-joy
So, I painted a mural. It’s called ‘Even Rocks Don’t Last Forever’. It’s on a wall to the entrance of Ranjith’s Bar, which is a sort of surf shack sited off the busy Galle Road in Hikkaduwa. I’ve been trying to wean myself off spray paint as it’s really toxic so I used a weird combination of paints I managed to secure from local shops with low VOC contents. I chose to paint this wall because it’s between the sea and the jungle. A thin strip of humanity, of concrete, of grey and dirt. In my mind, exactly the right place for a bit of hopeful optimism.
The point of making a mural wasn’t just to paint a wall – although of course, that is part of it. I really like making work in busy public areas, because you have an opportunity to engage with people. Sometimes the conversation is as basic as ‘what are you doing?’, other times it can become more profound. But I like talking because that’s how you learn about people, and although it means that making the ‘art’ becomes a more lengthy process, that for me is part of the art. My friend Matt Shaw, who is an activist and artist, would probably call it ‘an action’. Which I quite like.
I logged my ‘interactions’ with people during the course of ’the action’, and this is what I’ve jotted in my notes, paintbrush in hand.
* The vast, vast majority of people I’ve spoken with are Sri Lankan and not tourists, and after that grouping, I’d say that I’ve spoken with European surfers·
*Taking your time over what is essentially a durational project enables people to revisit you over and over and say hi or try to offer to sell you coconut water or massages·
* I’ve had four offers of new commissions (for exciting new walls and, um, beer, all of which I’ve turned down, although frankly, I was tempted by the beer)·
* On Saturday, one man stared at me for 15 minutes straight whilst I tried to get rid of him. Eventually, a full six more minutes of staring at my back, even after I’d asked him if he had somewhere to go, he left. ·
* The tuk-tuk drivers are curious and (mainly) extremely, extremely lovely·
* Remarkably, only one woman has spoken with me, she is British and wanted to borrow my paintbrush·
* The only people who have mansplained (look it up, happens all the time) how to do the mural are white, male and from Australia or the UK. None had any prior experience with street art or graffiti. All had unhelpful suggestions about how to tackle it. I do have lots of experience with participation and engagement projects, murals and well, just painting stuff. I tried not to feel irritated by them. I failed. ·
* Sometimes, the busses can be surprisingly loud when they beep their horns – which is A LOT. Being surprised with a paintbrush in your hand can require some re-painting·
* Mike, a surfer from (I think) the Netherlands, was very lovely, and just wanted to shake my hand because he liked what I was writing·
* I’ve shaken a lot of hands actually, which is a bit tricky when your hands are covered in paint, but also a delightfully formal greeting and beautiful in terms of physical contact between humans. ·
* A guy in the shop over the road came to take what I thought was a photo of me, but actually ended up filming me for a while, which was a bit awkward because I had sort of posed and then ended up looking like I was trying to be a living statue. ·
* Two guys drove directly up to me on their motorbike, skidded to a halt, took photos and then drove straight off again. No words were exchanged. It was a bit unsettling.·
* Lovely chat with some tourists from Japan, who enjoyed watching it take shape over a couple of days.·
* 15-minute-stare-man came back and asked me to confirm detailed information about my family and the existence of children. To avoid more hassle I obliged with my photograph of said family. It sort of worked, though he was quite annoyed about it. I am reminded that there are creeps in every culture.·
* To those Sinhalese speakers who asked, but who were struggling to read the English, I’ve held their hands and sung my lyrics to them. I’m still hopeful that the Sinhalese translation might appear so I can add it. I will keep chasing, so it’s still a work in progress. As Hikkaduwa is a tourist town, apparently the amount of Sri Lankans who can speak and read English is a little higher than average. Country-wide, the convention is that most signage is in English (if you’re interested, my previous blog on our Colombo visit has a bit more about this).·
* The air pollution on the Galle Road is really bad. The toxic smoke is thick, tuk-tuks and busses seem to be the worst culprits. My nose, when blown, is worse than if I’ve travelled on the London tube all day. In my conversations, we all in agreement that the air quality is bad. ·
* I feature a sunrise, which was suggested to me, and also some waves which were another suggestion. I hope that the guys who suggested these features notice them. I try to be open to people’s suggestions when I’m creating murals, even though sometimes they’re pointing out things like “that bit looks wonky” or asking, skeptically, if “you’ve ever done anything like this before”, or reminding me that I’ve missed a bit.·
* In my mind, I’ve written this verse about human rights and the anthropocene. The people I’ve spoken with feel it’s definitely about surfing. We all agree it’s quite hopeful in tone and that it’s good to be kind to each other, we fellow humans. I’ve had lots of conversations with everyone from every nationality about how great Buddhism is. And, as one very charming Sri Lankan surfer wisely said “we are all equal on the waves”.*
The tally rests at 34 conversations, a ‘conversation’ was a chat, which lasted longer than a couple of minutes. I think that I’ve possibly had more, but I just was too busy wielding a paintbrush to log them.
I have angsted about language and words and things too numerous to mention. I’d been trying to get a Sinhalese translation to embed into the piece, but it’s been slow going… and in my work on walls, I generally don’t make pictures, I make words, and that’s rather more tricky and complicated in another language. BUT I have taken my cue and inspiration from all of the GLORIOUS hand painted signage all over Hikkaduwa resort which is almost all in English (with a few smatterings of German here and there, the odd Sinhalese sign, but apparently no Tamil at all). There is a lot of signage though. Much is a bit wonky, or misspelt or beautifully illustrated – and I love them because they’re made by a person with a paintbrush carefully drawing out letters, just as I have done.
I’m at the half-way point of the residency. I’m aware that six weeks in some ways is quite a short amount of time – school holidays, once you’ve moved from childhood, are over in a blink. But in many ways I’m back to Junior School – another three weeks before I see my people is a really long time. Sure, I’ve named my cockroaches for company (Captain Phillips and Nancy), they’re personable and seem to take me shooing them out of the way with good humour. I have made friends here who are rather brilliant and happy to drink Arrack with me on the patio…. but I miss my kids. I miss Adam. I’m feeling so sentimental I even featured four clouds in my painting, one for each of us.
Big thanks to Ranjith, Kamal, Dudley (all brothers who run the bar) and the team for being lovely http://www.ranjiths.com/index01.htm
* this isn’t true of course. Some people are brilliant surfers. Some of the rest of us hurt our ribs on the boards, or get wiped out or just sort of flail about happily in the waves. But it was a nice sentiment.
Friday 17th November Day 18 All Roads Lead to Galle
Went to Galle again today. I think that my brain had had enough of the week and I needed to stop overloading it. So after Helen and I had trawled some of Hikkaduwa’s cafes for working internet, we decided to jump on the bus. I find there’s a thrill when you hand over RS40 (20p) to get to Galle, watching the music videos on the screen at the front and trying not to notice how much the driver is on his mobile phone.
We spent ages in a huge department store in the garment district, Manjani’s, which is built into the side of a rock face. I’ve never seen anything quite like it – imagine if at the back of your local Debenhams you suddenly find yourself in a bit of Cheddar Gorge. And upon that rock at the back of the shop, you precariously balance your water cooler. I think the staff were weirded out by my excitement, I wish I’d taken more photos. I spent a small fortune in the department store on fabric and dresses and haberdashery – it’s a weird and wonderful place.
All six of the artists on our residency went to a gallery opening at the Fort Printer’s, it was posh, monied, almost exclusively ex-pat and white and we all drank a lot of wine and people-watched and felt weird. Someone, originally from Portsmouth told me that Hikkaduwa (where we are staying) is a bit grotty and that I should come and stay around Unawatuna beach where he lives and I felt such a shot of anger and defensiveness – it’s weird how Sunbeach has become like home. What’s wrong with our surf resort? Eh? One of the wonderful things is that is so completely unpretentious (unlike here, I wanted to say). It’s unspoilt in a way which is entirely different to the “unspoilt” of posher beaches. It’s honest and ramshackle, and poor in places and the effects of the tsunami on buildings and people are still here, even 14 years on. You are not completely buffeted from people who have made their home here. There’s a sort of honesty to this tourism. I felt embarrassed to be British in this crowd. The Conde Naste recommended hotels and the carefully styled interiors of colonial outposts all suddenly felt a little bit less luxurious and more hollow. So I drank a lot of free wine and inspected how plush the toilets were and looked at the old photos.
I did meet Souhaine Malalgoda who runs an eco tourism ventures, extreme biking experiences and another called Banyan Camp in rural Sri Lanka, which sounds incredibly beautiful. http://banyancamp.com . He’s trying to encourage eco-tourism as a way of helping the economy and keep sustainable environmental practices in place. He tells me that there is a huge amount of green-washing marketing going on in Sri Lanaka – he tells me of hotels in which have been branded ‘eco’ purely because they are built in the jungle. Twenty-six families are supported by his business.
On our way back from Galle, via tuk tuk, Anders heroically bought us all a veg rotty for dinner. We ended up all dancing in Ranjith’s place, and during this time I managed to secure his permission to create a mural on his wall, by the road. My inebriation and frustration with the ‘colonial set’ tipped me over into action – I felt the need to stop bloody waiting and to actually get on with making again.
Tuesday 14th, Wednesday 15th and Thursday 16th November Days 15, 16 & 17 Audiophilia
Less to write, more to do, we’ve had meetings with Neil, we are all on task.
Tuesday morning was hazy as we’d said goodbye to the marvelous Mike and Rachel who’d been staying here at Sun Beach and a night of celebration took place. The morning sea is certainly a good hangover cure.
I thought that being here that perhaps my body clock might start fitting into a more ‘normal’ way of behaving, which I suppose would entail waking at 7-ish and going to bed at a sensible hour of say, 11. This is not the case whatsoever. I am doing exactly as I do at home – going to bed at 2 (or later) and waking at 8. Sleep is hard in this heat. I’m even tempted by the air conditioner – though I have a cold shower instead.
We’ve watched Hikkaduwa wake up these past couple of weeks, from a sleepy surf village to a party town. The lights are ON and cocktail happy hours are in full effect. It’s fun to see it. The rotty shop is suddenly busy, the laundry fuller, there are many, many more white people than were here before.
Tuesday and Wednesday I’ve been continuing to paste my audiophone (horn) together, added more and more paper layers, buy glue (which is weighed out in the hardware store). I’m playing with other organic listening devices. I’ve written a very simple poem/song lyric about the anthropocene, being here, hopefully it will be translated. The horn itself is getting rather large, but the sun is helping it to become hard, the curing process is much easier when it’s dry and hot outside. I’m more and pleased with it, it’s very effective too. Helen and I have been to sing and record in the jungle, I duet with peacocks and dogs and all the various projects we’re working on are perhaps becoming more shared between us.
On Thursday, I feel a bit out of it all, I’m working, trying to get things done as well as answer necessary emails so my company keeps ticking over. I’m starting to feel panicky about an application I was meant to submit, but then the internet goes down and I loose the work I’d put in. I’m hot, frustrated, grumpy and I have a headache. I feel as if things are conspiring against me. And then we go to Dodanduwa on tuk-tuks and I see the fishing village and the coir factory and the new residency Neil and Chaminda are building and the fishing boats and a boat for us to get into and I feel it’s all breathlessly amazing again.
When I was a kid, my parents took me to Disney World Florida. It was the most incredible thing at the time (I wonder now if it was really because we were all together, loving each other’s company). The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse with its beautifully thought through room sets, and the Jungle Cruise in Adventure Land were my favourite things of all. The huge (concrete) tree in the jungle the family lived in was beautifully created, as was the riverboat ride with an avuncular guide… it was an adventure in the palm trees and mangrove swamps with crocodiles. I was just at the end of childhood, edging into my teens, just old enough to be aware of the passing of something significant, and I remember thinking that that actual life would probably never be like that, just that wonderful, especially in the hyper-real world of Disney*. But actually today, on the lagoon, in the middle of a jungle, sitting in a wood and fibreglass boat of ancient design, in our own silence, watching silver fishes fly out of the water in shoals, bright blue iridescent birds flit around, monitor lizards chase us, a phalanx of flower heads float towards us – the actual jungle is even more special and extraordinary. Disney hasn’t a patch on this. We stop at a temple and look at the bright and beautiful carvings and Buddha stares benevolently at us. Then back onto the lagoon in the catamaran-canoe, rowed by an old man and a boy. The hush. The quietude. I kept trying not to cry.
And yes, there are some interruptive signs of man, a temple, a few landing jetties, a telecommunication post and a water tower, but away from the roar of the sea and the busses and the tuk-tuks it feels like all there is just us, the animals and the lagoon. As we near the end of the trip the sun goes down in pinks and blues.
The only other thing to note is that we had dinner with Seraj and Linda from 4R Paper in the evening, they’re good company and doing heroic things. They have a missionary zeal to save the elephants in Sri Lanka. They’re not sure it’s at all possible. But they’re trying anyway.
* I love the author/artist Douglas Coupland and in what is probably my favourite book, Microserfs, one of the characters has a blender, on which he’s replaced the settings with words. I’ve copied the passage here:
Ethan’s nine blender settings are labeled with little LaserWriter labels in 7-point Franklin Gothic:
- In flite movie
- Disneyland at age 25
- Good $8.00 movie
- IMAX with Dolby
- Lunch w/ D. Geffen and B. Diller
- Disneyland at age 10
- Spontaneous combustion
Monday 13th November Day 14 Colombo/Columbo
We went to Colombo this morning, an early start to get to the University for 9:30. It’s about a two and a half hour drive, but the traffic is interesting to say the least.
As we got to the outskirts of the city the billboards change, no longer the delightfully handwritten lettering of Hikkaduwa, all these signs are printed vinyl, or on billboards. Products and services and education courses jostle for space: ‘2019 Media Theory’, ‘Advanced Level Political Science’, “Pussalla Meat Shop’, ‘Bavarian Motor Solutions’ (the latter is, confusingly, a Honda Dealership). It’s a very recognisable city to me, the lovely appearance of meaningful chaos and busy-ness, it reminds me of driving through the scruffy outlying bits of London where the life actually happens.
Apart from the palm trees. We have less palm trees.
This visual recognition is exacerbated by all of the names of businesses. Almost all of the signboards and hoardings are written in English, advertising might have a little bit of Sinhalese text on them, but the vast majority is absolutely in my mother tongue. The sinhalese – if it is featured – is smaller and below the English text, it looks so, well, subservient to it. This is the steady march of globalisation and homogenisation I suppose, hard on the heels of it’s forebears Empire and Imperialism. Wikipedia informs me that only around 10% of people in Sri Lanka actually speak fluent English.
As we slow in what is possibly three lanes of traffic but which is frequently five, or five and a half, we see light industry: Laser Cutting, Aluminium Fabrication, Fertilizer Sales, Grinding Mill, Fence Panels, welders and construction sites where the workers toil in flip flops and t-shirts. We pass cake shops and mobile phone stores and ‘Kingsbury Pharmaceuticals’ and ‘Cargills’ and ‘Singer Mega Store’ and ‘Bluebell – always fresh’. Bluebell is a bakery; bluebells don’t grow in Sri Lanka.
And then towards what feels like the posher, richer part of town, a little as if we’re moving from Deptford into Greenwich. We pass a beautiful lake on the Japan-Sri Lanka Friendship Road (street names also in English). The government is keen to keep English in use as there are many languages spoken in Sri Lanka, the long civil war, I’m told, was ignited by the government refusing to allow Tamil to be a recognised language by the state.
We arrive at the university, where we are met in the car park by Chandraguptha Thenuwara (Thenu), a philosopher, Peace Campaigner, leading painter in Sri Lanka, artist-activist, University Professor (he was the head of Faculty of Art History and Theory, is now head of Quality Assurance across the university) and the newly appointed Head of the Sri Lankan Arts Council. He’s pretty damn chilled for someone with so many jobs. Over green tea and lunch in an Indian restaurant, we talk about his art and his terms of barrelism, neo-barrelism and post-barrelism, on language, his wife, divisive attitudes to Islam and his time training Moscow.
We each give our 20-30 minute talks to the students and artists who’ve turned up to see us. It’s absolutely brilliant to hear about each other’s practice and to see what we’ve each decided to share of our work. There are death masks, drumming, dildos, dancing, disavowment, decay, and disruption. There are cathedrals and Franko B, Sanctuaries and Scotland. There are threads and connections and commonalities of theme which inspire us.
Afterwards, Thenu took a few of to the Saskia Fernando Gallery over the road to the Faculty building. It’s Sri Lanka’s largest and most important contemporary art gallery and met Saskia, and it was good to see one of Thenu’s pieces. You can see more of his important work here: https://www.saskiafernandogallery.com/chandraguptha-thenuwara/
For my part, I think my presentation went fine, there are things I wish I’d jettisoned, things I wish I’d remembered to say, but all in all it was warmly received. I realise that I am never satisfied with things I have made or things I have done. I can be proud of them, but I find it hard to leave them. I will constantly tinker and remake and reform or consider how I could have been better, done better.But I think the whole day was a success. And it was more than that too – as a group I feel that we’re a bit more coherent. That we understand each other more through our work. We’ve only really been seeing one part of each other and the presentations afforded us a chance to tell another bit of our story. To re-present ourselves.
By the way. Being in the capital city of Sri Lanka, It was hard, and more than a little childish to keep thinking of Peter Falk and “just one more thing” all the way back to Hikkaduwa.
Saturday & Sunday 11th & 12th November Days 12 & 13 subconscious stratigraphy
I spent most of Saturday and Sunday day-times making – I’ve a fair amount to get done, and I’m immersed in creating an audiophone (alright, an ear trumpet) to use and work with. I want to create something large and odd and organic looking. I’m using lots of different types of beautifully made materials from the paper factory, mainly using the salvinia (an invasive plant species) paper and the elephant dung paper. You can see my work in progress. It’s an effective listening device… but the cartonnage technique takes time as you have to wait for each thin layer of paper to dry and laminate. A hot sunny day is by far the best time to make. The weekend weather has been better and less overcast, so I’ve been able to properly start in earnest. The paper itself is beautiful, and textured, a joy to mould. I think so much more clearly when I have my hands occupied, so this weekend has seen me thoroughly, mindfully occupied.
I like that the lines of paper inside the cone reflect the stratigraphy I so miss in the Dorset Landscape – I see the cretaceous chalk of the Purbecks and the Isle of Wight almost every day of my life. I realise that almost subconsciously I’ve been making geological references in paper.
We have also had presentations to prepare for Colombo University on Monday, and this is surprisingly time consuming. When you’re very productive… what do you select from your body of work to talk about? What exemplifies your practice? What are the parts of your practice you’re keen to foreground? What do you want to show of yourself to others?
It’s also the first time that we artists will have properly shared our practice with one another. It seems important that we do so if we are to collaborate.
I’m looking forward to it.
8th, 9th & Friday 10th November Days 9, 10 & 11 Elephant Dung and Tourism
I’m going to start truncating my days a bit, partly for you dear reader, but partly because some of the things I want to note, but haven’t got much to say about them other than that they were fun or interesting. I think everything is starting to percolate and my brain needs to do other stuff than writing. I’m starting to feel really busy working on things – the actual making process has kicked in and I’m finding I’m feeling short of time to get stuff done. Which is a good feeling.
Wednesday we spent at a paper factory. We met Linda, an extraordinary person: scientist, environmentalist and adventurer. Linda was a physics professor at Rice university in Texas, then, thirsting for adventure and a change of life, she went to London to be a science teacher in Croydon, where she met a young NQT (Suraj) who she taught with. She started to travel Suraj, who encouraged her to see his family home of Sri Lanka. Linda fell in love with country and could see that things needed to be done in order to protect the wildlife so moved to live here. Linda has helped to set up a charity to help protect the extraordinary biodiversity here and bought 4R Paper Products to make handmade paper with plant species and agricultural waste (elephant dung). They employ local people to collect and process the materials, run awareness campaigns, identify and remove invasive species and work on reforestation, all their profits go back into the charity. They’re also very keen on protecting elephants especially. The ‘4R’ part stands for Recycle, Reuse, Remove, Reforest. https://www.4rpaper.com We were very lucky to have been invited to spend the morning making paper, and I brought back some very lovely pieces to work with.
Wednesday evening saw an extraordinarily storm, we were deluged, the patio completely flooded, it was grand. We had beers and enjoyed the ride.
Thursday, Helen and I went to Galle on a day trip to several really touristy destinations, we hadn’t quite meant to but rather let ourselves be persuaded into it… I have no regrets though. Travelling by tuk-tuk is a really good way to see the surrounding area and we saw the stilt fishermen Sri Lanka is famous for (we weren’t going to pay to take photos – but we relented as these people are not wealthy, for us a couple of pounds is so little, I’d buy a coffee in the UK for more). One of the fishermen is 62 years old, he jumps on and off his fairly precarious stilt. I imagine the vast majority of their money is from tourists. I suppose it’s little different to the people who sit on in their Yoda costumes in Leicester Square.
We went to a beautiful 2300 year old temple built into a rock fall, I enjoyed looking at the Buddhist iconography rubbing shoulders with the Hindu part of the temple, which was in a little corner of it all. These religions happily share spaces, I’d not seen it before in this way, just in the very functional multi-faith areas of hospitals.
The Handunugoda Tea Estate is a sort of working museum – the machines are old and beautiful. Seeing the tea plantation and understanding more about the process of making tea helped me to understand more about Sri Lanka. The legacy of colonialism here. So much was built on Indian people’s suffering too, even here in Sri Lanka) and it’s acknowledged on this plantation, albeit fleetingly. It’s set me thinking again about Empire and Imperialism.
I drink a lot of tea, so seeing how it’s made, the architecture, the machines in their sifting process, all of it made me appreciate more. On our trip we saw big black monkeys in the trees, water buffalo, the day’s catch being hauled in on the beach, peppercorns, coffee, cinnamon growing and watched a rubber tree being tapped. It was the most touristy thing we’ve done all trip so far, but was a brilliant way to see some more of this part of South West Sri Lanka. It really is utterly beautiful country, and being driven through the city and outskirts, another peek at how people live.
We went back to Galle Fort WHS for a quick pelt round the Museum of Maritime Archeology (which was our only intended destination before we got waylaid on a tuk-tuk trip). It’s all about ‘Trans-Oceanic Connectivity’, and you can see it, laid out in the trading relationships, how long people have lived here (there have been settlements here for 7000 years) and evidence of relations all over the world, ancient Chinese pottery, British glass bottles and Dutch pipes litter the harbor here. The museum was initially completed in 2004, but then the Tsunami hit, claiming many of the artifacts – which had been painstakingly collected – straight back into the sea.
There’s not much to say about Friday, it was a making-thinking day. I realize that when I make things I learn about them, and thinking clears my mind and makes it productive. And I have so much to think about and yet to do! I’ve also been making a large audiophone out of paper…. And, as our classical pianist doesn’t have a piano out here, I painted Helen a wooden practice keyboard.
Tuesday 7th November Day 8 Joy/This Too Shall Pass
This morning I walked to the hardware store in downtown Hikkaduwa in order to buy paint and brushes and print some things. I chatted in shops and enjoyed the company of others. I’m in the swing of things far more now, hanging out in the kind of places I’m often seen in at home. I find there’s such a comfort in hardware stores. They present such a range of possibilities.
One of the men who served me paint, said that I was “dressed like a good Sinhalese girl”. It wasn’t a flirtation, he just seemed very pleased with me and knocked some more money off the paint. In preparation for this trip I’d purchased a few cotton dresses, which covered my shoulders. My mum had altered this particular dress for me so it covered my knees (for comfort and practicality rather than anything else), and it felt as if hardware guy was praising my modesty rather than the dress specifically. I didn’t know quite how to respond. I just sort of mumbled a thank you. I still feel, well, out of step with this culture still, I don’t know how to respond to things, I’m still working it all out. Anyway, at very least I thought my mum would be pleased that her efforts had gone down well.
I was taking to a friend on Friday (Becky), who is an environmentalist, about the feeling that once you’re aware of the environmental issues around things like water and energy consumption and air pollution, it’s impossible to ‘unknow’ the information. I sort of want to wind it back a bit and not think about the ecology and environment that I’m living in, but I can’t help critique it. The air quality on the Galle Road is really bad, the tuk-tuks, the busses, they’re chucking out some pretty dirty fumes. I’m using at least a large plastic water bottle a day and I feel horribly guilty about my carbon footprint to fly here and back.
Travel is one of the things people find the hardest to give up because it gives you so very much. Flying is one of the most energy-intensive forms of travel around, aviation is about 3% of man-made C02 emissions, it’s growing fast and the impact of flight is enhanced (around 2.7 times) thanks to the added effects of nitrogen oxide emissions and contrails. There is a huge amount about it on the internet – ‘Plane Stupid’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ target runways, and (gloomy but probably right) environmentalist George Monbiot has written a brilliantly researched book about it. I’ve made peace with this journey, if I look at my flying patterns I’ve only flown 6 long haul trips in my life. But it still makes me think about it, worry about it, feel guilty for my complicity in it all.
Something Kyna said early on in our stay was that perhaps the maintenance of the houses and homes and shops here was, well, lax here because it all dissolves away so quickly. There is a rather pervasive black mould on the outsides of the buildings (though Sunbeach, where we are staying is rather beautifully kept and tended). Neil told us that everything has to be replaced so frequently because of the harsh conditions it is subjected to – constant salt and humidity. Rooms have two rates on some of the advertising hoardings. Air conditioned rooms seem often around RS 3-4000 more (£20) a night here and most hotels seem to have two options: air-con price and non-air-con price. In Sunbeach, we’re not using the air con, we’ve fans, (although the units are in our rooms) and air con is both bad for the environment and expensive – Neil said it’s about another £10 a night to run for each room. It’s very stark – if you can pay more, you can harm the environment more – it’s not even allegorical is it?
But there are also interesting things to note, things which are grand and which might not happen in a more built up resort. The nature is so near. The food is LOCAL. Like, seriously local. Fruit and veg is grown up the road, fish (if you eat it) is from the sea in front of us. Gamini walked through his bar with a huge squid last night, which someone had just caught and handed to him. This morning we watched with great interest as the whole of next door’s barn was re-thatched in just a few hours by a team of men and some woven palm leaves. They were using the locally available materials, just as thatchers in Britain used to – the principal of ‘whatever suitable material is at hand’.Kyna had also found out that people sweep the courtyards and decking so much because they ‘don’t want to let the jungle in’. We are between two worlds here, beach and jungle, two geologies if you like, from sand to rock, with a thin strip of road to separate them. But Hikkaduwa is so very near to being submerged too – here, we are right, right on the edge of the ocean.
“In the next 55 years the greatest threat to Sri Lanka will be not from war, but from climate change. Sri Lanka is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and weather-related disasters have the potential to set back any gains made in agriculture, fisheries and even services such as tourism”Margaret Gardner, Guardian
I keep thinking of the phrase: this too shall pass. It feels as though here that’s just taken as a given state here. A fundamental understanding of nature. Perhaps it’s the Buddhism, which helps people here feel at one with that, or at least more resigned to it. It’s all temporary, you have to get on with living.
Well, I made it through to week two. I’ve had my first surf lesson (I’m crap and I ache, but it was bloody brilliant), I’ve done some productive work and am inspired by here. I have lots of ideas, and planning for other possibilities. My time feels surprisingly filled. There’s a more pleasing rhythm to the days and sleeping’s a little easier. I’m thinking a lot about the anthropocene, about water, and suddenly too, about joy.
Monday 6th November Day 7 Arrack
I recorded some singing on Monday morning with Helen and Kyna, Helen had written some lovely musical phrases to improvise around and we found lots of scrunchy harmonies, working from the tuning of the Sri Lankan flute she’d bought. It was nice to sing in the corridor with its natural reverb and more than a little fun to start on a small collaboration. We think that the sound of the tuk-tuks and kitchen and the roar of the waves (it really is a roar) will make the recordings unusable, but the start to good collaborations is often play. We are all expected to work with each other in the last two weeks of this residency so it’s been enjoyable, and probably good to start.
In the early evening we went up the coast in a van with Neil (Neil Butler, UZ Arts, our host here for Sura Medura) to a private view of the work of Ruchi Bakshi Sharma, an artist from Bombay at the One World Foundation. It was a good little road trip, nice to see another artist on an international residency and her work. We were invited to light the oil lamp in the opening ritual and met the lecturers from Colombo University who we’ll be working with next week.
At Sun Beach (which is the site of this year’s residency) we’ve been joined by Mike and Rachel from Surreal McCoy http://www.bigrory.com. They’re on holiday and are staying here for a couple of weeks and are grand raconteurs. I’ve already heard one of the best anecdotes I’ve ever heard from Mike, Rachel is quite, quite wonderful. They’re street artists, proper, skilled, walkabout who’ve performed all over the world, a lot. Lovely folk indeed.
After dinner I went back to Gamini’s place (our neighbor on the beach at Mike Kuku’s Nest) to meet with Katrine the geologist again. Sebastian, her boyfriend, is a part-time adventurer and he had just got back from camping in the jungle. He is also a geologist and told me all about the formation of minerals and precious gems, whilst I tried to keep up with my flow diagrams and alcohol. There was plenty of Arrack (the local spirit) and cool German geological words like ‘druckshatten’. Anyway, at very least, I can tell you with certainty that the formation of precious gems is all about pressure and temperature. Some of the Sri Lankan gems are extraordinary and very fine indeed. I’d never been that bothered by gemstones, but I have a newly found appreciation for how special they are. Those weirdly chance conditions in the mantle of the earth, which make something so exquisite.
(sorry, sorry, worst gag ever, I’ve had some Arrack)
Sunday 5th November Day 6 The Profundity of Geology
I’ve been doing lots of thinking whilst here. It’s stuff I’ve been ruminating on for a while, and without domestic distractions (there is only the punctuation of mealtimes) I can sit and think for longer periods of time than usual.
On Friday I spoke with my friend Becky Burchell, who is setting up the amazing Change Festival www.changefestival.organd it reminded me of the things I’d been thinking deeply about before I came away. Climate change is happening, so how can we embrace this future? How can I make things which resonate with those in power? How can I get my work in front of those in power? How can I resonate with people who actually vote? I don’t want to subscribe to the orthodoxy of using my work to merely point out how awful the world is – my mantra is trying to be joyful in the face of terrible things, in order that we can try to do something about it. So many others have made that work. And I’m way past people making plastic bottles out of other plastic bottles and putting them on a beach – what does that do but point out that our reliance on single-use plastic bottles is bad? The audience sighs, agrees, moves on. What joyful activism can I engage in which nudges us to think of other solutions, to be inspired by the world? Otherwise I’m merely mopping the brow of the boy with his finger in the dyke whilst the flood water engulfs us.
I want solutions. Or to be part of the solution. And I like experts. Experts work really hard to help us to understand the world. Evidenced-based thinking and learning is what takes us to the next great leap of technology, of innovation. It gives us antibiotics, electricity, instant communication, sanitation, safer childbirth*. These incremental gains push us on as a species and we have so much left to learn. We need ethicists and philosophers and artists to help with this – what and who do we want to be as a species?
Today I had a really productive and brilliant session, sat in Mike Kuku’s Nest Beach Bar with Katrine Kopielsk, who is a German geologist working on purifying ground water with plants to make it safe (it’s mainly heavy metal stabilisation). She’s on holiday in Hikkaduwa and we’d met by chance on Friday night. It was extremely kind of her to let me ask her loads of questions about Sri Lanka’s rock formations, geo-clocks, monoliths and the profoundness of geology – how it is the thing which makes you consider your place on the planet. Apparently in Germany, geology is an extremely valued area of study, it takes at least 8 years to graduate to become a geologist. One of the many things she said which struck a chord with me was: “The study of geology IS the study of life on earth”. Perhaps that’s why I’m so excited by it. One of my favourite quotes from Richard Fortey’s lovely book, The Hidden Landscape is “Lying beneath the thin skin of recorded history in our Islands, geology had the same role in landscape as does the unconscious mind in psychology: ubiquitous but concealed”.
I think geology is of great philosophical importance. I’m drawn to it because it is our underpinning, the fabric of our reality. Terra.
*were I living just 100 years ago I’m certain either myself, my eldest son or both of us would have died in labour.
4th November 2017 Day 5 Hall De Galle
Day trip to Galle today. We missed the (slightly erratically timed) trains to get there, so went by bus, which was really easy, cheap and not at all like the dire warnings I’d been presented with in the guide books. We walked through the dusty newer part of town into the Old Fort. It’s Dutch, Portugese, British and Sri Lankan. It’s beautiful place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a significant symbol of Empire and of colonialism. The aesthetics of the place are idyllic, there are maritime museums and tourist cafes and lots of weddings taking place.
We started off walking together as a group, stumbled upon a drum lesson, went to a shop, walked by ramparts. We soon found we’ve different paces and separated, I enjoyed the freedom of exploring by myself.
I had a very posh cup of tea in ‘Fort Bazzar’, which is apparently one of the ‘Conde Naste top 12 hotels in the word for 2016’. It cost RS350 (about £1.75) so my extravagance was less than that of a Costa at home. Went to the Lighthouse. Traced the fortifications which saved the place from the Tsunami. Numerous religions are represented here, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and lots of Christianity: A Methodist Church, A catholic church, girl guides with pink uniforms and Nuns to steward them through the city. I wonder if all the places of worship are still populated, or if they’re the colonial remnants. I’ve seen a lot of Catholic iconography for a country whose Christian population is only 7.4%. Or perhaps we’ve just been in the areas where it’s most prevalent.
Just outside the fort walls I sort of stumbled upon a performance in the ‘Hall de Galle’. I spoke with one of the team about what it was – a traditional Sri Lankan drama, all in Sinhalese. It was hard to translate what the title of the play was, but the hall was packed – probably 500 people in there, all Sri Lankan, standing room only. To sit near the front you pay RS500 (about £2.50), further back RS200 (£1) and at the back RS100 (50p).
The room has red velvet curtains, gold brocade and a very wide stage. I felt extremely at home, the comfort zone of a theatre. Before any action starts I get talking to the group of young women behind me, they all want to know if I am married, if I have a photo of my family, which then gets passed around and along a row of 12 people, they suggest that my husband is very handsome (!), and I’m asked if the photo can be kept (I manage to swap it back for a business card). Sandrita (14), the boldest of the girls helps translate some of what’s happening throughout. Apparently they like theatre in this hall because it is cooler than outside.
Then bells ring, lights dim, and a spotlight appears on an official looking man in his 60s, wearing a green shirt with a pen in the pocket. The Company Manager I’d spoken with earlier had warned me that the first twenty minutes would be speeches. This guy seems like a municipal bureaucrat. As he speaks the crowd are restive, people chat on mobiles and there is the low level murmur of a school assembly with a particularly ineffective Head of Year. The audience grow increasingly twitchy, he’s lost them, he seemed to be extemporizing off text, but now, to groans, he’s got a piece of paper out and is reading from it. Suddenly the flourescent lights come on and he abruptly leaves the stage mid-flow. It reminds me of Ken Campbell performing his one-man show at Greenwich Theatre – he’d instructed us to turn the lights on when he had to finish. Ken Campbell was much, much funnier though.
Then the bells sound again, the lights go off and the audience stand, the tabla plays and oil lamps are ceremonially lit. It’s like the National Anthem with less singing and more fire. There is definitely something of the municipal church hall about this room. It’s brilliant.
And then, the four-piece band starts up. As far as I can see it’s flute, tabala, a stringed instrument and I think some kind of squeeze box. Nine dancers enter, singing, dancing, all in bright costume. They seem to be a chorus of sorts, though a scene plays out before us. The pattern is that someone gives a short speech, they sing a solo, then the chorus of nine (mainly women) join in. Entrances are very definite and when there are new characters, lots of performers keep appearing, (suddenly there is a cast of at least 12 on stage). It’s relatively easy to read the archetypes of people; the older man, the flirtatious woman, the ingénue. It reminds me a lot of Commedia Dell Arte and Pantomime. The audience are really not bothered about the dialogue, but they do like the songs. I miss one gag which makes everyone laugh, but I understand the next as it’s definitely about farting. The chorus shuffle off-stage left but can still be seen chatting just on the edge of the tabs. As a director I’d have been yelling at them – you can still be seen!!! Stop it! Then, just as some kind of comic love triangle is taking place, the actors freeze in position, the lights come on again and green-shirt-pen-pocket man leaps onto stage to apologise for something. According to Sandrita there’s a problem with the lights (I can smell burning dust which I think is probably the issue). I have to go at the interval anyway, so I thank my new friends and slip off. The company are performing all over Sri Lanka, for two shows a day, 2.5 hour in length. It really was a bit like a panto, or musical theatre, although apparently it is a straight drama play. It was brilliant.
A short mention too for the Cricket. Galle Cricket ground is very lovely, and a match was taking place, so I watched a little from the outside fence with the families sitting in tuk-tuks eating ice cream. I saw someone take an absolutely blindingly good catch and then realised it was time to get the train home. They’d surely have been off for light soon anyway.
Cricket is the real National religion here.
I get back to the railway station just in time to catch the last train back to Hikkaduwa. En route a man wants to show me his “massive snake” to which I demur politely.
There is so much to see on the train, it’s wonderful. I saw Anders and Kyna on the platform so we got on together, they were glowing from the day and stuck their heads out of the open train doors to take in the scenery. Travelling in 3rd class was grand, and I was happy just to sit and watch the collision of jungle and sea from this new vantage point.
Friday 3rd November Day 4 Geology and Poia
Day four in the Big Brother house… it is a bit Big Brother actually, just without the tasks. And we can go out when we want. But there aren’t any other guests around and without Neil, Maria or their 22-month old son Jack (as they’re on three day trip to Colombo) so it is just the 6 of us staying here.
I’m absolutely loving sitting and drawing though. It’s extremely pleasing to luxuriate in it. I work with people who are wonderful illustrators all the time (particularly Adele Keeley and Heidi Steller), and my efforts are always a bit splodgy and off-kilter in comparison (perhaps I just see the world in a splodgy and off-kilter way), but it’s so enjoyable to have time to sit and sketch. I find it is rather consuming my time. I definitely haven’t drawn so much since I was a child and it’s a tremendously pleasurable thing.
I’ve also been working up my process book (about what I want to make) recreating pages and adding new parts as my thinking solidifies. Space and time is lovely. I feel myself getting into a pattern with it, starting to find the days aren’t long enough, or that the punctuation of lunch or dinner becomes a distraction.
It’s a big festival day here for the moon, it’s called ‘Poia’ so many of the shops are shut but I did go to the posh and highly air conditioned and security guarded supermarket and bought some glue, balls and incense sticks to ward off mosquitos. Oh, and a coconut, which I opened with great relish, the way my Dad used to do when we were kids, chucking about on the patio and watching it crack in different fissures, until the milk drains out and the shiny white inside is revealed.
We had an especially lovely meal cooked for us by Chaminda (for Poia perhaps?) with the most amazing rice and curry and dishes upon dishes of tasty things. Then, after I managed to have a facetime with my family (was such a relief to see them) we ended up at the bar next door, Mike Kuku’s Nest again. There was a big family party going on, we were extremely kindly invited and ended up watching Gamini’s (aka Mike Kuku) family singing and dancing (Anders joined in, doing a brilliant job on his new drum). And when they’d run out of song lyrics, the kids looked up songs on their mobile phones and sang out. It reminded me of times that I’ve got together at Christmas with my partner’s family: we all sing, dance, chat and generally make noisy happy music, or when we sit round a campfire – same thing this evening, and it was grand to watch it.
I also met a very lovely engineer/scientist called Katrine. She’s a German geologlist who has been working on water cleaning methods using living plant technologies. We’re going to meet up on Sunday as her work sounds fascinating and I want to grill her for information about the rocks here too. I’m particularly interested in working with women in science, so I was pleased to find someone in Hikkaduwa who knows something about the rocks and the hidden landscapes of this place.
2nd Nov 2017 Day 3 The Mercy of the Sea
Right. I’ve decided to tackle this residency with a) cheerfulness and b) resilience. Which is my way (at least eventually) with most things. It’s a work trip – enjoyment is not a necessity, but the work is. And through work usually comes enjoyment. And I’m feeing far more cheerful already.
I’ve been in the sea already (it’s far too rough our surf beach to swim properly here and it’s seriously rough today, but lovely to be chucked about a bit at the edge of the surf line), written a song for the corridor (which has a lovely acoustic) and finished a drawing.
I think I’ve been tired and feeling low because I left my family in a bit of sadness. And I felt it keenly. And then we went to the Tsunami Museum…. And seeing people who are living in poverty, beggars coming to the hotel, the need, the want the desire for a better life (the young woman at the tsunami museum desperately wants to come and work in Britain). And I let myself rather slump into that sad feeling. And that guilty feeling I have at my own privilege, my own good fortune to have been born into a country with an NHS and a welfare state. They are at the mercy of their coastline in other ways, they are very near to sea level here and our climate is changing…..
But I’ve got my work head on now. I’m dreaming about what I want to do, what I’m keen to make and all of the things I’m thinking about can feed into this.
This afternoon I bought a wallet from a shop selling products sewn by women who are paid an ethical wage (made from recycled plastics), a pair of trousers made by a local tailor, watched the world go by a little, ventured briefly into the jungle. I’d read in one of the guide books that as a single woman it’s probably not the safest idea to go by yourself too far from the beaten track, so I’ll wait to venture further when I’m with one, or some of the others in our group. I had a rather nasty event when I was 24 and living in Elephant and Castle in London and it has left me a little less brave and a little more cautious than I’d like to be. That said, I was happy to wander round Seoul late at night by myself a few weeks ago, but this place feels… just a little more edgy.
But I feel a good deal happier and we have, an extremely intermittent and erratic internet signal. Few beers this evening next door at Gamini’s bar (which is called, slightly inexplicably, Mike Kuku’s Bar).
Wednesday 1st November Day 2 On Cockroaches and Loneliness
I may well call these the mosquito net diaries. I’m sat under the net again, I have a feeling it will be a recurring theme. There’s been a power cut so the lights are off again, the warm glow of the computer’s keeping me company though!
Note to self: make sure that you zip up all of your bags or put them away at night. Otherwise giant beetles might surprise you as you go to grab your pencil sharpener. I really am fine with the roaches, but they make me jump – I was relatively chilled about the one in the sink earlier, but the stationary-loving one earlier really did make me start.
Anyway, I heartily subscribe to the idea that if you draw something you get to know it better, so I’ve just drawn the cockroach from the sink. It’s quite a beautiful creature!
SO. I’m in a new group of people. We’re all still finding out about each other, working out what we’re doing, How we’ll interact, what shared interests we have, who we’ll be when we are together. It’s sort of interesting and unsettling to ‘learn’ new people when so much is unfamiliar. I’m probably not going to write much about the others in this blog, for starters it doesn’t feel terribly fair, they’re all fascinating people, but I’m aware as group dynamics shift we will all become different things to each other. We’re a quasi-enforced family for the next six weeks.
Mealtimes are spent together, yesterday morning we were together for the morning, but today I’ve sketched and written and worked by myself for myself, thinking and drawing. I’ve also set myself a task of trying to create an image or a song a day. Mainly so I feel productive. From this end of it, six weeks feels like a really, really long time. I’m aware I need to pace myself. It’s sad how much I need the internet to make me feel connected to stuff (even if it’s just work things, like meetings I’ve been trying to set up in Sri Lanka).
I do feel quite lonely. I’m extremely lucky to frequently be with people I love and who love me back. I’m in a sort of jungle paradise, but part of me is longing for the autumn at the edge of the New Forest: I know I can’t squander this opportunity by feeling glum, but it’s an odd thing being here. When I’m away with work usually I’m with people I know, or I have a task or a cast to work with, this feels more nebulous!
But there’s a Buffy episode, one of the best, at the end of Season 2 when Angelus taunts her with something to the effect of “without your friends what do you have left?” and she catches the sword being thrust at her and says “me”. I keep thinking about that. Maybe it’s a useful feeling to have once in a while – solitude and loneliness.
The power has just shut out in my room. It’s very dark suddenly.
Tuesday 31st October Day 1 / Acclimatisation Day (UK, Halloween)
Morning meeting. Was good to see everyone in daylight. Neil formerly inducted us into the residency. We’re all a bit jetlagged but helpfully, there were handouts and schedules. Outside the hotel the sea is roaring and fierce. There have been 54 artists who have been on the international residency programme. So far six have had to be rescued from the sea.
We went out on the tuk-tuks this morning. A guided tour of Hikkaduwa. It was pretty cool, plenty of interesting things to see. Some of the elements went by a bit fast (too fast?), others I want to make sure I return to later.
We went to the turtle sanctuary and hatchery. Some of us tickled the turtle shells, which the turtles seemed to love. One of the turtles has a plastic bag inside which means that he can’t ever dive properly. Other turtles are killed by swallowing plastic. On the beach, and the surrounding coast line, there is plastic pollution everywhere. We stopped to see the surf beach and the snorkeling and the plastic littering the shore along side the palm leaves and the coconut shells.
Last night I was talking about being a suburban housewife. Which I am. Not a particularly good one in terms of the housewifery, but still. Maybe ‘suburban Mum’ is a better moniker. Before coming out to Sri Lanka, I’ve frequently been asked by people “so who’s looking after your children when you’re away?”. Sometimes this is friends who are offering to help out with school runs and after school clubs or friends who know that in the week I’m generally the person who organizes these things (in this instance it’s a brilliant question and I’m extremely grateful). But sometimes it’s not these people and I’ve felt annoyed because those people simply wouldn’t ask the question if I were a man going away for 6 weeks on a business trip. There are still value judgements associated with women doing the type of thing I do, or at least there are where I live, in my community, in my culture. By the way, the answer is my partner Adam and my parents, grandparents and friends. They’re amazing.
But this suburban mum is seriously missing her kids. It is a long time to be away from them. This feeling is somewhat exacerbated by the internet connection being pretty non existent, the internet café not being open (opens on the 7th Of November) and the hopes for skype chats dashed. I’m sure I’ll get better at shrugging off this feeling. And I’ve just bought a cheep Nokia so I can feel vaguely connected with my normal universe. The huge bang during last night’s electrical storm blew the router out, hopefully to be replaced tomorrow. We’ve been warned not to leave our devices plugged in the sockets in case of another storm. Everything here feels a little more… elemental.
This morning we went to the Tsunami museum. One of the many photos on the wall of the dead shows a beautiful boy, in a school uniform which was very similar to that my 11 year old who has just started secondary school now wears. He has such a similar face to my son. It didn’t seem very grown up to cry with a group of artists I’ve just met, so I managed not to. But the sheer number of dead and orphaned children… on this small island the loss of 40,000 is huge. There were 5000 people whose bodies were never found. The human scale of that tectonic shift. I didn’t come out here with any expectation that I’d make work about the tsunami at all. But suddenly it feels important.
On the geological, our guide was brilliant in her description of the plate tectonics in fact, there were useful demonstration materials and the ‘cracked egg’ descriptions were extremely good exampled of Science communication. The museum starts with the context of the wave, how it happened and how it wrought so much devastation and then the human story is told. She’s a volunteer at the museum. She finds it very important to tell the story of what happened.
We went to see the huge buddha, which is on the road out of Hikkaduwa and acts as a monument to the victims. Lots of the buddhas seemed untouched by the waters of the tsunami – perhaps it was God’s way said our guide. Perhaps the concrete and cement of the solid buddhas was stronger than the flimsy construction of homes and railways. I can understand wanting to cling to a miracle in all the horror and destruction. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it is a God.
In the morning, via tuk-tuk, we visited: a temple, a paper factory, a snorkeling beach, a memorial pit-grave for 2000 bodies, a bus station, a phone shop.
The guide for the turtle museum also had a patter – a specific script of things to tell English-speaking tourists. The man who runs the sea turtle hatchery’s family was killed in the tsunami and the hatchery was demolished by the wave. I wonder how hard it would be to build up and carry on, devote yourself to an animal. And then, in your patter, talk about it three times an hour. Does having the words on a script anesthetise you to it a bit? Just saying it all the time, that constant performance of your life’s story? I don’t know if I could do it.
And yet, as Neil pointed out to us over breakfast, the tsunami was 13 years ago. People have moved on. The more pressing issue domestically is the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, which took place only four years ago. The country is trying to heal and to rebuild itself after a manmade and not natural disaster.
Helen and I saw a funeral procession with mourners in white following a white hearse and weeping with passion. A pipe player was heading the parade. It was very beautiful, despite our human sadness for the mourners.
I’m under the mosquito net again, listening to the rain falling heavily. Having a think.
2nd Nov 2017 Monday – Arrival
I’m here. Writing this after midnight, under a mosquito net in Hikkaduwa.
A cockroach just made me jump. Not because I’m scared of bugs (I’m not) but because I wasn’t expecting it to be by my water bottle… I’ll get used to it. I’ve travelled just enough to know that there will be a hundred small things like this that I’ll assimilate and by the end of the week I’ll think nothing of it.It’s humid rather than stupidly hot, but it’s muggy pre-thunderstorm weather. You can see the mass and density of the clouds. It’s really, really dark at night, but the cloud cover has been low and brooding so we’re unlikely to get any stars.
I’m pretty tired, that strange dislocated travel-tired, I feel like I’m rocking and it’s as I’ve been in the sea all day. But I’m also a brain-tired from so much visual information. Whilst we were being driven though from airport in Colombo to Hikkaduwa (it’s about a three hour drive), there is such a cacophony of, well, just stuff everywhere. It’s messy, a brick built shop next a corrugated shack. I love signage but there is so much signage, handwritten Sinhalese food shops jostling with Singer sewing machines and Pizza Hut. I want to stop and photograph it all. I’m sure there will be time.
As we are driven for the three hours from the airport, there are steep sided hills and ferrous-looking rusty rocks and intense foliage. Really intense. Scores of girls in white outfits leaving their convent schools, stray dogs, wheel alignment centres, an actual eagle, a veritable lushness of jungle, Dilan Motors, adverts for Dulux Paint (let’s colour!). Religious icons in glass cases (Jesus!), enormous, monumental buddhas in the landscape, and a large tableaux of the Stations of the Cross in brightly coloured life-size plaster figures.
It’s both exotic and familiar here. A lot of English text. There are the familiar pylons (I love pylons). As we’re driven on the expressway, some of the huge steep-sided hills could almost be one side of Cheddar Gorge. The rocks are very different from (my) chalky Dorset clays.
There are some enormous boulders in the middle of agricultural land. Huge lumps of rock in the middle of fields. You can see people working round them. It made me think of the South Dorset Ridgeway, my home landscape. Farmers work round ancient bronze age barrows, but even they might balk at the numerous amount of these Sri Lankan rocks. In Dorset, Victorian farmers even moved the very ancient ‘Hell Stone’ helpfully into a corner of a field. Perhaps the farmers here are more devoted to the way the land already lies in Sri Lanka.
As we drive I notice lots of half-built buildings of blockwork, (‘Tokyo: your lightweight concrete needs!’). There are tea plantations and paddy fields and tuk-tuks and mopeds and lion beer. I started to feel drunk on drinking it all in until I fell asleep in the taxi.
There are lots of stray animals here, dogs in particular. The day before travel we had to have our lovely old dog put down. Daisy was my husband’s dog, was 16 years old and I’d lived with her for nearly 12 years, our kids (who are 11 and 10) have never known a time without her. As a family we’d spent two days crying before I departed on a plane. Many of the dogs we pass have the same sort of colouring, the same size (just more lean), the same alertness. It made my breath catch. The dogs here aren’t for petting or any particular sentiment. They look like they’re having fun though, wagging about the island undomesticated, like a bunch of lairy, hairy teens.
It was great to finally meet the other artists we’re on the residency with. Kyna and Anders (who are partners) are young Scottish artists. Anders is a sound artist, is in bands and makes music he’s a drummer amongst other things. Kyna has many disciplines, but I suppose she is a photographer and visual artist predominantly (though a dancer and performer too). Rae-Yen is super cool and works in visual arts and she’s a maker. All graduated from university in the last few years (Kyna in June). I travelled here with the English artists. I know Helen Ottaway already – she a beautiful musician and composer (we met through Inside Out Dorset) and Flick Ferdinando. I know Flick a little already too, she’s a performer and director and in terms of what we do, we probably operate in the most similar world. We share friends and I’ve admired her for years, so it’ll be good to get to know her better.
Oh. We’re not pre-thunderstorm anymore. That is some electrical storm going on. HUGE flashes and bangs. Fierce rain. I’m going to try to sleep.
27th Oct 2017 Sri Lanka – Sura Medura
I think that’s the word.
I’m about to travel to South West Sri Lanka, with five other artists (two of whom I only know slightly) because I’ve been selected to go here: http://www.suramedura.com International Artist Residency Centre. I’m being supported by Freedom Festival Hull, UZ Arts and Activate Performing Arts to attend. You can find out more about the residency here: http://uzarts.com/residencies
If you’re reading this you probably know me, but for those of you who don’t, or don’t exactly know what I do, I suppose I’d call myself a theatre artist – it’s the best title I can really think up for myself. I run this company: https://www.gobbledegooktheatre.com. We mainly make work for the outdoors. Our two major pieces so far are called Ear Trumpet (about listening) and Cloudscapes (about looking). I’m a performer and a maker and a director, but I call myself an artist because I want to make art about the world. I’m really, really interested in Earth Sciences, geological processes and our changing planet. I’m thinking about what it would sound like to take audiences on a journey and ask them to listen to geology, or rather, for geology to speak to humans. I’m keen to explore the human scale in the rock cycle.
My friends and family keep asking what I’m going to be doing out there for 6 weeks. And I’m asking myself the same question. I have a project idea… but I don’t – well – I don’t exactly know. Which I think is rather the point. Part of the adventure and part of the process. I’m very proud to have been invited and selected to attend and I’m thrilled at the opportunity.
But, I have been thinking about what I want to make out there though. I’ve been thinking about it hard. I’ve scanned in some of the pages from my sketchbook so you can have a look at some of my initial process. I have quite a formed idea of what I’m interested in at least. Of course, this is all subject to change…. I might deviate wildly. But for now, here’s where my head’s at.
See you in Sri Lanka.
(photos by Rik Irons-Mclean, & Adrienne photography)