I arrived in Sri Lanka on the 28th of October, the heat and humidity, a warm welcome.
Sura Medura is the name of a very old house, at which I’m based, set in the ‘jungle side’ of Hikkaduwa – a smiling, sun, surf and sand tourist spot on the south west coast. To get to the beach I take a short five minute walk up the road, over the rail track – a wave, smile and ‘hello’ to the nice man at the crossing – a quick dodge through the Galle road traffic and oh, there’s the sea. The waves have calmed down quite a bit since I first arrived. They were tall and intimidating but have now settled and are more gentle and inviting. The weather so far has been consistently warm and bright every day then dramatically thunderous as darkness falls being as it is, still the monsoon season. Nearly every evening, thick, warm rain is released from a flashing sky of neon purple and blue, drenching the streets and flooding the dens and sleeping spots of the many street dogs.
I’m surrounded by nature at Sura Medura – some of the smaller beings sharing my bed on occasion, navigating there way through the cotton folds and crevasses of bed linen. Ants. Wee ones and big ones! Orange, black, transparent – always in teams, always in formation. I’ve a new family of them living in my computer, appearing alarmed from under the keys as I type! Thankfully it is only the very small, harmless ones which occasionally invade.
The first week has consisted of settling in, over coming jet lag and for me personally, to calm my mind and breathe deep. The other artist in residence is Mark Vernon who works with sound and audio recordings. He’s been documenting very often, inspired by the new and wonderful soundscape of this extraordinary environment. It’s been a pleasure to get to know him better and it’s very exciting to be here with him – the potential for collaboration is tantalising indeed. Neil and Maria, the two artists who are running and organising the residency, have been wonderful hosts so far and have been very supportive and informative in their helping us get into the swing of things. I’ll be sad to see them go next weekend. It’s been a reflective, healing and beautiful two weeks so far, filled with new experiences and glimpses into the way of life here.
So, the work. The work is to live in the moment as much as possible. I’ve the opportunity here to see what I do and what I’m inspired by from a new perspective. I also want to absorb as much of the culture and way of life. The first week was a heady but overwhelming journey through old thought processes and habits. I have stopped and listened more since being here. You have to and not just because of the heat. I am here to develop my work as an artist – to create, move, repeat, present and perform. I’m here to reflect on what I’ve done up to this point and to build on what I know as well as to learn anew. It’s very exciting.
Mark and I gave a presentation of our work to some students at the art school in Colombo on Tuesday last week with lecturer, Thenuwara Chandraguptra acting as interpreter. Thenu is a well renowned artist from Sri Lanka and lecturer at the Colombo School of Visual and Performing Arts. He has visited Glasgow before and has given talks and workshops at GSA.
Before I talked about my sculpture work from my time at Edinburgh College of Art, I spoke of my passion for theatre and acting from an early age and how this gave me an identity and a way of being in the world. I’ve been brought up surrounded by colour, curiosity and love and I’ve always been interested in different forms of expressing. Theatre, for me was a way to always connect to this and to question and build on my knowledge of the world and of life.
Something happened along the way which made me not want to pursue acting further – perhaps I was too stubborn or I thought I could do more, or that I had more to offer. Perhaps it had to do with my mum passing away. Maybe it was a bit to do with all of these things but also, I think I was satisfied with what I’d done with performing and theatre and I felt ready and eager to learn something new. I hadn’t anticipated the loss in confidence I’d experience from shifting into art and I wondered – ‘now that I’m at art school, can I ever go back to performance?’ Through the awkward, various ‘fitting in’ stages that followed in my years of study, I gradually accepted I was somehow changing and that the security of being ‘good’ at something was now all relative in the art world. This was a nice but difficult discovery.
At art school I was out of my element completely and felt as though it was a new language I had to learn. I wanted to learn – I needed to learn too to keep up – so I stuck in, meeting some very interesting people along the way. Being a performer at heart I looked into performance in art and where it ‘fitted in’. My experience of performance art was that it was either very confrontational and unresolving or it rarely followed any narrative and was difficult to read – in a way, it seemed like bad acting or bad theatre to me. I was put off because some of what I had researched felt too contrived so I remained unconvinced for quite some time. I found that working with materials and objects made more sense for me in the context of making work at art school – they had their own stories and implications which I wanted to explore. However, I persevered with my own examination of what performance meant in general for me, coming from a theatre background and what it meant in my own explorations at art school. After some researching of performance art I realised it would not bear the same fruits as what acting did for me and therefore I was not too concerned with it anymore. However, performance elements did seep into my work and I gravitated more towards the filmic, playful and elusive when it came to my own creations within video and live performance.
In some ways I was still torn as to where my passions really lay within it all – it gradually became less clear for me where I was headed in terms of a potential path or career. The move into physical theatre, particularly the course led by Al Seed and Simon Abbott, helped to provide me with some grounding in this grey area I suddenly found myself in. I thrived in the new environment of varying artists and my passion for theatre and performance was renewed. I was back in my body again and felt more like myself than I’d ever felt whilst living in Edinburgh studying sculpture. I realised I was a passionate performer and was inspired by the idea of the ‘creative’ actor as well as someone who liked to be on the outside and offer feedback, direct or provide accompaniment.
Back to the presentation – the students were a bit baffled I think. I’d shown them what they could easily identify as ‘art’, then I’d played them a showreel of some small shows and performances I’ve done since graduating from the physical theatre course. They were confused in a good way, or so I told myself – “but how do you doooo performance in art?”, “what is clown? Is it art?” “should theatre and art not just stay separate?” “who is your audience now?” etc etc. Maybe I should have been clearer but it was my first attempt at a presentation and after answering a few questions we seemed to be on the same page – a bit. I felt like they were asking similar questions I asked myself when I was at art school which was interesting to me. Of course the areas of theatre and visual art are separate in many ways but there is always going to be some crossover. As in clown and in the visual art world there is never really a right or wrong. Practitioners I know in the areas of dance, drama and physical theatre all create very interesting and different work. The line between director, performer and artist are always shifting in my practice and as much as I want to define further my own route through it, I have learned that more often than not you just have to do it, put it into action then it will start to imply it’s own form. I’m still pursuing acting as well but I tried to explain that the residency is serving as the first step in me trying to develop more of a voice for myself within my practice and that I realise that with some of the types of work I imagine creating or that I want to create, I will need to draw on what I know from within both performance and art to achieve this.
It should be mentioned that at art school I did discover a passion I knew I had in me somewhere for making and experimenting with materials and that my training in sculpture is one I’m grateful for. I was and still am inspired by visual art and work by artists working in various mediums. I identified a skill I have for composition and arrangement of objects in space. A three dimensional aesthetic which I found very interesting. In short, what I’ve taken from art school, including the things that were perhaps not so great, I consider to be very valuable and I’m grateful for the experience.
Now the presentation is done I feel I can make more of a start. The colours, politics, sense of humour and culture here are all very interesting and new. I’m drawing a lot of inspiration from the people I meet and their stories as well as the new environment in which I’m living and spending most of my time. I’ve had an amazing experience so far just being here. I’ve been to a tea plantation and factory – a fantastic place filled with wondrous machines built in the victorian times and still going strong, being used to this day. I’ve taken a surf lesson in the rain, raved in the rain and swam in a pool on top of a hotel overlooking the sea. I’ve hired a bike and explored the jungle, spotted my first black bodied monkey, got the train and sat at the door with my feet dangling out. I’ve argued with tuktuk drivers, bargained for goods in Colombo, purchased my first sari and bought a fake branded bag – special price! special discount! I’ve seen an iguana, a lizard and loads of birds. And I’ve been inspired by the smiles, the intelligence and the way of the people I’ve met here already. The visit to the art school and meeting the staff and Thenu have all helped to ground the residency experience for me so far for which I’m really grateful.
There was a very special, local celebration on last night. There were buddhist flags and banners everywhere. Twinkling fairy lights decorated the outdoor space where they were hosting a ceremony (more of a demonstration of a traditional ceremony) for the Commonwealth Games committee meeting taking place here and mainly in Colombo next week. It lasted from 6pm until the early hours but we stayed only until midnight. I witnessed traditional, South Indian dancing by a bunch of athletic, smiling gents in white outfits and bells on their ankles. It was joyous to watch. It was performance, ritual, dance, tribal, tradition, song, art, prayer, celebration all in one – it was continuous and I just felt so happy that something like this exists in the world. It was simply beautiful, expressive, inspiring, energetic and wonderful. On the way back we stopped so Mark could record the sound of a procession of people going to the temple in Hikkaduwa to offer gifts. There was drumming and everyone carried a gift for the temple – money, food, flowers arranged beautifully, clothes, unidentifiable things wrapped in white material or bags. As they walked passed our tuktuk driver stepped out and took part in the prayer and blessing of the goods being carried for the temple. I was encouraged to take part and had to touch each object with the palms of my hands then make a prayer pose with my hands then touch the next thing – saying “Sadu, sadu, sadu, sadu…” – “Amen, Amen, Amen…” It lasted a long time as there were so many people but it was so nice to all of a sudden take part in this peaceful local activity. The tuktuk driver said to me ‘you can do it too, it’s buddhist you see, no exclusion, you take part, it’s nice…’ There was a good vibe on the street with people of all ages joining in. It was very special indeed.