The Colombo Biennale
The Colombo Biennale, Srilanka’s Art festival celebrates its third edition this year (2014), including around 50 artists from both Srilanka and internationally. It was an opportunity for all of us to share something from our projects so far and to meet some other really inspiring and interesting people. In a way to also understand where contemporary art sits, how it is understood and represented in Sri Lanka. For me perhaps the challenge felt to be making work for a gallery context, which I have not done in the last years. Therefore in submitting two pieces for the CAB festival was a chance for me to revisit my stance on this from of representation as well as really exciting for meeting and sharing ideas with local artists etc.
I presented the outcomes so far of two of the ideas that I had been exploring here in Hikkaduwa, the brooms and the mobile museum. At this stage having spent a little more time understanding how things happen here, my ideas for the lace project have been put a little in prospective. It wasn’t interesting enough to me to just present a giant piece of woven lace as an object without the process of making it being resolved as the centre of the work. To organise, choreograph and teach a large group of children or people to make lace as a performance would have been really exciting but an enormous challenge time wise and depending on a lot of other people and teachers to assist me. I began to wonder if it might be just as interesting to keep this idea for another time, a transfer of the skill, take it back to its colonial roots and re-teach people in Portugal or Britain a skill they took over to Sri Lanka. In some way my thoughts on this idea helped me to see that the residency and potentially all the processes or activities we might engage with here don’t need to have a definite start point that leads to a continuous linear process reaching a conclusion at the end of the residency. Some ideas perhaps can drift, be carried for some time until they feed into or fall into a place where they make better sense.
I made the decision however that there was regardless of this a lot of value in continuing to learn the skill and spend time with Indra the lace maker. We were becoming friends and through the hours of sitting side by side, taking up the whole shop I was not only learning of her craft and her life, but gaining a fascinating prospective on one of the areas of life here that fascinates me, the arrival of tourism. Almost being on the other side of this, watching the interactions take place and experiencing the shop keeper’s commentary and opinion on this became really insightful. At this point I also thought about the fine or invisible line between something being art and being life or an experience in a place. I realised that what took place during the time with Indra was an exchange; I was the first tourist who she had ever taught this skill too, she was co-incidentally a wonderful teacher and she took much delight and patience in guiding me. She was one of 5 daughters who was taught lace making by their mother, who learnt from her mother, and Indra was the only daughter who worked with it still, her own daughter didn’t want to learn, she was studying a degree in Colombo, Indra’s family line of the craft was possibly near its end.
So, my collected and well used brooms, all 72 of them by now, made their way to Colombo for the Biennale. Several of my neighbours watched them pile into the back of the van. I realised that the brooms had created a sense of mystery – where were they going? and for what? On my return one man came up to me and asked – ‘my broom – Colombo going?’ he was delighted when I said yes. I also became aware of a bigger potential for this group of brooms, on holiday in Colombo that could work in some really interesting political fields, beyond the exhibition, trips to sit outside parliament. The brooms were not just objects, they were each echoed by a family in the village who once owned them and was curious to know their whereabouts.
I felt consistently throughout the exhibition that Colombo was just a pause, a chance to share a sense of prospective with a different audience, a short period of time to stand back and observe the brushes simply as they were, a collection of objects before they returned to their village. I wasn’t interested to make anything with them in the gallery, just to let them rest, to stand strongly together as the community they represented, some young, some old, a few resting on others.
I am often think that it is important for public art and socially engaged art to find ways to re-present themselves with in the institutions of art and have a voice with in the larger question of what art is today. However I did not try to tell the story of the brushes and perhaps this was a weakness to my point on having them there. However I was interested that it allowed people to make their own connections and narratives, which was relevant in the context of Sri Lanka where these objects are so familiar.
I enjoyed working more sculpturally with these sticks and their bristles, to stack them in a way that created a sense of movement and to take time to consider the finer details of presenting them, however although I still hold no regret at not building or making something more of these in this place, I was consistently aware of my own inclination that they should have some form of interaction. I did witness two moments of interaction with the work, one was a beautiful piece of improvised dance, by Tom one of the other resident artists which to me addressed the energy I was trying to capture in their configuration as a group, posed in sweeping position. The other was during install when I was informed that the ‘minor staff’ would come to sweep the gallery before the opening, two ladies came in with brushes identical to mine and myself an couple of others joined them with my brushes to clean the floor, everyone was smiling and laughing.
I realised many things that as a piece in a gallery the brushes gave a chance to reflect on, connotations that within the community context were harder to observe. Their relationship to class, to female roles, to the immediate natural environment they were created out of.
Washed up object/a mobile museum
An experience I shall never forget was the making of the mobile museum. A structure to contain the objects I had gathered from the beach, but also a prototype or design idea for an object carried on your back, that could function both as a space to collect and interrogate the landscape, and also present a temporay museum display; on a road side curb or with in a community setting.
I was really lucky to be put in contact with a Tuc tuc driver who also had a very small workshop from which he ran a metal and wood working business during the off season period. His name was Anil and he was happy not just to make the piece I had invented but to let me be part of the making process. It became apparent later that this was a strange territory as although local women are often engaged in very physical manual work, it was not wood or metal work at this scale and for a westerner to be doing this was even stranger. Together we collected pieces of wood and metal that we strapped precariously to the roof of his tuc tuc. When we went to his friends who had machines to cut pieces, we found they were sitting through a power cut and so the museum was hand cut and hand assembled. We invented the mechanisms and attachments together, adapting pieces from his wonderful pile of scrap metal and off cuts. The process was punctuated by regular trips to his home to have cups of tea and lunch with his wife and children. Although I never imagined it from the onset, again, like the lace making, the relationships and social experiences that derived from this process became as interesting and special to me as the outcome. I was invited to spend Independence days with his wife’s whole extended family, where we swam in the sea together in Galle and showered then all in the street under and stand pipe before dinner.
The other piece I presented for the Colombo Biennale festival was therefore this work. In the Garden space of Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations, my resistance to working indoors and my original design for the mobile museum to be a work encountered on the street led me to choose a space here at the side of a small road under the shelter of a tree. I presented my collection of objects salvaged from the beach outside Hikkaduwa, in a particular way that played with colour and partnered pieces of similar form that were natural and manmade materials alongside each other. I was interested in exploring the processes and order we try to give to the natural world as a means to make sense of it, or to find beauty in landscapes that are about a persistent destruction, such as life was for these pieces in the tide. I realised that this project reflects on the similarity between my methodology as an artist encountering a new culture and the comparable inquisition of early explorers. Examining and excited by all of the virtually invisible details and fragments of place that are so unfamiliar, vibrant in colour and wrapped in social, environmental and historical layers. Interested in landscapes that often contrast with what today is expected of a tourist to find beautiful.
I also realised, looking at the work with a distance to its starting point, that the work was inescapably referencing my reaction to what I learnt and observed of the Tsunami. Trying to create some kind of order and narrative to understand the kind of power, well and beyond our control, that is contained in that incredible ocean. Considering the piecing together and re-building of physical and emotional space, searching and re-structuring that has taken place for the 10 years following this disaster. The presentation of the idea as a museum was about my thoughts towards our relationship to history and to knowledge, how we preserve and also connect the present day with what has taken place before. This museum and collection attempts to operate outside of the institutional walls, as a display space it is open to the elements and to constant re-configuration, no glass and no fixtures. It is not an attempt to preserve but to momentarily capture and reflect. As an idea it is about the potential for different people in different times and places to use the materials gathered from their space and environment to curate and tell their own histories through an exploration of what remains today, opening this up in public spaces for wider conversations.
On reflection of this connection to the Tsunami I felt that the work was perhaps a little too sensitive to display in Hikkaduwa or the place that the objects originated.