As we have spent more time here we have had some really interesting conversations about life in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s history, which encompasses amongst other things colonialism and more recently a 30 year civil war, has resulted in a complex socio political environment with ongoing divisions between the Tamil and Sinhalese populations. People often define themselves by their religion – Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Muslim and political life is also bound up with religion. Even while we have been here in Hikkadua, we have seen demonstrations by right wing Buddhist monks against Christian churches, which they say are illegal. The monks entered 2 churches, destroying parts of the church, burning bibles and issuing death threats to the pastor while the police stood by – a reminder that certain factions of society here may have more protection than others.
It was by chance that the residency period coincided with the Colombo Biennale 2014. We were invited to propose a piece of work that responded to the theme of ‘Making History’, very interesting to us in the context of some of the issues that we had been thinking about. Also a great opportunity to connect with new audiences and with Sri Lankan artists as well as other artists from around the world.
We took a trip to Colombo to look at spaces, as we were interested in responding to site as well as to theme. The journey was not as straightforward as it might in the UK. Getting up at dawn to spend 3 hours standing in a crowded train, arriving in Colombo for the first time and being hit by even more heat, dust, streets rammed full of hooting tuk tuks , cars, buses, trucks was a bit intense.
During a very long hot, dusty and sticky day we managed to see all the 5 spaces that were to be used during the Biennale. We met some of the other artists and curators and talked about the possible controversial side of some of the work being presented. We wondered if any of the work would be censored, as the current Sri Lankan government is very controlling of the press and other public voices. We were told that the work was going ahead although there was the possibility of a reaction afterwards. It was interesting to talk to the other artists about politics in Sri Lanka and their response to the war and it’s aftermath. They all seemed very open and keen to talk.
We really liked the veranda of the administration building of the University which is an old colonial building next to the main JDA gallery space. With this in mind we devised a one off installation / performance piece called ‘After Image’.
The process of getting permission to use the outside space was complicated as although it was in the same compound and next door to the JDA gallery, we had to get permission separately to use the space. Luckily Thenu Chandraguptha, head of the Visual Art Department and one of the Biennale curators, stepped in and negotiated with the Dean for us to use the veranda for our work.
We felt it would be interesting to explore how events are experienced and recorded. Each witness to an event will have a different reaction or perspective, but it is through witness accounts that a picture of an event can be built up. We developed the idea of asking people to be witnesses to a one off event and then to use their statements to form an installation in the gallery as the only record of the event. We were also interested in using the administration block in a site specific context, as a way of exploring the bureaucracy involved in collecting records and how the recording of history may be influenced by the keeping or discarding of witness accounts.
On the night the audience members were chosen at random by a bureaucrat (Jo) wearing a specially commissioned office sari, which was made of men’s suit material and had a shirt and tie.
Jo took a series of audience members from the gallery to the admin block where they were taken to a man sitting behind a desk , given a magnifying glass and led by the man through a series of battered, old photographs (found photographs as well as personal photographs – would narratives be found within the details of the sequence of seemingly random images?) They then were asked to recall and interpret their experience on a witness statement form punctuated by an audio track of typists.
The second part of the work, was a wall piece in the main exhibition called ‘Witness – Remember – Forget’. Here the witness statements were displayed allowing people to imagine the event, and due to the differences in interpretation, maybe an entirely different one than actually took place. All the witness statements will end up as bags used by street sellers to hold peanuts, spicy chick peas or wadi (fried lentil snacks) in the same way as other office records end on the street here.
We had some really positive feedback to the work and felt that there was enough in the piece to explore some of the techniques in more detail at a later date.
Back in the village in the jungle, it is a different world from that of Colombo. Seeing daily life of the village from close quarters is fascinating. People here are very engaged with their immediate environment. The daily sweeping of paths and surrounds and the burning of leaves and other detritus keeps the ever encroaching jungle at bay. People gather the abundant fruit and coconuts and sell them in local shops and at the market. Many people have several jobs, cooking in the tourist hotels, cleaning, working in cottage industries, running small scale workshops in makeshift buildings, running small shops selling a handful of goods. There is the daily letting off of firecrackers to scare off the monkeys who take the fruit, tending of vegetable plots, the daily routine of the children going to and fro from school, collecting the flowers for the temple, visiting family on holidays.
In the Sinhalese majority south, particularly in the rural areas where we are staying, there are complicated social rules based class and caste. Life here is very traditional; for example a man and a woman are not allowed to be alone in a room if they are not married. The complex social etiquette gives a feeling of density to life here, our time here being too short to really get an understanding that goes beneath the surface. All these factors have made us question what work we might make in response – we feel we want to make work that is relevant and not separate to life here, but contemporary art is not part of anyone’s experience.
With this in mind, our approach has been to make a series of experimental works that respond to different aspects of life as we have experienced it here.
We have continued developing work for our street bags project. We are creating designs for the bags that street food is sold in here which are made from waste paper, kids homework, exam papers and office records. Our investigations into who makes the bags here have led us on many wild but fun goose chases down dusty alleys with no results. Despite people telling us there was a place where all the bags were made, we never found it (it’s always somewhere ‘down there’) In the end it seems that some bags are made by the families of the street sellers and some are made as cottage industries and are sold in bundles to shops.
We have begun making our own bags and will soon be giving them out to shops and sellers.
Everybody wears flip flops (called slippers) here and leaves them at the door when they enter a house. Often there are many slippers outside a house if people are visiting.
We have been making flip flops out of sheets of handmade paper which have different plant materials from the area embedded in them such as grasses, banana leaves and rice. The paper is beautiful and is made at a small workshop nearby.
The paper sandals are very delicate and seem to have distinct personalities and we are coming to see them as representing distinct people.
We are experimenting with the shoes in different formations. We have made about twenty five pairs in all sizes. When the shoes are in a circle facing in, it feels like the invisible wearers are facing each other and there is a sense of community (and exclusion to outsiders) and when they are facing outwards there is a sense of protection or defensiveness.
We are looking at installing them (temporarily) in different formations at natural gathering places along the local tracks in the jungle as ephemeral installations marking public space.
There are many dogs along the Welwelgoda Road where we live and we have come to know them all, as they have to be navigated as we walk to and from our house. Some are aggressive and can bite and how to deal with them has become a much-discussed subject amongst the Sura Medura artists.
Cataloging and presenting categories of ‘things’ is very much part of the education system here with hundreds of posters available in shops.
As a response we have produced our own educational poster entitled ‘Dogs of the Wewelgoda Road’ which we will give out to the children in the village. It will be interesting to see their reaction. We have also produced a map detailing all the hazardous dogs as an information document for the area. As always here in Sri Lanka, nothing is straightforward. We wanted to translate the poster but we couldn’t get a Sinhala font to work on our laptop. Getting an A3 print out has taken days, finding a print shop involving dusty bus rides, hot and sticky waits in small offices down back alleys and each print we now have, has lines running down it. Today we finally managed to find a printers with a working A3 printer and as the poster of the dogs emerged, it caused huge amusement with all 8 staff crowding round and laughing!
DJ in a Tuk Tuk
Dominda is the 18 year old son of one of our neighbours. His brother died in a tuk tuk accident last year and his family have been paying for the gradual repair of the tuk tuk ever since. It is still on HP and a considerable drain on resources but they want to keep it. Dominda drives at speed round the jungle roads but as yet has no licence to carry passengers. He has a massive sound system in the tuk tuk which keeps the neighbors awake, much to his mothers embarrassment. (sound familiar?)
We have recorded the sounds of our neighbourhood – the daily sweeping, bird calls, monkeys and his tuk tuk horn and engine, which we have sent back to Glasgow to musician and music producer, Anders Rigg. He has produced a fantastic reggae track incorporating these sounds, which we have given to Dominda to play in his tuk tuk. We are just waiting for the right day to film the results.
We are now working with our fellow artist and housemate, Hannah Braxton to create a public showing before we leave. Our house has been the centre of a fair bit of interest to our neighbours because of its position (and our activities) so we are going create an event in our garden one night this week.
We had an enjoyable early morning on the beach working with dance artist and writer, Tom Pritchard. Robbie made improvised marks and lines of travel in the sand, which were then overlaid by Tom improvising movements to them. Jo filmed the process.
There was an interesting discussion afterwards. Something to be explored further, maybe on a different type of beach, somewhere that has a more dynamic and unignorable contest between the land and the sea.
We are really enjoying the interactions with the other artists on the residency. There’s been quite a few of us here, all with wildly different practices and a generous, open, creative feeling has developed. It’s been so useful to share ideas and the everyday adventures and surreal moments that we have all have had working with the ever-stretching nature of time here, the heat and negotiating the sourcing and buying of materials.
We have been overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the people here, people have invited us into their homes for tea and cakes and for traditionally cooked meals – although guests eat separately and it is a bit disconcerting to sit at a table while everyone watches you eat!
We are also regularly brought gifts of fruit and often a huge breakfast will arrive by scooter from Manni, a friend from up the road who runs a small mushroom farm from his house.
It has been a real privilege to live and work here for a short while and we are looking forward to completing these pieces of work as we move into the final phase of the residency.