Before getting to Sri Lanka, we had some ideas in mind what could be interesting to work on during our residency. These ideas of course dealt with the stereotypes Europeans associate with Sri Lanka. We did some superficial research on the internet on tea, textiles and tourism. But since it was not our aim to arrive with fixed concepts we tried to keep our minds very open. And once grounded in Hikkaduwa, 100 km south of the capital Colombo, these issues seemed too conceptual, too high and mighty and drawn from the outside. Soon we began to spread our reflexions into many different directions studying everyday life and the varieties compared to what we as Europeans are used to. As artists working on site specific topics it is of course always hard and thrilling to arrive empty-handed and to find your works in the field.
The first days we spent with straying around in the village of Hikkaduwa with its postcard picture like beachside, all the sun-tanned surfers and the busy main street geared to serve all the necessities and demands tourists might have. We learnt how to bargain with the local Tuktuk-drivers and how to deal with the weekly disco-event, filling the whole village with its sound till 4 o’clock in the morning.
After visiting the really simple but very impressive Tsunami Photo Museum – the stories you get to hear and read really affect you deeply, we also went to see the colonialistic fort-buildings, the museums and the old town of Galle, which is the next biggest city about 30 minutes by train to the south. Following the classical tourist-programme we extended our research to find interesting local materials visiting a lot of special shops, first in Hikkaduwa and then in Galle. We attended a lot of hardware-stores, stores that sold household items or plastic chairs but also bookshops. Together with artist colleague Hannah Brackston we did a tour to some local craftsmen and small factories producing paper, batiks, garments, silk or coconut-strings. And of course we went to the Sunday market in Hikkaduwa which shows the lively opposite of the tourists-crowded main street: local people selling and buying food, sweets, spices, garments and clothes household items and everything else one might need.
During these first two weeks of research we soon discovered an interesting detail of everyday life – a simple but personal action of public concern. The street lights in Hikkaduwa and also in most of the rural villages around Sri Lanka are not automatically controlled. They are turned on and off by the people themselves as soon as they are needed. This could be the people living or running shops nearby but also pedestrians walking through the streets. So every street lamp has its simple switch that one can reach by hand. First we discovered one switch and tried it out. Then of course we started to search for them everywhere we went and found out that even in busy Main Street there were hidden switches. Sometimes you were able to switch up to 5 street lamps at once. We also found switches in deserted jungle sceneries overgrown with tropical plants. So the idea for the first project “abc..”. was born: We decided to work with this simple gesture of putting the light on in public space and we wanted to build on former works with light and Morse code we did in Austria. We started to use the streetlights as a semiotic system: For the next two weeks we had a daily routine of completing our “Hikkaduwa Morse alphabet” by filming 26 different street lights and enlightening 26 different street sceneries with the on-off-long-short rhythm of the different letters of the Morse-alphabet. Because twilight offered the best light conditions we were only able to film 2-3 letters a day, so it was a long process collecting sceneries. The result is a 4 minute video, which was also shown at the Colombo Biennale.
In the meantime our research concerning interesting and typical Sri Lankan working materials for a Land art installation lead us from coconut strings, which turned out to be too natural and unremarkable for this exuberant environment, to a more artificial material we already worked with some years ago, but indoors: plastic drinking straws, you can buy in every supermarket. We like this idea to use very basic mass materials for our installations – you need hardly any tools or complicated working steps – what you need is just enough preparation time. We decided to work with white straws this time because they represent a touristic material as they are used in the hotels and bars for the cocktails and also for “King Coconut” sold by vendors along the beachside. What we did is, we started sticking them together to a three-dimensional grid the way computer programs apply to display objects or landscapes. And with this abstract white grid we covered different predefined settings: a jungle scenery with a central tree, a beach scenery and a wall in a Colombo backyard. Also the self evident form of the fences in Sri Lanka weaving different materials with the existing vegetation inspired us to create a fence situation with our straws. One subject we love very much tries to approach Sol LeWitt’s famous artwork series of “Incomplete Open Cubes” by building a straw version of it. This also reflects the Sri Lankan way of producing things by coping but with poorer materials. The stray dog that appears in the picture lived in our garden at Sura Medura attending all our arty experiments there. We called him “Waldi” and used to feed him with biscuits, soothing him for our artworks and our presence in his territory. In the end we produced photographs of 6 different sceneries, one straw-piece was also shown as an outdoor installation in the garden of a venue of the Colombo Biennale, the others form a photo series titled “…xyz”
Nevertheless working in public space, setting up installations or filming and photographing was sometimes not very easy to do – not because of regulations but because of the local people. Every tourist pausing somewhere was an aim to engage in conversation and to try to sell something: a tour, a driver, a better hotel room, a special place they wanted to guide you. But on the other hand the fact that you are a tourist sometimes gives you the fool’s license to do a lot of things, because everyone wants to satisfy your desires. When we had to explain our streetlight-video to some local people to get to the switches, the answer was: feel free to do everything you like!
The third approach we were working on, was inspired by some old copy books from the 1950ies we found at several bookshops. Their claim is to impart the English language and letters by coping words and sentences. But the interesting thing is the way they do this: the content of the sentences is very British and tells us a story about a colonisation by language and words. Imagine school children carefully writing: “Do your best every day”, “Edward First of England”, “Keep to good company”, “Dickens, a great novelist”, “Civility costs us nothing”, “Winter is the cold season” “Shetland-noted for its ponies” or even “France, south of England” or “Cats in mittens catch no mice” – all of these phrases have nothing to do with Sri Lanka or with the everyday lives the people are living. For the Biennale we pasted the pages of the copy books onto four plywood sheets, leaned them to the exhibition walls and invited the audience to rewrite the sentences but also to find new sentences referring to this colonial content (“copy and past”)
For us the residency and – together with it – the opportunity to show the developed works at the 3rd Colombo Biennale offered perfect conditions for working abroad. The six weeks allowed a good balance of thinking, exploring and developing ideas, also having the time for a one week tour around the island and then starting to produce and set up the works for the exhibition. Also the possibility of spending time with other artists of many different genres was an enrichment of this residency because it was nice to share all the exploration within a group and discuss certain points when we got together to have our meals every day. It was interesting to see where the different artists with their various approaches found their linking with Sri Lanka and how everyone was developing his work. We also believe that this aim of exhibiting is very important to get to point of your approaches. Otherwise you might lose the focus with all the interesting things around you and you end up with different rudiments but nothing finished. Of course an exhibition date puts some pressure on you but we felt these efforts as something stimulating. And of course you learn a lot about not so perfect conditions, but also about what is achievable in a certain time and with the local conditions.
Aside these finished projects we found a lot of time to discuss other new and ongoing works. So it was not only the numerous great experiences, the beautiful landscape, the position of working in a tourist village sometimes overcrowded with Europeans on their holidays, the busy cities full of tuktuks and busses and the nice people offered to us – it was also the chance to rethink your status of being an European and being an artist getting the opportunity to come to places like this – free from all your boundaries enjoying the gift of an extended creative time window within normal working.
As we loved to focus on small details in Sri Lanka
– we wanted to share some extracts of our notes with you:
Power blackouts may be short (for seconds) or long (for hours) and might be caused by the amount of Christmas decoration
Plastic chairs often pretend to be carefully carved in wood
Railway-gatemen practise job sharing
spaces are shared everywhere
An elephant or a monkey on the leash guarantees a basic income
Fresh bread comes around sunset to the sound of Beethoven’s “For Elise”
Stray dogs sleep during the day and howl during the night
Big red ants use the clothes line as their highway, wet clothes cause delay
The book title of the day: “The Act of Rebirth – 2nd Revised Edition”
In small factories coconut husks turn either to strong ropes or to pressed humus for European pot plants
30 kilometres are converted 90 minutes of bumpy bus ride
For religious parades elephants wear “blingbling” LED-lights on their ears and need to be escorted by a man with a generator.
And who is putting the light on in the street at night?
zweintopf, february 2014