Indian artist Amar Kanwar’s “The Sovereign Forest” at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore

NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore holds major solo exhibition of Indian artist Amar Kanwar.

“The Sovereign Forest” is the result of Amar Kanwar’s continued effort to document the industrial interventions that have transformed and in part destroyed the face of Odisha’s landscape since the 1990s. The project “initiates a creative response to the understanding of crime, politics, human rights and ecology”.

1_Installation view of 'The Sovereign Forest' by Amar Kanwar at dOCUMENTA (13). Photo: Henrik Stromberg.

Installation view of ‘The Sovereign Forest’ by Amar Kanwar at dOCUMENTA (13). Photo: Henrik Stromberg.

In 2012, Amar Kanwar’s The Sovereign Forest opened for public viewing at the Samadrusti campus in Bhubaneswar, Odisha as a permanent installation in collaboration with activist media organisation Samadrusti. Since then, many visitors have shared insights and contributed more evidence, making The Sovereign Forest an ongoing and constantly expanding project.

The Sovereign Forest is produced with the support of Samadrusti, Odisha, India; Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna, Austria; Centre Pompidou, Paris, France; Yorkshire Sculpture Park, United Kingdom; Public Press, New Delhi, India; and dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany.

The exhibition “The Sovereign Forest” running at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore until 9 October 2016 and its public programmes are curated by Professor Ute Meta Bauer, Khim Ong and Magdalena Magiera, in collaboration with Amar Kanwar, Sudhir Pattnaik and Sherna Dastur.

The first impression likely to be made by “The Sovereign Forest” at NTU CCA Singapore, lies in its lighting – or, to be precise, the relative lack thereof. This intensity of darkness effectively highlights the works on show: projections of film both immense and minute, as well as a number of spot-lit artworks.

Amar Kanwar, "The Sovereign Forest", 30 July – 9 October 2016, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. Installation view of 'The Scene of Crime', 2011. Image courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

Amar Kanwar, “The Sovereign Forest”, 30 July – 9 October 2016, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. Installation view of ‘The Scene of Crime’, 2011. Image courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

The darkness of the space and the stark contrasts between shadow and light are an apt environment for the narratives that unfold throughout the exhibition, as Amar Kanwar (b. 1964, New Delhi) presents his long-term effort to document the destruction of the landscape and its effect on the population in Odisha, an eastern state in India that has been transformed and defaced since the 1990s through industrial interventions.

This intensity of light and dark carries over to the centrepiece of the exhibition, a 42-minute film entitled The Scene of the Crime (2011). The various cuts and transitions often vary dramatically in their brightness, and the audio is, for the most part, ambient noises of low intensity, such of the sounds of nature. Due to the scale of the projection, and the darkness of the gallery around it, it is possible to entertain the illusion that the projection is in fact a window of sorts, a yawning void through which snippets of the state of Odisha can be spied upon.

1_Installation view of 'The Sovereign Forest' by Amar Kanwar at dOCUMENTA (13). Photo: Henrik Stromberg.

Installation view of ‘The Sovereign Forest’ by Amar Kanwar at dOCUMENTA (13). Photo: Henrik Stromberg.

The premise of the film may be inferred from its solemn title, but within the film itself, it unfolds in bits and pieces, primarily through text which accompanies the film’s lavish imagery. Accompanied by Kanwar’s lush, painterly cinematography – the scale of which varies from wide landscape shots to details of a single plant, or a single stream – the text slowly lays out the story of a woman who brings a man’s death before a court, only to be told that the court does not recognise the evidence presented. Kanwar extrapolates this to the Kafkaesque extreme that, in the eyes of the law, this man, named Nidhan, is neither dead nor alive.

This textual narration has shades of the fantastical as well, touches of magical realism such as the woman bearing a map of Kalinga in her eyes, or of her Orphean quest to find Nidhan’s soul. And what of the reason for Nidhan’s suspension between life and death? His discovery of old land ownership records which could be used to dispute recent claims in the area, much to the displeasure of local authorities and mining companies. Every image in the film, in fact, is of places earmarked for mining and industrial development, being acquired by the state and private companies, displacing communities in the process.

Installation view of 'The Sovereign Forest' by Amar Kanwar at dOCUMENTA (13). Photo: Henrik Stromberg.

Installation view of ‘The Sovereign Forest’ by Amar Kanwar at dOCUMENTA (13). Photo: Henrik Stromberg.

As the CCA’s Founding Director Ute Meta Bauer puts it, the film offers the experience of a landscape prior to erasure – and with five years having passed since its initial release, there is a question which surfaces, uncomfortably: which of these landscapes no longer exists? And will there come a time when the film will be the only remaining record of these places, now turned to vast pools of blood-red bauxite tailings, or heaps of spoil, and so on?

It is a moment of violent realisation mirrored by a sudden outburst of violence in the film. About halfway through The Scene of the Crime, a placid shot of a cow transitions abruptly to shaky hand-held camera footage of riot police charging, screaming and firing rubber bullets. The very next scene opens with what appear to be graves, followed some time later by shots of a large, menacing-sounding industrial complex at night.

Amar Kanwar, "The Sovereign Forest", 30 July – 9 October 2016, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. Installation view. Image courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

Amar Kanwar, “The Sovereign Forest”, 30 July – 9 October 2016, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. Installation view. Image courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

With the premise of rural communities contending with unsympathetic authorities and rapacious megacorporations firmly in mind, the next thing visitors are likely to encounter is The Seed Room, so-named for cataloguing 272 varieties of rice grown in Odisha. It is a stunning display of diversity, particularly when most people might be hard-pressed to name half a dozen types of rice. There is an element of reliquary in this display, offering up for consumption not the rice itself or some abstract notion of its diversity, but its sensual existence, embodying what must be a staggering amount of human labour.

Amar Kanwar, "The Sovereign Forest", 30 July – 9 October 2016, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. Installation view. Image courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

Amar Kanwar, “The Sovereign Forest”, 30 July – 9 October 2016, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. Installation view. Image courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

Some books share the space with the display of rice – The Seed Book (2012) adds a layer of depth to the display of cereal, presenting both an index of the rice varieties in the space, their uses and other characteristics, as well as documentation of some rice-growing experiments. More harrowing, however, is In Memory Of (2012), which memorialises those Indian farmers who committed suicide as a result of a system of debt peonage. This is not a memorial in the vein of some stately funeral cortege, but a visceral cry of anguish – among the images of the book are the funerals of the farmers concerned, and a number of their bodies are visibly mutilated.

Surrounding The Seed Room are Selections from the Evidence Archive (2012-2015) – a collection of printed and archival material sprawling across a long wall – and a number of book/projection works, interactive installations in which large printed books made of coarse, hand-made paper may be read while moving images are projected on one side.

Amar Kanwar, "The Sovereign Forest", 30 July – 9 October 2016, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. Installation view. Image courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

Amar Kanwar, “The Sovereign Forest”, 30 July – 9 October 2016, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. Installation view. Image courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

As its title makes apparent, Selections from the Evidence Archive presents some of the material culled from a parent archive, consisting of a dizzying array of all manner of printed material: photographs, maps both hand-drawn and topographical, newspaper clippings, official-looking printouts and hand-written matter, among other types. Despite the language barrier posed, it still speaks volumes of the tenacity and organisation that undergirds both Kanwar’s art and the struggles it engages with.

One notable element here, in simple visual terms, are documents of a petition signing – the force of each name bolstered by inked fingerprints. A particularly resonant aspect of this archival presentation is that the parent archive resides in Odisha, the state that is the subject of the entire exhibition, where the archive forms a living, growing body of evidence – a microcosm of which has made its way to Singapore.

Amar Kanwar, "The Sovereign Forest", 30 July – 9 October 2016, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. Installation view. Image courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

Amar Kanwar, “The Sovereign Forest”, 30 July – 9 October 2016, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. Installation view. Image courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

Despite their apparent, relatively small scale, the three book/projection installations The Counting Sisters and Other Stories (2011), The Prediction (1991 – 2012) and The Constitution (2012) also offer a great depth of material to dive into. It is The Counting Sisters and Other Stories that may weigh-in as the heaviest – its video component is an alternate cut of The Scene of the Crime, containing the same footage, ordered differently. The stories told here are of a distinctly magical-realist bent – the ‘counting sisters’ in the title are singers for the dead of such potency that the clouds themselves weep, and other characters include a pair of twins who relate the past and the future respectively.

Amar Kanwar, 'The Sovereign Forest' at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, England, 2013-2014. Photo: Jonty Wilde.

Amar Kanwar, “The Sovereign Forest”, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, England, 2013-2014. Photo: Jonty Wilde.

Turning the pages of these books yields an incalculable number of possible permutations of textual narrative on the left page, and moving image on the right, given the volume of both the footage and the stories. The other two books may seem more modest in scale, with their videos running under 10 minutes each, but they still constitute impressive masses of narrative and knowledge.

Amar Kanwar, "The Sovereign Forest2, installation view at TBA21 Vienna, Austria, 2013-2014.

Amar Kanwar, “The Sovereign Forest2, installation view at TBA21 Vienna, Austria, 2013-2014.

Anchoring the far end of the gallery is another large-scale film projection, though one a little more modest in scope than the towering The Scene of the Crime. Instead, A Love Story (2010), which runs for just over five minutes, functions as a sort of postscript to both the first film and the exhibition as a whole. The narrative concerns a man pining for his love, mirroring the search for Nidhan in the first film. Rather than the largely ambient audio of The Scene of the Crime, there is instead the faint, breath-like hum of what might be a harmonium, building towards a burst of flute-playing near the film’s end. Just as the exhibition as a whole is bracketed by these two films, this latter film begins and ends with the same, evocative phrase:

The suddenness of your departure is still hard to believe.

Bruce Quek

1271

Related Topics: Indian artists, installation, video, film, art about nature, art about society, political art, museum shows, events in Singapore

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