11 South Asian artists respond to the notion of place in “A Tale of Two Cities”.
“A Tale of Two Cities” – on display at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts until 28 March 2017 – brings together 11 artists of Indian and Sri Lankan descent to respond to the cities of Anuradhapura and Varanasi. Art Radar takes a look at a few of the artist’s contributions.
“A Tale of Two Cities” is a cross-cultural exchange project organized by Gallery Espace in collaboration with Serendipity Arts trust and Theertha Artists Collective. The broad research and exhibition project brings together works by 11 leading contemporary artists from South Asia. Throughout 2015 and 2016 Manjunath Kamath, Riyas Komu, Manisha Parekh, Ram Rahman, Paula Sengupta and Chintan Upadhyay from India together with Jagath Weerasinghe, Anoli Perera, Pala Pothupitiya, Bandu Manamperi and Pradeep Chandrasiri from Sri Lanka intervened across two cities: Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka and Varanasi in India.
The project began with research visits to the urban and rural historical sites in each place with each artist invited to make a work based on their dynamic dialogue with the place. The exhibition opened as part of the inaugural edition of the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa in December 2016 and is currently on display at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Curatorial advisor Ruhanie Perera highlights in the exhibition catalogue the main shared themes across the selection of artist interventions and works, stating:
The most apparent contention of A Tale of Two Cities is thus its multiplicity of agencies on the structure and function of religiosity, its philosophical manifestations and its geopolitical implications. The artist excavates the living sacred; it is “opened up, defragmented and inspected” revealing a consciousness reaective of the plurality of memory and experience as the artist contends with the religio-cultural.
Exploring religion – pilgrim cities and shrines
“A Tale of Two Cities” required of the artists an act of artistic intervention: an act of solidifying or drawing attention to an ever-shifting present. Many of the artists chose to respond to the metaphysics of place by focusing on the respective cities as historical sites of pilgrimage, adorned as they are with the symbolism and architectural features of a place of worship. Anoli Perera is a Sri Lanka-born artist whose art practice includes painting, sculpture, installation, video art and photo-performances. Her work engages critically with issues ranging from gender, history and myth to identity, colonialism and post-colonial anxieties.
Her recent works deliberate on the erasure of personal and public memory. Talking about her contribution entitled Geographies of Deliverance (2016), she states:
Visiting both cities stirred my curiosity on the idea of ‘pilgrimages’ and the parallel landscapes and sacred routes people construct…The act of pilgrims appropriating and making spiritual sites as intimate spaces as their own allow them to disconnect such spaces from the outer reality and its contemporary political and social dynamic. The idea of ‘My Varanasi’ and ‘My Anuradhapura’ inherently tries to remain as sanitized and intimate spaces. This allows cities such as Auradhapura and Varanasi to continue as spiritual centers irrespective of their contemporary political dimensions and socio-cultural anomalies.
Indian artist Manisha Parekh’s Home Shrine (2016) series also seeks to engage with the religious use of the cities, focusing on the idea of the ‘shrine’. The works are a result of the artist’s sensations experienced walking through the sites of Anuradhapura and Varanasi and inhabiting what the artist has called the “sociohistoric sacredness”. The articulation itself brings into sharp focus the sense of the shrine as intimate, personal, private and familiar.
For over a decade now, the Indian artist Paula Sengupta’s has travelled to various locations on the “Buddha trail”, in the Indian subcontinent and in Southeast Asia. These journeys of inhabiting place trace the land, and the physical geographies that are intrinsically connected with the being, the reach, the teaching, the relics, rites and rituals associated with the Buddha across the subcontinent and beyond. Her work The Plain of Aspiration (2016) also departs from the notion of a spiritual journey. Produced as a series of embroidered images on silk fastened to wooden pankha-holders, The Plain of Aspiration is a mapping of movement and territory that positions a deeply personal travelling narrative of contested sacred geographies, traversing eight contested Buddhist sites to which the artist has travelled.
Fragments of architecture: ruins and historical residue
Sri Lankan artsits Pala Pothupitiye and Bandu Manamperi, both known for their interdisciplinary and performance practices, were drawn rather to the architectural feature of the cities. Pala Pothupitiye’s “Victory Dome” series brings into focus one predominant architectural aspect and symbolic structure – the stupa. The stupa is a fundamental structure within the Buddhist architectural monument context, serving as a marker of sacred space.
The earliest stupa-architecture can be found in India and Sri Lanka, which have influenced later designs across the region. These early structures were made of brick, and so the ‘transparency’ of Pothupitiye’s work structurally and materially contends with historical architecture of the stupa. Bandu Manamperi’s Moonstone-1 also works with the symbols constituting popular iconography that have dominated historical architectural practice, and looks at how through these symbols we are “brought into meaning” as pilgrims in a sacred space, or consumers of image culture. In the exhibition catalogue the artist states:
My approach to this process began with a consideration of what is left behind (traces) in these physical sites that have come to constitute ‘sacredness.’ This is what stayed with me after our visits to Anuradhapura and Varanasi.
Manjunath Kamath’s work also re-imagines fragments of architectural features noticed during the research visits to the sites. The work Restored Poems (2016) intervenes in popular Buddhist iconography through fragmenting the totality of the image. In an experiment in interpretive sculptural architecture the work is designed to train and retrain sight, perspective and ways of seeing. Meanwhile, it contends with the discursive limits and possibilities of how meaning is culturally produced through the practices of art and architecture and popular iconography.
Religion in contemporary national contexts
Other works in the exhibition were rather produced as interventions into the spaces of the two cities. Indian multimedia artist and activist Riyas Komu explores religion as it is intertwined with military cultures and national histories, preferring to withhold a critical distance with regards to the instrumentalisation of spiritual experience. His installation work Agam Puram (2016), which includes photographs of sites of public monuments in the cities and a series of display cases, grapples with historical memory as a journey towards conceiving non-violent societies. It also explores how the retrieval of the past and the mobilisation of religio-cultural identity are also engendered within militarised communities.
Ram Rahman also employed historical research strategies in the production of their works The Man, The Word, The Tree, The Lotus, which uses images from his trips to Sarnath to examine how contemporary politics distorts religious philosophy. Committed to developing dialogues between artists in the region, “A Tale of Two Cities” demonstrates an effective partnership between a commercial gallery space and two non-profit organisations, as well as offering a meditative dissection of themes at the centre of contemporary art practice in the region: place, context, history and the present.
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