August 23rd, 2016

I dropped a bunch of money today and I ain’t even mad.

I bought shoes for my indoor soccer class because of Course he said “No Vans” and that makes up pretty much all my “athletic shoes”.
Then I bought a camera for my photography class. I found out today that it is a Black and white FILM photography class so I can’t use my Rebel. So instead I thought about asking to borrow my mom’s old camera (the professor stressed the whole don’t go buying a brand new one unless that’s your dream thing) but then I remembered my read said it had light leaks (he told me when he thought my camera was a film camera) so instead I ordered one from amazon. An older one but not as old as most I found. My new (old) Film camera is a Canon EOS Ti SLR camera. It cost $80 after shipping. I’m kind of excited for it.

Then tonight In my beginning screenwriting class I got all kinds of stuff to do and it looks like it’s going to be intense but idk, we’ll see. I’m excited.

This is the most Hands On film education I’ve gotten so far. I’m nervous and excited and exhausted. I’m already planning a nap for tomorrow afternoon.

I gotta get to bed, I have to get up at 6:30 again..

The Disorientations of Forests

I have developed a viewing habit whereby I hastily brisk through any exhibition before diving into the heart of the exhibition’s themes. I consider it warm-up that makes for a rough gauge of the modalities of the works in space. It is purely strategic. This also means that my first impression, which psychologically speaking influences my overall judgment of an exhibition, is more often than not, an uninformed intuition. Think the first five minutes of any blind date.

But The Sovereign Forest by Amar Kanwar at NTU CCA shrinks away from this impression forming, in fact, it disorientates.

Upon entering the exhibition one confronts a near pitch-black darkness. Lighting is tightly blocked, confined to a narrow corridor, a room of seeds, and tables with large handmade books. Other than from the film projections, light does not leak into space. It also doesn’t help that the lights are dimmed to puddles of dull orange. The physical effect is immediately felt. As I whisk through the darkness, making my habitual preliminary scan, I walk into a partition. Watching The Scene of Crime, I sit on a sound amplifier, mistaking it for a seat. I can feel the searing judgmental eyes of the handbag-toting lady beside me. That was when I understood: I was no longer an unabated art-viewing subject floating seamlessly from gallery to gallery, but a lumbering body with two left feet. I felt heavier.

But clumsiness, the loss of bodily mastery, was only a part of the disorientation.

The exhibition is much like a forest in its inscrutability. From the outset, both could seem conquerable and penetrable, ready to be mined for resources. By a cursory scan through the exhibition, I gathered two conclusions: there was not much to see and the artist’s intention was relatively unambiguous. There were photographs of local resistance against the police, legal documents of proceedings detailing battles over the forest and a film documenting landscapes lost to industrialisation. These are hard-won material sourced by the Amar Kanwar and his activist-collaborators, Sudhir Pattanik/Samadrusti and Sherna Dustur. Dismissively, one can quickly conclude that it is just a show about the ravages of industrialisation of Odisha and the local community, another political exhibition.

But my trek through the riotous vegetation of evidence revealed something else. As I trek, I am pulled into multiple narratives, some obscurely poetic and others glaringly journalistic, all pointing towards tales of resistance, corruption and injustice. My confidence over my initial impressions started to wear away. Whatever mental map formed to navigate this forest of an exhibition turned into scrap. As though these encounters with unmarked features of the landscape—a small stream, an eroded precipice—forced the master topography to fall quickly into obsolescence.

Soon I realised that my usual interpretive tools became useless.

A constant mode of suspicion tells me that all texts that make claims to the truth are by that very act, questionable. The documentary genre, in particular, is wrought with a history of exploitative and manipulative images of suffering. Yet to crudely apply the same formula of hermeneutics onto The Sovereign Forest seems beside the point. As an inquiry into the veracity of evidence, the show remains rather unselfconscious over its presentation of counter-evidence against the state. This is perhaps so for good reasons.

The Prediction is a handmade book compiling the conspired assasination and subsequent murder trial of activist-leader, Shankar Guha Niyogi in September 1991. In short, the 13 year long trial was a painful legal drama of convictions, acquittals, reconvictions and re-acquittals. The verdict by the Supreme Court of India in 2005 acquitted all the conspiring industrialists and sentenced the hired assassin, “the man who had fired the gun for a small sum of money”, to life imprisonment. This tremendous controversy of a damning lack of legal recourse demands to be told as an epic. Materials such as personal statements, incriminating evidence, trade union pamphlets filled the banana-leaf-sized pages of the hefty archive.

The sprawling immensity of collected evidence by the artist made the critique of “aestheticising politics” look petty— suspicion is beside the point. It is clear that Kanwar does not pursue the sleek political message but instead, we see the converse happen where narratives are polyphonic, unwieldy and manifold. One is not expected to absorb the entire narrative, but to find coordinates of resonance for themselves. More salient is the point that for myself and any other viewer, there always remains unexplored depths of knowledge, and that our interpretations are necessarily inadequate.

I might even venture to say what constitutes the truth of evidence is of little consequence for the artist. Or more accurately put, Kanwar is not only concerned with evidentially legal and statistical fact, but also minor forms of truths. What is the expediency of affect as truth, for example? A fictionalized chapter in The Prediction takes us into an intimate moment as Niyogi, the murdered mineworker activist-leader, wraps himself in meditative stillness. In a gesture that conflates mysticism and crippling realism, he foretells his own murder. A video projection of locals mourning during Niyogi’s funeral procession takes the right leaf of the handmade book, and as one reads the textual narrative, scenes of despair unfold simultaneously. And feel the losses experienced by the locals: the loss of Niyogi, the loss of justice, the loss of possibility. It becomes difficult to remain a detached critical observer.

So apart from the loss of bodily mastery, the exhibition induces a loss of interpretive mastery. The moment of disorientation happens when the far too glaring pool of light is shone onto the evidence that sits in a murky darkness. For the critical observer, the bright light of evidence seems too easy and beguiling. But in this approach, the observer neglects to see the forces of corruption and injustice also rejecting this evidence as well. Rightfully so, Kanwar is unequivocal in his political stance. While this steadfastness leaves little ambiguity in the meaning behind the work, it forces me to suspend violent acts of interpretation. For now, I am forced to confront the work before me.

***

Now that I have turned to face the evidence in itself, how then do I re-orientate myself?

We can pick out two crisscrossing directions The Sovereign Forest takes: one, as the counter-resistance against the overriding state and legal narrative and two, it addresses the time of empathy.

Significant to the latter is the exhibition’s showing here in Singapore, housed in the well-resourced, air-conditioned NTU CCA facility. We are distant to the world of Odisha by many degrees: agricultural politics, belief systems structured around landscapes and corrupt governments do not immediately strike a chord with the local viewing audience— or at least for myself, if I cannot speak for everyone else. In this light, the exhibition is one that is demanding.

The demands of the exhibition made on the viewer are suggestive in Kanwar’s choice of artist’s books and films as his mediums of choice. They demand a great stillness that slows down the exhibition’s rhythms. Flipping through the handmade book is as much a solitary activity as watching a film montage of landfills; they require investments of time and commitment of the viewers. Viewers must allow themselves to be absorbed by the narratives.

A friend, who was visiting galleries at Gillman Barracks with me, said, “It feels as though I’m window-shopping every time I’m here.”

Our saturated mediascape that exposes us to political oppression daily inspires in us the creation of these self-filtering mechanisms in order to protect our mortally limited attention spans. To stay abreast also requires an accelerated mode of consuming images. How then, and by what speed, do we then answer the call of empathy? When do we drop our defences? By inducing moments of dis- and re-orientation, The Sovereign Forest marks out the fault-line between apathy and empathy. With regards to the time of empathy, the works of Amar Kanwar provides a temporary recourse, which is, to begin by attentively reading the book, already opened for us.

Amar Kanwar: The Sovereign Forest in collaboration with Sudhir Pattanik/Samadrusti and Sherna Dustur is on show at NTU CCA until 9th October 2016.

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