Sunday, December 18, 2016

'Mi Casa Es Tu Casa': Tonic for insomniacs

Because art depends so much on the written word, it was an oversight on my part to not have read the text that went with “Mi Casa Es Tu Casa” (“My Home is Your Home”), Anoma Wijewardene’s exhibit at this year’s Colombo Biennale. I was chided and rightly so by her, to the extent whereby she had to refer me to her preface (of sorts) to her exhibit, a preface I certainly recommend everyone to see and read before making judgments. Anoma’s piece, by the way, is in display at the J. D. A. Perera Gallery and will be until the 20th of this month.

She is of course is no stranger to these things. With more than 35 exhibitions and more than 20 solo exhibitions (in Sri Lanka and around the world), she’s come to symbolise the very themes she opts for in them: namely, the dichotomies between reason and passion and between time and beauty, the complexity of human feelings and the need for perforations in an era of borders, the kind of themes that have, over the years, made her art more discernible to the public. “Mi Casa Es Tu Casa” was and will be, going by that, no different. This therefore is not a review of what she’s come up with. This is a comment.

Starting off, how was it? First and foremost, I loved the setup. It was basically a painting on fabric (symbolising fragility) with four distinct backgrounds, featuring four maps of the country. Each background was supposed to depict something earthy, close to nature. Simple, yet effective. Moreover, Anoma’s preface tells us that the perforations on the canvas represent how fictional borders are in an age where information can be and is shared between platforms in a matter of seconds. Again, simple.

At the centre of the whole piece was a golden bowl, filled with water and positioned directly below a spiralling crystal ball (or orb). The bowl was supposed to represent the energy that flows from this world: call it loving kindness, maithreeya, charity, whatever. The orb, on the other hand, tried to visualise how out-of-control the world is (which, coupled with the fact that orbs are used to predict the future, in turn indicated the faulty, shaky destiny we’ve subjected ourselves to).

The viewer is invited to walk behind the piece, observing life through the many perforations that adorn it and in the process, take in the painter’s worldview of such perennial themes as borders, identities, hybridism, purity, and of course the interplay between chaos and order that seemed to make up much of the world this year.

Added to all this was a voice-over: Arundhati Roy, with excerpts from her landmark “Come September” speech, delivered a year after 9/11 and touching on the (mis)uses of cultural nationalism and rhetoric in the face of uncertainty. All in all, an in-your-face adjunct to an already edgy exhibit.

Did all this need a caption? For me, yes. It was hard not to misread. It tended, after a point, to overwhelm. So I went back to Anoma’s preface, which reflected on her concern and “growing disbelief” over the events of this year that left one in a state of despair. What these events are, we know, so I was more interested in how Anoma figured out a way to deal with them, through her art. Naturally therefore, I was surprised when she told me point-blank that she wasn’t interested in making statements. In other words, she steers clear of value judgments.

But is it possible, I asked myself. Can artistes choose not to engage with the social? After all, there is something called the political in every sphere, not just the arts, something which can elude only the most happy-go-lucky of people. Because her exhibit was adorned not just by that aforementioned preface but two separate boards, one featuring an essay by Radhika Coomaraswamy and another featuring quotes by religious and secular leaders (from then and now), I was not a little sceptical of her claim, so I attempted to grill her. What I got from her, as answers, were a little wide off what I was aiming at. Not that I was disappointed, of course.

To start things off I pointed at Radhika’s essay and Arundhati’s speech and argued, to the best of my ability, that the fact of their inclusion indicated that the artiste in her was engaging with the political. Anoma flatly denied it and retorted that her role was to present things as they were and empower the viewer to draw inferences.

True, but doesn’t that presuppose some political inclination on her part? To that her response was: not really. If that is indeed the case, I tried to contend, what is the use of art? She didn’t really give a reply, but I gleaned it nevertheless: there is no “use” as such in art.

In hindsight, I think I was looking the wrong way up at the issue and I think she was correct. That she featured an exhibit which in turn featured a speech cautioning the world against cultural nationalism doesn’t presuppose that she shares that view to the dot. In fact, if I were to go a step further, I’d say that the artiste’s take on borders and nationalism isn’t value-imbibed at all. It ascertains value, yes, but what that value is depends on our interpretation, which as Nietzsche once implied correctly is more discernible than truth. The responsibility of the artiste, going by that, is to provide the audience with some cushion, ideological or otherwise, on which they can make assertions, arguments, and if necessary, counterarguments.

Does that leave me satisfied, though? I’m not too sure.

To this end I sought and found some solace in a comment by Gananath Obeyesekere on one of Anoma’s previous exhibitions, "Quest". Here’s the comment: “It is necessary for poets, painters, dreamers, scholars, religious re-thinkers and visionaries to raise their collective voices and jolt the public conscience, showing us the futility of the terrifying discriminations we have invented and hopefully persuading us to resurrect the gentleness – our feminine nature, one might even say – that many of us have suppressed. Then perhaps we can go to sleep.”

“Perhaps we can go to sleep” – that line stayed with me as I reflected on Anoma. It compelled me to ask her some off the cuff questions, all of which centred on her conception of art.

I tried to fire some salvos, starting with this: if she’s so preoccupied with removing commentary from her exhibit, doesn’t she think the artiste has a role to play? Not really, she replied, adding as an afterthought that no artiste, here or elsewhere, is born to this world to play out some role. In other words, not only is the artiste not required to convey a message to the audience, s/he isn’t required to do anything with an exhibit or objet d’art apart from, of course, presenting it.

Now someone can reflect on this and think that Anoma is championing a conception of art that is cut off from the social, an idealisation of a field of human activity at once futile and impossible.

But I beg to differ. After all, no less a figure than Engels wrote (of writers), “the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter the future historical resolution of the social conflicts... he describes.” On that basis, one can applaud Brecht and Ai Weiwei and still hold some ground for Ruskin, Wilde, and all those other artistes and critics who championed that credo, “Art for Art’s Sake.” It’s all to do with choices, as Anoma tells me. The way she sees it, the choices that Brecht made, out of necessity perhaps, required him to undergo torment and anguish. Not an easy route for an artiste, but there you have it: it’s all to do with the artiste’s individuality.

So what of Obeyesekere’s line? I don’t think Anoma could desist from passing some message in her exhibit on that count. As the day ended, she asked me as to what I thought of it. “We are insomniacs,” I replied. She smiled. I asked her what she thought. “I’m not sure,” she replied.

Nor are we, I reflected as I packed my belongings and departed. Was “Mi Casa Es Tu Casa” supposed to leave us with that, though? I don’t think so. Free of frill as it was, I think there was a message, though I can’t say whether it’s the only one. Should we be unhappy? Certainly not. There is always room for interpretation, after all. One should then interpret.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, December 18 2016