The Little Museum: Amar Kanwar
Duration: 01:19:01; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 32.587; Saturation: 0.251; Lightness: 0.378; Volume: 0.153; Cuts per Minute: 0.709; Words per Minute: 111.147
Summary: Spread over a year (2010-2011) with one lecture a month, the CoLab-Goethe visual art series focused on practitioners who look at both ‘reconstruction’ and the ‘historical turn’ from the perspective of contemporary artistic practice: the revisions and re-readings that take place when images, works or events from the past circulate in a changing set of configurations; the lectures on architecture attempt to look at the radical shift in the imagining of the public space and the notion of spatial equity, and the questions thus raised.
Amar Kanwar lives and works from New Delhi. His films and installations are multi-layered, contemporary experiences connecting intimate personal histories with the wider politics of power, violence, sexuality, and justice. Kanwar’s meditative film essays do not aim to represent trauma or political situations as much as to find ways through them to a more contemplative space. Characterized by a distinctly poetic approach to the social and political, Kanwar’s work has been presented in several film festivals and museums. Recent solo exhibitions have been at the Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Stediljk Museum, Amsterdam and the Haus der Kunst, Munich. He has participated in Documenta 11, 12 and 13 Kassel, Germany and is also the recipient of the 1st Edvard Munch Award for Contemporary Art, Norway.
Thank you all for coming here this evening. And it gives me great pleasure to introduce Amar Kanwar. This is the tenth of our lecture series - the CoLab Goethe Lecture Series, which is based very loosely on the topic of representing histories and I was really glad that Amar agreed to do this lecture for us because his work deals in many ways with both events from the past and with contemporary history. Amar Kanwar is an independent filmmaker working from Delhi and his work has been described as a combination of documentary, travelogues and visual essays. This particular talk of his is going to deal with... he's going to talk about his own work, the way he's used histories - both contemporary and past histories.
The first film I ever saw of Amar Kanwar's was called Season Outside, which was made in 1997 and it was screened at the Max Mueller Bhawan several years ago. It in fact starts at the Wagah Border where Indian and Pakistani soldiers go through a peculiar ritual each evening while closing the gates through which trade is conducted during the day. And the film develops into a meditation on violence, but keeps returning to the Wagah in the faces of people from both sides - from India and Pakistan - The crowd in to watch the guards do their goosestepping routine. This film won the Golden Gate award at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1999 and the Golden Conch award in the Mumbai International Documentary Film Festival.
Amar has of course gone on to make several other films since then and has won several other awards.. of which I suppose the Edvard Munch award, which he got from Norway for Contemporary Art is one of the most well known. I think he's one of the only artists... his work has been shown both in museums and film festivals and I suppose he's one of the only artists who has participated in Documenta 11, 12 and he is preparing a new film for Documenta 13. With this very brief introduction, I now invite Amar to speak about his own work, the ways in which he has come to understand history and language he uses to represent them.
Thank you. Thank you very much for inviting me. its. I always wonder whether it's easier to talk or is it easier to show and I think it’s easier to show and I think it's easier to show and it's just always better to show a film and maybe talk about the film a little bit. But over the years I have found that, especially, I just want to give some kind of an introduction to this presentation, that I am making is that there is a method in which especially an artist talks where people are showing clips and talking about clips or showing extracts and this is something that I have tried to do and it is very hard for me to do because I just feel that it is better to see separately and better to talk separately. so the way I have, in a sense, structured this talk is that I will show a short film of about four minutes right up in the beginning, following which I will make a presentation, which is a written presentation, and I will read from the presentation, essentially so that I can stay within time and be in some continuity.
What I have written in the context of what you have framed, you know, in terms of representing histories in many ways I have stopped and wondered, in the sense I have looked at my work and saying "what am i doing?" I was a history student, I did my BA in History and forgot about it and left it and several years later I realised that I was in a sense engaging repeatedly over and over again with history and trying to figure how to engage with it. So, my talk is essentially going to be about me, trying to understand my own work over the last several years and to some extent try to reach the point where I am at this point. This is a presentation that I keep reworking, maybe there are parts of it that some of you have heard before and if you have I am sorry. But I keep reworking because I keep re-understanding my own work, so I keep adding and changing and adding... so I actually have just one presentation which keeps growing.
I am going to cue the film. This is a film that I often try to show before I begin the presentation. Ummm, maybe it will take me a minute to cue it. We'll see the film, following which I will begin the presentation.
Can we have the lights please
Over a period of time the sand left behind from the waves of the sea, collects to block the flow of water from an estuary. The estuary then becomes like a dull, long lake as the water collects and slows down. Every few years the passage needs to be opened again and it was quite by chance that I reached at the very moment that the beach was being dug open there were several men from the local village and they had been digging for about four days. Finally, they opened a narrow passage of about half a meter, the water began to trickle through and then men scrambled down to look back on the passage that they had just created. In a matter of seconds the opening began to widen and the speed of the water from the estuary quickened. A cloud passed by and very light rain began to drip down. We all looked up and then looked down, the sand just ahead of our feet collapsed into the water, as if in slow motion and the charging river raced on into the incoming sea.
Little crabs scrambled up the sliding sand walls and then, all of a sudden, the men flung themselves into the heart of this raging union of river and sea. The colliding waters tossed them in every direction even as they shot out into the open sea. In a flash they were back and jumped again into the centre of the water. And suddenly, just as it had started, it ended. Maybe only half an hour had passed, the sea and river merged and a certain quietness took over.
About 12 years ago I had the opportunity to do a prolonged period of travel within India. It was an obsessive kind of research following many trajectories that kept shifting. I had moved through several deeply contentious zones and it was clear that a large wheel seemed to be turning. It seemed that consciously and willfully, someone was planning a catastrophe, had already set it in motion and we were all caught in it. All conversations were arguments, the contestants extremely verbose and every point of view was intense and exquisitely articulated. The strange kind of super articulation was quite disturbing, everyone spoke but seemed to be trapped by the limitations of vocabulary that formed their opinion. It began to feel as though no one was really listening or could listen anymore .
I wanted to find another way to understand what was happening and how things change. I remembered a few years ago when I had first read Prakash Jhadhav's long, brutal poem, Under Dadar Bridge. It was written almost three decades ago, but reading it had unlocked my mind in an instant, I was stunned not just by what he had written but also by what I suddenly understood. What I understood about the present. It was quite strange, because the clarity I experienced was so amazing, but I wasn't sure how it happened. How was it possible for me to understand so many things so instantaneously. I thought that maybe it was because I needed to understand transitions and how time changes and how multiple time changes and maybe if I understood that I would understand what was it that made me understand so many things about India just by reading Prakash's poem.
And so, in a sense, I wondered, would it be possible to understand the passage of time. Could it be or was it possible to understand the passage of time through poetry? And, obviously, after that, was that if it were possible and if it were possible even for just an instant then certainly and shouldn’t I be able to see the future? If I could understand how time passed, if I could put my finger on it.
Even though summer had not erupted , it was still quite hot. I traced the publisher's house. It was somewhere deep inside the suburbs of Bombay - an apartment in the sky in a maze of building, railings and potted plants. The publisher was patient and mildly intrigued. He said it was not possible to find the poet, he had fallen in and then had disappeared somewhere in the slums several years ago. But, if I was interested in him, surely i should i have been interested in Waman Kardak, an older, more famous poet in the same tradition. He said he,Waman, was a king among kings, the real veteran. I confessed my ignorance and requested his address. Somewhere between the cities of Nasik and Aurangabad, he replied. Yes, but they are two cities, and those two cities are over 200 kilometers apart. There must be an address. Yes, there was. But he doesn't live there anymore. You have to search and keep asking. I can give you telephone numbers to begin with.
I made the call. Was asked to come over. Cancelled my schedule, hired a taxi and drove several hours to Nasik city and waited in a hotel for a day for this person to emerge who was going to connect me to Waman. He was a lawyer in a long white car and a safari suit, my heart sank a bit. he drove me to his office, which was quite bare. no staff, no junior lawyers. Inside the office was a room with a bed and small table and a cupboard. I had a feeling that I was in the wrong place. On the table was a pile of loose sheets of paper, he gestured towards them and said, those are Waman's poems, 6000 of them.
In the next few hours, we drove between the two cities, stopping at random places and asking for Waman's current whereabouts. As we drove back and forth, I learnt that Waman never wrote, he only recited. The lawyer had travelled all over, contacting his fans, those who loved his poetry and memorised them or had written them down. Waman was getting old, who knew when he would disappear forever. There should be a compilation, he said. Waman's poetry helped me understand the younger Prakash, I re-understood Prakash's despair and so actually several decades of history and politics in India.
The irony of my interest amused Waman briefly when I met him. He was frail, powerful, charming, sarcastic, bitter, affectionate and openly abusive, all at the same time. His angry singing opened many windows of the times gone by. Hope hung like mist inside every tune. Each stanza was beautiful and clear, released from the damp, untouchable terrain that Waman belonged to. It was poetry, but it was poetry in exile in its own home. Nevertheless it was sung in a school choir, song in the morning, and remixed by a local band in the evening. Waman died a few years ago, the unwritten pages of his poetry circulating only in his kingdom.
There are 100s of languages in the Indian subcontinent, all with their beautiful scripts.... Every word dropped in permanent shadows, black calligraphies that claim to recognise and represent our existence. Where they are 100s of languages and dialects in our subcontinent without scripts, no markings. Every word in the wind. Does a language without a script have a literature? If you had a magic wand that could convert all the stories of these languages into marks on paper would we have enough buildings to store all these new books? And, in those books, would we discover an older kind of constitution, a bill of rights, a framework for every kind of negotiation, an understanding of death perhaps? And maybe even a book that tells you how to see the future.
To touch a word in the air with your fingers can also mean to resonate with what appears to be silent. Silence is useful. It has multiple personas. Sometimes silence can get disconnected from its origin, get abandoned and so genuinely lost. To find it could completely transform all relationships. In English, I think there is only one word for silence. Sometimes languages have many words for silence and thinking about those words make you realise, and quite obviously that... for instance there's a silence about which you only get to know because you can sense it. It's like a silence that only breathes, but you just get a sense of its existence.
There's a silence that whispers, there's a sullen silence, there's an angry silence, a fearful silence and a dead silence. Then there's a lonely silence and one that is quietly shared. One that is forced on you and a silence that you accept willingly. There's a silence that is just preceding sound, there's even a silence within which you can hear everything else. The most minute of sounds become clear and amplified in this kind of silence. And, finally, there is the silence that is in your own body. When a part of you that is not you there anyway, and it is only the absence that can be felt.
But, silence also lives within the spoken word. The narrative contains it. it can be sensed in the skips. So, if you keep listening, you find that the words tell one story and the skips tell another. If you join the skips, it's like a tangent. A tangent at a circle, touching it only at one single point. If you follow it knowing it is a tangent, you reach a point which is the moment to disembark into the hidden circle. But at times, you have to wait at that point for permission to enter. If you wait long enough you get permission, but you get permission with a condition. The circle will be opened, the secret shared, transferred to me. But I have to swear to be loyal and to protect you. I cannot ever disclose your identity, the source. So, I make the pact. Enter the circle. Release you. But then carry the secret within me for a long long time. Until it begins to burn or until another passerby waits at the edge of my circle.
Bound by my agreement, but trapped by my own weight., I release what lies within, but in camouflage. And, so, the secret begins to roll. I change your name, your face, your attire, your location, and every form of identification and then let it go. Over time, the secret travels many physical miles into new lands and geographies. Continuously, abstractly or re-emphatically, until it begins to exist on its own even though it still belongs to you in the first place.
And then there is always a possibility that no one ever comes to the edge of the circle. And, if that happens, then the secret is buried, in the most intimate mark, tree, leaf, stone, object that you can find, buried forever until an unconnected event takes place, that triggers the seed to burst. Like ancient seed, once buried in ice, suddenly bursts when warm enough. Farmers have always named their seeds, they have people names. Often of loved ones like children. Children also collect secrets, it can be very meticulously and deliberately hidden. The container is found and it is placed within. It could be anywhere. Even in the wooden kitchen window from where mother pointed out, look that's from where we saw the soldiers take aunty down the street, 57 years ago. So the child remembers of course, but aunty resides in that wooden window for eternity That wooden window is the container of that morning 57 years ago and of every single day in time since then. You, me, aunty and the child all together. Forwards and backwards forever.
One month after meeting Waman, I was in another city, sharing an auto rickshaw with Venkanna. His friends, four men on two motorcycles, had deliberately left no other option for us but to share the taxi. They knew that I didn't know Telugu, they knew that he didn't know Hindi or English. And so, we were forced to communicate in polite, broken words as we didn't have a common language. The night began without a preamble. In his own home, he was comfortable. He sat on the floor, just as Waman had. Without hesitating, he immediately began to sing. Occasionally, he would stop and recite, he went on for about an hour, before I intervened in a pause and said, "I don't understand your language, not even the drift of the trajectory." He smiled. Unfazed by that interruption and began all over again.
After every stanza, his friends would debate and argue about the possible translation at great length. Then I would get a complicated explanation. He would then recite again and they would furiously argue again, before agreeing on a translation. This went on for a long time. Sometimes it was spontaneous, with no record or reference, and often it would seem that he was changing his poems live, every time he would repeat them.
Until in this bizarre haze of words from varied languages, I heard the line, "The birds flying in the sky, smelt the smoke from the funeral pyre and got confused. And then, they came down on the ground." After a little while, I heard another sentence: "The sound of his unknown chanting is like the chewing of coloured pebbles." I immediately interrupted. I understand your voice being coarse, because his voice was coarse, but why are the pebbles colours. He replied. "The terrain around my village was very rocky. But hidden in the barren, unforgiving land, you could find beautiful, little, coloured stones. My mother would painstakingly search and collect these pebbles, crush them and make a kind of paint. And then draw and colour the walls of our home. I am the land, I am my mother, I am the pebbles, I am the paint.” This was in 2001.
Let's go back a little bit. About nine years before this very conversation with Venkanna. I described that day. Summer had just ended. They were all sitting in the centre on the tarmac, talking in whispers. Gas lamps. The evening empty. Unable to go home. As night spread, it began to sink in that Niyogi had died. They had cremated him a few hours ago. Twenty years ago, Shankar Guha Niyogi had brought them together and now they were together again. Their leader had been shot dead in the early hours of the morning. Two men on a bike slipped by and shot him through the window as he slept.
A few hours ago, red and green powder flew in the air. Slogans shook the buildings in the marketplace, people wept, averted their gaze, touched their lips, shut their eyes, looked up at the sky and at the ground as his body rolled by the streets. 10, 20, a thousand, a 100 thousand and then suddenly, it was dusk. The day was over, the evening was over.
I had come too late. Late by a day. He had asked two months ago for a filming. He had asked in specifically these words: "Is there any young person with a camera who has time.. Who can understand, who can come and stay here for a while with us. Between the mines and the forests, among the workers and the peasants, alongside the forest dwellers and the police and the goons and the henchmen, besides politicians and the bootleggers, the corporate advisers and the petty traders, in the dust of the iron-ore mines and the trucks from the cement factories, in the evening haze of a state (Coughing Sound in Audience). Is there anyone with a camera who can come for a while?" I had said yes, I can. But I had come too late. Late by a day. They killed him yesterday. I realised that he knew that would be attacked. He had refused security. It was a mistake. He should have asked for protection. Instead, he asked for a filmmaker.
I filmed the funeral procession. The smoke from the pyre, the faces of the people and now it was night. A night that I can never forget. No one wanted to leave. Slowly the huddled groups grew louder. "Wait here," a worker said to me. "No", I said, "I will come with you". So, on his cycle back-seat with a camera, no lights only a few lamps flickering all over, we raced from group to group - almost no image, but clear sound. The cycle wheels, the pedals and the clear voice of the workers. I still did not understand the tension that spread silently across the dark streets. When, suddenly, slogans ripped open the night sky. 100 workers appeared with flaming torches. It became obvious. They were going to burn the city.
"We know who killed him," they said. "We want justice tonight". But Niyogi, Niyogi had left behind one leader for every ten families. And, each one of those began to speak. "That's what the police and the industry wants." "That's what they expect you to do", "That's what they're waiting for". And, silently, this debate moved like the river down the streets and the little offices, through the dark huts. A decision soon got taken - split the works in two different directions. Take them away from the city. For, if you retaliate tonight, they will sweep the workers' colonies in one stroke and the crackdown will be over before sunrise. My camera rolled, focussing on a small yellow bulb. The only light amongst 50 men. Insects whizzed around the hot glass curve. Focus on the filament. Forget the grain in the picture, listen to the voices, keep rolling. This was no ordinary darkness, this was no ordinary bulb. This was no ordinary moment.
It was strange. Everyone here was struggling to deal with his death, and yet he had no one. He had left behind an audio tape in which he had pre-recorded his last message. He knew he was going to be killed. And in that pre-recorded message, he had even named those who would kill him as well as explained why. That explanation is very relevant to Chattisgarh just now actually. Many years later I thanked him. I thanked him for calling for a filmmaker to the scene of a crime to be. After a decade in court, they sentenced the hired assassin to life. He was a poor man with a gun, who fired for a small sum of money. They acquitted those who hired him, they acquitted those responsible for the conspiracy to murder.
Again, death beckons the artist. Death has many answers. Who killed him? Why did they want to consume the forest and all that lay underneath? What was this greed that could drive someone to kill? Drop falling in ocean, everyone knows. Ocean falling in drop, the rare one knows.
Now listen the wandering poet shall do, who calls out your name? Is it life? Or is it death? Who calls out your name?
Recently, I met a man. Nidhan was his name. He lived in the village that had been home to his ancestors for generations. Streams sprouted all around the soil. No one was obsessed with the origin of the source. The waters came from inside the hill because the hills were special. Under his village lay 1,73 million tons of rock salt. One day, the democratic government of India sold all the hills to aluminium cartels across the world. I asked him, in the forest, by the hill, under the tree, on the grass, by the stream, under the sky; "Nidhan, the nation needs aluminium Why do you resist? After all, it's a question of the entire nation's good, in comparison to these few, scattered villages." He looked at me in the eye, expressionless, and picked up his knife, which lay on the ground and said, "Do you see this knife? With this I can cut grass. How would you describe that action? You would describe it as the act of cutting. Now, if you take the same knife and cut my throat, how would you describe this action? Again, you would describe it as cutting. Like a verb. The knife cut here, the knife cut there." Then he asked, "Can you explain the difference to me between these two cuttings? Once you explain the difference between these two cuttings, I will then answer your question and explain to you the difference between the nation's good and our good and the good of this valley."
Between these two questions, these two verbs, hanging in midair is thread, with an image, which lies in a little museum, down the street in the corner of a small rented room. Do you know the way to that little museum? Where continuous dialogues take place between the inner and outer self. Between trees, stones, events and with people near or far, alive or dead. Dialogues that are said and unsaid. Clear and whispered between the past, the present and the future. Where all of us get entangled in an oscillating time. Within an heightened awareness of this fluidity, all our positions begin to get temporarily dislodged, reversed and re-understood. It is here that we seamlessly move between something deeply personal and something into something that is hugely political and back and so on ahead.
It took me several months to weave that sarong in the memory of her murder. A few hours at a time, the wooden frame of the loom was filled with black, red, white, yellow and green. Back and forth. Above and below. In and out. Time spun out from your fingers as you wove her blood, the strength of your resistance, the many days in court, and your love for her. The sarong is so beautiful that it is hard to believe. At first people are stunned when they see your design. Then their hand moves forward, as if on its own, to touch the cloth, to feel the truth of your patterns. And, then, there is silence for a while.
Thet Win Aung was a student leader in Burma. They sentenced him to 59 years in prison. Is there an image for the length of that sentence? Is there an image for that look in his eye? That look that maybe I know the meaning of, that little halt, the brief sigh in solitude. Can poetry be presented as evidence in a criminal or a political trial?
By the side of the estuary, there is a tree, in the middle of a vast circle of rice trees. The tree is surrounded by tall, thin grass that is so still that they seem like frozen lines. When the wind blows, they dance in every direction, creating a sound that enters even through the skin. As the sun rises and burns our shoulders, everyone moves towards the tree. Adjacent to the tree is a little museum. As you enter, you see a poem. The words are something like this: The cow is sucking on the calf's teats, from house to house the prey hunts, the hunter hides; Sprout without seed, branch without trunk, fruit without flower, son born of a sterile womb, climbing a tree without legs. It's pouring, pouring, the thunder is roaring. But not one raindrop falls. Frog and snake lie down together, a cat gives birth to a dog. A lion quakes in fear of a jackal, oh these marvels can't be told.
When you step inside, past the poem, you see that it is filled with seeds. Each with your own first names. By the seeds are photographs of those who have disappeared but are not yet dead. Those two verbs are also there and so is the sarong. Also the bulb, the kitchen window, the fire from the pyre, the coloured pebbles and the birds that came down from the sky. Here lies the inadmissible evidence, not yet defined by the legislation of our time, this is the poem of those who cannot sleep. Here is also the reason why I left without an explanation. Here you'll find maps that float in the air, and a basket that collects the flowers that from the tree. There is a button and a wooden whistle, a metal bookshelf with thousands of floating images. Old, older, oldest images. The now, just now images. And the new, newer, newest images. All replacing each other in a random regularity. There is also a beautiful spoon, tobacco, land deeds, recipes and several strange black circular disks. Each black a different black from the other. And, right across the floor is an empty chair.
I know that, I think that maybe it's a bit odd, but if you feel like, I'd be happy to take any questions or respond to any comment.
Guest: Have you ever been apprehensive of your own lucidity?
almost all the times
So it's a... so it's a, I think I probably will need...it's hard to know.. you know.. what you're feeling. then it takes a long time and then you're surprised about what you've understood because what you've understood is quite simple. and you cannot understand why it took you so long except for the obvious reason. Ummm... but, I think it's also necessary to have others around you who actually respond or critique to your lucidity, or at least to your clarity.
Guest: But do you think there can also be something of a hallucination of understanding?
Ummm.... it would be beautiful if there was a hallucination of understanding according to me, because for me, I know what you're trying to say, for me it's not... I don’t know whether I would use the word hallucination, but even if I were to, I think it's a kind of a disturbance that takes place within the period that you're in has a hallucination. When it ends, it not that, at least what I've always felt, it's not that I'm trying to argue or anything, but it's like if you toss the dust up in the air, the dust does not necessarily come down at the spot where it was. And that's good enough, but maybe you'd like to be a critical.
Guest: Have you been to Burma?
No, I have not been there, essentially, because I mean I have another film that if you feel like we could show, but I have a friends here who have seen it, so I am hesitating to show the same film again.
Ya, can you show, most people are not familiar with your work.
I know that, there is an, there are people who have thought that maybe this is an opportunity to see bits and pieces of my work but it's just that most of my bits and pieces don't work like that... I mean you need to be with them over a period of time. That's why I chose something that was complete, like the film that I showed about Thet right up in the beginning To answer your question, if I've been to Burma. Before I made this film about Thet, I made another film called The Face, because I was curious about the appearance, about the face of the Burmese dictator. We all knew what Aung San Suu Kyi looked like and we knew what, just about every leader looked like, to some extent we even knew just about what Pinochet looked like. But, nobody ever knew what this guy looked like... Senior General Than Shwe who was in control for decades. So, I wanted to make a film about his face. And, I'm answering your question. Again from the point of view of representing history, the Indian government has negotiates and close relations with the Burmese military and supplies arms to the military government and has been doing so for more than a decade now. So, the general was invited for talks to India and he, like, every single head of state who comes to India, had a fixed protocol. The first thing that he/she has to do the next morning at 9.30, almost fixed for every guest, is to go to Rajghat and is to go Gandhi's cremation site. You know you do the job there and following which you can do the job.
For me, I wanted to see what this guy looked like, but I also wanted to mark this event in history and time and to protest it as well. That here were probably the most brutal man, the most brutal political leader in this point in time and we were actually formally inviting him and then accompanying him and taking him to Gandhi's cremation site in Rajghat. This was an event that was important to record, so I ended up trying to film that and they tried to prevent me from filming it and so I had to secretly film that, him paying his respects to Gandhi.
Following which that little film travelled quite a bit, especially inside Burma as well. Following which it's difficult for me to get into Burma. So I could not go, so I decided to do a lot of my work about Burma, but from outside Burma. (Guest: But now it's open) (Guest: Can we see the film) Would you like to see the film? Chorus: Yes
There was another thing, which is, whenever we speak about Burma, it's always such a tragic story of so much repression, that sometimes if you're talking to the Burmese themselves, you're struck by their incredible sense of humour. And, you know, you are being grim about the horrors inside Burma, but you know, they have found a way to deal with this and you don't know how to deal with this humour that they have. And a lot of my films were dealing with unhappiness in a sense, so I, I was trying really hard that, is there any way I could make a film for some of my Burmese friends? At least one film where, instead of continuously referring to the abuse and the repression inside Burma, I should make at least one or two of my Burmese friends smile, just once, even if it's a film about Burma. So, this was that film.
Umm. This is a short film, as part of several short and long films that I made on Burma. I didn't think I would be describing the Burmese project, but maybe I do, by maybe I am just bringing back to reference what I had presented a little earlier. Which is that if you look at Burmese resistance for instance, which is I think at this point in time it is probably the longest students movement in history. It's now going into its fifth, sixth decade. In the last year with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi it's got even more attention, but over the last several decades there have been thousands of people who have been artists, filmmakers, students, who have been repeatedly in prison for several years.
However, what is important to see in some sense is that even if the Burmese resistance has not been understood or recognised or represented, if you look at the resistance over the last five decades representing itself and it seems completely scattered, but if you go close and start searching then you will find a, "this was where I was picked up" "This is where I was kept" "This is the prison" "This is the man" "This is the name of the people who were there" There is a huge and incredibly large written and visual archive of 50 years of military rule.
Because it's not put together you don't see it. In the last, maybe, I think from 2007 onwards, when you had the monks coming out, which is in some popular sense called the Saffron Revolution, but before that it was radio and it's essentially an activist generation that moved to print, then moved to radio, then the radio generation moved into video around 2005. You sort of see it's results in 2006 and actually in 2007, when nobody knew what was happening inside Burma, but they were getting images from inside. but apart from clear images from the little secret camera in that sense, you also find evidence spread across time and across languages about the crime that is taking place.
And, in many ways, what I have been also trying to relate to and indicate towards is the whole question of 'How do you understand' and 'Do you understand' and 'How do you come to a conclusion' and 'how do you come to a judgment' and whether it is within courtroom or even outside. And, at one point one would say that if you were to understand in a certain way, then you needed to listen, you needed to learn to listen in a certain way. So that you could understand in a certain way, so that you could have compassion in a certain way, so that you could conclude in a certain way. Umm.. but... over the years, it seems that even before one learns to listen... maybe one needs to learn to see. in order to listen, you probably need to figure out how to see. And it that sense it brings me back into contemporary art, into the museum, into local museum, into an organic museum, into an admissible evidence and so on and so on and so on. So, ummm, a lot f the Burmese resistance is filled with illustrations and I think to a large extent a lot of political movements is also, a lot of life is also like that.
See on the face of it, it seems that somebody who is dialoguing with brutality or is even, say, trying to relate or understand suffering, it should be logically, at some level, it should, it seems that it should be, and therefore it should become very difficult and in that sense I think that's where your question is coming from. But, I think, what I find is that, when you are in this space or if you're relating to this, you are startled actually. The closer, the more dialogue you have, the more startled you get and actually with so much strength inside it; In the sense, for instance, when I refer to the sarong, and I am referring to it through the presentation and I'm referring to several films actually, if people have seen whoever has seen.
I am referring to the sarong and the lightning testimonies, which is a sarong that is made for a girl by her friend. it is a stunningly beautiful sarong, it's a sarong that then subsequently is worn and then it's a sarong that is identified by a girl's name. So you can actually go to Nagaland and ask for the Luingamla sarong and you will get that and it's..over a period of time, regardless of what your views may be as far as the nationality question is concerned ummmm even the Naga underground has, in a way, almost officially, communicated with the pattern of the Luingamla sarong. As you know, when you have patterns, they change over a period of time. People make newer designs and adapt to it and add to it and so on. And, in some senses, they didn't want the pattern of this sarong to change. So, you can actually get a sarong by her name and if you are able to recognise the pattern, then you can actually see that in certain occasions that there are people who are wearing that sarong.
But the point is in terms of, in the context of what you asked, is that, umm, if you were to, if when I was speaking to the woman who actually made the sarong, the only way she could actually make it was if she made it with deep love. She didn't make it with anger, even though what she was making it about and even though the story of the sarong was horribly brutal. So, ummm, as you see, wherever you go, that people have varied and incredible ways of dealing with suffering and you can't help but actually get completely charged and inspired by it. Rather than be knocked down. It actually works the other way.
I mean it's okay if you want to criticise something or just make a comment.
(Guest very unclear voice: Wonderful, only thing is government have things are opening and certain days when you can go across)
(Guest: Have you ever been to Bangladesh, since you got that far to Burma?)
One quest: hopefully the last. Do you think there is an European underground. It's the last question and a deep question.
I have a feeling that I am sure there is.
Amar, how much do you work on your circulation of your videos? Because I have mostly seen them in museum and gallery contexts, which is limited to a certain kind of people. This one occasion I have seen it playing on the streets and I've seen people engage with it. Because they knew what it was about, as in they were from where it was happening. So, how much does it circulate into where they come from?
Ummm. You're asking two questions actually. One is that how much does is circulate from where they come from and how much does it circulate. Which for me are two different things. umm. The. What I would simply say is that it's not that the work is not easily accessible, a, it makes sense for me to actually show the work as wide and far as I can and that's what I do essentially I started my work as a documentary filmmaker and as a documentary filmmaker you realise pretty fast that ummm you are not going to survive in any way. And that your position really is is the position on the periphery in a way.
So, if you start wooing television, and there I have a, several... several films of mine have shown on main stream television. I've even had a film on NDTV few months ago. So, you realise that this space that's there within television is not going to allow a certain kind of work to survive on it and most filmmakers have figured out that they have to keep finding different ways to show their films. So, I actually travelled to... to precisely answer your question, I travel within India and outside since I have been doing this for so many years, I have figured out a way in which I can get my films across to where I want to show them.
Without too much hullabaloo about it. And, I , owe, after 10-15 years of doing this, I found that all I was doing was;.. I could actually stop working and show around the clock. Because they are two hour films, they're several long films as well and you can keep travelling. And then it began to feel a little absurd just to keep on taking them out and showing, showing, showing them all the time. So, I go back and forth. Sometimes I just withdraw and stop showing and sometimes I keep showing. And, but, over the years I have, I have focused on certain geographical areas, if you're talking about within the subcontinent and these are areas where i have long relationships and where there are many things of interest that are happening over a certain area. and. so i then keep showing all my work there and my work is quite easily accessible. In a way, it's easy for some and not easy for others.
As far as showing it back in the place that I've filmed, this was always something that you know, it used to hang over my head in the beginning that I must go back and show my film where I have filmed it. Sometimes you could just completely break your back trying to go back to the same place and show it. So, now I am peaceful about it. If it goes, it goes. If it doesn't it doesn't. As far as this film is concerned, of course it went. Not only did it go back into Burma but it was also illegally broadcast into Burma. The second film. But, you know, each film actually, each film finds its own life and therefore finds its own groove and people who live with it. So, they take it around and you know, you can see over a period of time. Like Thet you know, will find a route and The Face will find another route. And you can push it, you can push it for six months or show it around for one year but if it's got a life and it's got meaning then it's got to find its own route. So whether it;s the association of prisoners or whether it's you know... several other places, film have to find their own homes in a sense.
And, this, on the other hand, i make language versions as well. So there are Hindi versions, Oriya versions sometimes in other language versions as well. So they are also freely available. But, I mean, you wouldn't want an Oriya version, but if you would want an Oriya version, you would find me and I would give it to you for instance.
Does it come under Censor?
Yes, it does. It is offensive. It is illegal to be offensive to the head of state of a neighbouring country. It's the law.
Can I, I just want to thank you for questioning your lucidity. Because I find the results really extraordinary. And, umm, dealing with all the suffering that you have, you've come through as a very very settling and quiet experience. I wish in a way we had had more time after you had read your text to just really stay with that. That was very very beautiful. Thank you for that.
It's, I think one of, when you spoke about lucidity, it's a, I mean it's very difficult for me to write. I am not somebody who can write easily. So it's quite an agonising process. Further to write about your own self is even you know, worse. And then to make a film and to start working and to start commenting on your own work becomes a bit ridiculous. But there was a reason why I did this and I started to put this down. And, maybe there are several reasons, but I think one of the reasons why I kind of forced myself to write this was because in the last ten years of travelling extensively and showing my work and also seeing other artists and contemporary artists work in various countries, umm, I started to feel quite unhappy.
I started to sense the unhappiness also over other artists and more so the unhappiness of a lot of administrators, people who were running institutions where contemporary art, whatever it is, was being shown. And this unhappiness may be inadequate word but nevertheless it is not easy to understand, everybody would describe it differently, but I felt a kind of unease about institutions especially contemporary art institution about audiences, about relationships with audiences, about reasons for making work.. about contexts for making work and about relationships between audiences and the work. I started to feel that while artists were maybe unhappy and quizzing that unhappiness, administrators actually had figured it out and they knew, they knew what they were doing, they knew the purpose of the administration, there knew why there was a sense of unease and they were not necessarily talking about it or articulating it. They were not publicly articulating it.
And, ummm, obviously it had something to do with a sense of alienation, a sense of the market, an unhappiness of consuming the work of artists of making in a certain way and so on and so on. But, in a peculiar way, it also began to seem like it was a momentum, that there was this great art story. This was what I was sensing, I am not arguing anything I'm just saying that I would sense that now this institution that had its heyday, it had its vision and its dream but it's been ten years since we've been running just on the momentum of that time.
I also found it very difficult to relate to this huge interest internationally with contemporary art. In a sense, I found that I was a bit relieved that since I straddle different spaces and I have been working for many years before and sometimes say, the first time that showed in a museum context was at the Friedrichsstr in Documenta 11 in 2002, in which they wanted to show my older film and they asked me to make a new film. So I showed two films there. But, I mean I had a life before 2002, you know, which was a pretty full life. It had meaning and so on, as now less as much as this has. In some ways I feel lucky, I look at it purely by chance, somebody showed to somebody, somebody showed to somebody, they saw it, they liked the film and I'm in. So I'm not kind of deluding myself about it and I never did at that time.
However, in the last, I mean, I was in a show recently, I mean the film is still showing, and there was review in one of the main magazines in India, the show is in Europe, and it's a big Indian show and the mainstream magazine that’s reviewed it and I think for the first time I have a review of an art show that's like put it bang on, without really almost stating it. And there's a photograph of one of the art works and adjacent to the photograph of the artwork is a photograph of a fighter jet and, it's quite stunning to see why is there a review of an exhibition with a fighter jet photograph and a.. obviously the article explains why it is. So it's hard to also you know, there's a reason, I mean it’s not that suddenly Indian artists are making fascinating work in the last eight years, it can't be so, I mean people have been working for the last 40 years. They have not suddenly started making fascinating work that has suddenly become of great interest all over the world and is now being shown.
So, quizzing these and thinking about all these things in a sense, made me want to say okay well then in that case what is the context? Where do I want to go? Why do I do this? What is the ? Where do I want to show, what would be an ideal space to show and so on. And, how would I imagine it and can I make that imagination real and so on. So, that's.
Guest: Your presentation today, in many ways, reproduced the subjective effect of watching a Amar Kanwar film. So I was wondering, what if your next film is an imageless, spoken word performance?
Ummmm. You can really wait long for that. Because it's not something that I enjoy doing.
Guest: You have, in a sense, even Inside Outside had a voice over of your voice
Yes, but he's talking about an imageless.. so ... besides, you see, the Season Outside was followed by a film that countered the Season Outside both ideologically as well as in form, which is why you had A Night of Prophecies. So, if Season Outside was 30-minutes monologue, prose, A Night of Prophecies was 13 languages, 77 minutes, only poetry. Which was followed by another film, which was To Remember, which was eight minutes and silent. So, ummm, you know, all three are arguing with each other. But I think his question is about an imageless word performance and I mean it's not something that I am comfortable with and it's not something that I am interested in. So, in fact, it's problematic if you were to do this too often.
I would think that there was a performative voiceover
Thank you very much.