Dr. Pradeep Jeganathan &
Dr. Malathi de Alwis
The broadening of the Colombo Biennale’s themes from “Imagining Peace” to “Becoming” is indeed a welcome development. Narrow themes, we feel, produce mechanical, conceptually repetitive art in a cloying, superficial attempt to be ‘political’ in a narrow way. This is not an argument against the politics, implicit or explicit, of an aesthetic object or practice; critics too are political. Yet, great art must also be uber creative and original, not hatched from a mould.
While co-curator Jagath Weerasighe’s elaboration of ‘Becoming’ is broad and robust, its interpretation within the curatorial institution of the Colombo Biennale (which seems to be a private company), seemed to whittle down to a rather superficial critique of ‘militarization.’ The aesthetic objects at the impressively laid out (for Sri Lanka, which has little gallery space), JDA Perera Gallery on Horton Place hit these key notes repeatedly incorporating toy soldiers, tanks, and guns in their two or three dimensional forms. Barbed wire prints at the National Gallery added to the mix.
Artists must, we would argue, be profoundly critical of hegemonic ideologies that attempt to envelope them; curatorial authority must challenge, rather than conserve given webs of power. We found the glimmerings of such subversions at the Colombo Biennale, yet were concerned, at times or most of the time, that the thematic was narrow and minorities and women had been merely added to the mix, and stirred.
The end of the war has enabled a large number of artists based in Colombo to visit, even reside, teach and work in Jaffna. Enabled by an extraordinary Department of Fine Arts at the University of Jaffna, and the tireless, creative work of its Faculty such as scholar-artists Thamoderampillai Sanaathanan, and Pakkianathan Ahilan this ‘travel’ has borne fruit in the work of Pradeep Thalawatta, whose collection, “Disappearing and Appearing Landscape” we found compelling, despite at times, it’s easy thematic of militarization. Particularly impressive was the massive yet delicately seared desolated landscape on blue paint, skirted with red and white verticals reminiscent of a kovil wall.
While aesthetically immature, horror movie clichéd, and too reminiscent of Jake & Dino Chapman’s work at moments, the Norwegian duo, Tori Wranes and Erik Pirolt’s installation, “Sorrow Drill & the Laundry Man” did point us to the impossibility of what Freud called the ‘work of morning’ given the water wheel cycled by tears and the headless man’s unfinished laundry.
Satisfyingly free of an imposed war thematic was Leo Pasqualge’s “Censorship” collection, which started modestly and grew into a complex minimalism, the lines and squares, interspersed with the subtly detailed “Participant” and the more complicated “Observers.” His sculptural offering, a two dimensional rendering of a dismantled chair, “You can’t sit on me anymore” was startling and well considered and deserved a wall of its own.
Chandragupta Thenuwara’s breaking free of what might be called his own aesthetic thematic over the years --Barrelism and camouflage art-- with “This is not a white flag” was refreshing, provocative, and original despite its homage to and echo of Magritte. Indeed, variations on this theme should have filled the entire room, dispensing with the camouflage flowers and what not.
Also at the JDA was Anoli Perera’s (in conjunction with Shirmal Silva and Dilkie Perera) spectacular, scarlet “Elastic dress.” It’s enveloping yet constricting richness was suggestive yet unequal to the task of capturing the complexities of women’s corporeal abjection.
Among the photographers/filmmakers, Kannan Arunasalam’s I am stood out at Park Street Mews, for the arresting composition of images, fine sense of tonal and descriptive detail, evocative voice overs and choice of subjects for his short photo-biographical essays. We were deeply moved by his emerging portrait of this troubled country we sat uncomfortably at home in. Chinthaka Thenuwara’s intimate portraits of affect displayed on the cement floor, at the Warehouse Project, had some extraordinary dark curves and facial texturing interspersed unfortunately with the more gimmicky blindfolded faces. The shift of Dominic Sansoni’s colour palette to ochre and dark blue was a noteworthy feature of his offering, “Jaffna Homes,” while some frames were remarkably composed.
Finally, two installations which caught our eye more for the interpretations we brought to them than maybe what the artists themselves had sought to convey were Thisath Thoradeniya’s “Flash Drum” and Jagath Weerasinghe’s “Egg boxes.” Thoradeniya’s “Flash Drum” which re-situated the driver of Vesak Pandal illuminations within an art gallery space, flashed different configurations of yellow and red reminiscent of a sea of waving LTTE flags seeming to suggest to us that Buddhist hegemony could very well be the driver of a resurgence of LTTE militancy. Weerasinghe’s “Egg boxes”, painted black and stacked vertically seemed to call to mind the vulnerability of what they seek to safeguard, suggesting the very fragility of life, that emerges from the blackness of death.
And such was the Biennale itself, which we hope will mature into strong, autonomous adulthood in a time of life between war and peace in Sri Lanka.
Published in print, and on the web in the Nation on Sunday, 26th Feb. 2012.