Any review of the Colombo Art Biennale 2014 will invariably only serve to upset those who experienced more of what was on offer, went to more venues, attended more sessions, participated in more of the live art sessions or talked with more of the artists than I. This in itself gives a sense of how diverse and geographically spread the recently concluded biennale was – from the multiple indoor and outdoor venues and engaging live art performances spread across Colombo to the range of themes touched upon by the participating artists, using a variety of media. I spent an exhausting day going through the art at the JDA Perera Gallery, the ￼Lionel Wendt & Harold Peiris Galleries, the Post-Graduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIA), the Park Street Mews, the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute and the Goethe-Institut. A few days later I went to see the art on display at the Museum of Economic Development in Fort. The first live art I was able to see was at the Park Street Mews, where on one evening a participating artist stripped down to his underpants and started to iron his clothes on the road. More meaningfully, and for me, interestingly, a theatre performance in the one of the halls that same evening, repeated a week after, wrestled with the politics of identity, place, dislocation and enforced disappearance. During the course of CAB, I also witnessed Tom Pritchard and Venuri Perera’s ‘Unmaking’ – a dance performance at the JDA Perera Gallery that was as utterly baffling as it was graceful.
And that in a nutshell was CAB for me – a patchwork of artists, who with varying fidelity to the theme ‘Making History’ showcased a diverse spectrum of art that ranged from the extremely compelling, insightful and political to the “I could have done that when drunk and sold it as art” type installations and wall-hangings.
JDA Perera Gallery housed some of the most engaging art – the installation by Thor McIntyre-Burnie depicting the violence in Weliweriya (how many opened the brick on the floor to see what was inside?), Jagath Weerasinghe’s persona in wax (who knew the artist had Matchbox cars at home?), the fascinating subversion of the Mahavamsa by Layla Gonaduwa and Poornima Jayasinghe’s use of live infrared video transposed on a carpet of photographs depicting used and discarded footwear from various locations in Sri Lanka (incorrectly titled, in a delicious twist of irony, by CAB organisers on the opening night as ‘Subha Anagathayak’). The Homelands exhibition at the Harold Peiris Gallery captured, through some really engaging photography of the ordinary, both imagined and geo-located homes. I found Gihan Karunaratne’s use subversive use of maps and mapping to be the most interesting exhibit at the PGIA – modern day London’s riot control and crowd management depicted with a topographic, hand-drawn perspective as well as other exhibits that used crowd-sourced data to visualise population movements. Gihan’s work uses the same techniques and technologies to clarify and critique that which the State often uses to control and contain, demonstrating by example that the artist can highlight the hidden and marginal by simply plotting carefully personal movements and interviews. Your author’s frustration around Thor McIntyre-Burnie’s second and much larger installation at the Goethe-Institut was that the artist had done little or nothing to explain the very interesting process by which the content that one heard through the loudspeakers was sourced, and recorded (which in the case of tweets from Weliweriya involved sourcing material from an online archive and getting them read by untrained voices, including someone from the Army). With the soundscape as one walked through the ‘speakers’ ranged from content anchored to the Gezi Park protests in Turkey to the water riots in Weliweriya, Thor’s work was a refreshing new engagement with content already in the public domain, reminding us that art has a role to remind us of inconvenient truths in ways that get us to reflect, recall and react. Rosemarie Trockel’s work at the Museum of Economic History was rather funny at times, using this immediate reaction as an entry point to go deeper into the gendered perspectives her drawings, video and photography explored. ‘Othered Histories’, Jake Oorloff’s performance at the Park Street Mews, was informed by stories of the disappeared and abducted in Sri Lanka and also a response to the installation ‘Effigies of Turbulent Yesterdays’ by artist T.V Santosh, which was also on display at the same venue. The setup was interesting – three podiums with recordings of the President’s speeches since the end of the war invited the spectators to listen to the actor in front of them, or the recordings. Most opted to tune into Oorloff’s lines, forgetting perhaps that the same choice – to tune out propaganda and tune into the real trauma of the marginalised – isn’t something so many of us do in our daily lives.
One could always wish for more local participation at CAB – from a larger range of artists, including those today who are morphing music and visual design as well as experimenting with new forms of expression. Local participation could also come in the form of a variety of fringe events from University societies, performances by street theatre groups, impromptu live art sessions at unannounced public venues like the Central Bus Terminus and the Fort Railway Station, virtual tie-ups using real time video and voice communication with art groups and collectives outside of Colombo, the involvement of local communities and even low-income groups in the co-creation of the art, discussions at venues that are able to embrace those who for whatever reason are uncomfortable with coming into spaces like Park Street Mews or Goethe-Institut and importantly, events and discussions in Sinhala and Tamil to complement the exchanges in English. This has never been the case with CAB, and one hopes two years hence, it will be so. The significant overlap with events from Colomboscope 2014 over the first weekend also meant that it was impossible to attend some of the more interesting panel discussions of CAB. Clearly, CAB 2014’s critical engagement with, inter alia, the political and the conditions post-war was in large part due to the curatorial gaze and input of Ruhanie Perera, who with Jake Oorloff is a Foundation Member of the Floating Space Theatre Company and lecturer at the University of Colombo. One hopes that if not her again, CAB’s custodians invest in this sort of local knowledge and expertise two years hence. Cohesiveness and fidelity to the main theme remained a challenge this year as it was in 2010 and 2012 – some of the art, live art and installations were just too esoteric and indeed, bordering on the banal and on display for an indeterminable reason. Overall, the biennale pulled off an impressive feat of bringing together some interesting international and local artists to showcase and discuss their output.
For a country starved of this kind of event, one could only wish 2016 came sooner.