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sura_medura_Gavin Lockhart

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Sura Medura Residency

International residency exchange in Sri Lanka in partnership with Cove Park. Sura Medura is an International Artist residency centre in Hikkaduwa, South West Sri Lanka, maintained by Glasgow based arts charity UZ Arts. It was established in 2011 and offers opportunities for both Scottish Artists, funded through Creative Scotland and European Artists funded through IN SITU. It was founded to continue the artistic programme of the Chandrasevana Centre that was established by the Hikkaduwa Area Relief Fund.

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Nothing Like Anything

During the final phase of the residency, after completing our work for the Biennale, we based ourselves in the village where our house was located.

The strange ebb and flow of energy, the heat and resultant addled thinking meant that sometimes we struggled to engage with the development of ideas and at other times we had too many things to be working on.

There were two ideas that we began, but didn’t manage to complete during our stay:

Tsunami Museum

We had wanted to explore ideas of home through the life of the woman running the Tsunami museum in the ruins of her house that was destroyed by the Tsunami (see blog 1) and we had visited her to audio record her talking about her life. However the museum is right on a main road and it was impossible to get a good voice recording due to the traffic noise, hooting tuk tuks and buses etc. Perhaps we will be able to transcribe the audio and combine the text with still images, however we decided to put the idea on the back burner and focus on other areas.

Photo Manipulation

Photographs feature prominently in most peoples homes, with framed prints (mainly of weddings) standing in groups on the floor. People we visited always showed us their photo albums, often the laminated images having become damp and degraded into fractured versions. Albums of funeral images were also produced.

During the time that we spent finding print shops, we had noticed that the busy photo printers all had computers (very few people have them at home) in the public areas with photos being manipulated, viewable by all. Bride and Groom would be being extracted in Photoshop and pasted onto a more suitable backdrop, shoes were being touched up, tatoo’s being removed and rings being erased from fingers. This manipulation process fascinated us and we began experimenting with photo’s of people we met on the Wewelgoda road. People love having their photo taken and enjoy seeing the image. The idea was to take a photograph and then give back the photo to the subject, but with the photo manipulated in some way to represent the context. We started the project by taking an image of the man who operated the railway crossing. We took a photo of him and then gave him back the photo of himself photoshopped onto the platform of an old photo of the Flying Scotsman. He was enjoyably flabbergasted as he remembered when there were steam trains on his part of the line.

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We also took a photos of one of our tuk tuk driver friends and sent him and his tuk tuk into a taxi rank in London in the 1950’s (his reaction when we gave it to him was brilliant) Unfortunately our time in Sri Lanka ran out and we had to leave that project for another time.

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The rest of the work took the form of small-scale experimental works, and we worked on completing the remainder of the strands that we had been developing.

Street Bags

We concluded the street bag project. We developed a series of designs that included images and writing reflecting our time in Sri Lanka. The text pieces explored our response to the surroundings and the climate and were designed to be small provocations dropped into the street life in the towns and cities. Ideas ranged from the dreams of lost cosmonauts to swimmers in underground oceans, All explored the feeling we had that there was more than one way that we were  ‘present’ in this place. We made multiple copies of each design and made them into bags.

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We gave bundles of the bags to street sellers who were delighted to use them as they normally have to buy them from the home recyclers. It was great to hand them out and then walk back down the street and see them being used.

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Within this project we also developed a small-scale collaboration with Garry Duthie, Prof. of Nutritional Science at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, Aberdeen. He had been involved in developing a recipe book called

‘Stovies Reloaded’, reworking traditional Scottish recipes to make them healthier. We had been surprised to see so many vegetables commonly grown in Scotland, on sale in the markets; leeks, potatoes, cabbage , beetroot etc

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We used recipes from Stovies Reloaded, had them printed and made them into bags for street sellers. Perhaps some Sri Lankan homes will be experimenting with Scotch Broth and leek and potato soup! We are also hoping that the images will make for interesting discussion points about recycling and healthy snacks back in Scotland.

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Dogs of the Wewelgoda Road

We completed the printing of our educational posters of the local dogs (see blog 2) and gave them out to children along the road. They had fun pointing out all the dogs that they knew. The poster was on display at the community event that we held (see below). The poster has been laminated and hung at the gates of the local community project for passers by to see. A second poster featuring additional dogs has been given to Eddi who runs the community project with blank spaces for children to draw any dogs missing.

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Paper Slippers

We continued to experiment with our paper flip flops, the process of which helped us to explore the public space in the village which seemed to be mainly temples and space outside the small shops. There are places along the road (which is really a dirt track) where people stop and chat , and outside our house was a small area where boys came and played cricket after school. Our garden was in reality part of the pitch and the ball would often land on our roof and in the garden. We placed the flip-flops in public spaces as well as outside houses and in gardens, experimenting with different configurations. This caused much interest as well as discussion and identification of the plants that the flip-flops were made out of.

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Community Showing

Our house was at a crossroads in the village and many people passed us everyday as we worked in the garden. Much of our time there had been spent smiling, waving and saying hello to passers by. We had made friends and people came to visit and chat to us. Everyone seemed intrigued by what we were doing so we decided to have a community ‘showing’ of some of the work that we and fellow artist Hannah Braxton had been making. We put up a screen between the pillars of out house, which was viewable from the road and borrowed a projector from Eddi at the community project.

We made ‘Busby Berkley ‘style stop frame animation with the paper flip flops using photos of the flower that grow in the village as the backdrop. Life in Sri Lanka felt surreal much of the time, and we created the animation to reflect that. We projected this at dusk together with an animation that Hannah had made of local house brooms. We also made an installation with the flip flops inside the house for people to peer in the window at and the dog poster was on display.

We told a few people about the event on the day of the showing and hoped that word would spread – it did!  Children came and helped with the preparations and at dusk people started arriving. We were also graced by the presence of one of the dog ‘stars’ of the poster. Together with Hannahs fabulous work, there was a lot to see, and the garden was full of children and adults having a good time – it was a great night and lots of fun.

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Tuk Tuk

We met up with Duminda to film him driving around the jungle roads. Glasgow based musician, Anders Rigg (Samson Sounds) had written a great reggae track for his tuk tuk incorporating sounds of the jungle, the daily sweeping and the tuk tuk that we had recorded and sent to him. Duminda has a big sound system in his tuk tuk and you can hear him coming from a long way off.

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We hopped in the tuk tuk with Duminda , and with Anders track blaring, he took us on an exhilarating trip round the area including a short cut up a footpath next to the railway to avoid the army checkpoint, while we filmed. The footage gives a fascinating insight into the local area and will be made into a music video and uploaded to YouTube.

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Reflections

Beyond the physical outputs of our work, the residency has had a far deeper resonance for our ongoing practice. We are interested in relationships between people, environment and place, so being immersed in the village gave us not only the opportunity to explore and respond to these relationships, but also a chance to relook at the everyday life in Scotland that we take for granted, and to consider issues of sustainability and social justice.

Sri Lanka is classed as a developing country and most people have limited access to mass-produced goods. This has resulted in the prominence of craft, the handmade and the use of hand tools, and as a result skills were highly developed in areas that we in the ‘West’  no longer inhabit. The localness of production and the recycling and reusing of everything was apparent in every aspect of daily life and we constantly marveled at the ingenuity of people in solving everyday problems with limited resources.

Our current practice concerns issues of sustainability and in Sri Lanka most people we met led simpler lives in terms of material wealth due to limited disposable income. Consumerism and corporateness were far less apparent with shorter supply chains – markets, local produce and small shops – and plastic packaging was minimal (see our bag project above) Some of what we saw was inspiring in terms of sustainability, although as a counterpoint there was the sobering fact of local corruption, people working 12 hour days for a pittance while the monks were reputed to be rich on the back of the donations of local people to the temples.

We became aware of the lack of screen culture, which we now take for granted here. It was interesting to be in the company of people without the constant checking of texts and emails, to look out of bus windows rather than down at screens and notice that chatting and smiling were the main way of passing the time when travelling. People did have mobile phones, but generally not smart phones, and it was rare to see a computer anywhere apart from print shops. (Most houses had old style TV’s with snowy reception mostly showing soaps and cricket)

In offices, records were generally still kept by hand (piles of files everywhere) and the clatter of old typewriters could be heard in solicitor’s offices. We loved being reminded of the hand made, the hand annotated, the handwritten; the individual ways of doing things before the sanitization of computers.

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We also realized that a lot of the details that we loved, were noticed but not fully understood, the density of the culture differences and language barrier often being impenetrable.

In some ways there was a sense of liberation as we were released from the usual health and safety constraints in our culture. We hopped on and off moving buses and were crushed into trains. We marveled at the bare wires sticking out of the light over the bathroom sink and the way people balanced on top of walls and fences (and even a 4th floor window ledge) to carry out repairs. Being out of the usual cushion of rules and safety regulations and taking risks was challenging but exhilarating – a really useful component in exploring our own response to a different culture and place.

The residency was a fantastic opportunity for professional development and allowed us time to make new work, but we also wanted to look at our practice in a different context and this meant questioning our presence there. We tried to look critically at what we were doing; was our work relevant? How could / should our work engage with the local community? Would anyone be interested? Would our time there been better spent working more with local community projects? Our discussions were useful and contributed to the work that we made. We were heartened by the response to the community showing event that we held in our garden, and by the fact that so many people made a point of coming to wish us goodbye and asked us to come back.

Being in Sri Lanka was such an intense experience that we are still dreaming about it. We are left with images of the friendliness, gentle politeness and kindness of the people we met, the extreme heat, humidity and feeling of being submerged, the vibrant colours, the constant abundance of fruit and flowers, the intensity and immediacy of life, and the crazy, surreal encounters and absurd happenings which made us constantly laugh and which have permanently penetrated our everyday reality now we are back in Scotland.

We feel energized by our time in Sri Lanka and have been excited to get back to our ongoing projects with new outlooks and (perhaps) new understandings.

Our confidence in our areas of work and interest (socially engaged practice) has been reaffirmed and challenged in equal measure by the residency. It’s difficult to sum up the experience; perhaps the words of the oddly worded advertising for an electronics shop in Colombo do the job – “ Nothing Like Anything”

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we have spent more time here we have had some really interesting conversations about life in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s history, which encompasses amongst other things colonialism and more recently a 30 year civil war, has resulted in a complex socio political environment with ongoing divisions between the Tamil and Sinhalese populations. People often define themselves by their religion – Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Muslim and political life is also bound up with religion. Even while we have been here in Hikkadua, we have seen demonstrations by right wing Buddhist monks against Christian churches, which they say are illegal. The monks entered 2 churches, destroying parts of the church, burning bibles and issuing death threats to the pastor while the police stood by – a reminder that certain factions of society here may have more protection than others.

Columbo Biennale

It was by chance that the residency period coincided with the Colombo Biennale 2014. We were invited to propose a piece of work that responded to the theme of ‘Making History’, very interesting to us in the context of some of the issues that we had been thinking about.  Also a great opportunity to connect with new audiences and with Sri Lankan artists as well as other artists from around the world.

We took a trip to Colombo to look at spaces, as we were interested in responding to site as well as to theme. The journey was not as straightforward as it might in the UK . Getting up at dawn to spend 3 hours standing in a crowded train, arriving in Colombo for the first time and being hit by even more heat, dust, streets rammed full of hooting tuk tuks , cars, buses, trucks was a bit intense.

During a very long hot, dusty and sticky day we managed to see all the 5 spaces that were to be used during the Biennale. We met some of the other artists and curators and talked about the possible controversial side of some of the work being presented. We wondered if any of the work would be censored, as the current Sri Lankan government is very controlling of the press and other public voices. We were told that the work was going ahead although there was the possibility of a reaction afterwards. It was interesting to talk to the other artists about politics in Sri Lanka and their response to the war and it’s aftermath. They all seemed very open and keen to talk.

We really liked the veranda of the administration building of the University which is an old colonial building next to the main JDA gallery space. With this in mind we devised a one off installation / performance piece called ‘After Image’.

Photo 1 Veranda

The process of getting permission to use the outside space was complicated as although it was in the same compound and next door to the JDA gallery, we had to get permission separately to use the space. Luckily Thenu Chandraguptha, head of the Visual Art Department and one of the Biennale curators, stepped in and negotiated with the Dean for us to use the veranda for our work.

We felt it would be interesting to explore how events are experienced and recorded. Each witness to an event will have a different reaction or perspective, but it is through witness accounts that a picture of an event can be built up. We developed the idea of asking people to be witnesses to a one off event and then to use their statements to form an installation in the gallery as the only record of the event. We were also interested in using the administration block in a site specific context, as a way of exploring the bureaucracy involved in collecting records and how the recording of history may be influenced by the keeping or discarding of witness accounts.

On the night the audience members were chosen at random by a bureaucrat (Jo) wearing a specially commissioned office sari, which was made of men’s suit material and had a shirt and tie.

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Jo took a series of audience members from the gallery to the admin block where they were taken to a man sitting behind a desk , given a magnifying glass and led by the man through a series of battered, old photographs (found photographs as well as personal photographs  -  would narratives be found within the details of the sequence of  seemingly random images?)  They then were asked to recall and interpret their experience on a witness statement form punctuated by an audio track of typists.

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The second part of the work, was a wall piece in the main exhibition called ‘Witness – Remember – Forget’. Here the witness statements were displayed allowing people to imagine the event, and due to the differences in interpretation, maybe an entirely different one than actually took place. All the witness statements will end up as bags used by street sellers to hold peanuts, spicy chick peas or wadi (fried lentil snacks) in the same way as other office records end on the street here.

We had some really positive feedback to the work and felt that there was enough in the piece to explore some of the techniques in more detail at a later date.

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Back in the village in the jungle, it is a different world from that of Colombo. Seeing daily life of the village from close quarters is fascinating. People here are very engaged with their immediate environment. The daily sweeping of paths and surrounds and the burning of leaves and other detritus keeps the ever encroaching jungle at bay. People gather the abundant fruit and coconuts and sell them in local shops and at the market. Many people have several jobs, cooking in the tourist hotels, cleaning, working in cottage industries, running small scale workshops in makeshift buildings, running small shops selling a handful of goods. There is the daily letting off of firecrackers to scare off the monkeys who take the fruit, tending of vegetable plots, the daily routine of the children going to and fro from school, collecting the flowers for the temple, visiting family on holidays.

In the Sinhalese majority south, particularly in the rural areas where we are staying, there are complicated social rules based class and caste. Life here is very traditional; for example a man and a woman are not allowed to be alone in a room if they are not married. The complex social etiquette gives a feeling of density to life here, our time here being too short to really get an understanding that goes beneath the surface. All these factors have made us question what work we might make in response – we feel we want to make work that is relevant and not separate to life here, but contemporary art is not part of anyone’s experience.

With this in mind, our approach has been to make a series of experimental works that respond to different aspects of life as we have experienced it here.

Street Bags

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We have continued developing work for our street bags project. We are creating designs for the bags that street food is sold in here which are made from waste paper, kids homework, exam papers and office records. Our investigations into who makes the bags here have led us on many wild but fun goose chases down dusty alleys with no results. Despite people telling us there was a place where all the bags were made, we never found it (it’s always somewhere ‘down there’) In the end it seems that some bags are made by the families of the street sellers and some are made as cottage industries and are sold in bundles to shops.

We have begun making our own bags and will soon be giving them out to shops and sellers.

Paper Shoes

Everybody wears flip flops (called slippers) here and leaves them at the door when they enter a house.  Often there are many slippers outside a house if people are visiting.

We have been making flip flops out of sheets of handmade paper which have different plant materials from the area embedded in them such as grasses, banana leaves and rice.  The paper is beautiful and is made at a small workshop nearby.

The paper sandals are very delicate and seem to have distinct personalities and we are coming to see them as representing distinct people.

We are experimenting with the shoes in different formations.  We have made about twenty five pairs in all sizes.  When the shoes are in a circle facing in, it feels like the invisible wearers are facing each other and there is a sense of community (and exclusion to outsiders) and when they are facing outwards there is a sense of protection or defensiveness.

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We are looking at installing them (temporarily) in different formations at natural gathering places along the local tracks in the jungle as ephemeral installations marking public space.

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Dogs

There are many dogs along the Welwelgoda Road where we live and we have come to know them all, as they have to be navigated as we walk to and from our house. Some are aggressive and can bite and how to deal with them has become a much-discussed subject amongst the Sura Medura artists.

Cataloging and presenting categories of ‘things’ is very much part of the education system here with hundreds of posters available in shops.

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As a response we have produced our own educational poster entitled ‘Dogs of the Wewelgoda Road’ which we will give out to the children in the village. It will be interesting to see their reaction. We have also produced a map detailing all the hazardous dogs as an information document for the area. As always here in Sri Lanka, nothing is straightforward. We wanted to translate the poster but we couldn’t get a Sinhala font to work on our laptop. Getting an A3 print out has taken days, finding a print shop involving dusty bus rides, hot and sticky waits in small offices down back alleys and each print we now have, has lines running down it. Today we finally managed to find a printers with a working A3 printer and as the poster of the dogs emerged, it caused huge amusement with all 8 staff crowding round and laughing!

DJ in a Tuk Tuk

Dominda is the 18 year old son of one of our neighbours.  His brother died in a tuk tuk accident last year and his family have been paying for the gradual repair of the tuk tuk ever since. It is still on HP and a considerable drain on resources but they want to keep it. Dominda drives at speed round the jungle roads but as yet has no licence to carry passengers.  He has a massive sound system in the tuk tuk  which keeps the neighbors awake, much to his mothers embarrassment. (sound familiar?)

We have recorded the sounds of our neighbourhood – the daily sweeping, bird calls, monkeys and his tuk tuk horn and engine, which we have sent back to Glasgow to musician and music producer, Anders Rigg.  He has produced a fantastic reggae track incorporating these sounds, which we have given to Dominda to play in his tuk tuk.  We are just waiting for the right day to film the results.

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House Work

We are now working with our fellow artist and housemate, Hannah Braxton to create a public showing before we leave.  Our house has been the centre of a fair bit of interest to our neighbours because of its position (and our activities) so we are going create an event in our garden one night this week.

Line-Frequency-Drift

We had an enjoyable early morning on the beach working with dance artist and writer, Tom Pritchard.  Robbie made improvised marks and lines of travel in the sand, which were then overlaid by Tom improvising movements to them.  Jo filmed the process.

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There was an interesting discussion afterwards.  Something to be explored further, maybe on a different type of beach, somewhere that has a more dynamic and unignorable contest between the land and the sea.

Other things

We are really enjoying the interactions with the other artists on the residency.  There’s been quite a few of us here, all with wildly different practices and a generous, open, creative feeling has developed. It’s been so useful to share ideas and the everyday adventures and surreal moments that we have all have had working with the ever-stretching nature of time here, the heat and negotiating the sourcing and buying of materials.

We have been overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the people here, people have invited us into their homes for tea and cakes and for traditionally cooked meals – although guests eat separately and it is a bit disconcerting to sit at a table while everyone watches you eat!

We are also regularly brought gifts of fruit and often a huge breakfast will arrive by scooter from Manni, a friend from up the road who runs a small mushroom farm from his house.

Photo 12 BrekfastIt has been a real privilege to live and work here for a short while and we are looking forward to completing these pieces of work as we move into the final phase of the residency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brooms

My final days in Hikkaduwa were spent trying to resolve the matter of 72 old brooms that on their return from Colombo had no home. I felt that the work should be a complete cycle, in which I had exchanged these objects as a mechanism for meeting people, building relationships and learning something of daily life here and that therefore the brooms should also be used in my response to the understanding I had gained. I worked initially with photographic work I had made, creating portraits for each brush, playing with their qualities as these slightly humorous faces with bad hair days. I was interested in the very simple connection between a mundane every day object and something that makes us laugh a little. I explored how the pictures worked printed in passport photo style and then I made a simple pack of snap cards with them. I liked the idea of returning the images back into something you might interact or play with and in a form that requires you to really look and observe the individual differences of each broom head. I made several packs of cards to distribute in the village.

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I had also a chance meeting and interesting conversation with a screen printer at the very end of our road, who had learnt the skill through one of the aid projects that was offered by European organisations during the Tsunami. Like the lace maker his skill was now used to run a business with in tourism and I spoke with him about my broom images. As another experiment I designed a screen print using some of the broom portraits and we printed these onto fabric, which I then sewed into tea-towels. I was trying to play with both the tea-towel as this object that is strongly connected to British tourism and European daily household life.  I gave these tea-towels as gifts when I left to some of my neighbours.

tea towel design web

For the physical brushes I designed a few simple structures to create which allowed them to somehow infiltrate back into the community and to react to ideas that originated during my time learning about the village. I made a set of cricket stumps for the boys who play cricket at the end of our garden every day. I also made a shop sign for the lady who runs a tiny wee stall and a guest room in the house opposite us, the place is barely visible.  A bundle of de-headed broom handles were bundled up and donated to the local community project run by our neighbour who was setting up new premises in one of the neighbours’ gardens. These were going to be used to create the fence for the perimeter of this dance hall. The remaining brooms were joint together to make the Skelton shape of an enormous umbrella. Shade and shelter is something I have learnt is extremely valuable in the village and the climate. For an afternoon I opened up the garden gate to invite some of the local kids and families to help add colourful fabric to this shape before hoisting it up into our tree. The location for it, was chosen to directly shadow the round concrete platform in our garden above the water supply.  Addressing the space above this circle in this way completely changed the platforms function; it became a social space to gather under and to sit in a round.

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These days of activity ended with an evening collaboration between the other artists, Jo and Robbie that I lived with. We tensioned a bed sheet into the space at the front of our house porch and as dusk came on the final night, we organised a projection of two animations onto this screen, very large and visible from the road and our open gate. For my animation I showed a sequence of the broom portraits and Jo and Robbie made a beautiful and fun visual using paper flip flops and flowers, accompanied by some energetic music. We also placed kerosene lamps around tables and under the broom shelter with packs of the broom playing cards and cups of juice and biscuits. Many of the neighbours came and lots of them bringing children. The young men sat for the whole evening in a circle under the umbrella structure, playing cards by lamp light. The women took up positions on the chairs, watching the animations while the children grew steadily more hyper with the sugar, but between dancing huddled around the lamps to play with the cards.

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It was a perfect exhibition to conclude such a colourful intergrated stay in Sri-Lanka.

 

The Colombo Biennale

The Colombo Biennale, Sri Lanka’s Art festival celebrates its third edition this year (2014), including around 50 artists from both Srilanka and internationally. It was an opportunity for all of us to share something from our projects so far and to meet some other really inspiring and interesting people. In a way to also understand where contemporary art sits, how it is understood and represented in Sri Lanka.  For me perhaps the challenge felt to be making work for a gallery context, which I have not done in the last years. Therefore in submitting two pieces for the CAB festival was a chance for me to revisit my stance on this from of representation as well as really exciting for meeting and sharing ideas with local artists etc.

I presented the outcomes so far of two of the ideas that I had been exploring here in Hikkaduwa, the brooms and the mobile museum. At this stage having spent a little more time understanding how things happen here, my ideas for the lace project have been put a little in prospective. It wasn’t interesting enough to me to just present a giant piece of woven lace as an object without the process of making it being resolved as the centre of the work. To organise, choreograph and teach  a large group of children or people to make lace as a performance would have been really exciting but an enormous challenge time wise and depending on a lot of other people and teachers to assist me. I began to wonder if it might be just as interesting to keep this idea for another time, a transfer of the skill, take it back to its colonial roots and re-teach people in Portugal or Britain a skill they took over to Sri Lanka. In some way my thoughts on this idea helped me to see that the residency and potentially all the processes or activities we might engage with here don’t need to have a definite start point that leads to a continuous linear process reaching a conclusion at the end of the residency. Some ideas perhaps can drift, be carried for some time until they feed into or fall into a place where they make better sense.

Lace

I made the decision however that there was regardless of this a lot of value in continuing to learn the skill and spend time with Indra the lace maker. We were becoming friends and through the hours of sitting side by side, taking up the whole shop I was not only learning of her craft and her life, but gaining a fascinating prospective on one of the areas of life here  that fascinates me, the arrival of tourism. Almost being on the other side of this, watching the interactions take place and experiencing the shop keeper’s commentary and opinion on this became really insightful. At this point I also thought about the fine or invisible line between something being art and being life or an experience in a place. I realised that what took place during the time with Indra was an exchange; I was the first tourist who she had ever taught this skill too, she was co-incidentally a wonderful teacher and she took much delight and patience in guiding me. She was one of 5 daughters who was taught lace making by their mother, who learnt from her mother, and Indra was the only daughter who worked with it still, her own daughter didn’t want to learn, she was studying a degree in Colombo, Indra’s family line of the craft was possibly near its end.

Brushes

So, my collected and well used brooms, all 72 of them by now, made their way to Colombo for the Biennale. Several of my neighbours watched them pile into the back of the van. I realised that the brooms had created a sense of mystery – where were they going? and for what? On my return one man came up to me and asked – ‘my broom – Colombo going?’ he was delighted when I said yes. I also became aware of a bigger potential for this group of brooms, on holiday in Colombo that could work in some really interesting political fields, beyond the exhibition, trips to sit outside parliament. The brooms were not just objects, they were each echoed by a family in the village who once owned them and was curious to know their whereabouts.

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I felt consistently throughout the exhibition that Colombo was just a pause, a chance to share a sense of prospective with a different audience, a short period of time to stand back and observe the brushes simply as they were, a collection of objects before they returned to their village. I wasn’t interested to make anything with them in the gallery, just to let them rest, to stand strongly together as the community they represented, some young, some old, a few resting on others.

I am often think that it is important for public art and socially engaged art to find ways to re-present themselves with in the institutions of art and have a voice with in the larger question of what art is today.  However I did not try to tell the story of the brushes and perhaps this was a weakness to my point on having them there. However I was interested that it allowed people to make their own connections and narratives, which was relevant in the context of Sri Lanka where these objects are so familiar.

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I enjoyed working more sculpturally with these sticks and their bristles, to stack them in a way that created a sense of movement and to take time to consider the finer details of presenting them, however although I still hold no regret at not building or making something more of these in this place, I was consistently aware of my own inclination that they should have some form of interaction. I did witness two moments of interaction with the work, one was a beautiful piece of improvised dance, by Tom one of the other resident artists which to me addressed the energy I was trying to capture in their configuration as a group, posed in sweeping position. The other was during install when I was informed that the ‘minor staff’ would come to sweep the gallery before the opening, two ladies came in with brushes identical to mine and myself an couple of others joined them with my brushes to clean the floor, everyone was smiling and laughing.

I realised many things that as a piece in a gallery the brushes gave a chance to reflect on, connotations that within the community context were harder to observe. Their relationship to class, to female roles, to the immediate natural environment they were created out of.

Washed up object/a mobile museum

An experience I shall never forget was the making of the mobile museum. A structure to contain the objects I had gathered from the beach, but also a prototype or design idea for an object carried on your back, that could function both as a space to collect and interrogate the landscape, and also present a temporay museum display; on a road side curb or with in a community setting.

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I was really lucky to be put in contact with a Tuc tuc driver who also had a very small workshop from which he ran a metal and wood working business during the off season period. His name was Anil and he was happy not just to make the piece I had invented but to let me be part of the making process. It became apparent later that this was a strange territory as although local women are often engaged in very physical manual work, it was not wood or metal work at this scale and for a westerner to be doing this was even stranger. Together we collected pieces of wood and metal that we strapped precariously to the roof of his tuc tuc. When we went to his friends who had machines to cut pieces, we found they were sitting through a power cut and so the museum was hand cut and hand assembled. We invented the mechanisms and attachments together, adapting pieces from his wonderful pile of scrap metal and off cuts. The process was punctuated by regular trips to his home to have cups of tea and lunch with his wife and children. Although I never imagined it from the onset, again, like the lace making, the relationships and social experiences that derived from this process became as interesting and special to me as the outcome. I was invited to spend Independence days with his wife’s whole extended family, where we swam in the sea together in Galle and showered then all in the street under and stand pipe before dinner.

The other piece I presented for the Colombo Biennale festival was therefore this work. In the Garden space of Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations, my resistance to working indoors and my original design for the mobile museum to be a work encountered on the street led me to choose a space here at the side of a small road under the shelter of a tree. I presented my collection of objects salvaged from the beach outside Hikkaduwa, in a particular way that played with colour and partnered pieces of similar form that were natural and manmade materials alongside each other. I was interested in exploring the processes and order we try to give to the natural world as a means to make sense of it, or to find beauty in landscapes that are about a persistent destruction, such as life was for these pieces in the tide. I realised that this project reflects on the similarity between my methodology as an artist encountering a new culture and the comparable inquisition of early explorers. Examining and excited by all of the virtually invisible details and fragments of place that are so unfamiliar, vibrant in colour and wrapped in social, environmental and historical layers. Interested in landscapes that often contrast with what today is expected of a tourist to find beautiful.

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I also realised, looking at the work with a distance to its starting point, that the work was inescapably referencing my reaction to what I learnt and observed of the Tsunami. Trying to create some kind of order and narrative to understand the kind of power, well and beyond our control, that is contained in that incredible ocean. Considering the piecing together and re-building of physical and emotional space, searching and re-structuring that has taken place for the 10 years following this disaster. The presentation of the idea as a museum was about my thoughts towards our relationship to history and to knowledge, how we preserve and also connect the present day with what has taken place before. This museum and collection attempts to operate outside of the institutional walls, as a display space it is open to the elements and to constant re-configuration, no glass and no fixtures. It is not an attempt to preserve but to momentarily capture and reflect. As an idea it is about the potential for different people in different times and places to use the materials gathered from their space and environment to curate and tell their own histories through an exploration of what remains today, opening this up in public spaces for wider conversations.

On reflection of this connection to the Tsunami I felt that the work was perhaps a little too sensitive to display in Hikkaduwa or the place that the objects originated.

The place: Hikkaduwa

My 10th day in Sri Lanka ended with spicy chickpeas wrapped in newspaper, a procession of flaming coconut torches, and thirty or so elephants rather uncomfortably dressed in elaborate textiles and twinkling blue fairy lights. We had joined thousands of people for the annual Kelani Duruthu Maha Perahera festival, unforgettably colourful and musical, elegant dancing and hundreds of performances with fire, ribbons, peacocks and spinning plates. This was followed by a hilarious three hour comedy sketch as we tried to navigate our way home, completely trapped by the parade and thousands of people and families.  It was an incredible introduction to Colombo which followed an exciting meeting with the team for the Colombo Biennale and an exploration of some of the venues with them, beginning to map out possible outdoor sites and gallery spaces that could suit our art work for the festival.

Now I have returned to the slightly more peaceful Hikkaduwa by climbing on and standing a little too cosily, just managing to balance on a busy commuter train. These first 10 days have brought an incredible overload of experiences, from kind and warm people, to the sweet young boys playing cricket practically in our garden, to the string of wild dogs lining our road, to eating 10’s of miniature bananas, battling with the mosquitos, visiting temples and budha’s, asking questions and answering smiles, holding difficult conversations about the Tsunami and drinking many delicious cups of tea. Not to mention sleeping to the rattle of monkeys on the roof.

Hikkaduwa where we are all staying is a small town on the beautiful sea, stretched out along a hectic strip of the Galle Road, saturated with shops and stalls, rusty red bicycles and eager but friendly tuc tucs. For its most part every commercial window and doorway is cluttered with garments and objects for sale, locally made and run by Sri Lankan families, but existing exclusively to service the 4 busy winter months of the tourists decent. There is a lot to adjust to and quite a loud and vibrant contrast between a modest local culture and this roads ample supply of contradiction to this, regardless we are inescapably tourists also. The last days however it has been inspiring to meet some folk that integrate with the local community and to begin to have conversations and find moments and mechanisms to form the start of friendships with some of the beautiful Sri Lankan people, which hopefully muddle this line between the two cultures existing here.

We are all in quite a special position because the artists are split between two houses but located ‘jungle side.’ This seems to refer to being the opposite side to most of the hotels, away from the ocean, over the railway track and 10 minutes down a wee and fascinating road under a great green canopy of banana leaves. Each home we pass if you catch someone’s eye you find a lovely smile and in between the glimpses through bushes and doorways a peek into daily village life. Three of us stay in a simple and brilliantly spacious house a fair way along this road, it is raised up a little where the land inclines and is surrounded by a hot green grassy garden. Working outside the front of the house which is a really bright and refreshing treat (most of the time) it feels as though we are on show to the whole street and equally we are spectators of it. The other side of our fence a family of stay dogs defend 4 newly born puppy’s and at 5pm the local boys prop up a broken bit of a palm tree to play jungle cricket, (we can field from our garden) while the kind shop lady opposite waves and greets us constantly. I have begun to find a rhythm to match these surroundings enjoying early mornings at sunrise and the abundance of sounds that accompany it.

 Initial Ideas and reactions: Work

I had proposed and imagined to research one starting point here that would take me through to some kind of outcome that stitched this time here together. However finding myself in this incredible situation where removed from the juggling of daily life at home your sole focus is on the development of ideas, absorbing and questioning everything about this new and completely fascinating culture, it doesn’t feel that easy, or necessarily important to fix my focus on just one idea. In the opportunity to live completely submerged in the culture I find my head constantly buzzing with little ideas, details that I feel really inspired by and I get really excited by a whole multitude of things around me. According to this I am allowing my creative process here to follow many of these threads of interest and to play in simple ways with them that respond to my immediate reactions and thoughts about life in Hikkaduwa.

Lace

I was looking forward to concentrating my work here on the role and intricacies of local crafts, in particular I expected to engage a lot with the local tailoring community and the unique situation that exists working in a country like Sri Lanka where you can actually meet the people who make some of the garments we import and wear in the west. The disconnection between maker and consumer is universal but I am interested in the moments of visibility where a connection might be possible. I spent a couple of my first days here mapping and learning about the spread of local textile based activities.

The majority of the shops on our end of Galle road sell westernised summer dresses, trousers, hats, bikinis and board shorts most made from either imported Indian fabrics that offer the silky ornate trim that is popular of Eastern garments, or foreign swim wear cloth. Speaking with some of these local seamstresses in the tourist shops I understand that here there is something quite special existing purely through circumstance, in that these women work in the same place that they sell and therefore the foreign visitors on entry to the shops are met by potentially the same machine and lady that made the garment they are interested to buy. The stitching on old sewing machines, the pattern cutting and wee pile of scraps is entirely visible inside and we even have the opportunity to request something customized and made to measure, through this the local process of tailoring is very tangible. I began to feel that despite my own interest in sewing and it’s wider function socially and economically, in terms of interaction and visibility, there is a system of sorts that is already facilitating some sense of this interface between the local maker and the visitor. What therefore became more of a curiosity to me were the steps in the process that were not so visible; the production of the fabric itself.

To look at this I took myself to see some other local aspects to the textile industry. To see handloom weaving, batik and silk making, even rope makers; beautiful and patient people using extremely delicate processes, the outcomes they produce are stunning and there is something very special about seeing this. However for all the time it was possible to watch these craftmen at work, the trips to these shops or centres were monopolised understandably by far more time dedicated to a detailed tour of their showrooms. Perhaps it was unusual for a visitor to be more interested in how something is made, than buying the perfectly refined outcome.  Each of these visits made me more increasingly aware that not only were these venues tailored towards foreign visitors but these textiles were incredibly expensive for local people and high end products that would never find their way into the majority of local homes, they were luxury items for export. Furthermore the garments that Sri Lankan people wear are often stitched here, but the fabrics are imported cheaply from India, China and Japan. The official white school uniform cloth for example, worn by every child in Srilanka is not made in the country.

In trying to articulate this quite complex international network of buying and selling, importing goods, ideas, western designs etc, I stumbled across one tiny shop that stands out a little on the street as it is the only place that sells entirely white garments; the lace shop. The lady here had such a great smile and perhaps I was just at that point in my thought process, trying to articulate these incredibly labour intensive crafts such as hand loom weaving and their relationship to wealth and then to find this tiny machine for making this detailed and perfect lace by hand somehow seamed to encompass many of the things that fascinated me about crafts, economy and labour here.

Lace making in not an indigenous craft for Sri Lanka, nor is handmade lace worn or used that much here, in fact colonial rule during the Portuguese period brought this skill to the west coast of Sri Lanka and shared it with local fisherwomen, who produced impeccable lace that found its way to the royal and rich garments and interior decors or the western world.  The craft has remained today, passed on by mother to daughter but the number of practicing lace makers has of course decreased dramatically. Perhaps my curiosity also lingered here because unlike weaving or batik the shear miniature scale and speed of the lace makers left me feeling like there was still a mysterious edge to this process and a labour of incredible patience. My immediate reaction was to want to unpack that mystery, to imagine how this lace might look on a huge scale or as a game like maypole dancing where each person became a bobbin, ducking and diving between each other.

I felt very much that I wanted to learn and engage more with this subject before refining these early excitable ideas and also there were so many questions and subtleties to this whole industry that couldn’t be derived from one or two conversations. The lace maker agreed to teach me, I would come for an hour or so each day and sit inside the shop with her and learn to make lace…

Brushes

There is an absolute abundance of local products made from some part or another of a coconut tree and these are both displayed outside every local shop on the jungle roads and found in all of the Sri Lankan homes. The most common of the coconut items is the indoor floor brush, many families owning more than one and using it at least once a day.  The need to brush these concrete floors is evident; the jungle spends all it’s time trying to get inside. We have at least three varieties of ants discovering invisible crumbs and Sri Lankan people take incredible pride in their homes. Many times it is remarked to me ‘how clean is Sri Lanka?!’ The sweeping is a relentless cycle.

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The brushes themselves are beautiful objects, a wooden pole with a range of plastic and recycled tin components that hold the coconut fibres into the end, resembling a moustache. I decided to buy one from the local shop and carrying it home I was astonished by how much this made the local people smile. Tourists don’t buy sweeping brushes. But the reaction was such a warm one that I began to think of how actions like walking down the road with a broom are so simple and yet so effective as mechanisms for conversations. Interesting considering the Galle road is so packed with things that are trying to get your attention. I decided to buy a couple more brushes, slight variations but the same indoor natural fibre and whilst wondering how these might look in some form of kinetic sculpture I realised that perhaps since these objects, are quite so local and familiar to my neighbours it might come across to the street of spectators as pretty wasteful and strange to be cutting them up. I also had a really strong feeling for wanting to further my interaction with all these people who live around us in the jungle. Inspired by the quite simple set up of the local shops in the village, window ledges or sheds with items, I placed a sign indicating ‘Broom Swap’ and I made an ordered pile of brand new brooms in a visible place outside our house.

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The first exchanges took place with people I had already met, immediate neighbours who found it all quite funny but who were more than happy to make the swap, for a couple of these it was a chance for me to step inside their house or sit for a cup of tea and learn a little of their lifestyle. I chose to use the interior brooms because the interior spaces of these homes are still something of a mystery most of these buildings are penned in by fairly substantial walls or fences. As a few more exchanges took place and word began to spread I began to think more again about these walls. One lunch time 3 women separately came to the big gate of our garden and despite our language barrier they understood this swap and began pushing their old brushes through the fence to me on the other side.

I met one lady who lives in a small and beautiful little house alone as a full time carer for a handicapped daughter; her home is completely cut off from the community by the strong tall walls that surround it. She told me, over a cup of tea how Sri Lanka used to be different and she felt better, only tiny fences or bushes between homes, everything was open and space and life was shared and social. In the 60’s under new leadership the government encouraged many people to go abroad, particularly the Middle East to find work and in the process people saw how we were living and building public and privatisation of space in the west. On return these influences were transferred and the built landscape began to change and the walls and property boundaries became more defined.

Word of the broom swap somehow spread through this neighbourhood like wild fire, a true testament to the close communication and travel of person to person news that still exists here. On one day I even ran completely out of brooms to exchange, I started to buy the brooms from the two closest little shops and when they ran out I noticed they made a new order, these tiny micro economies are fascinating and I felt essential that the swapping supported this. After 5 days I have 22 swapped brooms and have met many new and friendly faces who have shared a bit of time or an invitation into their home with me in the process.

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The used brooms are wonderful weathered objects, totally reshaped by the repetitive action of daily brushing, somehow as a collection I no longer want to cut them up, they each have a great presence and identity. I am beginning to experiment with them like giant sticks, thinking about their properties for play and the relationship they might have to simple skeleton structures, the constant building and construction here or the lost presence of a basic garden fence.

 

Washed up objects

I have always loved collecting pebbles and shells along shorelines and the process of getting totally absorbed in scouring grains of sand, barefoot after barefoot. On one of my first days here in Hikkaduwa I visited the Tsunami Photo museum a few kilometres from the town, assembled in the remains of a ladies house, which had been completely destroyed and slowly rebuilt. There were two things that stayed with me a while after leaving, one being the scale and impact and sheer sadness of the destruction and the second being the approach to the definition of the space as a museum. It was precisely a museum in fact, but with a completely homemade, wonky, hand written style of assemblage that made all the terrible images and descriptive text even more powerful and far away from the expectations of western ordered and graphically designed displays. The exhibition contained not only photographs but letters, objects, fabrics and a glass case with an example of the debris and rubble left over on a tiny piece of land. Speaking to the lady who ran the museum, I also learnt of the changes brought about by this disaster, she explained how everything was put into prospective for a lot of local people, that material pursuits and the whole relationship with possessions and objects changes when you lose everything and yet remain in a place where this could potentially happen again. We also talked of how so many people left this local area and moved inland, they are still afraid and they cannot live by and look at the ocean.

I left the museum which is right at the ocean’s edge and I also changed for some moments the way I was viewing it, I was somehow completely compelled to wonder a bit up the shore here, staring out at this mass of water, trying to imagine what had happened and to articulate the incredible and unstoppable power it contains. At some point the clean and perfect beach was broken by a rock barrier, part of the coastal engineering, on my side of this there were suddenly lots of ripples and clusters of debris washed up in various tidelines, the assortment and fragments were sort of beautiful and ironic and as I couldn’t help myself from picking some out, I realised how much they played sculpturally with each other, the fine structure of piece of broken coral that mirrors in size, shape and colour the bleached plastic dislocated dolls arm. The natural and the man-made, blending into one another, where some objects were literally impossible to categorise, totally unified and at the mercy of the waves and the sea. I almost left my gathered collection on the beach, the connection between these pieces and the larger broken materials left behind by the tsunami at first felt insensitive and inappropriate, however I knew that it wasn’t the destruction of these objects in a negative sense of the term that interested me, rather the beauty in the simplicity of the shapes and colours that these became. These were also from a much more recent time period and talked to me more directly of environmental impact and consumerism and waste.

I went several times out to this section of the beach to gather a handful by handful of these unusual washed up bits, I had no plan for them but this process of gathering became really reflective on this completely empty beach. I guessed that this wave barrier meant that this particular tide line was rounding up a combination of the local litter that dogs and weather moved away from the curbs as well as the inevitable scraps of rubbish from Hikkaduwas beach tourism. In my continued pursuit to understand the relationship and impacts of tourism on this town I found it fascinating that in this very concentrated place evidence of the culture and consumption of both Eastern and Western lifestyles was lying out together here peacefully in the sun in a place completely ignored and unused.

I began to plan to carry cut away bottles and bags for my collections it was becoming almost methodical and I was increasingly aware that my activity shared something in common with the rubbish collectors and range of inventors and resourceful individuals in Sri Lanka that gather, reuse, recycle or recreate objects out of discarded stuff. The only difference which I enjoyed was that I was perhaps at the end of this cycle of gathering and re-making, collecting objects that no longer had any capacity for a future use.

Back at the house it was impossible to resist playing with the finds and ordering and arranging them in different ways. Colour was absolutely key to this because the subtle shift in shades seamed to span precisely the colours of the ocean and in little group’s assortment by tone made the collection really intriguing visually. I decided that I might also like to play with the definition of a museum as an attempt to find an interesting space or mechanism to make this collection public. I was interested in how this whole process of collection and display could become a performance or a mobile process replicated in different places.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

bus

The last bus turned away from the coast, leaving behind the bright white light. The windows became greener and greener and plastic flowers swung above the windscreen as it flew along the turning roads. After several hours it stopped at the bottom of a long steep track and I got off and walked up slowly, past wary eyed dogs sleeping in patches of shade on the path.

I was shown to a dormitory building near to the reserve’s office, and Mr Chitra Sekara arrived shortly after. We didn’t have a big introduction – he just nodded and gestured towards the forest. I put my bags down, put on my boots and we left immediately.

We walked through the dense green almost in silence, with Chitra stopping continually to point out plants, usually calling them by their Latin names as well as Sinhalese. He picked up leaves to put in my book, which became quickly covered in notes and markers so I could find the locations of the plants again. We saw many lizards and a large scorpion, and crushed and smelled the leaves of Cinnamon Zelanicum and Aristolochia Indica – a vine containing aristolochic acid, critical to the survival of some Birdwing butterflies.  At some point he turned abruptly and we headed back, and I remembered how quickly the light falls in the forest.

Later, I walked round the edges of the forest close to the dormitory, and sat to draw Osbeckia octandra, a purple-flowered shrub used in the treatment of liver disorders. I stayed there to work for a while but at some point, looked down to see that the tops of my trousers and the ground surrounding me was soaked through with sticky dark blood. I realised that leeches must have gotten inside, and ran back to the dormitory and find the salt that my friends had packed into a paper triangle from the breakfast table that morning.

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The dogs here have their own realities. All day they sleep in their shady hiding places, and only in the hours before sunset do they start to appear. As the light faded I washed my clothes clean and they emerged on all sides and took their places on the path towards the forest – stretched out, heads up, relaxed, considering. They leapt up at intervals and begin to fight, all joining in and then settling down again.

Everyone left to bathe before sunset, washing in the river that runs through the forest. The water was clean and we drank from it too. A brother and sister were swimming and washing and as I walked by they saw me and started a diving competition. Flipflops were left on the river bank and on the rocks a collection of belongings: A plate with five small piles of red spice, a plastic bag filled with banana skins, a pair of white trainers with Velcro, a white bucket with a bar of soap beside it on a dip in the rock. I heard a kitten behind a wall and as I peered over to see it a man pointed into the trees and I saw a small black bird with a red beak crying instead.

The sky between the trees turned pink then black like shutters closing. After dark dogs ran laps around and around, panting heavily, sniffing the ground and growling. I fell asleep under a pink mosquito net and they fought through the night.

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Each time I entered the forest with Chitra, I found that the mental markers I had constructed were almost entirely useless. The landscape I am familiar with is based on rocks and hills and solitary trees and the density of the forest made it impossible to find such points. Instead I looked at the sky and tried to memorise the patterns that the leaves made against areas of lightness.

First, Elytraria acaulis – small, dark, bluish leaves growing close to the ground. Then we walked further inside the forest, moving slowly and placing our feet carefully, and found Anoectochilus setaceus – an endemic ground orchid with finely veined velvety red leaves, traditionally used to treat snakebites. Chitra placed a protective border of leaves around each plant we found before we left.

Into another valley we were surrounded with Mandura, the pitcher plant Nepenthes distillatoria. It flowered above us – tall stalks of greenish pale flowers, with the huge pitchers beneath, tangling all the way to the ground in various stages of growth and decay. The ground was covered with leeches that make their way up my boots with each step. We both said its name like a mantra as we walked, “mandura, mandura, mandura”.

The light had already dropped on the way out, and as I walked I felt a little curl against my foot. I half turned back and just see a flash of an outline – a tiny snake with its blunt little head raised up. I stopped Chitra and he tutted and pulled me back. Hypnale Hypnale, hump nosed pit viper, it’s colouring was so perfect, that even as I looked directly at it, it seemed to disappear into the path. With its head still reared, Chitra hooked a stick under it, body twisting, and threw it far into the trees and we heard the sound of its body fall in the leaves.

The animals preparing for sunset marked our route out; hornbills and purple faced leaf monkeys and an intensely loud sound of cicadas, like motorbike engines revving in the trees. We saw the marks of a wild boar on the path.

Outside the dormitory after dark I sat with my headtorch and read with the insects and bats swooping at me. Mongooses slept in the roof. The dogs ran, the monkeys were asleep and the sky was filled with green fireflies.

Mandura

Finally, with some persuasion, I was allowed to go into the forest by myself. But not further than the second Weniwel tree. I found a small stream next to a big mahogany tree that was always filled with the leaf monkeys, and drew the damp earth covered with Acranthera ceylanica and fallen leaves. The day passed with only the monkeys and birds. When the cicadas began I knew it was nearly time to leave.

For several days there were rainstorms in the afternoon, which often stopped work. Once a monkey warned me first, by pissing on me and very nearly on my drawing. When I looked up it was staring down at me. At that moment the sky broke open with a rainstorm and I slid down the paths out of the forest, passing Sunil on a motorbike going up the main path back into the forest to gather leeches – the yellow skinned ones for medicine.

In the early evenings I sat with sugary Nescafe and watched the birds. They appeared during the pauses in the rain, metallic blue flashes against the grey sky and dark trees. Black and yellow beaks, red beaks, a bird of paradise with a long black and white tail – I had no knowledge of the species so everything was reduced to movement and colours. Once the director of the reserve came with his family, and we played badminton at sunset as it rained down until we couldn’t see the shuttlecock in the air anymore.

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After dark at night, we went back into the forest again. Chitra, Sunil, myself and another forester who wanted to find snakes. The shadows of the trees were lit only by fireflies and we moved very quietly using red light head torches. Chitra stopped us, pointing to small set of red spots shining back from the trees. As we walked, the trees revealed many more small shadows. Sometimes we shone our torches on full beam and saw huge round eyes illuminated. It was the endemic slender loris (Loris tardigradus), tiny and exquisitely beautiful, clinging to the trees and turning their heads to stare at us. A small owl sat close to us for a long time – the rare endemic Serendib Scops owl, Otus thilohoffmanni.

On the leaves of the trees sleeping kangaroo lizards, Otocryptis wiegmanni, hung suspended. They held on tightly with their hands, with their white bellies exposed and legs and tails gently swinging below. I kept shining my torch in the ditches to look for frogs and insects. We found another snake, pale orange and shining, too fast to catch but we watched it climb far into the trees above our heads, then walked slowly out, with our torches off then because our eyes had adjusted to the light.

slender loris expedition Chitra Sekera (centre), Sunil (left)

 

Two and a half days here and 3 and a half since leaving Glasgow I am settling to the task at hand. This residency poses a number of possibilities that are somewhat outside of ‘normal’ residency practice:

The place: a hot, sunny, beach side tourist mecca so while the tourist element does little for me, the idea of working facing an ocean in shorts evidently does.

The climate: a hot, sunny 12 hour sunshine kind of day where working between 11am and 4pm is of the static under a fan kind.

The Biennale: In the middle of my time here will be the Colombo Art Biennale, a great opportunity but gives a sense of target to many working here.

The material: I have come here, primarily, to write. So, joyously, I am. But this element of my practice is still new enough that it is and will take some negotiation as I dedicate these weeks to it.

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My proposal to come here was so: I am interested in exploring how working with the Sinhala language might introduce elements of abstraction and sound-emphasis to my writing. This may come out in song, physical exploration but most of all I hope it will be largely in writing, as I think this will pose the strongest challenge to me creatively. Today I bought and English-Sinhala-Tamil dictionary and listened into numerous conversations on the bus and as friendly chaps chatting to me as I walked fielded phone calls in their native tongue.

However, arriving here, I also want to write through listening to the space, understanding how I can write with the ‘heat’ of performance throughout the day, carry the fire. Find a practice. Aim at poetry. Land wherever the experience takes us. I have begun this by devouring Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones as a way to ground myself into the idea of practice. If you haven’t read it, you really probably should as it’s very good!

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And so I have been beginning to fill notebooks (I find it hard to settle to one at a time) and writing in different places. I am recording a lot of the sound in the environments where I’m writing, maybe there will be something emerge out of that in time as source material for the work…who knows, it’s all very open for me right now.

And for the Biennale I will be performing a couple of improvised solos at the opening nights as part of the ongoing As Yet Untitled series which began in 2011. this one, Making History will be part response to the space as I find it (full of art works so hardly bare of inspiration!) and part exploration of ideas of death as a part of positive history, the necessity for it and the rituals we place around it. There might be some local performers joining me too, which would be nice. Anyway, I am tracking my time through sunsets so here are the three thus far and a little scribble from yesterday…

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A lone dog stalks the beach,
Sniffing, wearily, near sizzling bodies,
Burned brown by the tropical sun and
He thinks Stupid Bastards.

He thinks I am hungry,
I am ragged, I am hurt,
I know this because he limps and
As he does his head jolts.

The action misses the 
Sharp intake of breath it deserves,
But maybe he’s braver than us or 
Just accustomed to the pain.

His tail hangs of itself,
no great flag to his self-esteem,
It is behind him like his past and 
Appears gladly forgotten.

Stalking the beach I wonder 
What is he looking for?
Scraps discarded, a chunk of passed
Life presented by the future willing sea?

Or perhaps he’s on holiday too, 
Enjoying the peaceful repetition 
Of the water spilling but never quite
Reaching us until we’re ready.

There are many nearby on the road,
But here he is unique among all of us,
He stands out. He limps and
Disappears before the sun sets

New Years Day

We flew out of a monochrome ,rainy, cold, windswept South West Scotland into a full colour high definition Sri Lanka and were immediately knocked sideways by the humidity and temperature.  It took a few days to recalibrate our bodies and our thought processes are still being worked on.

Our house is a bit further into the jungle than Sura Medura, the main residency house, and this location has become more and more valuable to us.  As we have got to know the area a bit better we are realizing how great the divide is between our side of the train track and the beach side.  The beach and the road that runs alongside it is a continuous strip of hotels, shops and bars that are servicing the surfing/tourist community.  It provides a huge amount of employment for the village, which spreads into the jungle on the other side of the tracks.

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This uneasy, though vital alliance provides us with much food for thought, especially as we are provided with food at one of the beach side hotels and so regularly dip into it.  More and more we are drawn back into where we live and our lovely neighbours.  Waking up at this house is a fabulous experience, the dawn chorus is a totally exotic mixture of monkey arguments and bizzare bird calls.

The heat and humidity have been a real challenge with the slightest exertion leading to being covered from head to toe in sweat. This affects our brains too and we feel that we are constantly thinking underwater, trying to get some clarity, if only the surface could be reached. The occasional time that we end up in an air conditioned place has immediate effect, we get lively, start chatting at high speed and feel an instant relief. The heat and the pace of life here have a knock on effect when trying to get anything done – everyone wants to help and will give you an answer, that often turns out to be some semi version of reality. By the time we have got on a crowded bus to the town down the road, negotiated the barrage of traffic, tuk tuks, trucks, buses and mopeds all belching out fumes, and have gone in and out of endless dusty shops, trying to locate a few materials, a whole day has passed. Making work here it seems, will require constant adaptation both in the form of the work and in the timescale it will take to make it.

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A further impact of the climate is impact it has on our sleep.  We are mapping these sweaty and disturbed sleeping patterns in a series of photos of our morning sheets.

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We have become fascinated with the bags that the street food vendors use.  These are home made, usually out of children’s homework or office paper waste,  so you can be standing on the corner having a snack and reading some childs attempts at maths, though our favourite has been a list of spare parts for a Sri Lankan military jet.

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This is leading us into developing a series of our own designs which we will copy and make into bags to give to vendors to use and become part of a new ephemeral communication system.

Other work we are developing includes a video piece, based on a local woman who runs an informal and unofficial  Tsunami Museum in her own house.  The house is on the coast and was mostly destroyed by the wave.  She has moved back into part of it but uses the rest as the museum.  It consists of hundreds of unframed and informal photographs, drawings, press clippings and personal testimony as well as her own philosophical musings.  All pinned up on walls without any sense of design or order.

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Kamani is there every day to talk to the visitors, telling her story and listening to theirs. Because she lives there too, she cannot leave and feels a powerful obligation to stay there as long as there is someone to listen.  This open ended commitment to what she is doing is both moving and troubling, will she stay for ever, reliving and reinterpreting a catastrophe?  Or will she somehow escape it and be free and let her house be a home again.   She is very articulate about this side of her project, but has no easy answers.  This strange sense of entrapment will be the focus of the work.

The vitality and optimism of the people here are a source of constant wonder and inspiration.  It seem to us that in most parts of the UK we seem to have lost that sense of adaptability, resilience and ingenuity that runs through society here.

We stand, flat footed in wonder.

Beyond – Last days, Sura Medura Residency 2013

Commercial camouflage, industry, hand made fakes, recycling and a culture of offering – processes of change, money making and everyday life. The last few days of the residency were spent realising two main projects – a photography/video documentary of costume pieces staged in everyday spaces and the creation of hilly structures in wood and paper.

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I’ve been using photography and film to document people at work. The abundance of materials and colours, both man made and natural, have been a constant inspiration to me visually. I’ve found myself wanting to work with a combination of found objects, man-made materials and organic material like wood and banana leaf.

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I’ve been looking particularly at the different physicality’s of the people I’ve seen in both urban and rural environments. I’ve been interested to see how the person doing the craft or labour almost completely physically embodies what they are doing through the sheer repetition of the action.

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This led to the creation of a series of staged images entitled ‘Keep Moving’ which incorporates costume. The images look at visual expressions of flights of the imagination and perhaps an insight into the more poetic world of day dream, imagination and play. Focus was given to the idea of the outdoors seeping into the everyday and the notion that if you stop moving, nature or society will catch up and consume you.

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As documentary style snap shots or portrait shots, the photographs are an attempt to create and ‘capture’ a heightened expression of the physical experience of being in that place. I’m interested in people and their relationship to their surroundings, the materials and structures around them, as well as their individual personalities and how I can use a staged image to present both worlds as one. In another way, they are almost like alternative holiday snaps of the familiar places and faces I’d encountered during my time in Hikkaduwa.

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Inspiration for one of the costume pieces – a large plastic rucksack – came from the industry of replicas and fakes I saw everywhere in both Hikkaduwa and Colombo. Garment making is the biggest industry in Sri Lanka but it was the much practiced process of copying designs of popular items to create fake or imitation pieces which I found most interesting. I bought a fake branded rucksack in Colombo and I was charmed by how ‘almost’ perfect it was – it was nearly the same thing, but not quite. It was familiar but as if it was something else in disguise. It became a popular piece for the youngest of those featured in the series who likened it to a large, colourful school bag.

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Everyday routines, the environment, transformations, materials and the staged image, continually feed into my practice and play with performance. The opportunity to develop a new project using new mediums like costume and photography with people from the local area has aided a clear development in my work with narrative.

I’m interested in creating an open space for the poetic and absurd to coexist. For the photography/costume project I tried to maintain a minimalist approach to the materials I worked with, following my instincts and my own curiosity into the world surrounding me. I then worked with the people featured in the images to create compositions that were a mixture of their everyday routine as well as something more fantastical based on the theme of ‘Keep Moving’. In this way, each image was a communication, a play with the person featured in the work. The live staging of the shots with people wearing unusual attachments to the body was a fun and interesting process. Their staged presence within the image presented the live experience alongside the more cerebral or imagined body experience of what it is like to physically be in that space and what the environment means to that person in their everyday life and routine. All of them invested in the play of the work in their own way and I enjoyed seeing and hearing what they thought of it all. The first response to the images and the costume attachments was often ‘lasani’ which means ‘beautiful’. I liked that the strange costume pieces, which were often uncomfortable or restrictive to wear, were embraced by those who wore them in the pictures and that they felt they could take some ownership over them or relate to them in their own way.

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From industrious bodies to industry itself.

I visited a tea factory just outside Galle which still uses old victorian machinery to process their famous ‘white tip’ or ‘silver tip’ tea. The visit left a big impression on me. The machines were old, with mechanisms showing and they were full of character. The female operators who fed the machines tea leaves and shifted processed tea to different parts of the factory were also interesting.

I was intrigued by the implication of physicality and the body in a duet of forms I saw being created by the factory. The tea mounds seem to sit back silently, born out of the continuous spewing out of rich, black product from the large, victorian machines. I instantly liked them and their character and began to create manifestations of their form and shape, translating their weight and texture in different medium.

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They sit in a never-ending down pour

– an automised environmental catastrophe.

The weight of waste.

The guilt of too much.

The constant feeding,

blinding all the senses.

The machines produce,

and the people consume,

and we construct our lives

as dictated by those who

want more

and those who

can produce more.

All the while the thinning hands of the feeder of machines grow stiff like bark.

The work is still ongoing and I am currently collating all my visual and audio material to aid in the creation of a performance piece which will be presented at the end of February in Glasgow. More details to follow soon….

…On further reflection, I see that throughout my work I’ve been looking at ways to bring the body and person closer to an experience of something. Immersive in someway but I aim to capture the imagination, pausing it at the point where both worlds are in shot. Being escapist is freeing. Operating only in the imagination is dangerous and can sometimes aid in a masking of the world and self delusion. But when things are not fair and we don’t understand, where can we go to find something that is stronger, wiser and more comforting than anything else? I think it is in our connection to each other and to the earth. I realise that everyone I met on my residency already have a close connection with the environment and with their daily work and practice. There is a culture of offering which seems to influence a balance for many people – a balance between themselves and the world of abundance which surrounds them perhaps. People are very hard working and determined in lots of ways and sometimes being imaginative, creative and playful gets set aside as not as constructive. However, when creatively engaged, as were those in the photographs, there was a clear mindfulness and focus which I admired. It’s an honesty, which, as a artist I both crave and fear. All in all, I want to say Thank You to those who played with me, to those who showed me their beautiful country and to those who helped me on the residency. My imagination has been well and truly captured.

Last week of the residency at Sura Medura…

My coloured notepad is almost full. The studio looks like a children’s arts and crafts workshop. I’ve been making. Dilani’s children have been helping too.

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Our final presentation is this week on Friday. I want to update my blog prior to this to keep a more formal record of beginning, middle and…beyond.

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I’ve visited a lot of different places over the past few weeks. I’ve walked and talked, surfed and safaried, ridden on trains, tuk-tuks, jeeps and bikes – dripping sweat surprising new parts of the body. The heat and humidity can be oppressive but it’s not kept me down. I’ve been all about the intensive touristing.

Our expedition to Tissa for the Yala and Bundala Safaris was an incredible experience. It was trying physically, my body being bounced, projected and rattled by local transport as well as by the safari Jeeps over the course of our three day visit. However, to sit in and witness some wonderful small moments of wildlife was mesmerising. Yala is a vast park. You don’t see much apart from land and trees and maybe the odd bird at first glance, but with the tracker spotting a large variety of species throughout the day, your awareness becomes heightened and you start to notice more and more. The scene that unfolded in one murky puddle between a pair of terrapins, a stork and a frog was like an epic tale of life, death, love and survival – all encapsulated in the form of a well played game of hide and seek.

The past week I’ve stayed at Sura Medura, gathering materials to work and experiment with. It’s nice to be ‘home’, my being nurtured by Dilani’s wonderful food and her playful children with whom I’ve had the pleasure to create with. I’m working on a structure made from wood and paper which takes it’s inspiration from the tea factory experience and the heaps and mounds of tea I saw being created there by the old Victorian machines.

The mounds of tea at the factory made an impression on me. The continuous outpour of this textured, valuable product  was a feast for the senses – rich, raw and somehow feminine. The smell, tactility and mass implied a simultaneous density and lightness, while worlds of process, environment and consumption were somehow manifest in these humble sitting heaps. In a similar way in which the man from Close Encounters can’t get the image of the mountain out of his head, the shape, form and texture of these mounds kept coming back to me and I’ve found myself creating my own models of the structures.

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As I create more and research into potential materials for the piece I find some interesting crossovers highlighted by the locals I’ve shared my idea with. For example, it is a tradition in Sri Lanka for a new house to be blessed by a ceremony which is conducted inside a paper house, constructed by a local craftsmen. The decorative paper house sits inside the new house and is where the monk carries out the ceremony. I visited a paper factory near Hikkaduwa and discovered hand-made paper made from tea dust. Apart from being inspired by the stacks of hand-made paper created from recycled materials, including elephant dung! I felt immensely inspired to be in a working factory where the recycling and reusing of waste materials was being so passionately and industriously manufactured. The owner was very nice in showing me around and explaining where he gets his waste materials from and how he makes the paper. I find the recycling of materials and the initiative and energy of the people who do so very exciting and infectious. I’d love to see Sri Lanka becoming pioneers for sustainable living. It’s already incredibly inspirational on that front the way it is I think.

In between my work on ‘John & Yoko’ (my nickname for my tea mound structures because they resemble the image of the long haired couple from their bed in days), I’ve also a photography project on the go featuring pieces of costume I’ve created in response to the environment and stories both imagined and real. I’ve been inspired by the ever fading folk culture and traditions of folk songs and poetry amidst people from varying labours. Song is an important part of life and culture here it seems – many love to sing, and so do I. Kavi songs or song poetry can be heard online but there are not many english translations although I’m aware they are often about the land and work and the feelings of the worker etc. I find it interesting mainly for the area of voice and environment and how song is very much a way of connecting to the environment especially when also incorporating working with the land whether it be in the paddy fields or in mining for gems. I’ve yet to include song in to my work, but at the moment, I’ve been using imagery and costume to create a fantastical expression of an experience in a particular environment. I hope to take this out into the local community and stage such images featuring some local residents of Hikkaduwa.

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I’ve also had a play with the sounds Mark has captured over the past few weeks. Real recorded sounds are great to work with. I also have memories of most of the sounds Mark recorded as I was often with him so it has been nice to listen back to these and recall experiences in my development of new performance work and narratives.  Our first improvisation was two days ago and we created a sound score together then I used my own memories and associations with the sounds to generate movement sequences. It’s all happening.

I arrived in Sri Lanka on the 28th of October, the heat and humidity, a warm welcome.

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Sura Medura is the name of a very old house, at which I’m based, set in the ‘jungle side’ of Hikkaduwa – a smiling, sun, surf and sand tourist spot on the south west coast. To get to the beach I take a short five minute walk up the road, over the rail track – a wave, smile and ‘hello’ to the nice man at the crossing – a quick dodge through the Galle road traffic and oh, there’s the sea. The waves have calmed down quite a bit since I first arrived. They were tall and intimidating but have now settled and are more gentle and inviting. The weather so far has been consistently warm and bright every day then dramatically thunderous as darkness falls being as it is, still the monsoon season. Nearly every evening, thick, warm rain is released from a flashing sky of neon purple and blue, drenching the streets and flooding the dens and sleeping spots of the many street dogs.

I’m surrounded by nature at Sura Medura – some of the smaller beings sharing my bed on occasion, navigating there way through the cotton folds and crevasses of bed linen. Ants. Wee ones and big ones! Orange, black, transparent – always in teams, always in formation. I’ve a new family of them living in my computer, appearing alarmed from under the keys as I type! Thankfully it is only the very small, harmless ones which occasionally invade.

The first week has consisted of settling in, over coming jet lag and for me personally, to calm my mind and breathe deep. The other artist in residence is Mark Vernon who works with sound and audio recordings. He’s been documenting very often, inspired by the new and wonderful soundscape of this extraordinary environment. It’s been a pleasure to get to know him better and it’s very exciting to be here with him – the potential for collaboration is tantalising indeed. Neil and Maria, the two artists who are running and organising the residency, have been wonderful hosts so far and have been very supportive and informative in their helping us get into the swing of things. I’ll be sad to see them go next weekend. It’s been a reflective, healing and beautiful two weeks so far, filled with new experiences and glimpses into the way of life here.

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So, the work. The work is to live in the moment as much as possible. I’ve the opportunity here to see what I do and what I’m inspired by from a new perspective. I also want to absorb as much of the culture and way of life. The first week was a heady but overwhelming journey through old thought processes and habits. I have stopped and listened more since being here. You have to and not just because of the heat. I am here to develop my work as an artist – to create, move, repeat, present and perform. I’m here to reflect on what I’ve done up to this point and to build on what I know as well as to learn anew. It’s very exciting.

Mark and I gave a presentation of our work to some students at the art school in Colombo on Tuesday last week with lecturer, Thenuwara Chandraguptra acting as interpreter. Thenu is a well renowned artist from Sri Lanka and lecturer at the Colombo School of Visual and Performing Arts. He has visited Glasgow before and has given talks and workshops at GSA.

Before I talked about my sculpture work from my time at Edinburgh College of Art, I spoke of my passion for theatre and acting from an early age and how this gave me an identity and a way of being in the world. I’ve been brought up surrounded by colour, curiosity and love and I’ve always been interested in different forms of expressing. Theatre, for me was a way to always connect to this and to question and build on my knowledge of the world and of life.

Something happened along the way which made me not want to pursue acting further – perhaps I was too stubborn or I thought I could do more, or that I had more to offer. Perhaps it had to do with my mum passing away. Maybe it was a bit to do with all of these things but also, I think I was satisfied with what I’d done with performing and theatre and I felt ready and eager to learn something new. I hadn’t anticipated the loss in confidence I’d experience from shifting into art and I wondered – ‘now that I’m at art school, can I ever go back to performance?’ Through the awkward, various ‘fitting in’ stages that followed in my years of study, I gradually accepted I was somehow changing and that the security of being ‘good’ at something was now all relative in the art world. This was a nice but difficult discovery.

At art school I was out of my element completely and felt as though it was a new language I had to learn. I wanted to learn – I needed to learn too to keep up – so I stuck in, meeting some very interesting people along the way. Being a performer at heart I looked into performance in art and where it ‘fitted in’. My experience of performance art was that it was either very confrontational and unresolving or it rarely followed any narrative and was difficult to read – in a way, it seemed like bad acting or bad theatre to me. I was put off because some of what I had researched felt too contrived so I remained unconvinced for quite some time. I found that working with materials and objects made more sense for me in the context of making work at art school – they had their own stories and implications which I wanted to explore. However, I persevered with my own examination of what performance meant in general for me, coming from a theatre background and what it meant in my own explorations at art school. After some researching of performance art I realised it would not bear the same fruits as what acting did for me and therefore I was not too concerned with it anymore. However, performance elements did seep into my work and I gravitated more towards the filmic, playful and elusive when it came to my own creations within video and live performance.

In some ways I was still torn as to where my passions really lay within it all – it gradually became less clear for me where I was headed in terms of a potential path or career. The move into physical theatre, particularly the course led by Al Seed and Simon Abbott, helped to provide me with some grounding in this grey area I suddenly found myself in. I thrived in the new environment of varying artists and my passion for theatre and performance was renewed. I was back in my body again and felt more like myself than I’d ever felt whilst living in Edinburgh studying sculpture. I realised I was a passionate performer and was inspired by the idea of the ‘creative’ actor as well as someone who liked to be on the outside and offer feedback, direct or provide accompaniment.

Back to the presentation – the students were a bit baffled I think. I’d shown them what they could easily identify as ‘art’, then I’d played them a showreel of some small shows and performances I’ve done since graduating from the physical theatre course. They were confused in a good way, or so I told myself – “but how do you doooo performance in art?”, “what is clown? Is it art?” “should theatre and art not just stay separate?” “who is your audience now?” etc etc. Maybe I should have been clearer but it was my first attempt at a presentation and after answering a few questions we seemed to be on the same page – a bit. I felt like they were asking similar questions I asked myself when I was at art school which was interesting to me. Of course the areas of theatre and visual art are separate in many ways but there is always going to be some crossover. As in clown and in the visual art world there is never really a right or wrong. Practitioners I know in the areas of dance, drama and physical theatre all create very interesting and different work. The line between director, performer and artist are always shifting in my practice and as much as I want to define further my own route through it, I have learned that more often than not you just have to do it, put it into action then it will start to imply it’s own form. I’m still pursuing acting as well but I tried to explain that the residency is serving as the first step in me trying to develop more of a voice for myself within my practice and that I realise that with some of the types of work I imagine creating or that I want to create, I will need to draw on what I know from within both performance and art to achieve this.

It should be mentioned that at art school I did discover a passion I knew I had in me somewhere for making and experimenting with materials and that my training in sculpture is one I’m grateful for. I was and still am inspired by visual art and work by artists working in various mediums. I identified a skill I have for composition and arrangement of objects in space. A three dimensional aesthetic which I found very interesting. In short, what I’ve taken from art school, including the things that were perhaps not so great, I consider to be very valuable and I’m grateful for the experience.

Now the presentation is done I feel I can make more of a start. The colours, politics, sense of humour and culture here are all very interesting and new. I’m drawing a lot of inspiration from the people I meet and their stories as well as the new environment in which I’m living and spending most of my time. I’ve had an amazing experience so far just being here. I’ve been to a tea plantation and factory – a fantastic place filled with wondrous machines built in the victorian times and still going strong, being used to this day. I’ve taken a surf lesson in the rain, raved in the rain and swam in a pool on top of a hotel overlooking the sea. I’ve hired a bike and explored the jungle, spotted my first black bodied monkey, got the train and sat at the door with my feet dangling out. I’ve argued with tuktuk drivers, bargained for goods in Colombo, purchased my first sari and bought a fake branded bag – special price! special discount! I’ve seen an iguana, a lizard and loads of birds. And I’ve been inspired by the smiles, the intelligence and the way of the people I’ve met here already. The visit to the art school and meeting the staff and Thenu have all helped to ground the residency experience for me so far for which I’m really grateful.

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There was a very special, local celebration on last night. There were buddhist flags and banners everywhere. Twinkling fairy lights decorated the outdoor space where they were hosting a ceremony (more of a demonstration of a traditional ceremony) for the Commonwealth Games committee meeting taking place here and mainly in Colombo next week. It lasted from 6pm until the early hours but we stayed only until midnight. I witnessed traditional, South Indian dancing by a bunch of athletic, smiling gents in white outfits and bells on their ankles. It was joyous to watch. It was performance, ritual, dance, tribal, tradition, song, art, prayer, celebration all in one – it was continuous and I just felt so happy that something like this exists in the world. It was simply beautiful, expressive, inspiring, energetic and wonderful. On the way back we stopped so Mark could record the sound of a procession of people going to the temple in Hikkaduwa to offer gifts. There was drumming and everyone carried a gift for the temple – money, food, flowers arranged beautifully, clothes, unidentifiable things wrapped in white material or bags. As they walked passed our tuktuk driver stepped out and took part in the prayer and blessing of the goods being carried for the temple. I was encouraged to take part and had to touch each object with the palms of my hands then make a prayer pose with my hands then touch the next thing – saying “Sadu, sadu, sadu, sadu…” – “Amen, Amen, Amen…” It lasted a long time as there were so many people but it was so nice to all of a sudden take part in this peaceful local activity. The tuktuk driver said to me ‘you can do it too, it’s buddhist you see, no exclusion, you take part, it’s nice…’ There was a good vibe on the street with people of all ages joining in. It was very special indeed.

Sound artist Mark Vernon is keeping a sound diary during his residency at Sura Medura. During his stay he will be travelling around Sri Lanka, collecting sights and sounds for a composed soundscape work.  The sounds Mark has collected so far can be heard as set on Mark’s Soundcloud page and form an audio record of Mark’s first couple of weeks exploring Sura Medura, Hikkaduwa and the surrounding area.

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Among the sounds Mark has collected so far are the sounds of a coconut scraper being used to prepare curry for lunch, a chorus of frogs and insects at night following a monsoon rainstorm, the sounds of the fishing harbour at Hikkaduwa, the sound of typewriters in the Notary’s office, and the chorus of a flock of Myna birds who gather in the same place each evening.

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Mark’s collection of sounds, combined with Mark’s images and words, come together to paint a vibrant picture of Sri Lanka and the varied environment of Hikkaduwa and the surrounding area.

 

 

Gavin Lockhart

UZ Arts are delighted to announce that the artists for the winter residencies have been selected. The six artists who will be taking part in the international residency programme from October 2013 to January 2014 are:

Hannah Brackston
Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman
Sita Pieraccini
Tom Pritchard
Lyndsay Sekulowicz
Mark Vernon

Each of the artists will undertake a 6 week residency at the Sura Medura International Artist Residency Centre in Hikkaduwa. The centre was established in 2011 by UZ Arts and offers opportunities for all artists from all disciplines to create work that is enhanced by being developed in Sri Lanka.  The work developed and produced by artists during their residency will be exhibited at the Briggait in February 2014.

The Sura Medura residency programme is part of Creative Futures, a Creative Scotland talent development programme which aims to promote the professional development, capabilities, connectivity and ambitions of Scotland’s creative practitioners and organisations.

www.suramedura.com

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On Saturday the 23rd I presented ‘The Other Kwai’ a film I have developed during my time at the Sura Medura Art Centre. Set within the linearity of a single day with a narrative structure reflective of ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957), broken by images from the Hollywood film and the weaving of chair caning, ‘The Other Kwai’ takes in the echoes of the impact when fiction collided with reality, creating a new history which continues to affect and reverberate through the rainforest canyons of the Kelani River at Kitulgala. My previous film work has consistently been intended to be exhibited within installation spaces and I have found that while the focus of the audience is the projection of moving images, the space where it is presented can act as a crucial element to the work as a whole; helping to create an immersive environment for an audience, while also referencing components or the structure of the films presented, causing the spaces to become constituent components of the installations. This has continued with the presentation of my latest work in Sri Lanka. Using the grounds of Sunbeach Hotel in Hikkaduwa I set up an outdoor cinema for the audience to sit and experience the work. Previously many of my moving image installations have been structured in a non-linear way, in part due to the particular qualities and contexts of exhibiting in gallery spaces. This piece was presented in an unconventional art environment and needed certain criteria to be put in place to create an installation space that continued to feed information involved within the work to the audience.

When confronted by moving image art in the cavernous spaces of contemporary visual art galleries and museums the work has regularly been place on a continuous loop, forcing the actions to repeat once completed and without break. This is a way of making the work viewable to as many people wondering around the building throughout the day as possible but (unless the films are incredibly short or focus on repetition) can destroy the narrative structure of many of these works, leaving the audience to be more concerned with wondering where in the film they have stumbled into (Beginning middle or end) then the actual content they are viewing. This has seen a rise in artists films either being non-linear where the audience participate within an environment where they edit their own film from the images and sequences projected or by having set times for the films to start, giving that control of accessing the work in the correct linear order the artists intended it to be viewed (This curatorial decision making was heavily visible in the exhibiting dynamics of last year’s Turner Prize). The outdoor cinema area I constructed acted as a formal space for viewing cinematic work and rather than be a space that was open to the coming and going of various people, was rigidly structured in reference to conventional cinema spaces by applying a start time for the film with a single showing to reinforce the linear composition of the work.

In an earlier blog post I mentioned my fascination at watching and filming a local man fixing the caning on a chair. This footage has become an important part of my film and weaves throughout its duration, creating associations with the intricate design of the bridge, transient qualities of the material and laying of new histories within the story of the Kitulgala. These chair cane seats also seem part of the very fabric of Sri Lankan society, appearing in local villager’s homes, hotels, museums, as well as during the Sri Lankan scenes of ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957) and I thought it was crucial that seats featuring chair caning where used for the outdoor cinema space. A subtle reference that made the images on the screen tangible and helped to create an immersive viewing environment.

I thought I’d end this post with a link to mini featurette on the making of ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ made in 1957. An interesting but brief insight into the production of the set.

The Bridge on the River Kwai Mini Featurette 1957


The unexpected opportunity of a residency in Scotland in the autumn of 2012 in Glasgow and at Cove Park , courtesy of UZ Arts and Creative Scotland, seemed at the time, to be too good to be true. The Scottish landscape has always appealed to me and the opportunity to spend 3 weeks by myself in Scotland, at the changing of the seasons, seemed like manna from heaven.

The week I had in Glasgow, before I went to Cove Park, I spent wandering Glasgow town, visiting galleries and establishing contact with UZ Arts and visiting Street Level Photoworks who were extremely welcoming and helpful. During my stay at Cove they provided me with computer use, chemicals and trays and other assistance when I needed it.

Cove Park too was all that I expected and more. The sheer bliss of being in beautiful surroundings , close to the elements ,was heady . Although not remote it felt quite isolated. Three weeks spent in my ‘exposed’ cube waking up to the ever changing weather, mountains and large expanse of water was an indescribable experience, so different from my tropical, urban, surroundings. The Cove Park ‘team’ were very ‘there’ and helpful when needed but I could be as removed and as isolated as I wanted to be.

I tramped the countryside in all weathers (I was fortunate in that on the whole the weather was not too bad) with my camera, spent time experimenting with sun prints, mapping Scottish place names found in Sri Lanka ( as part of my ongoing project on the Sri Lankan Eurasian community), delved into my (Eurasian) grandfather’s diary and explored the village and its grand 19th century houses. Villas and mansions which were once the summer retreat s and even permanent houses of the wealthy 19th century Glasgow merchants. As I have always found landscape photography somewhat of a challenge, Cove Park and the surrounding areas seemed ideal to experiment and engage with the landscape.

The perfection of the views, the large comfortable homes and idyllic, unchanging landscape did however reveal itself to have some unexpected edges. Many of the impressive looking villas and mansions with their lovely lawns and gardens for instance hid the rather unsavoury history of their nineteenth century owners’ role in empire.

It was also not unusual to see rather menacing looking dark grey Nuclear submarines, frigates and naval tug boats plying up and down Loch Long . This after all is one of the most fortified areas of Britain. Faslane nuclear submarine base was to one side of me and the sinister looking RNAD Coulport , storage home to the Trident nuclear warheads, to the other. Much of the ‘unchanging’ land around was also owned by the MOD. On an occasion when I visited the peace camp at Faslane and took part in one of the weekly vigils outside the base, we were all photographed by the police, who made quite a ceremony of it.. This indeed was ‘Secret Scotland’ .

I remember that in one of my internet trawls on Cove Park (prior to leaving for the residency ) , I came across a former participant who claimed that that Cove Park was a life changing experience. At the time, It seemed to me to be rather an extravagant claim but I have to say that although it wasn’t exactly life changing it came close. Being at Cove Park was one of those intense uplifting life experiences that you carry away with you and stays with you. I still hanker for my isolated life in the cube. I felt blessed everyday I was there.

It has taken me this long to be able to even articulate it, but I think that the very elemental nature of the experience coupled with the head and emotional space allowed me to empty my head, reflect and really ‘live in the moment’. At a practical level there have been some very tangible and positive creative developments in my life since my time there that I feel have come about because of what I took away with me from Cove Park.

 

Neil Butler was invited by Teatri ODA in Kosovo to create a residency to support the development of their (and Kosovo’s) first outdoor theatre piece.

The residency was funded by the In-situ European’s abroad fund. Neil was joined by Theatre Director Jon Beedel of Desperate Men and producer Phillipa Haynes.

Home
(Work in progress)
Home is about invisible walls. The social and political barriers that stop movement and sometimes communication. Home is something to dream of and escape to, but also a place to escape from. Home looks at situations when you are not allowed a home. Home is about how freedom of choice has a price.

Created by Teatri ODA, “Home” combines installation performance and theatre. The audience is drawn to a beautiful installation representing Home. It isn’t quite what it appears – a little difficult to enter even more so to leave.

Process
Teatri Oda Director Florent Mehmeti and Lirak Celaj have worked with Insitu Co-organisor Neil Butler and Director Jonathan Beedell, assisted by Phillippa Haynes, to develop a project around the “invisible walls” that determine life in Kosovo.

In a 2 week workshop the content and delivery of the project have been devised and represented in a short video.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nb9JkLwPV6I&feature=youtu.be

Written by Neil Butler

Back in Scotland after nearly 2 months in Sri Lanka as Director of the Colombo Arts Biennale which hosted over forty artists from 12 countries including Glasgow based artist Maria McCavana. Maria developed work for the Biennale during her Creative Scotland funded residency at Sura Medura (see separate blog) The Biennale also features Austrian artist Christian Eisenburgher who was also resident at Sura Medura funded by the In-situ network. Sura Medura is managed by UZ Arts. UZ are also working with Cove Park to offer a Scottish based residency to Sri Lankan artists. We hope to announce the first residency in the next few weeks.

In Scotland UZ Arts are working with Shetland Arts and the artist Sumit Sarkar  to create a major new work “Engine Tuning”  in August 2012. This is part of the nation wide “Roofless” programme. Sumit will develop the work in residency in Shetland in July 2012.

Written by Neil Butler