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Amar Kanwar's two simultaneous shows in UAE create experiential display for viewers

STIR presents conversation between the curators of the two spaces in UAE that present artist Amar Kanwar’s films - Such a Morning and The Sovereign Forest - in a unique collaboration.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : May 19, 2020

Amar Kanwar is an artist and filmmaker from Delhi, India. His works often revolve around socio-political concerns, violence and compassion, humanity and environment. In a unique collaboration, two of Kanwar’s films are simultaneously on display in the UAE – at the Ishara Art Foundation (Dubai) and NYU Abu Dhabi. Such a Morning (2017) premiered at documenta 14. In the feature-length film, a mathematics professor retreats into wilderness to live in an abandoned train carriage. The film explores 49 types of darkness – as recorded by the protagonist. In contrast, The Sovereign Forest (2011) attempts to initiate a creative response to our understanding of crime, politics, human rights, and ecology. The works are uniquely displayed, activating the gallery spaces for an overall immersive experience.

STIR interviews Maya Allison, Executive Director, NYUAD Art Gallery and Sabih Ahmed, Associate Director and Curator, Ishara Art Foundation, on this significant collaboration and the experience in presenting the two exhibits in tandem. 

A still from the film Such a Morning | Amar Kanwar | STIRworld
A still from the film Such a Morning Image Credit: Cathy Carver; Courtesy of the artist and Ishara Art Foundation

Rahul Kumar (RK): How was the collaboration between Ishara Art Foundation and NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery conceived?

Maya Allison (MA): When Ishara was preparing to open, I wholeheartedly endorsed its mission to support art from South Asia, given the complexity and depth of the South Asian community here, but also the remarkable contemporary art and thinking from South Asia today. The founder, Smita Prabhakar, and I share a profound respect and appreciation for the work of Amar Kanwar. The art world in the UAE is not large, and we both wanted to show his work. Instead of competing for who would show his work, we decided to see if he would be willing to show with both of us simultaneously. This was more than a matter of convenience: his projects are huge in scale, and audiences rarely get to see more than one of his projects at a time. To bring them together in the UAE like this created, we hoped, a moment of deeper awareness both of his work, and of the questions that his work raises for us.

Letter 7 | Amar Kanwar | STIRworld
Letter 7 Image Credit: Ismail Noor; Courtesy of the artist and Ishara Art Foundation

RK: The Sovereign Forest and Such a Morning are both multi-media installations that have been shown in exhibitions prior to their presentation in NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery and Ishara Art Foundation. Can you elaborate on how the works have been spatially adapt to your respective galleries?

Sabih Ahmed (SA): There is always something to discover in artworks when they are reconfigured in new spaces and exhibition contexts. In its current iteration at Ishara Art Foundation, Such a Morning is laid out on two levels, beginning with the immersive experience of the film followed by two spaces dedicated to the Letters installation. Beginning your journey into this work with the 85 minutes long film offers something unique as you enter the work through a space of darkness, your senses are heightened due to the rich slow-moving imagery, the immersive soundscape, and the story of the Professor. Even as you exit the film, the soundtrack continues to follow you into the two spaces where the Letters are installed, so you never really leave the story. The Ishara Art Foundation space was substantially transformed for this installation and the most interesting challenge was to create a different experience of darkness for each space.

MA: Similarly, we built out a custom space for this installation. Unlike previous iterations of The Sovereign Forest, where most of the sections were in one space, this one broke the sections up into a series of rooms: the film room for scene of crime, the room for the hand-made books, a room for the seed archive, another film room for Love Story, and a final room for the evidence archive.

The Sovereign Forest (detail) | Amar Kanwar | STIRworld
The Sovereign Forest (detail) Image Credit: John Varghese; Courtesy of The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery

RK: In continuation, UAE lends itself as a unique geographical and cultural location for these works. What are your views on showing the two projects in the context of the Middle East and UAE in particular?

SA: Works such as The Sovereign Forest and Such a Morning have a way of bringing our attention to questions concerning violence that is taking place around the world, even while they depict very specific cultural contexts and histories. In a way, the works are able to tell stories that are local and universal at the same time, and viewers can relate to them on multiple levels. In the UAE where there is an enormous convergence of people from different parts of the world, the works create a space where these stories can be shared and discussed. To some, the works may be telling a story from back home while for someone else it opens a place to understand and empathise with a condition that was until now distant to them.   

MA: Both works offer a fresh perspective on a universal aspect of profound human questions: how to stop the fight? How to understand and accept the darkness we see in the world? How to comprehend?

Letter 5 | Amar Kanwar | STIRworld
Letter 5 Image Credit: Ismail Noor; Courtesy of the artist and Ishara Art Foundation

RK: Exploitation has been integral to modern life – whether as exploitation of natural resources, of other life forms, or even human skill sets. How do you feel this theme bears relevance today? In your views, what is the message that these works offer?

MA: The story underneath The Sovereign Forest that captures my imagination is about the loss of entire bodies of knowledge as a result of exploitation. There is literacy of many kinds among the people in this story. Literacy in the rice seeds, in how to grow crops in different conditions – generations of knowledge in the communities displaced by industrialisation. When the land is exploited for its resources that knowledge bank and literacy disperses with those who are displaced. These same communities, who once farmed their own family lands, then find themselves seeking work abroad – including in the UAE. I found it especially helpful to think about the pre-stories of the many people around me in the UAE, some of whom may share stories like that of Odisha.

SA: Such a Morning shares a deep resonance with some of the ideas that Maya outlined in her description of The Sovereign Forest. It is the story of a mathematics professor who prematurely retires from his university and withdraws into a train carriage inside a forest in order to re-comprehend the times we are living in. The work implicitly carries a message that the arrogance that comes with certain forms of knowledge that disavow other traditions of knowledge might be the very cause of the problems that the world is facing today. There are traditions that offered a way of learning from the planet rather than extracting from it, and some of those traditions might be lost to us forever. In my view, Such a Morning is meditation to fathom what has been lost. Just as the professor rejects the university and dedicates himself to finding a different way of thinking, the work invites us in the present moment to also take a step back, rethink and relearn.

The Sovereign Forest (gallery view) | Amar Kanwar | STIRworld
The Sovereign Forest (gallery view) Image Credit: John Varghese; Courtesy of The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery

RK: Amar’s practice has often explored the idea of ‘multiple truths’. How is this idea dealt with in the two works?

MA: In The Sovereign Forest, Amar Kanwar shares a story of a man who argues with another about the nature of what is best for their country India. If they displace the farm communities with factories and mines, then there is financial gain for India, but great stores of knowledge are lost. How to understand what is “the best thing” for everyone? Also, by using multiple forms of storytelling, research, and poetry, the artist finds many different ways into any one truth – from fact to legend, from image to poem.

SA: In the past works by Amar Kanwar such as Lightning Testimonies and The Sovereign Forest, there was an important foregrounding of documents, testimonies and evidence that complicates our understanding of historical narratives and contemporary events. The archive played a crucial role in those works asking us to critically rethink the supposedly contradictory categories of evidence and subjective truths. Such a Morning takes a step further where the document in the conventional sense never appears. There are letters, but we can never be sure that we will fully comprehend them, we can only try. I believe in Amar’s work, the idea of ‘multiple truths’ that you raise is not about truth being relative to each person. But rather keep oneself alive to the vast expense of subjective knowledge, affective states and doubts. In Such a Morning, the viewer is asked not to piece together the fragmented map of evidence, testimonies, folklores and memory, but rather withdraw into a space of darkness that is pervaded by visions, dreams and hallucinations. Perhaps a truth is to be found there. The film in Such a Morning narrates two people’s quiet engagement with truth. Perhaps it might be about everyone’s quiet engagement with truth.

(The exhibitions are on view until May 20, 2020, and for a virtual tour of 'Such a Morning', you can click here)

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