by Niyati DaveAug 11, 2023
In his 1939 collection of poems Svendborg Gedichte, Bertolt Brecht wrote an epigraph on resistance in hardship: In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times. This quote aptly applies to Sri Lankan artist Pushpakanthan Pakkiyarajah’s practice which is steeped in the provocative power of the voice—one that evokes a reckoning rather than providing a source of relief. His work primarily looks at Sri Lanka’s prolonged conflict and its destructive impact on the ecology and human psyche, using recurring motifs from nature as a consistent language. “My practice explores trauma,” says the Batticaloa-born-and-based artist. “I grew up during Sri Lanka's 26-year Civil War as a minority. The experience of conflict and aggression was part of my daily life.”
Turning to art as an outlet, Pakkiyarajah puts a strong emphasis on his method and materials of creation. Process-heavy techniques such as stop motion find a centrality in his practice. In one such video titled Straddling Ocean and Sky (2021-2022), (recently shown at the Sharjah Biennale 15, United Arab Emirates and Brief Histories, New York) the interdisciplinary artist worked with over 4,000 found images and video stills, along with his own drawings, to create a complex four-minute assemblage that plays on a loop. A peculiarly playful tension haunts the work. Seemingly bright and colourful, with its montaged appearance and rapidly changing frames, the video is a profoundly mournful and personal recounting of Sri Lanka’s history. An evocative musical score accompanies the work.
Fish form the main protagonists in Straddling Ocean and Sky, dotted with natural and religious motifs particular to Sri Lanka that variously lay on backgrounds of the ocean, maps, and the sky. What starts as a hopeful scene of fish swimming in the deep blue sea, replete with welcoming sounds of the flute and temple bells, quickly turns into an atmosphere of anxious disarray. The water turns murky, and the free-roaming fish in the ocean suddenly appear inside individual plastic bags, reflecting a captive passivity as they are over-run by merchant ships and fighter jets. “I chose to work with fish for many reasons,” says the artist. “Rather than showing humans, who I have no right to represent, lest I fall into the traps of ethnographic representations, I am drawn to the neutrality of fish. They follow no religion, no region, no caste, or gender.”
Pakkiyarajah's montaged layering and editing technique in this work can indeed be seen as part of his healing process, one which isn’t linear but circular and filled with overlapping feelings the artist describes as, “an urgent need for reconciliation, the burden of experienced tragedy, a cultural in-betweenness, and a continuously forced beginning.” The looping nature of his video further alludes to a sense of suspension of time, one that is so central to post-war urban landscapes, which, marked by a peculiar temporality, stay in a state of a “suspended now” as theorised by Judith Naeff, who speaks about “the sense of being stuck in the present, not being able to move forward, nor to look back, in an experience of time that is constituted by a past that has remained unresolved and an uncertain future that seems out of reach.” So how do these temporalities relate to space and to landscape for the artist? “The land,” says Pakkiyarajah, “is a silent witness to the stories of past and present, and the land holds evidence of every single experience—joy and suffering, life and death. The beautiful sights of stretching beaches, luscious jungles, and waterfalls can also be terrifying because of what they could be hiding. So, rather than focusing on the sensuous scenery that is easily perceived on the surface, the unseen landscape—or what is forced to disappear—interests me more.”
The artist’s regular use of seemingly wounded and weeping motifs from nature reflects this search for what lies under the surface. For instance, in works such as Do Disappeared Trees Exist? (2020), he portrays 12 drawings of palmyra tree trunks that appear distorted, broken, and intertwined, revealing an inner redness that resembles the injuries sustained by human limbs. The work signals a vulnerability of nature to human actions and points to the way in which they are so intricately interwoven. Video installation works like Palmyra (2021) further foreground this theme, where the background shows a still black-and-white image of an abandoned hut flanked on either side by Palmyra trees. As the video progresses, the tree trunks in the foreground become untethered from the ground, turn blood red, and glide across in quick succession, reminiscent of bullets. The provocative background score, marked by gunshots, confirms the violence portrayed. Despite this, the Palmyra trees remain standing and resilient, symbolising the determination to survive in the face of destructive forces.
In addition to foregrounding the tonality of his own voice, Pakkiyarajah emphasises the importance of collectivity in his work. “For much of my video work,” says the artist, “I collaborate with musicians that hail from different regions of the island. It makes me feel safe—like I’m not alone. But it also gives a collective voice to the trauma that we all faced. It allows us to express something about our community together.” In 2014, a group of citizen scientists rediscovered and recorded the singing fish in Sri Lanka’s eastern province of Batticaloa—a phenomenon long forgotten and mythologised during Sri Lanka’s 26-year Civil War, which ended in 2009. The rediscovery of this phenomenon marked a turning point for many in the region, serving as a symbol of cultivated healing and a space where private despondency could meet the public realm in a meaningful way. Pakkiyarajah’s work functions similarly. His works present a daily practice of struggling to find meaning in survival—the only question remaining is, who is listening?