Biennale Art Exhibitions: Combination of the Sublime, the Subtle and the Stupid

24 Feb

Elastic Dress by Anoli Perera - apparently typifies the constant state of change of a woman's body.


The art exhibitions of the Colombo Art Biennale was a sight for sore eyes in some cases – and a sore sight to the eyes in other cases. The art was an eclectic mix of the profound, the beautiful, the thought provoking and also the gross, the overly simplistic and the silly.

One of the main drawbacks was that there weren’t adequate explanation boards to guide the viewers on what they were seeing. Just the artist’s name, project’s name and details of mediums used were given in most cases. It’s all very well to say that the interpretation is left to the viewer but when a lot of different artwork is packed in from diverse artists, the viewer is overwhelmed and a lot can be missed. Which is a pity because some of the artists at least had clearly put a lot of thought into their creations and to have those creations overlooked or bypassed simply because they were not immediately striking to the eye was a loss to both the viewer and the artist.

A case in point was a brown cardboard mat on the floor of one of the J.D.A Perera Gallery halls, cluttered with unremarkable black and brown objects. At the edge was something that looked like a weighing machine but was a projector throwing up images on the opposite wall. Overall, it was not an impressive piece and many people probably walked past it without giving it much thought.

The piece, ‘Landscape’ by Anura Krishanntha was an interesting concept though. If one took the trouble to squat down and look, the drab objects scattered around became more identifiable as artifacts made with black pistols. As a volunteer at the gallery explained, these were artifacts created with toy pistols and brown clay. It had been inspired by aerial photographs of the North after the war, which had shown the pictures of devastation, hence the deliberate black and brown colour. The black pistols and brown clay while serving as materials for the construction of ruined and broken buildings, also gave symbolic meaning of their own. The projection on the wall showed the artifacts and landscape in a surrealistic medium of white – supposedly how they looked like, in aerial shots.

It was a portrayal of the aftermath of war but by some quirk, while the real objects themselves were unremarkable, the projections showed interesting edifices that seemed like temples and finely sculpted houses in the Greco- Roman style. My personal interpretation was that something beautiful could be built out of something ugly or that edifices or civilization could be ‘whitewashed’ while the real ugliness could be hidden. Apparently the artist had meant the ‘devastation’ to be seen in his recreation of the aerial shots. If so, I personally don’t think he was successful with it as I saw something beautiful, but as always that’s the interpretation of the viewer. Nevertheless, it was an interesting and engaging concept, which many people in their hurried art viewing might have easily missed.

Recreation of aerial shots of the North after the war, using pistols and clay - by Anura Krishantha

A rather annoying (to this viewer) ‘modern art’ series exorbitantly priced, showed simplistic pieces of blank canvases, splotches and criss crossing lines; precisely the kind of thing I hate. I am not an artist myself and whenever I see ‘art’ which I can do myself or used to do in my kindergarten days, it always serves to irritate me. As I came to know later, the series ‘censored’ had some profound and interesting meanings conceived behind it by the artist. Well, the description didn’t help the viewer know that; profound the meaning might have been but the ‘artwork’ was still too simplistic. And quite frankly, there are too many ‘profound’ meanings given to blank canvases and splotches on blank canvases. If it doesn’t translate into equally profound or soul stirring visuals, it is not art in my opinion.

Quite a lot of the art work from local artists, figured on the theme of the war or aftermaths of the war. Another simplistic modern art series, though this one was more amusing and engaging was “These are not White Flags?” by Chandraguptha Thenuwara. On the uppermost floor of the J.D.A Perera Art Gallery, this series ran the entire length of one wall. Actually it took up three walls. A series of white rectangles different from each other only in their borders, or in some cases, textures took up one wall. Both the adjacent walls (facing each other) had paintings depicting military camouflage prints. So boxed in between the military paintings were white rectangular canvases which were ‘not white flags?’ (Note the question mark). The artist leaves the interpretation to the viewers as they see fit but a quote of his on the CAB website is rather striking and explanatory of his own views:

“Are we citizens or subjects? In my opinion most of the people are ‘becoming’ subjects. But I do not want to be a subject. Are we blind? Are we becoming blind believing what is being said by the almighty government? Are we born to be governed?”

Note the word becoming in quotes (emphasis his). The theme of the biennale was ‘Becoming’ and many artists portrayed what society, people or the country in general was ‘becoming.’ Thenuwara’s take on what the Sri Lankan people were becoming was one of the most striking – all the more so for its simplicity.
He had yet another series on the other side of the gallery.

These were a series of colourful paintings which didn’t say anything much in themselves (or as they say in posh art speak, “it didn’t speak to me”) but the title for the theme was interesting:
“Gloriosa Lily and Blue Water Lily: Are these flowers innocent anymore?”

The blue water lily is the national flower of Sri Lanka but what was the significance of the gloriosa lily? A little research yielded the interesting tidbit that the Gloriosa Lily was the ‘official flower’ of the LTTE. Unlike the blue water lily which is both edible and pretty however, the gloriosa lily is striking in appearance, vibrantly colourful as well as highly poisonous.
But the theme of the series was, “Are these flowers innocent anymore?” It gives a lingering feeling of incompletion, not knowing what the artist was thinking and wished to portray. People who glanced at those paintings would have seen colourful, interesting, abstract shapes but never inferred anything profound from them. This is one of the many exhibits that lost out by not having adequate descriptions.

One of a series by German Artist David Barbarino. Some very interesting effects achieved using silver chrome, but other than admiring the overall effect and the way the images shifted depending on which angle one looked at them, I can't say much about them. Have no idea what it was about - though I wish the information had been available.

Not all the artwork was striking or visually appealing to the eyes. Art and artists have moved on long since from thinking their creations need to be either, but the problem with the biennale was that there was a superabundance of such artwork, more often than not with a lot of thought and meaning behind their concepts – but the concepts were either inadequately explained or not at all explained. To a lay viewer walking around on his own, it would most likely have proved a disorienting as well as disappointing experience.

In the midst of these, a few artworks stood out, by virtue of being colourful, striking and interesting. My personal favourite was a painting by Madiha Sikander from Pakistan, titled “The grass is greener on the other side.” It was a striking picture of a young boy leaping over a line of flames. Behind him is a glum, grey urban background with a myriad details and in front of him are bright red and pink roses and green, green grass. And he is shown dramatically leaping over the flames to cross to the other side. It’s a lovely, thought provoking painting but as I got lost in its myriad details, the volunteer guiding me pointed to the roses and how they had a three dimensional look about them. That was Sikander’s special skill – a traditional painting technique called ‘gadrang’ which achieves a 3D effect on paper. A few more of her work were showcased in glass cases; books with her paintings on them. One book sported what looked to be a pressed rose – it was actually a painting of Sikander’s. Another showed a Rhinoceros drawn behind a printed picture – while the print picture was 2D, the Rhino rising up behind it was 3D. It’s not anything new in today’s climate of computer graphics but knowing that it was a traditional art technique still made it an interesting viewing experience.

That's not a pressed rose. It's a painted rose


In between the paintings were also exhibits of photographs. Two series that stood out were Anoma Rajakaruna’s and Dominic Sansoni’s. Rajakaruna’s was experimental photography which had achieved some interesting and colourful effects while Sansoni’s was straightforward – and brought home in a manner similar to a blow to the solar plexus, why this man is one of the most celebrated photographers of Sri Lanka. His theme was the ‘The Jaffna Home’ and he had photographed the gloomy interiors of most of the homes in the northern peninsula. Except that his magical lens had captured even scenes of destruction and decay with beauty and glamour. Being originally from Jaffna, those scenes of dirty walls, decaying books and broken interiors of buildings were nothing new to me. What was new was the sense of fascination instead of depression, in viewing those scenes. It takes an extraordinary artist to take a drab and dreary scene and make it into something riveting and beautiful and Sansoni has achieved that near-impossible feat with his ‘Jaffna Home’ series. To some, Jaffna is still an ‘exotic’ place and as such the series would be fascinating anyway; but to make a Jaffna native stand riveted in front of a photograph of stringhopper utensils in a way she had never contemplated the originals at her home is the work of a true artist.

'Headless in' Jaffna by Anoma Rajakaruna

One of Sansoni's 'Jaffna Home' series

Photos by Ruwan

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One Response to “Biennale Art Exhibitions: Combination of the Sublime, the Subtle and the Stupid”

  1. Gaya March 8, 2012 at 8:49 am #

    Hey eye of the cyclone, good stuff, clear plain english writing. I love the blog. I’d like to host your blog posts on a new website for Sri Lankans in SL and all over the world. Selected posts maybe if you agree. Would like to have a collage of people saying and doing diverse stuff … if you are interested please email me at gayathrif@gmail.com

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