The Lightning Testimonies is a multi-channel video installation that reflects upon a history of conflict in the Indian subcontinent through experiences of sexual violence. In this exploration, multiple submerged narratives are revealed, sometimes in people, images and memories, and at other times in objects from nature and everyday life that stand as silent but surviving witnesses. In all the narratives, the body becomes central – as a site for honour, hatred and humiliation and also for dignity and protest.
The Lightning Testimonies creates an experience that emerges from a constellation of eight synchronized choreographed projections with sound tracks that lead to disparate narratives that then converge into a single projection. As the stories unfold, women from different times and regions come forward. The multiple projections speak to them directly, in an effort to understand how such violence is resisted, remembered and recorded by individuals and communities. Submerged narratives appear, disappear and are then reborn in another vocabulary at another time. Using a range of visual vocabularies, The Lightning Testimonies hopes to transport us beyond the realm of suffering into a space of quiet contemplation, where resilience creates the potential for transformation.
Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai, India
Assam State Museum, Guwahati, India
International Art Encounter of Medellín, Colombia
Art Institute of Chicago, USA
Kemper Museum, St Louis, USA
Kiran Nadar Museum, New Delhi, India
Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing, China
Fotomuseum, Winterthur, Switzerland
MAC-Musée d’Art Contemporain, Lyon, France
Fondazione MAXXI, Rome, Italy
October Salon, Belgrade, Serbia
Sao Paulo Biennale, Brasil
Herning Museum of Contemporary Art, Denmark
Kunstmuseum Luzern, Switzerland
Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, USA
Göteborg Biennial, Sweden
Astrup Fernley Museum, Oslo, Norway
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Govett Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand
Serpentine Gallery, London, England
Casa Encendida, Madrid, Spain
TBA 21, Vienna, Austria
Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris, France
Documenta 12, Kassel,Germany
The Torn First Pages is a 19-channel video installation in three parts. Presented in honor of the Burmese bookshop owner Ko Than Htay, who was imprisoned for ‘tearing out the first page’ of all books and journals that he sold and which contained ideological slogans from the military regime. The Torn First Pages is also an ode to the thousands engaged in the struggle for democracy in Burma. The films directly, elliptically and metaphorically encounter resistance and the struggle for a democratic society, contemporary forms of non-violence, political exile, memory and dislocation.
The Face | 4 min 35 sec | Sound
Thet Win Aung (a) | 4 min 35 sec | Silent
Thet Win Aung (b) | 4 min 35 sec | Silent
Ma Win Maw Oo | 4 min 35 sec | Silent
The Bodhi Tree | 7 min 4 sec | Sound
Somewhere in May | 38 min | Sound
part I of The Torn First Pages presents six distinct films.
The Face juggles, dissects and accelerates images of General Than Shwe, the Supreme Head of the Burmese military dictatorship as he tosses rose petals an extra time for the press photographers at the cremation memorial site of Gandhi in Delhi. Footage for this film was clandestinely shot at the ceremony at Rajghat on the 25th of October 2004. The General had been invited by the Indian government and was on a state visit to India. The film literally unveils ‘the face’ of military representation by zooming in on the features of the General who is known for the distance he keeps from cameras. The manic repetition of the general’s pose in front of the media reveals the tragic ludicrousness of the act as it critiques the support of the Indian Government to the Burmese military.
Thet Win Aung (a & b): In 1998 the Burmese student leader Thet Win Aung was sentenced to 59 years in prison for having taken part in organizing student protests since 1988, when he was a high-school student. Thet Win Aung (a & b) are two laterally inverted films about his portrait, the passage of time, the length of his prison sentence and is about remembering him. On 16 October 2006 at the age of 34 years Thet Win Aung was killed in a Mandalay prison in Burma.
The film Ma Win Maw Oo emerges from a forgotten but very dramatic photograph of a high-school student who was shot dead by Burmese soldiers during the 1988 student protests. This photograph captured the moment when Win Maw Oo was being carried by two medical students just after she was shot. It gained worldwide publicity for a day as a news photograph before it disappeared from public memory.
The Bodhi Tree shows Sitt Nyein Aye, a well-known Burmese dissident painter, who had to escape from Burma after the military crackdown on pro democracy demonstrations in August 1988. He now lives in exile in New Delhi where he continues to practice as an artist. His studio is a small room under a bodhi tree.
The fleeting glimpses of a painted portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi and Gandhi being carried down the streets, and the faces in a crowd during a political rally, demonstrates how portraits are used as markers of opposition.
Somewhere in May lies within the intersection of freedom and claustrophobia, democracy and its simulation, the holy mission of great national projects and the individual’s relationship with the politics of today. In the torturous normalcy of exile two events occur on the same day in the city of Oslo. The 17th of May celebrations of the Norwegian National Day in 2004 was also the day the Burmese military dictatorship began a sham National Convention for Democracy inside Burma. Through the ‘Democratic Voice of Burma’ (DVB), a small radio station in Oslo, the Burmese resistance reports on this sham convention as it broadcasts news that is secretly heard by thousands within Burma.
Seven projections | 24 min 53 sec | Sound
To be able to see the multiple dimensions of the passage of time through a single moment creates the greatest probability of understanding, both within and what lies in the outside world.
With seven projections part II of The Torn First Pages enters into the world of Burmese activists in exile in the city of Fort Wayne, USA before embarking on a journey with a Burmese activist in the United States. The travel is in search of the late Tin Moe, famous Burmese poet in exile to record him reciting one of his most famous haiku’s that was found scribbled on the walls of prisons inside Burma
Six projections | 23 min 26 sec | 3 Silent and 3 with Sound
To keep on collecting evidence when confronted with continuous brutality is only possible when there is hope for a better future.
In six projections, part III of The Torn First Pages presents the ‘archival’ not only as evidence but as a ‘continuous process’ of the gathering and display of evidence, of the need to record and remind and of the incredible effort of the Burmese resistance to present this archive in an open space on the internet and in privately circulated cd’s for all to see.
The first three projections within part III distort the archive to create the laughing triptych of General Ne Win, the first Burmese dictator along with his coterie.
The second three projections within part III are presented in honor of and with respectful gratitude to, the work of several activists and photographers, known and anonymous, professionals and amateurs, inside and outside Burma, who have with great risk and determination documented the recent history of the Burmese people and the democracy movement. These are images/short films/un edited secretly filmed footage presented as they are made available to the public.
The Torn First Pages are small back projections on paper placed in patterns that in a way resemble a large moving image book. All the films are back projections on paper and can be seen collectively or individually.
Frac des Pays de la Loire, Carquefou, France
Being Singular Plural, Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA
Sharjah Biennale, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, USA
Being Singular Plural, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, Germany
Film Huis Den Haag, The Hague, Netherlands
Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and Hertogenbosch, Netherlands
Govett Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, New Zealand
A Question of Evidence, TBA 21 Vienna, Austria
Apeejay Media Gallery, New Delhi, India
Whitechapel Gallery, London, United Kingdom
Image War: Contesting Images Of Political Conflict, Whitney Museum, New York, USA
Fotogalleriet, Oslo, Norway
Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt, Germany
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands
The Museum of Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius, Lithuania
The Sovereign Forest emerges in my work primarily in the state of Orissa (now renamed Odisha) in eastern India. Odisha has been the epicenter of several conflicts between the local communities, government and corporations over the control of agricultural lands, forests, rivers and mineral sources. The forcible displacement of indigenous (tribal) communities and peasants has been a brutal cycle of life in Odisha since the 1950s. In the past fifteen years, several mountain ranges, wildernesses, and agricultural lands were sold or leased to mining cartels and other corporations for commercial use. A new economic regime allowed for the formal removal of legal and bureaucratic restrictions. The process of land acquisition became easier, and exacerbated the corrupt practices indulged in by political parties, government departments and the judiciary. A series of local resistances by peasants, fisher-folk and tribal communities emerged. Powered by autonomous local leaderships, primarily non-violent, stubbornly resilient, occasionally supported by urban activists, they have shared their experience to enable a local discourse to emerge on development, industrialization and rehabilitation. This resistance has faced police repression or violence by local mafias hired by politicians or corporations. Examples of this include the movements resisting the bauxite and aluminum companies in Kashipur; against land acquisition by the Korean steel company POSCO and the industrial group TATA in Kalinga Nagar.
The above events are similar to the experiences of various communities across India over the past 15 years. Odisha is unique in that the local movement has successfully delayed acquisitions, thus influencing the departure of international corporations or enforcing fresh regulations to be assumed by corporations toward human and community rights. In other neighboring states with widespread poverty as in Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and now in Chhattisgarh, the state governments and the corporations have also faced increasing local resistance. However the land acquisition process by corporations in Chhattisgarh has been more severe.
Over the years, certain regions within these states have come under the influence of militant armed left-wing organizations (Maoists) fighting on behalf of the ´local communities’. The violent Left has always attracted more violence from the state. The state governments have used their mandates not merely to attack anti-state insurgents but also to target local non-violent resistance. As state violence increases, smaller non-violent movements find it more difficult to survive. This creates a spiral of violence in which only those who can practice and negotiate violence can function as the so-called main actors in this ‘theatre of war’.
The Sovereign Forest is inspired by a search for the possible answers to the following questions:
Can an artist intervene in this scenario? And if so, how and where?
Can new temporary cultural institutions and processes be created to respond to this situation?
How to understand the crime? Is legally permissible evidence adequate to understand the extent and nature of a crime?
Can ‘poetry’ be presented as ‘evidence’ in a criminal or political trial? What is the validity of this evidence?
Can we create a public process of ‘evidence collection’ in multiple forms and can this be located/initiated in local communities in a conflict? How can it create a new and valuable perspective about the crime?
What is the vocabulary of a language that emerges from a series of simultaneous disappearances occurring across different lives, domains and terrains? How to see, know, understand and remember this disappearance?
How to look again?
The Sovereign Forest was opened for public viewing at the Samadrusti campus on the 15th of August 2012, in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. The entire exhibition is bilingual and is accessible to visitors in Oriya and English languages. The exhibition continues to evolve to this day. It has also been exhibited in Kochi, Kerala and travels in different forms to several other countries too. Since 30th December 2016 the exhibition in Bhubaneswar is temporarily closed.
The central film in The Sovereign Forest is titled The Scene of Crime. The film offers an experience of a landscape just prior to erasure as territories marked for acquisition by industries. “I have been filming the resistance of local communities in the state of Orissa to the industrial interventions taking place since 1999. In 2010, I returned again to Orissa but this time to film, in particular, the terrain of this devastating conflict. Almost every image in this film lies within specific territories that are proposed industrial sites and are in the process of being acquired by government and corporations in Orissa. In this ‘war by the state against its own land and people’ The Scene of Crime is an experience of the battleground and the personal lives that exist within a natural landscape. ” Amar Kanwar
The Sovereign Forest attempts to initiate a creative response to our understanding of crime, politics, human rights and ecology. The validity of poetry as evidence in a trial, the discourse on seeing, on compassion, justice, and the determination of the self – all come together in a constellation of films, texts, books, photographs, seeds and processes.
The Sovereign Forest also invites visitors to contribute a photograph, a film, a document, a text, an object, seed, cloth, pattern, drawing, or any ‘evidence’ in any form to the constellation of evidence presented. As the installation travels this library of evidence increases and parts are added.
With overlapping identities The Sovereign Forest continuously reincarnates as an artwork, an exhibition, a public trial, an open call for the collection of more ‘evidence’, a memorial, a classroom, a visual archive, and also a proposition for a local space that engages with political issues as well as with art.
- A Love Story
- The Scene of Crime
- The Counting Sisters and Other Stories
- The Prediction
- The Constitution
- 272 Varieties of Indigenous, Organic Rice Seeds
- 6 Digitally printed Books
- Kalinganagar Series
- Selections from Evidence Archive
- Nidhan's Question
- Listening Benches
The Sovereign Forest
The Sovereign Forest first opened at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany on 9th June 2012. Later, a version of The Sovereign Forest was opened for permanent display on 15th August 2012 at the Samadrusti campus in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. Visitors are invited to add to the growing body of ‘evidence’ collected. Since 30th December 2016 the exhibition in Bhubaneswar is temporarily closed and it will re-open when a new venue is finalized.
Bildmuseet, Umea, Sweden
NTU Centre For Contemporary Art, Singapore
Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai, India
Edinburgh Art Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland
The Menil Collection, Houston, US
Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, UK
Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna, Austria
Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, South Korea
Sharjah Biennale, Sharjah, UAE
dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany
Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Kochi, India
Samadrusti Campus, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India
The Sovereign Forest is an installation where its contents keep increasing and we introduce new elements wherever possible. The number of additional elements depends on the space available and the context of each venue and so the design also adapts and evolves.
In collaboration with Sudhir Pattnaik/Samadrusti and Sherna Dastur
Produced with the support of
Samadrusti, Odisha; Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna;? Centre Pompidou, Paris; Yorkshire Sculpture Park, England; Public Press, New Delhi and Documenta 13, Kassel.
The Sovereign Forest has been made possible because of multiple long-term collaborations with artists, activists, farmers and institutions.
A modern parable about two people’s quiet engagement with truth.
Such a Morning navigates multiple transitions between mathematics and poetry, democracy and fascism, fear and freedom. In the cusp between the eye and the mind, shifting time brushes every moment into new potencies. Each character seeks the truth through phantom visions from within the depths of darkness.
In the art project, the narrative continues beyond the film – through dispersed images and texts – towards a research project with diverse artistic, pedagogic, metaphysical and political collaborations. Its findings will be shared incrementally as we travel, gather experience and collaborate. The train coach built for the film will remain in Delhi, a memorial for the teacher who refused to conform, who often stepped off the tracks and wandered into the wild.
October 20, 2017 – March 11, 2018
A version of The Sovereign Forest is on permanent display at the Samadrusti campus in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, where it opened on 15 August 2012. Visitors are invited to add to the growing body of ‘evidence’ collected. A selection of this archive of evidence is represented here. It includes photographs, lists of residents, land records and tax receipts, proofs of occupancy, maps of acquired villages, documents and a booklet of poems by a local singer called the crazy poet.
A photograph of a pre colonial document showing a financial transaction between a landowner and the royal state which established proof of ownership as well as duration of ownership and presence on the land, in Dhinkia, Odisha, the epicenter of the anti-POSCO struggle. A villager wanting to take it out of the region hid it inside a students file as he apprehended it being stolen by the local police or by pro company mafia.