A man walks through the city streets of Lahore. In many ways he is unremarkable. Dressed ordinarily, in a white linen shirt and denim jeans, he sports a deadpan expression simply outlined by a trim beard. As we watch him stride past concrete buildings and flyovers, patches of greenery and parks, major intersections and slip [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Art as a Place – Where the site becomes the city


Act of remembrance and amnesia: ‘Diyatha Uyana’, 2014, by Pradeep Thalawatta

A man walks through the city streets of Lahore. In many ways he is unremarkable. Dressed ordinarily, in a white linen shirt and denim jeans, he sports a deadpan expression simply outlined by a trim beard. As we watch him stride past concrete buildings and flyovers, patches of greenery and parks, major intersections and slip roads, we suddenly notice that a line of white tissue paper continuously marks and delineates his path. It soon becomes clear that the ‘line’ that is following him around, is made out of a stretch of seemingly endless toilet roll, pouring out from the contents of a black bag he is carrying.

In the video installation “Line in the City” (2014) we, the audience, are able to witness excerpts from this act of performance art by the artist Pradeep Thalawatta. Here, we see the pensive artist walk through parts of Lahore, past Liberty Chowk and Gaddafi Stadium and highlight the circus that is everyday urban activity; people gathered on street corners, talking, eating, getting a head massage or simply waiting around. We also see those who witness the act directly and their immediate reaction (some collect the paper or burn it, others question the artist or even accost him) inadvertently becoming part of the work.

For Thalawatta, weaving a line through the city was a way of underscoring and observing social behaviour, as well as charting an alternative and accidental map of a metropolitan landscape. As an artist from Sri Lanka, often investigating the idea of urban development through the corporeal and material, the intervention also helped him to momentarily mark his place in Lahore. In “Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers,” 2016, artist and Professor Karen O’Rourke provides historical context for such practice, from the 18th century figure of the flaneur, to the 1950s situationists and present-day psychogeography.

Just as Thalawatta’s story retains its own trajectory, it draws from a range of important references, including contemporary artists Mexico-based Francis Alys and London-based Mona Hatoum (with key works such as “The Green Line: Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political, and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic” (2004) and “Roadworks” (1985), respectively). However, the pursuit of an art form which is closer to the streets, and the investigation of oneself, the body and the city, also has a strong precedent in contemporary art practice made in the 1990s in Sri Lanka.

Having grown up in Ratnapura, Thalawatta first encountered artists from “the Colombo art scene” in 1999 during a local workshop. Perhaps because his educational route took him to Vibhavi Academy of Fine Art, National Design Centre, Theertha International Artist’s Collective, Beaconhouse National University in Lahore (for a BFA and MFA) and the University of Jaffna twice (to teach) – the artist has always been interested in the physical and psychological effect that moving place has on him. It also explains why it is redundant to pin Thalawatta’s practice down to one specific location or school of thought.

From an early stage, the artist sensed that his perspective was distinct to that of other Colombo-based artists. “Everyone’s work was about the war. I had not been affected so directly. I wanted to find my own theme.” Instead, Thalawatta chose to respond to the displacement he felt on shifting to a new city through introspection and self-portraiture; as can be seen in “Self Portrait” from the Colombo-inspired series “Me and My Material World” (2004) or “Portrait” from the Jaffna-derived series “Red and White” (2011).  On choosing himself as a protagonist, he says “I know myself best; my outlook, my shape.”

From this assured position, Thalwatta’s observations have grown more astute over time – though his reflections on a place have never been immediate or explicit. In fact, on his first visit to Jaffna in 2011, he did not make any work for the first six months. Instead, he tuned into the sounds and rhythms of the city and photographed his daily route to the university; noting the new construction, rituals of quotidian life, movement of vehicles and demolishing of historical buildings. Later, he spliced these images together in the digital installation “Roadscape” (2012) to create a landscape with multiple temporalities.

As our gaze glides over the different ‘time-zones’ apparent in “Roadscape,” it is equally disrupted by the successive placement of a figure dressed in a short red-and-white tunic. The figure, is of course Thalawatta, this time wearing colours symbolizing the striped walls seen alongside Hindu temples in Jaffna. Conscious of his position as the outsider, in this case as a Sinhala-speaking, Buddhist from southern Sri Lanka, the artist highlights himself against this vastly changing cityscape. At the same time, his repeated positioning throughout the frame makes one think he more likely represents ‘everyman’ or ‘no-man.’

What is notable about Thalawatta’s approach here is that he does not treat Jaffna as a war-torn landscape, as many artists do, and neither does he gloss over vital post-conflict issues, including the problematic re-building of the city’s economy, culture and society. Another aspect which distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries is that his performances are not conducted in front of an audience. “In a photographic or video installation, everything is not so visible or obvious,” he explains. “I feel it is more poetic this way…I raise issues, but my art is like my way of living; a silent form of protest.”

In this abstract and indirect manner, Thalawatta’s performances in the real and imagined sites of Lahore and Jaffna, respectively, shed light on undercurrents that remain hidden or histories that are being erased. One of the artist’s most moving performances recorded in Colombo, where he has been based on-and-off for the past 17 years and arguably witnessed the most change, can be seen in the video installation “Diyatha Uyana” (2014). Here, we see the artist repeatedly submerge himself in a swimming pool, and come up to the surface gasping for breath, all the while clutching a large, framed picture in his hands.

Slowly, over the course of successive immersions, we see the picture begin to tear away from the frame, and the image on it – some kind of architectural construction – fade away. The clue for what the construction is lies in the name, Diyatha Uyana; now the site of a flower market, food court and fish tank next to the picturesque Water’s Edge, once the site of a political monument and conceptual artwork “Shrine of the Innocents” (1999) by Jagath Weerasinghe. Thalawatta’s act is a more generic one, though, of remembrance and amnesia, and asks us to open our eyes to the city’s invisible layers and power structures.

When we speak in early April, Thalawatta talks about a new course he is developing at the recently launched Theertha School of Art in Colombo, along with a peer from Lahore, Masooma Syed, called “The City as a Mirror.” The syllabus will aim to draw from their own artistic practice, including mapping urban sites and the stories embedded within them, reflecting on various cities in the region laden with post-war anxieties and other developmental issues. “Everywhere we go is developing into a kind of city,” he explains. “We want to look at how the city becomes a site, and how the site becomes a city.”

These questions resonate well with Alys’s own, as O’Rourke quotes: “Can an artistic intervention truly bring about an unforeseen way of thinking…Can an absurd act provoke a transgression that makes you abandon the standard assumptions on the sources of conflict? Can those acts bring about the possibility of change?” While these questions remain to be answered, Thalawatta’s practice does offer alternative ways of perceiving oneself in a post-conflict city, not through overt acts, but through nuanced gestures; by embodying experiences and remaining porous to the urban environment around him.

* Art as a Place derives its name from the Sarai Reader 09 exhibition (2013) in New Delhi, curated by Raqs Media Collective.

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