‘It Did Not Last Long’: The Advent of ‘The Collective’ | Sunday Observer

‘It Did Not Last Long’: The Advent of ‘The Collective’

28 November, 2021

The Collective’s first group exhibition will be held from December 1-8, 2021 at Galle Face Hotel in Colombo with the patronage of the hotel. It marks an iconic corporate sponsorship of a visual arts event in recent times. Given that The Collective consists of six of Sri Lanka’s most innovative contemporary artists, it is likely to be a spectacle that is both visually interesting and intellectually intriguing.

The minds and energy behind The Collective are Pradeep Chandrasiri, Anoli Perera, Koralegedera Pushpakumara, Pala Pothupitiye, Thisath Thoradeniya and Mahen Perera, all of whom have established individual art practices, track records and stylistic sensibilities and have previously shown their work locally and overseas. But the exhibition they have called, ‘It Did Not Last Long’ is their first public creative intervention as a group.

The Collective perceives itself as an independent group of artists who are keen to support each other’s art practice, and more importantly to present to the public works of art that are “inventive, experimental, and unusual.” In this pursuit, they intend to plan and curate their own exhibitions and will be guided by their desire “to be free without boundaries in creativity in terms of themes, materials, and presentations.” Obviously, all of these are necessary predictions for radical and innovative contemporary art.

It Did Not Last Long

The focus of the present exhibition, ‘It Did Not Last Long’ is an interest in reflecting on people’s “psychological residues of memory.” For the artists, there is a tangible feeling of “impermanence that overwhelms” contemporary living exacerbated by a “seemingly uncontrollable pandemic.” In this unenviable situation, The Collective argues that the “illusions of immortality we continue to embrace in our existence is mocked by” deaths and lingering pain that the pandemic has brought into the midst of society.

Existence is marked by waves of illness and death, closed borders both domestic and international, restricted mobility, diminished public spaces that have forced people to become introverted in their own illusionary worlds. In this context, The Collective’s artists ask us, “what to do we have other than our compendiums of memory, remembrances, and nostalgia as an escapist’s ladder to reach a destiny unknown?” It is in this context that is dark and foreboding in its present manifestation, but with implications to the future that ‘It Did Not Last Long’ begins its artistic intervention. But this is not an exhibition on the pandemic.

But it is an exhibition on memory and recollection pondered upon in the backdrop of the pandemic. It is about the past; it is about the present; and it is about the future. But within these considerations, each artist, as well-established practitioners on their own right, have adopted their own ways to see the past, recollect memory and imagine the future.

Pradeep Chandrasiri

Pradeep Chandrasiri’s work has always been autobiographical. Without centrally implicating the self in his canvas or installation, his work cannot have a point of departure or a point of arrival. That established approach continues in the present exhibition as well. But his work is also about what he sees as an individual that unfolds in society in general. So, his works extends from the self to the collective, the community. In this situation, his main preoccupation is tovisually narrateviolence that is inherent in Lankan society.

That is not merely the violence of the war, but also violence of post-war politics, day to interactions and even the violence of the pandemic. But for Chandrasiri, these forms of violence do not constitute isolated and accidental incidents. Instead, they are self-conscious and planned“socio-cultural constructs.” And his attempt through his work is to monumentalise these“pathologies of [the] nation and to ensure they are not forgotten.”

His series of work at ‘It Did Not Last Long’ are the result of his engagement with the canvas during the restrictions imposed by COVID 19 and his negotiation with day-to-day obstacles. As he says, these are simple ideas “devoid of any logic or grand philosophical purposes” which he hopes viewers would be able to unravel.

Anoli Perera

Anoli Perera’s work, influenced by the practice of‘bricolage’ brings together fragments from disparate written texts, varying raw materials, objects, and painted surfaces that are juxtaposed to construct specific meanings that will differ from the original associations with the material involved. Her work is also somewhat autobiographical in the sense they find their genesis in “various situations and experiences in the social contexts’ in which she lived focusing on “domesticity, body, memory, history, post-coloniality and urbanity.”

The work she presents in the current exhibition takes as their collective point of departure the ideas of memory and nostalgia. In that context, she notes, “relics often become objects of our fetishes” “because historical memory is inscribed in objects where they become residues of moments in time, about which we reminisce in context and out of context.”

Memory is what binds individuals to the past, to the present and allows them to navigate their futures. But memory is not accidental recall. It is conscious recollection that also involves active acts of erasure and interpretation. Moreover, as Perera notes, memory is not only about people, but also about “situations and objects, often theatrically positioned within the nostalgias of the keepers of memory.”

Memory seen in this sense by Perera is not a domain of innocence, but an active discourse of autobiography, myth making, erasure, private and public politics, and a conduit for living.

Thisath Thoradeniya

Thisath Thoradeniya’s work combines two discourses with which he closely associated with. That is, his practice as an artist on one hand and his background in mechanical engineering on the other.His work begins from a premise that all of us are familiar with, but may not pause to think about. That is, our lives are “saturated with electrical and electronic gadgetry” in the context of which these “items have become every day and common place objects that are perceived merely as functional, and easily discarded or replaced.” As a result, these mass-produced objects often become taken for granted and visually unnoticed and are not viewed from a sense of aesthetics or beauty.

But in the series of works he presents at ‘It Did Not Last Long’ Thoradeniya goes beyond this consideration even though ides of mass production and mechanical reproduction of objects still play a role in the way he views politics and societal practices. Here, he is obsessed by the notion of the ‘flag’ as an icon of the ‘nation’ and the politics of ‘nationhood’ this iconography entails “backgrounding the past and current socio-political context’ in which the artist lives and works.

For him, the flag is not that different from the mass produced electronic consumer items. Flags are also consumer products, mass-produced and discarded when their immediate purposes are fulfilled – until the next time.

Koralegedera Pushpakumara

Koralegedera Pushpakumara’s says that one cannot delink human existence from the individual’s personal “experiences, memories, or their personal histories”. In this sense, through his work, he narrates stories of his experiences and recollections.

But his works tend to be very self-consciously abstract and non-figurative even though he says these abstract works are not as abstract as they may seem because they are “filled with meaningful signs or they constitute meaningful codes.” The challenge of course is, if viewers can decode these codes and traverse through the abstractness of the artist’s canvases to arrive at the same meanings he has intended.

At the same time, for Pushpakumara “one’s memories are very personal initially, but they also have the potential to be public.” In a sense, Pushpakumara’s attempt is to take personal memories to the public domain and make them a part of the collective memory and simultaneously making memory personal, political, and social.

As abstract as they are, his works are intensely political too. After all, his ultimate aim is to place in context the“strategically organized state mechanisms and other powerful lobby groups” which undertake “inhuman actions, giving an illusion that they have an interest in preserving humanity.”

Pala Pothupitiye

Pala Pothupitiye is consumed with the idea of identity. Coming from a background of traditional ritual specialists who acquired a formal secular art education at university, Pothupitiye’s main interest in recent works has been tocombine the material base and philosophical content of traditional art with contemporary art practices and politics of identity, allowing what emerge to interpret and reinterpret the nature of dominant identity politics as well as broader historical processes such ascolonialism, nationalism, religious extremism and militarism. In that process, he also attempts to offer a necessary critique of eurocentrism and the binary it had imposedon art based as fine arts and craft and tradition and modernity, which local art practices had inherited as a cultural burden of colonialism and post-colonial legacies, which to a large extent have embraced without question.

Pothupitiye’s second interest has to do with the power and politicscartography. Cartography is an act of history-making as well as a means of power, control and imposing order. History is created, changed, disrupted and interpreted, among other things, by the act of mapping. Pothupitiye, re-crafts preexisting official maps and opensupthe possibilities for these ‘new’ maps to narrate very different stories. As he notes, “the maps I construct are like palimpsests. I overlay, juxtapose, and transform portraits of voyages, landscapes, mythical figures, and pre-existing maps to re-inscribe stories of Sri Lanka’s past and present, interspersed with my own personal history.”

Mahen Perera

Mahen Perera’s works essentially emanate from two questions: “How does one materialize the immaterial?” and “how do we portray schemes of memory, desire and fantasy, in a way that conjures recognisable feelings and experiences, yet resists the certainty of language?” The works he generally undertakes as well as what is presented in the exhibition can be understood as his attempt at offering these elusive questions a tangible visual form. In that effort, as he notes, “they oscillate between painting and sculpture, never settling in either” while they also “traverse a line between familiar and alien.”

Some of the most visible objects in Perera’s works are ‘knots’ in different forms and personalities. As he notes, at times, they are “tight lumps of knots that protrude from and snake along the canvas” while at other times, they“become larger and tighter filling with tense energy, about to explode.”The viewers will have to ponder over what these knots mean; what do they hold back and what do they hide? In general, Perera’s works are constructed out of personal objects and waste matter that offer possibilities to revisit memories of clothing, towels and bodies that have been marked by the human touch.

The Collective’s Intervention

It is obvious, all the six artists in this exhibition enters the discourse they formulate via an autobiographic route. Whether they claim it as a pre-condition for their work or not, without the presence of their ‘selves’ in the center of the narratives they weave, it would be difficult to give a location to their work in the exhibition. But from the genesis of the self, what they present is not merely a matter of personal recollection, but stories that will resonate more broadly across society. But this is not an exhibition of representational art.

Rather, by definition, these are conceptual work, highly intellectual and emotional in their formulation, political in their narration but not anti-aesthetic in the feelings they might generate. But whether all viewers can ‘read’ these works as intended by the artists remains to be seen. Given Sri Lanka’s rather backwards art appreciation inculcated by education in general, this is a good possibility. But it is not the job of artists to replicate their aesthetics and politics in the consciousness of viewers.

Taking each artwork as a point of departure, viewers can interpret them on the basis of their tastes, social and educational backgrounds, political sensibilities and so on. A plurality of ideas and a complex discourse on contemporary art can only emerge this way.

As an artistic intervention, The Collective’s main effort is to bring notions of memory and nostalgia to the forefront of visual imagination. And the backdrop in which this is done is the ongoing pandemic when memory becomesfar more centrally implicated in quotidian life given the shadows of death, illness, and sorrow within which we live.

I consider this exhibition six chapters of a single text where the authors are the artists.

Whether the stories they narrate, often in code, would be decoded by those who see the exhibition and would make them their own or a part of their collective cartography remains to be seen.

The writer is attached to the South Asian University, New Delhi