Wakefield

Amar Kanwar, The Prediction, 1991–2012, silkscreened, handmade banana-fiber-paper book and digital projection (color, silent, 8 minutes); book: 22 3/4 x 55 1/2".

Amar Kanwar, The Prediction, 1991–2012, silkscreened, handmade banana-fiber-paper book and digital projection (color, silent, 8 minutes); book: 22 3/4 x 55 1/2".

Amar Kanwar

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Amar Kanwar, The Prediction, 1991–2012, silkscreened, handmade banana-fiber-paper book and digital projection (color, silent, 8 minutes); book: 22 3/4 x 55 1/2".

Beauty is interspersed with menace in “The Sovereign Forest + Other Stories,” New Delhi-based Amar Kanwar’s first major show in the UK. Nestled among the undulating hills of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is the shadow-filled Underground Gallery. Here, visitors encounter Kanwar’s The Scene of Crime, 2011. Watching this forty-two-minute video with its mesmerizing sound track, one is initially has trouble imagining violence in such tranquil terrain: A fisherman casts his net, birds chirp sweetly, long grass sways, and a solitary tree shakes its leaves in a breeze. Slowly, we apprehend that we are seeing an Eastern coastal region whose natural habitats are being wiped out. That the work was shot in Odisha, India, near the Bay of Bengal—a territory “under threat”—is not immediately apparent from the lush landscape it vividly depicts. Thus, the gallery’s wall text and The Scene of Crime’s subtitles become crucial to understanding the politics behind poetic images. Reading these, we glean the video’s subject: the looming transformation of India’s countryside by its rapid economic development. The national government has sold the rights to much of the land in this region to multinational corporations, which will use it for everything from mining aluminum to building factories. As wall text explains, “Every location, every blade of grass . . . seen in the film is no longer meant to exist.”

Kanwar’s oeuvre circles around the injustices of nation building. In the midst of The Scene of Crime, the serene beauty of the landscape erupts into violence. We catch glimpses of armed conflict: fire, soldiers, and guns. But since the action is shrouded in smoke, we cannot ascertain who is fighting whom. We discover only through the subtitles that the battle is between the tribal farmers of Odisha and the Republic of India. Is this vagueness meant to mirror the moral ambiguity of ownership? India might be the largest democracy in the world, but its rich continue to feed off its poor. In a dark room, Kanwar installed 272 varieties of rice seeds in black containers resembling little coffins. The seeds hail from Odisha, and, consequently, are threatened with extinction, thanks to the industrialists who are occupying what was once ancestral agricultural land.

Kanwar’s artistic career took off in 2002 when Okwui Enwezor selected him for Documenta 11. The Indian art world initially questioned the introduction of a “documentary filmmaker” into spaces for “fine art,” but “The Sovereign Forest,” curated by Claire Lilley, the director of the sculpture park, put paid to such quibbles. Here, Kanwar has extended his intention to present what he calls “poetry as evidence”: All the elements of the show operate in concert as in carefully crafted verse, in which words, sounds, and images ricochet, replicate, and repeat to form familiar refrains. For example, The Prediction, 1991–2012, a handmade book, encloses “evidence” of the 1991 assassination of Labour Union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi, who spent fourteen years spearheading the Mine Workers’ Movement in Chhattisgarh, in central India. Images from The Scene of Crime are projected onto its weighty off-white, textured pages. Thus, the vast book acts as a screen for the video to unfold on the right-hand side—even as we read the textual “evidence” of the murder on the accompanying page on the left.

Kanwar’s exhibition grafts well onto the YSP’s own background. His first forays into plein-air sculpture—6 Listening Benches and the totem-pole-like protrusions of The Six Mourners & The One Alone, both 2013—are scattered around the park, which is situated near now-defunct coal mines that were shut by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. This closure resulted in the enforced dislocation of local mining communities. A social and economic shift that still reverberates in the region, this shuttering clearly relates to those Kanwar explores in Odisha: one kind of displacement reflected on (and refracted) another.

Zehra Jumabhoy