Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Amar Kanwar

The film maker Amar Kanwar spoke during the penultimate session of the Art Summit conference. The panel’s subject was Mapping Alternative Networks: Artists and Communities.Kanwar began by making the seemingly banal statement that it is very difficult being an artist. He then went on to the nitty gritty concerns a film maker faces and, having gone through those, returned to his original statement, which now had some meat on it. He took another path away, speaking about politics and dispossession and how a director might want to tackle some of these issues, and the problems that can create. By the time he finished, his original statement was imbued with melancholy honesty.
The structure of his talk, I realised, bore a strong resemblance to that of his documentaries. The first one I saw was A Season Outside. It starts at the Wagah border, where Indian and Pakistani soldiers go through a peculiar ritual each evening while closing gates through which trade is conducted during the day. The film develops into a meditation on violence, but keeps returning to Wagah, to the faces of those on both sides who crowd to watch guards do their goose-stepping routine.
Before I heard his talk, I took the structure of his films to be akin to that of Hindustani classical music. I’ve never studied the form, but, from what I understand and have heard, it involves a broad framework (the raga) which leaves a lot of room for improvisation. The vocalist keeps returning to one note only to depart and explore new territory. Each return marks the addition of a new layer of meaning and emotion, which is precisely what happens in A Season Outside and Somewhere in May, a film about Burmese exiles in Norway.
For independent non-fiction film makers in India, structure is the crucial stumbling block. The form defines itself in opposition to the conventional made-for-television documentary, which has an instrumental view of its subject. Typically, a television documentary will cut sentences from different parts of an interview and piece them together to advance the argument efficiently. It is a soundbyte driven form. Independent film makers, on the other hand, tend to feel a responsibility to their subjects and don’t want to violate the flow of interviews too much. Hesitation, repetitions, and long pauses are frequently accommodated as a way of getting to know the person being interviewed.
The interview is only one example of how the two forms differ. The independent documentary is less constrained by time and content, and allows for personal interventions and formal experiments. The downside of the freedom to experiment is that such films frequently become self-indulgent or plain tedious. The musical structure evolved by Kanwar, aided by Ranjan Palit’s searching camera and Sameera Jain’s editing skill, is a massive achievement in this context. But that is not his only success.
Kanwar’s films are deeply engaged with politics -- with the resistance movement in Burma, Dalit poetry, anti-military protests in the North-east, among other issues -- while also being extraordinarily personal and emotional. Within the spiral structure I’ve described, each return ratchets up the emotional level a notch till viewers' eyes brim with tears. The control of image and pace ensures the films never spill into sentimentality.
India's narrative tradition, both classical and contemporary, is extremely melodramatic, and wedded to repetition. Since modernism's mantra was 'less is more' and postmodernism is too ironic to cope adequately with deep emotions, our tradition has seemed at odds with what is cutting edge. Amar Kanwar is one of the very few artists (Ritwik Ghatak being another) to have enlisted the emotional slant of Indian narrative, all that dard and karuna, in films which manage also to be sharp, relevant and contemporary.

A strange thing happened to Amar Kanwar around the year 2001. He had already established himself in alternative film circles, when a gentleman named Okwui Enwezor came to Delhi looking for artists. Enwezor, a thirty-something Nigerian who had made the United States his home, had been appointed the artistic director of the most important art exhibition in the world, Kassel's Documenta. He brought a distinctly political, postcolonial perspective to bear on his curatorial choices, and cast his net beyond artists who showed in galleries. From India, he picked Amar Kanwar along with the Raqs Media Collective, bypassing the usual channels of selection, leaving me delighted, and many in the art world befuddled. Documenta 11 part-financed Kanwar’s A Night of Prophecy, a film about poets in conflict zones, which was screened through the exhibition’s run in Kassel in 2002.
Kanwar had become a name to be reckoned with in two different worlds with two very different systems of financing. A typical independent documentary is funded by an NGO. The director, who doubles as producer, makes a certain amount up front, with further money coming through DVD sales and telecast rights. To make 5 lakh rupees, a director would have to sell 500 DVDs priced at 1000 rupees each, quite a tall order. The art world, on the other hand, depends on scarcity rather than volume. A video artist will make an edition of, say, ten prints of a video, to be sold for maybe 5 lakh rupees a pop. After the gallery commission, just two sales will provide the video artist the same amount of money that 500 DVDs got the documentary film maker.
It is no wonder that, during the art boom, many experimental film makers reinvented themselves as video artists. The boundaries between the two are blurry enough for the transition to be made without too many eyebrows being raised.
Amar Kanwar, however, didn't make the shift for financial reasons, he more or less had the status of video artist thrust upon him. Following Documenta11, he has featured at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Geneva; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Art Basel, Miami Beach; the Whitney Museum; and had a solo show at London’s Whitechapel gallery in 2007, a year during which he also featured in Documenta12 with a video installation called The Lightning Testimonies. He has won prestigious prizes like The 1st Edvard Munch Award for Contemporary Art from Norway.
All this is well and good; it’s obvious from what I’ve written that I believe Kanwar deserves such honours. His art gallery and museum success, however, raises some questions regarding the relationship between the forms of documentary film and video art. There may be considerable overlap between the two, but Kanwar’s style is nowhere near the blurry boundary dividing the two forms. He is a director in the classical mould, who creates pure, carefully crafted images. Video art has had little use for those kinds of lyrical, emotive frames; unable to compete with film at the level of image quality, video artists developed an intellectual, contrapuntal, effects-driven form. Amar Kanwar comes out of a tradition that can be traced back to Robert Flaherty rather than Nam June Paik.
In order to fit in better within the bracket of visual art, Kanwar has taken to creating multi-channel installations, of which I have seen two, the first at the Apeejay gallery in Delhi and the second at Documenta12 in Kassel. He has also made documentaries on the same subjects, and there's no doubt in my mind that these work better.

The Lightning Testimonies, his eight-channel installation at Kassel in 2007, was fairly well received (the blurry picture above is a result of clicking without flash in a dark room). It makes for harrowing watching, composed as it is of tales of women raped and murdered by Indian security forces. But there is a sense of emotional overload to it, with little of the meditativeness that characterises Kanwar’s documentaries. When there is relief from the brutal tales, in the form of images of water dripping off eaves or flowers blooming, these feel out of place in the video art context for the reason mentioned above.
Kanwar’s linear projects are also frequently selected for exhibitions; for instance, A Season Outside was part of AfterShock, a show held in Norwich in 2007 for which I contributed a catalogue essay. The film was screened in a proper auditorium during AfterShock, but most galleries and museums offer rather rudimentary screening facilities. If there is seating, it usually consists of benches without backrests. People come and go throughout, since videos tends to be screened in a loop. All this disturbs the reception of films that demand to be seen from beginning to end with complete attention.
It’s no surprise, then, that a review in the magazine Frieze said of A Season Outside, after its screening at Whitechapel Gallery (see clarification below): “At times the pace of his journey is too slow and the outcome all too predictable: the experience is a little wearying.” I don’t believe any lover of independent documentaries would have emerged from a screening of the film in an auditorium with the same impression. The reviewer also wrote, “It’s interesting that Kanwar’s work has ended up in a contemporary art gallery rather than an arthouse cinema. There’s no particular reason, as far as I can tell, that he should be seen as an artist rather than a documentary maker.” The reason is simple: a man named Okwui Enwezor came to Delhi and looked beyond the normal curator's horizon.

Clarification: Amar informed me that the Whitechapel films were shown exactly the way a documentary programme would be, in a proper auditorium with published screening times, rather than as a loop in a gallery space. The Frieze reviewer's response, then, is mystifying to me. The entire piece is here.

Following the conversation with Amar, I want to clarify that I have nothing invested in the turf war between artists and film-makers, and no interest in erecting a barrier to keep film makers out of video art. Those familiar with my writing will know that I have often expressed disappointment with the quality of video art coming out of India. In my experience, artists generally know little about the history and possibilities of the form. Most choose to use video merely because it is fashionable and easy. Among the exceptions is Kiran Subbaiah, about whose work I wrote this post. Amar Kanwar's multi-channel explorations are far superior to most of the video art being produced in the country, and I have no problem whatsoever with him showing in galleries and museums. I maintain, however, that his most interesting and original work is in the single-channel format and this is best viewed from beginning to end in a darkened auditorium.


DS said...

Super post. Enjoyed reading it v much.

Jabeen said...

As you know, Girish, it really peeves me that most documentary filmmakers refuse to see themselves as practitioners of cinematic art. In my opinion, they end up using the medium in the same way as bad video artists - without really knowing its history or possibilities. Amar Kanwar is among the few who prove that you can actually make your documentary work more powerful if you stop treating it like a propaganda poster, and I imagine that he gets caught in this debate more often than he'd like. It's ironic that he ends up having to defend his approach to fellow docu makers who might think he's too artistic and elite, and then facing art critics who question why he's in the gallery.

I've always been an an Amar fan. Have never seen any of his work in an art gallery space. The idea is interesting, but I must say I find it difficult to imagine any of his films as installations. I mean, good for him if they work that way but as far as I'm concerned, his documentary films are art even inside an auditorium!


Anonymous said...

Sire, can we have more shooting and less mumbling in your blog?
At one point you were a sharp shooter.
One misses those days.

Anonymous said...

Great post, very gripping read. Love the blog.

adrian mckinty said...


He sounds a little bit like Errol Morris, no?

Girish Shahane said...

Hmm, I can't really see the resemblance, which is not to say there isn't any. Is there anything specific I wrote about Amar Kanwar that made you think of Morris?