The Regard of Amar Kanwar



by Yudit Kiss

Amar Kanwar is a poet. Like every poet, he is in search of beauty; the beauty of a flower, of water that flows, of the eyes of his beloved one, of the clarity of a thought. But as he bends closer to admire the burning crimson of a flower, he sees blood on the ground; he sees the river carrying dead bodies and sadness hiding in the smile of a woman. His regard moves permanently between the stunning beauty of our world and the brutality that lies beneath. This tension is the first force that grabs the visitor that encounters his work.

Amar writes his poems with images: painfully beautiful visions of nature, landscapes and people, human faces and bodies, alive and dead. He also writes with sounds: music, songs, noises of the world and with words, and histories. The four elements are omnipresent in his poetic universe: water is purity, movement, life, origins; earth is splendid landscapes and the dirt that has just soaked up the blood of the victims. Air is the domain of birds, of freedom, of smoke that lifts; of vultures that circle above the dead and the garbage. Fire is there to illuminate, to cook, to gather people together or to destroy. Amar Kanwar is not a lyrical poet, reporting on every minor move of his mind or body; he measures the temperature of the world and registers fever: our world is very, very sick.

Entering into Evidence, the 2012 retrospective exhibition of Kanwar’s major works in Switzerland’s prestigious Fotomuseum in Winterthur, the visitor is immediately submerged into the artist’s sensory world. Surrounded by images and enveloped by sounds, we slowly adjust to the space he created, gradually adapting his rhythm. We start to see what he sees, as if we were behind the camera. We hear the birds, the noise of the traffic or fragments of speeches on TV, bits of music and words, told, recited, sang or whispered to our ears; often in languages we can’t even identify. We shudder because we don’t know yet that the heavy sound behind us is a loom that falls down to change the thread and not a deadly tool. We are captured – as if the artist asked us gently, but firmly: “Don’t turn your regard away. You have to see.”

Amar Kanwar wants us to see what most of us prefer not to see: destruction and suffering caused by social injustice and violence fuelled by poisonous racist ideologies, political power battles and corporate greed. It’s not that his images are particularly hard to see. In sharp contrast to most of today’s media reporting that seems to find an obscene pleasure in exposing the suffering of others, Kanwar is very prudent in presenting the abominations of our everyday existence. Even in the few images that show directly agony or death, he insists on preserving the dignity of the victims. Violence is evoked by words and the disquietingly peaceful images of the places that have become scenes of crimes. Like in Claude Lanzman’s Shoah or Rithy Panh’s S-21, the horror takes place inside the spectator. Through our imagination, our personal stock of experiences, pains, fears and anxieties, what is narrated on the scene feels more intense and more personal. We have the impression of having personally met the young student leader, who was sentenced to 59 years of prison and killed in the eighth year of his captivity, the old lady whose daughter was murdered in front of her eyes, because she resisted the armed man who came to rape her, the woman who sings the unspeakable stories to the trees.

The installation The Torn First Pages, a tribute paid to the freedom fighters of Burma, opens with samples of the books and magazines of which Ko Than Htay, a Burmese bookseller tore out the first pages before selling them, to protest government propaganda. Next to them, in a modest, small-size book some of these pages are shown, together with other documents of the citizens’ resistance movement. On the remaining three walls of the exhibition room there are screens, some lined up, others seemingly following a certain order; some showing footage, others blank. At first, the visitor is quite at a loss. There are too many images, too many stories told, too much information pouring on us simultaneously. But if one takes the time – and this is the first thing Amar asks of his visitors – one can gradually discern the order in what initially looked like a random mass. On the two walls facing each other, one can gradually distinguish the images of official propaganda and those of resistance; identify the criminals, victims, survivors and witnesses; understand why some people want to keep memory alive, while others want to bury the past forever, like the General, who frenetically covers Gandhi’s cremation memorial site with colourful petals in a sequence of repeating images. On the last wall there are images of exile; of Burmese people living far away from their home, uprooted, carrying the pain of their bloody history in the indifferent environment of a foreign country. By the time we leave the room, we understand that the empty screens are there for the numberless untold stories.

The process is the same in each installation; captured by an intense and complex sensory world, the visitor becomes intrigued and begins to search for a meaning. And once reflection starts, the images, sequences of films, words and objects start to find their place and tell their story. We live in an accelerated world of inflated images, in a permanent dumping of information. Atrocities accumulate upon atrocities, but the public’s span of attention is appallingly short. Kanwar wants to teach our eyes to see again. To identify beauty and horror and distinguish the two. And then, since the eye is the exposed part of our brain, recall what our brain was made for: to reflect.

The artist restores the faces of the victims, brings them close and makes us look into their eyes. He calls their names, like Charlotte Delbo did in The Convoy of 24 of January 1943 naming the women with whom she was transported to Auschwitz; or Roberto Bolaño in 2666, presenting the young women who were raped and killed in the deserts surrounding Ciudad Juarez. We are not neutral spectators anymore; Kanwar makes us to become witnesses on our own. We share the pain, feel the outrage, help to carry the burden of memories, and, eventually, start asking questions about the nature of violence and social injustice, like the wise old man prompts his interlocutor in A Season Outside.

Slowly, we start to understand the next question Kanwar poses: What can one do with the invisible “body of evidence” of those who have been tortured, abused, raped, humiliated and killed? With those memories of horror that remain engraved in the retina forever? One can sink into silence or choose suicide to make disappear the bodies that carry too painful memories, like many genocide survivors do, years, decades after their ordeal. One can make the excruciating effort to tell the stories, erecting a tomb of words for the millions of victims; one can build a shrine, make films, sculptures, paintings or weave tissues to preserve the memory of the murdered ones. One can also turn sorrow into action, to fight for a world where such atrocities cannot be committed again.

But what if these testimonies are not heard, if the acts of protest are neglected, if history is permanently rewritten to accommodate those who hold power? One has to gather evidence, to provide proofs that strengthen the testimonies presented in the fight against injustice, impunity and oblivion. This is what Kanwar does. He gathers witnesses: survivors, companions of fate, passers-by; he collects evidence: words, images, objects, regards; he maps systematically the scenes of crimes, before and after they were committed. He gathers material to serve as evidence in the judgement that takes place in every visitor of his exhibitions. He takes us around on the beautiful lands of his continent and identifies them as scenes of crime. The orange tree, the hill, the road saw what happened and remain burdened by it. Only our comprehension can reconstruct their stories and ease the burden they carry.

Everything has a meaning in Kanwar’s universe; even the physical layout of his exhibitions. In the Winterthur show the visitor is gently directed through a trajectory: we start with the cold, hectic, nervously vibrating world of The Torn First Pages, where the broken fragments of reality hang in suspense and we finish the visit in a warm, dark room, with one large screen showing The Night of Prophecy in which people recite poetry commemorating their lost struggles, their martyrs, evoking hope. The words of pain become music that floats among trees, valleys or riverbeds; the simple, quiet room with its everyday objects fills up with words and becomes a shrine. In the final shot we see a river that flows slowly among lush vegetation. We are at the level of the water. A canoe approaches with a young man, who carries a small fire. He looks straight into the camera and smiles. This is the last image Amar Kanwar wants us to part with.

Time is the fifth element of Amar Kanwar’s poetic material. The pace of the exhibitions is part of the work, like images and sound. Time is also one of the protagonists of the various narratives that covers and reveals events, that unexpectedly sheds new light on the exhibits themselves. Time made the clandestine shootings of the Burmese anti-government protests into documents of evidence. No one expected that four years after The Torn First Pages was finished, the iron-doors of dictatorship would start to half-open, that a cautious process of democratization might start. The image of Norwegian people who celebrate National Day parading happily under their bright national colours, light-years away from the pain-stricken, alienated Burmese refugees, gains a particular significance for the visitor today. We know that some years later those happy citizens of that prosperous and safe country were forced to learn the basic experience of most refugees living in their land: that they can be slaughtered without a wink of the eye by their own countrymen in the name of a murderous ideology.

Most of Kanwar’s films provide a historical framework that put current events into the flow of history. The Lightning Testimonies recalls post-partition ethnic violence committed against women of different ethnic communities; The Torn First Pages starts telling its story in 1988 when the latest cycle of repression and resistance started, A Season Outside evokes the partition of 1947. These references suggest that despite our ever committed ‘Never again’, the same atrocities keep being committed regularly. The basic structures of power and manipulation have not changed; impunity and corruption cover the crimes that can thus be repeated over and over again. To Remember is a tribute to Gandhi and a painful reflection on how memory can become ossified, loose its connection with the present and be used and abused with ease. In a painful clash of past and present images, the artist shows the awesome visitors who admire the sacralised objects exposed in the little museum in Birla house, where Gandhi was assassinated, while in the streets of Gujarat, Gandhi’s birthplace, an anti-Muslim pogrom takes place. The perpetrators use the same extremist nationalist arguments as Mahatma’s killer.

The duty of memory is one of the leitmotivs of Amar Kanwar’s work. He learnt the importance of testimonies back in 1991, when Shankar Guha Niyogi, an exceptional trade union leader asked for someone to come to Bhilai to document the people’s fight for a better life. Kanwar arrived late; the day after Niyogi was assassinated. He could not become the chronicler of the struggle, of strength, of hope, like Patricio Guzmán did in another continent, in another battle; he arrived the day of the funeral. He filmed the pain, despair, outrage as people huddled together on the streets in that quickly darkening night of mourning. That failed encounter made Amar Kanwar a poet of loss.


The Sovereign Forest, Kanwar’s latest work shows the shaky images of that day back in 1991. Projected on a large handmade book, the film Prediction narrates Niyogi’s prediction of his assassination, the violence that was to follow, the trial that spread over two decades and did not deliver justice, the destruction caused by the booming Indian economy. The Sovereign Forest talks about dispossession: how large corporations, with the complicity of the democratically elected government of India expropriate land to carry out giant industrial projects, destroying rural communities, natural wealth and landscapes. In the centre of the project is the film The Scene of Crime around which a constellation of evidence is presented. The artist documents the losses: names the hundreds of peasants who committed suicide because their livelihood was destroyed, the people who fought for their rights and were killed, the 272 different varieties of rice, each one with its name and specificity that has been grown on the lands that are about to disappear, to be substituted by four patented varieties, marketed by the world’s largest agro-industrial corporations. From elemental labour rights we arrive to the demand of universal human rights; the right of existence on planetary level.

The Sovereign Forest starts by evoking a forgotten hero of class struggle and takes us to face our cosmic solitude and insecurity. One of the installation’s pieces, A Love Story starts at sunset with images of trees, as if we stepped out of Dante’s “dark woods” to travel on a road between darkness and the remnants of light. We arrive at a hill where some people busy themselves around a large earth-moving machine. There is soft, meditative music and a few words about the pain of a separation appear on the screen. As the camera gets closer, we realise that the scene takes place at a huge garbage dump in the outskirts of a city and the people moving around are in search of something useable. The camera backs up again and all we see now is the horizon cut between faint light and darkness. The machine and the people move in slow motion, as if they were figures of a shadow theatre. This is how mankind might look from the perspective of Gods: scavenging among the ruins of a destructed material world, fighting for survival, longing for hope.

The Sovereign Forest has become an organic project that keeps growing and evolving since 2011. In its latest showing in 2014 in Yorkshire Sculpture Park, it included videos, photos, hand-made books, objects, poems, stories, court documents and written messages of those who were involved in the events as well as those who visited the project’s showings. In the The Sovereign Forest Amar tests the boundaries of artistic creation and social action, the transformation of an everyday object into a piece of art, the metamorphosis of humans into objects and objects that become humans, like the 19th-century wooden organ pipes made into benches that tell stories or to the Counting Sisters, who keep the victims’ memory alive. Images of films freeze into photos, photos become paintings, silence fills up with sound and sounds become music. The installation flows out of the exhibition rooms; the stories and objects become part of the sumptuous landscape, while the sky outside the exhibition room becomes part of the narration.


Through its invisible roots, the The Sovereign Forest connects Kassel with Vienna, Wakefield and Boubaneswar, a city in Eastern India, in the very heart of the conflict, where the project has found a permanent home and continues developing through interactions with local visitors. In a rented ware house, on top of the office of a local media activist group, in the middle of the bustling provincial city, where people come to appear in court, to see a doctor or to shop, they are also invited to visit The Sovereign Forest. To come together, to bring along their testimonies, to see and reflect. The installation is designed like a seed, with an outer shell and a dark, compact core, where all the 272 seeds are gathered together. There they wait, silent and patient, to be planted again one day.

Photographs of The Sovereign Forest at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2012, by Jonty Wilde. 

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About the Author:

Yudit Kiss is a Hungarian-born economic researcher and author based in Geneva. In addition to several academic publications, she is the author of a novel and numerous articles for wider public interest.