Installation view of AMAR KANWAR’s video A Love Story, 2010, for the exhibition “The Sovereign Forest” at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA), 2016. Courtesy NTU CCA

The Sovereign Forest

Amar Kanwar

NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore
Singapore India

Amar Kanwar’s project “The Sovereign Forest” (2011– ) is a portmanteau, created in collaboration with Sudhir Pattnaik and Sherna Dastur, incorporating documentary that explores major themes of resistance toward global capital and political corruption, as well as systematic destruction of the environment and community. The project’s most recent presentation at Singapore’s NTU Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) comes in the form of a densely-packed exhibition, which demands time and attention to unpick it within the context of Singapore, having already been shown and reviewed in Europe and India. To facilitate the projection of two large videos, The Scene of Crime (2011) and A Love Story (2010), which are the major features of this multipart project, the gallery space has been dimmed. This atmosphere also encourages a tactile encounter with the handmade paper used in Kanwar’s three books arranged around an inner room in the middle of the gallery. Each book relates a part of “The Sovereign Forest” story through the text on its pages, with images projected onto them literally, as well as in the way that the pulp of the pages are embedded with threads and seeds. However, the concrete presence of the three books, laid out like rare reference manuscripts with other archive materials in the main space, reminds us that the unwinding of personal narratives is the key to understanding the exhibition—especially its inquiry into the erasure of the life of India’s Odisha region.

AMAR KANWAR, The Seed Book, part of “The Sovereign Forest,” 2011– , mixed-media installation, including films, books and seeds. Installation view for the exhibition “The Sovereign Forest” at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA), 2016. Courtesy NTU CCA

The book The Counting Sisters and Other Stories (2011) presents a folk tale of a small act of resistance by a group of women who carry out a ritual of remembrance while, around them, state and local politicians and corporations collude to rewrite the legal documents that define the ownership and status of their village. Projected onto the pages are film images of landscape, plants and village life—the same scenes that the sisters in the story try to save. The viewer temporarily erases the images just by the act of turning the page of the book. Here the organic facticity of Kanwar’s book made from banana-leaf pulp brings home the visceral reality of the sisters’ stories of murdered and disappeared villagers. The piece reminds us that there is a role for the artist in representing such personal archives and strategies of opposition. More than being a series of vignettes or a collection of reportage, “The Sovereign Forest” appears in Singapore as a type of portable museum, an archaeology of the recent past with some similarities to the memory palaces of Ilya Kabakov, or Gerhard Richter’s “Atlas” (1962–2013). The constellation of tragic view points that “The Sovereign Forest” presents, as well as the artist’s investment in them, is at times overpowering yet is to be expected from a project of such urgency.

This exhibition at the CCA is the first by a South Asian artist under Centre director Ute Meta Bauer’s program; and while the circumstances of the Odisha region of India—the subject of Kanwar’s work—and the hyper urbanism of Singapore are separated by a major economic gap, there are many elements of “The Sovereign Forest” that relate to the context of the host city. The inherent conflict of the drive for economic development versus the conservation of environmental heritage is common to both. The video A Love Story (2010) shows activity in a vast landfill on the margin of an Indian city, making visible the frantic sifting of leftovers of consumerist cultures of which Singapore is at the apex. An archive of rice seeds from Odisha housed within the installation’s inner sanctuary room is also a demonstration that the institutional apparatuses of global trade that shaped modern Singapore originated with the spice trade and the region’s biodiversity. If anything, Kanwar’s illustration of collective identity in crises and the construction of community narratives is critical right now in Singapore, where the opening last year of the new National Gallery Singapore, in the former law courts and City Hall buildings, launched a new project for the retelling of the state’s historical narrative.

AMAR KANWAR, The Counting Sisters and Other Stories, 2011, handmade book and video projection. Courtesy NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore.
AMAR KANWAR, The Counting Sisters and Other Stories, 2011, handmade book and video projection. Courtesy NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore.

Kanwar’s two other handmade books, The Prediction (1991–2012) and The Constitution (2012), combine the simultaneous legal narratives of the assassination of labor activist Shankar Guha Niyogi in 1991, and the “abdication” of responsibility by the Indian state whom Niyogi had often objected to. Here, again, some of the machinations that Kanwar and his co-authors expose resonate with Singapore’s current sociopolitical situation. The land ownership dispute raised by the villagers of Odisha is rooted in the legacy of the 1858 Government of India act, and based on the 1876 Royal Titles Act. The term “Sovereign” used in the name of the exhibition is a reference to Queen Victoria, Empress of India. This coincides with the National Gallery Singapore’s bringing out of storage an 1880s statue of Queen Victoria—which was paid for by Chinese royalists—to watch over the “Artists and Empire” exhibition. As long as this toxic legacy endures we will need projects like “The Sovereign Forest” to promote counter narratives.

Installation view of AMAR KANWAR’s exhibition “The Sovereign Forest” at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA), 2016. Courtesy NTU CCA

Amar Kanwar’s “The Sovereign Forest” is on view at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore until October 9, 2016.