AMAR KANWAR, The Scene of the Crime, 2011. Photo by Jonty Wilde. Courtesy the artist. 

The Sovereign Forest + Other Stories

Amar Kanwar

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Amar Kanwar’s “The Sovereign Forest” (2011– ) keeps on growing. It has been presented in numerous contexts, including Documenta 13 (2012), the 11th Sharjah Biennial (2013) and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2012–13). With each iteration, new works are created and added, which build on the installation’s focus and premise—namely, the exhaustive struggles over the resource-rich land of Odisha in east India and the issue of its ownership. The project’s latest version, which was shown at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), was the most extensive to date.

The exhibition began with The Scene of Crime (2011), a video composed of a series of visual “maps” that document the landscape of Odisha in minute detail, from the Niyamgiri mango sapling to the paddy fields of Beldal village. The work serves as a memorial to the local land and lives lost to industrialization. One of the images shows a single stone column in a green field—a shrine to those from the town of Kalinganagar who died protesting against the negative effects of its fast-growing industrial area. This image was also featured in a book displayed in the exhibition’s main space—the publication also includes the names of those who died, alongside harrowing images of those who have suffered at the hands of state police. In the same room was another new book, Time (2013), a meticulous week-by-week account of the civil actions taken against the quest of one corporation, POSCO, to claim a stake in Odisha’s land and resources.

AMAR KANWARThe Six Mourners and the One Alone, 2013. Photo by Jonty Wilde. Courtesy the artist.

The resonance of presenting “The Sovereign Forest” in Yorkshire, with its mining heritage, was not lost on Kanwar. Also included in the exhibition were his six “Listening Benches” (2013), produced using parts from 19th-century wooden organ pipes salvaged from a chapel on the YSP’s estate, and The Six Mourners and the One Alone (2013), comprised of seven outdoor sculptures created from the same organ pipes and inscribed with text. Both works acted as silent testimony to the effects of industrialization on the county, while also connecting to a story included in another book in the show, The Counting Sisters (2011), comprised of fictionalized tales based on characters that Kanwar has come to know in his research. In this story, a group of mourners who sing about the atrocities that have befallen their community is incarcerated by the state, but keeps singing despite this imprisonment. The book underscores the main intention of “The Sovereign Forest”: to question whether poetry can act as evidence against injustices perpetrated by the state for questionable gains.

AMAR KANWAR, installation view of “The Sovereign Forest” (2011– ). Photo by Jonty Wilde. Courtesy the artist.

AMAR KANWARThe Sovereign Forest (Projected Book), 2012–. Photo by Jonty Wilde. Courtesy the artist.

AMAR KANWARThe Scene of the Crime, 2011. Photo by Jonty Wilde. Courtesy the artist.

Another book on show, The Prediction (1991–2012), presents a similar struggle in the state of Chhattisgarh (next to Odisha), which culminated in the 1991 assassination of Shankar Guha Niyogi, the enigmatic union leader of a local movement of mine workers. The book archives the state’s subsequent cover-up, which, in 2005, resulted in the Indian Supreme Court overturning the earlier convictions of those found responsible. Kanwar’s mapping of this sociopolitical movement resonated with the video work A Love Story (2010), which was also in the exhibition. A sister ode to The Scene of Crime, it edits together scenes from a rubbish dump with twilit images of the outskirts of an Indian city, employing this border space as a relational motif for notions of both separation and connection.

Overall, “The Sovereign Forest” is an allegorical tale questioning the limits of “sovereignty.” One of the most significant additions to its installation at YSP was a room with 157 documents from the Evidence Archive—a version of “The Sovereign Forest” that has been on permanent display at the Samadrusti campus in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, since 2012. Materials relating to the imposition of industry on Odisha’s predominately agricultural population are continuously added to the archive, and this development is a statement in and of itself. Like the struggle for sovereignty, “The Sovereign Forest” will keep on growing because it is a story without a foreseeable end.

AMAR KANWARListening Bench, 2013. Photo by Jonty Wilde. Courtesy the artist.

Amar Kanwar’s The Sovereign Forest + Other Stories” was on view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, from October 11, 2013–February 2, 2014.

Stephanie Bailey is the managing editor of Ibraaz, a consulting editor for Naked Punch and an editorial correspondent for Ocula.