Amar Kanwar

Marian Goodman, London, UK

‘The most “obscure” inner experience can appear as a glimmer to others from the moment it finds its just form of construction, narration, transmission.’ So writes Georges Didi-Huberman in Survivance des lucioles (Survival of the fireflies, 2009), a literary reflection on the flicker of fireflies and precarious forms of resistance under fascism in contemporary Europe.

Artist and filmmaker Amar Kanwar has spent his career gathering luminous scraps of testimony to chronicle the resilience of India’s most vulnerable. He repeatedly cajoles and blandishes light to offer stories in which darkness never reigns supreme and human beings rarely, if ever, submit to obscurity. Darkness in his films invites both the possibility for revelation – as with Night of Prophecy (2002), in which a blind man falls asleep and begins to dream – and the brilliance of protest, as in The Lightning Testimonies (2007), which stitches together first-hand accounts of victims of wide-scale abduction and rape during the Indian partition in 1947 and powerful anti-rape demonstrations in Manipur in 2004.

web_17835kanwar1.jpg

Amar Kanwar, Such a Morning, 2017, video still. Digital video, colour, sound, 85 min, single channel, looped, ed. of 6. Courtesy: the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris and London.

Amar Kanwar, Such a Morning, 2017, digital video still. Courtesy: the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris and London

With Such a Morning (2017), the centrepiece of his current exhibition at Marian Goodman, Kanwar departs significantly from his earlier documentary approach. An 85-minute single-channel film, which premiered at documenta 14, the piece is a fictional account of a solar eclipse and an ageing mathematics professor at the peak of his career. Retreating to an abandoned train carriage in the middle of a forest, the professor gradually screens out all light, day after day, and acquiesces to darkness. Mnemonic exercises help him perambulate his sparse refuge and navigate inner labyrinths of solitude as he serenely wills himself into blindness. The professor appears to renounce all expectations, desires and hopes for the future, surrendering to hopeless gloom. But in the limitless darkness he experiences a series of hallucinations and visionary epiphanies that guide him back to light and to writing poetry (a reference, perhaps, to the ‘photo-graphic’ nature of the filmmaking process). The evocative scenery that follows displays a reverence for nature – abstract patterns of vast ploughed fields and farmyards to close-ups of luscious wilderness and unpolluted forests – and the strange vision of an armed, lonely woman wrapped in a sari, who witnesses her home’s demolition and quietly resigns herself to her fate.

In two adjacent gallery spaces, a series of projectors throw flickering images onto sheets of handmade white paper that float free of the wall, evoking an old lantern-slide show. Collectively titled Letters (2017), the seven textured paper supports display sequences of black and white images and typed text: a crow perches on a tree branch; a leaf quivers, while another is twitched and tossed by the wind; a cloud frays at the edges. Ostensibly written by the professor, the freckled, porous papers are both tactile and auditory objects.

web_20346kanwar.jpg

Amar Kanwar, Letter 7, 2017, installation view. Four projections, digital video, text, 49 handmade ramie and cotton fiber papers. Courtesy: the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris and London

Amar Kanwar, Letter 7, 2017, installation view. Four projections, digital video, text, 49 handmade ramie and cotton fibre pieces of paper. Courtesy: the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris and London

Such a Morning resonates with rich literary histories of blindness (José Saramago’s 1995 novel of that name – an allegory about mass loss of sight, the perversion of reason, madness and concomitant state violence – comes to mind) as well as the mystical light experienced by enraptured Sufis and the enlightenment of the Buddha. The allegorical focus of Kanwar’s installation may well be the murky side of contemporary Indian politics: suppression of dissent, censorship of the press, murder of journalists and the re-writing of history books under the current Bharatiya Janata Party government (whose campaign slogan was ‘India Shining’). However, the film’s relation to these very real problems is little more than oblique. Kanwar’s longstanding investment is in the genres of the archival, the documentary and the everyday; by comparison, Such a Morning, with its formalized visual vocabulary and sumptuous studio production values, is simultaneously his flashiest work and his most obscure.

Main image: Amar Kanwar, Such a Morning (detail), 2017, digital video still. Courtesy: the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris and London

Emilia Terracciano is a writer based in London and Oxford. Her research interests lie in modern visual art and photographic practices with a focus on the Global South. Her book Art and Emergency: Modernism in Twentieth-Century India was published by I.B. Tauris in November 2017.

Issue 191

First published in Issue 191

November - December 2017

Most Read

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018