Distorted Transmissions

Chandraguptha Thenuwara: GLITCH+
Saskia Fernando Gallery, Colombo
22.07.17 – 13.08.17

First Prize
Entry in English

Everyone remembers the route they took home that day. Nearly thirty-five years on from the Black July Riots of 1983, Chandraguptha Thenuwara is still able to trace his exact journey from Wijeya Newspapers in central Colombo, where he was working as a freelance artist, to the Tamil suburb of Wellawatte. In his mind, certain images remain crystal clear: gangs on the street, Tamil restaurants on fire, signs saying ‘this house belongs to a Sinhalese’, and people being brutally murdered depending on the way they pronounced the word for ‘bucket’ or ‘pen’ ( pana in Sinhala; pehna in Tamil ). What haunts Thenuwara the most is that the police and army were there but did nothing to stop the bloodshed until dusk. Essentially, he feels, the state allowed it to happen. Everyone remembers the route they took home, because they navigated through streets of fear.

In many ways the government’s incendiary role in the conflict remains unacknowledged and unresolved. Some say its controversial decision to bury the thirteen soldiers murdered in Jaffna by Tamil separatists in the Sinhalese-majority city of Colombo played a role in inciting the 1983 riots. This civil unrest went on to trigger the twenty-seven-year civil war which ended in 2009. The country has since witnessed a peaceful democratic regime change in 2015, but, two years in, the new government’s promises for constitutional reform and transitional justice have yet to materialise. Despite the rhetoric abroad that Sri Lanka is finally moving towards a space of truth and reconciliation, for many people at home there are still no answers. The state remains amnesic, the truth remains camouflaged and, as Thenuwara reminds us, this peace remains fragile.

The moment of transition from wartime to peace, and promises to proof, was the subject of Thenuwara’s recent solo exhibition, GLITCH+, staged at the Saskia Fernando Gallery in Colombo. More than a presentation of the fifty-seven-year-old’s latest body of work, GLITCH+ acted as a major milestone for the Colombo-based artist and activist. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of an exhibition he has held without fail each year on 23 July, the day of the 1983 riots. Self-curated and uncensored, his recurrent staging continues to act as a rare and independent critique, a form of public protest and as a site of memorialisation. Where other artists in Sri Lanka engage with the conflict in abstract or autobiographical ways, Thenuwara stands out for his cutting, fearless and direct commentary.

In what has become a longstanding ritual, the works for the July exhibition are made in the span of a few short months, but are the result of a year’s contemplation. GLITCH+ began with three large-scale canvases covered in dappled hues of blue, green and red. These three colours constitute light, but symbolically the colours also represent Sri Lanka’s main political parties – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party ( SLFP ), United National Party ( UNP ) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna ( JVP ) – whose customary merging and member-swapping can be difficult to keep up with. This muddling state of affairs could explain why Thenuwara’s colours appear to be mixing and in a constant state of motion, pixelating and reconstituting before us, as we squint and try to decipher them.There is no clear image to be found, however, and staring at them for a period of time only compounds the sense of confusion.

Facing the three canvases is a fourth, painted in patches of mottled yellow – the colour of the generic barricades used by the government in order to block street protests. The regular sight of marches in Colombo is indicative of what the city’s artists, writers and academics describe as its newly expanded civic and psychological space. For Thenuwara, to be able to speak without fear is not enough. ‘We don’t have justice for the killings, we still don’t know what happened to those who went missing’, he said when we spoke in June. ‘We’re meant to be living in the information age, but it feels more like the dark ages.’

In many cases, the information that does surface in the press offers more questions than answers. The new administration’s investigation into the torture and murder by state security in 2012 of local rugby star Wasim Thajudeen, who the police initially claimed had been killed in a road accident, is still underway. It is still unclear why the state narrative maintains that Isaipriya, the television broadcaster for the Tamil separatists, was killed by the army in 2009, when photographs proving that she was alive in 2012 have emerged. Both the haunting face of Thajudeen and the disturbing figure of Isaipriya make an appearance in Thenuwara’s eponymously named paintings. The latter work is so blurred that it can almost be read as a ubiquitous symbol for the countless, faceless and nameless victims of the conflict, which has yet to receive some kind of resolution.

Thenuwara produces the distorted effect we see in much of the work shown in GLITCH+ by painting an original image and covering it with strips of masking tape, at half-inch intervals. He then layers the entire canvas with oblique brushstrokes of paint. Finally, a partially obscured image is revealed when the artist removes the tape. Thenuwara’s installation takes this visual obfuscation a step further, by covering an underlying image with so many strips of tape that what the viewer sees is closer to a redaction than an abstraction. Thenuwara also heightens the sense of distortion by wrapping the installation with strings of multicoloured fairy lights, of the kind that are commonly used in Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka. The lights are set at an unstable voltage, so that they flicker and fuse periodically.

If multiple ideas and references seem to jostle for space in this exhibition, the artist’s message remains loud and clear: ‘You may have a super television’, he told us, ‘but without a proper power supply, you will still get a glitched image.’ Where his criticism of the current state comes across as reactionary at times, it is saved by our knowledge of his long history of commitment to the cause. Two decades ago his exhibition Barrelism ( 1997 ), for which he placed several army-green barrels in the white-cube space of the Heritage Gallery in Colombo, was his first show to critique Sri Lanka’s shifting political landscape. Barrels, which had once been associated in people’s minds with boiling tar for building the newly independent nation’s roads, had now become synonymous with routine checkpoints and civil strife. And Thenuwara, as always, was unafraid to spell this out.

The drive to be this kind of artist – critical, provocative and socially engaged – was fuelled by formative moments during his youth. Thenuwara studied for his MA degree in Moscow, from 1985 to 1992, where he was immersed in the movements of socialist realism and its avant-garde revisions. While he was away, the second JVP uprising in southern Sri Lanka was taking place – a violent social revolt, which resulted in the death of thousands of people. Two bodies of work that he exhibited on his return to Colombo were a direct response to this period: a solo show of figurative works, called Moscow Paintings ( 1992 ); and a painting commemorating the killing of the journalist and human rights activist Richard Manik de Zoysa, shown in the game-changing exhibition New Approaches in Contemporary Sri Lankan Art in 1994.

Thenuwara’s voice, as a painter of the human condition, had already developed a distinctive tone. In a country submerged by waves of violence and oppression, corruption and injustice, he felt duty-bound, as an artist, to speak to, and for, the collective. Today his commitment to social endeavours takes on many guises. As an outspoken activist, he sits on multiple committees for democratic change, gender equality and educational reform, while his belief in the power of art sees him direct initiatives, from the Arts Council of Sri Lanka to the alternative art school, Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts. Despite all this, Thenuwara maintains that his twenty-year dedication to one continuous theme – the horror, killing and carnage of the anti-Tamil riots on 23 July 1983 – is his most significant role.

What compels the artist to memorialise this moment in this way is not just the state’s denial of past events, but its own, selective and agenda-driven commemoration of them. Over the past few years, the erasure of certain histories versus the furthering of others has often had disastrous consequences, in a nation where communities are already divided. Thenuwara counters this biased approach to memorialisation not with monolithic statues of victors or victims, but with transient reflections on the contemporary moment. With this choice, the artist effectively challenges the very notions of memory and the monumental – replacing them with something ongoing that is intangible, and that deserves renewal on an annual basis.

After years of bloody conflict and state censorship, Sri Lanka has finally managed to rid itself of the old guard and make room for the new. The promise of a more stable future seems more possible than before. Thenuwara remains uniquely positioned, as a cultural practitioner who is critical of the state and who is also an active part of the movement for change. The next couple of years will be crucial in determining whether the country moves towards accountability and accord, or swings back to apathy and instability. GLITCH+ occupies a pivotal space, where it has the potential to resonate strongly, as a sounding board for the distortion of prevailing ideologies, and as a testament to the truth, so that the past can finally be laid to rest.


《昌德拉古普塔· 特努瓦拉:低频干扰+》
萨斯基亚· 费尔南多画廊,科伦坡
2017 年7 月22 日- 2017 年8 月13 日


译/ 黄晔丹

每个人都记得自己那天是怎么回到家的。1983 年发生在斯里兰卡的黑色七月暴动至今已过去差不多35 年了,昌德拉古普塔· 特努瓦拉仍能在心中描绘出自己从位于科伦坡 ( Colombo ) 市中心, 他以自由画家身份供职的维杰亚报业集团 ( Wijeya Newspapers ) 到维拉华特 ( Wellawatte ) 市郊的泰米尔人聚居地的路线,那些记忆中的画面依然清晰可辨:帮派在街上游荡, 泰米尔餐厅着了火,标语上写着“这栋房子属于僧伽罗人” ( 译注: 斯里兰卡人口最多的种族 ),人们被残忍地杀害,仅仅是因为他们对“水桶” 或“钢笔” 的发音不同( 僧伽罗语为“pana”;泰米尔语为“pehna ” ) 。而最令特努瓦拉感到不安的是,警察与军方明明在场,却直到黄昏都没有对这起流血事件采取任何阻止行动。在他看来,必定是国家让这起事件发生的。每个人都记得事发当天的回家路径, 因为他们是在恐惧的驱使下穿街走巷逃亡回去的。

在很多方面,政府在这场冲突中所扮演的煽风点火的角色依然未被确认,也没有得到解决。有舆论认为,在贾夫纳 ( Jaffna ) 有13 名士兵被僧伽罗人聚居的科伦坡的泰米尔分裂主义分子所杀,政府作出埋葬这些士兵的决议具有争议性,这是引发1983 年暴动的导火索。这场社会动荡随后触发了长达27 年之久的内战,风波直到2009 年才得以平息。斯里兰卡举国上下在2015 年见证了一场和平的民主政权更替,然而两年之后的今天, 新政府上台时所承诺的法制改革及过渡时期的司法制度仍然有待落实。尽管斯里兰卡对外界宣扬该国终于揭开实现真理与和解的新篇章,对于国内的许多人来说,真实境况是否如此依然没有定论。政府面对本国历史保持失忆的态度,真相被掩饰,而当前的和平在特努瓦拉眼中也是脆弱的。

特努瓦拉近期在科伦坡萨斯基亚· 费尔南多 ( Saskia Fernando ) 画廊举办个展“低频干扰+” ( 2017 年 ),其主题就是那些从战争转向和平, 从承诺到被证实的关键时刻。此次展览不仅汇集了特努瓦拉的一系列近作,更是标志着这位时年57 岁, 定居科伦坡的艺术家兼社会活动家人生中的一块重要里程碑。宛如一场宗教仪式一般,他每年都会在1983 年暴动发生的那个日期 ( 7 月23 日 ) 举办一场展览,今年正好是第二十个年头。这些定期举办的系列展览均是由艺术家本人一手策办且未经审查的,运用少见而独立的批评声音及公众抗议的形式,成为纪念那段历史的前沿阵地。当斯里兰卡其他艺术家们多用抽象或自传体的方式表现那场冲突时,特努瓦拉通过展览所表现出的直接, 尖锐而又无畏的观点显得尤为鹤立鸡群。

作为一种由来已久的仪式,本次七月展览的展品在短短数月内就已完成了,但前期构思的时间却长达一年。作为展览《低频干扰+》的开场作品,三幅大型油画上充斥着蓝, 绿, 红的斑驳色调—这三种颜色不仅是光谱的颜色,也是斯里兰卡几大主要政党的代表色,包括斯里兰卡自由党 ( SLFP ), 统一国民党 ( UNP ) 及人民解放阵线 ( JVP ) 。这几个政党总是习惯合并在一起,其成员也时常互相置换,因此很难将他们区分开来。可能正是由于这种混乱的政局,特努瓦拉才会将三种颜色混合, 重组并像素化,令观众在眯起眼睛, 试图为作品解码时,能够体验到一种持续的动态感。

然而,纵观这三件作品并不能看清上面有什么具体的图案, 而在盯着画面一段时间之后,只会倍增混乱感。在这三幅油画的对面是第四幅油画,画面上充满了一块块斑驳的黄色—斯里兰卡政府为了阻止街头抗议而常用的路障就是这种颜色的。科伦坡的艺术家, 作家与学者们将当地经常举行游行的地点称为这座城市新兴的市民空间及心理空间。对于特努瓦拉来说,能够无畏地站出来发声是不够的。在今年六月与他的对谈中,这位艺术家告诉笔者:“对于死者来说,没有公平可言,更何况那些失踪者至今下落不明。照理说,我们现在是生活在一个信息时代,但感觉上更像是活在黑暗的中世纪。”

从表面上看,报章上的报道在很多情况下引发的问题多过答案。斯里兰卡橄榄球星瓦西姆· 塔朱登 ( Wasim Thajudeen ) 在2012 年惨遭国家安全部门有关人员的拷打及谋杀,而警方最初将他的死因归结为一场交通意外,目前新政府对此事件的调查仍在进行中。另外,官方报道不知因何缘故坚称泰米尔族分裂主义分子, 电台记者伊思普莉娅 ( Isipriya ) 于2009 年为军方所杀, 然而有照片证据显示她在2012 年仍然在世。塔朱登那张令人难忘的脸庞以及伊思普莉娅那恼人的身影均出现在特努瓦拉的同名画作中。有关伊思普莉娅的那件作品的画面如此模糊,以至于几乎可以被解读为象征着内战冲突中不计其数, 下落不明的无名受害者。


的与其说是一件抽象作品,不如说是一份草稿。为了提升扭曲感, 特努瓦拉为装置作品缠上一串串通常在斯里兰卡佛教庆典上用到的彩色灯珠。由于设置的电压不稳定,这些小灯珠只能发出间歇性的闪光。

即使在本次展览中充斥着各种理念与参考资料,艺术家想要传达的讯息依然清晰而又响亮。他告诉笔者:“你可以有一台超级电视,但是倘若没有合适的电力供应,你只能看到一个受到低频干扰的图像。”尽管他对当前时政的评论有时会显得比较反动,但他也绝非第一次做出这样的举动了。二十年前,也就是1997 年, 特努瓦拉在科伦坡传统画廊 ( Heritage gallery ) 举办了他生平第一场评论斯里兰卡时局变迁的展览《汽油桶主义》 ( Barrelism ), 当时他在展场空间中摆放了几个军绿色的汽油桶,这一物件一度与这个新近独立的国家兴建公路所使用的沸腾的焦油相关,并成为“常规检查站”及“内战”的代名词。艺术家秉持着一如既往的勇气, 将之作为展览主题。

特努瓦拉青年时代的成长经历促使他成为一名充满批判力, 善于启发世人且注重社会参与的艺术家。自1985 年起至1992 年,他曾在莫斯科攻读硕士学位,游学期间接触到当地先锋画派及社会主义写实主义运动并深受其影响。彼时,人民解放阵线 ( JVP ) 正在斯里兰卡南部掀起第二波起义,这场充满暴力的社会动乱导致数千人死亡。作为对这一历史事件的直接回应,特努瓦拉学成回国后在科伦坡举办或参与了两场展览:其一是举办题为“莫斯科绘画”的个展 ( 1992 年 ),展出他一系列充满象征性的作品;其二是参与开创新局的群展“当代斯里兰卡艺术的新途径” ( 1994 年 ),并展示其为纪念遇害的记者兼人民解放阵线活动家理查德· 马尼克· 德· 祖依沙 ( Richard Manik de Zoysa ) 所创作的一幅画作。

作为一名关注人类处境的画家,特努瓦拉已形成自己独特的创作风格。身处于斯里兰卡这个充满暴力与压迫, 腐败与不公的国度里,他觉得自己有责任成为一名面向群众且为群众发声的艺术家。时值今日,他以许多不同的方式实现其所承诺的社会性尝试:作为一名敢于直言的社会活动家,他身兼多个委员会的职务,积极参与民主改革, 性别平等及教育革新等多项议题;由于深信艺术所蕴含的力量,他倡议发起了斯里兰卡艺术委员会 ( Arts Council of Sri Lanka ) 及维布哈威艺术学院 ( Vibhavi Academy for Fine Arts ) ;尽管如此,特努瓦拉最重要的成就还是他坚持二十年来持续以同一个主题举办展览,以纪念那场发生在1983 年7 月23 日的反泰米尔人大屠杀。

艺术家之所以被迫用上述方式来纪念这一历史时刻,不仅是因为官方拒绝承认这一事件,还由于政府自身在议程驱动之下对过往历史作出有选择性的曝光。在过去的几年中,对于一个社会分化的国家而言,对某些历史事件的抹杀与对另一些历史事件的强化经常会导致悲惨的结局。特努瓦拉反对以如此偏颇的方式来纪念历史,他以对当下事件的瞬间反应来代替为胜利者或受害者塑造统一的雕像,并以此对所谓的记忆和纪念作出有效的挑战—以某种持续的, 无形的,且值得每年更新的方式取而代之。