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Death in Hikkaduwa

Death in Hikkaduwa was conceived during the first weeks of my art residency in Hikkaduwa, an enclave populated with sun kissed surfers and tourists escaping the winter weather to enjoy the warm and sunny climate of Sri Lanka.  It struck me how different this tourist town was – with its night clubs and trendy cafes – to the small working towns and villages only a few kilometres away. It felt as if we were contained within an invisible bubble.

I wanted to find a way to express this perceived divide and consider how even today Sri Lanka is being economically invaded and controlled by foreigners. Have the Chinese replaced the British?  They have certainly invested vast amounts into every aspect of business on the island and now control the port of Hambantota. Like the British in the 19th century they understand the power of commerce.

As I developed friendships and trust with several local people it became apparent that all was not well in paradise.  Sri Lanka is massively expensive compared to other Asian countries and people are really struggling to cope with the ever rising prices and taxes. Dr Ameer Ali writing in the Colombo Telegraph states ‘Nothing moves upwards or downwards through public administration without bribing someone to get something done.’

I asked myself a difficult question. By being in Hikkaduwa, economically privileged and Western, was I also contributing to Post-colonialism in Sri Lanka?  After all, my forbearers contributed greatly to the political de-stabilisation of Sri Lanka through their British colonial policy of divide and rule which left a legacy of unrest between Sinhalese and Tamils.  By positioning a disproportionate number of minority Tamils in every aspect of government they created resentment within the Sinhalese majority which finally led to anti-Tamil measures and the war.

My thoughts were further focused as I witnessed first-hand the aftermath of the civil unrest in Sri Lanka’s second city Kandy. I was travelling back to the city one evening on the day in which riots had taken place between the Buddhist and Muslim communities. We were stopped in our tourist car at a heavily armed checkpoint. I was asked by the solider where we were going as the city was locked down and under curfew. I asked ‘Is there trouble here?’ He answered quite chillingly, ‘No trouble in Sri Lanka.’ He had obviously been well tutored in the government’s propaganda.

   

The town of Hikkaduwa, like many of the tourist enclaves of Sri Lanka, bears little resemblance to the rural and urban reality of the country.  I had a distant memory of the storyline of ‘Death in Venice’ directed by Luchino Visconti in 1971, in which the authorities keep the tourists on the Lido of Venice and cover up the fact that the city is gripped by a major epidemic of Cholera, afraid that the tourists would leave if they knew the true reality. I started to think of the parallels between Hikkaduwa beach and Venice Lido.  The film provided the perfect platform from which I could create a satirical performance reflecting the situation I found myself in as a Westerner here in Hikkaduwa.

I started developing my artistic concept; to represent a colonial gentleman from the past, so absurdly arrogant and privileged that he floats above the waves. He sits sipping tea, served by his man servant, totally oblivious to the modern day surfers and tourists absorbing paradise and acting out their own fictional roles, with perfectly honed six packs and all over tans. Every detail for my performance was carefully considered; from the construction of a levitating seat, to the purchase of props and the commission of a period suit made by a local tailor. I was fortunate to have the collaboration of two of my fellow artists on the residency, namely Damian Wright who performed brilliantly as the gentleman’s servant and Tim X Atack who created a wonderful adaptation of the film’s music score by Gustav Mahler which played during my 90 minute performance.

 

   

  

     

This classic 1971 Italian-French film: ‘Morte  a Venezia’ directed by Luchino Visconti and starring Dirk Bogarde  was based on the 1912 book ‘Der Tod in Venedig’ by German author Thomas Mann. It tells the story of a German writer [ book] Aschenbach  and composer [ film ] who travels to Venice to  escape artistic stress. Despite finding out about the Cholera epidemic he decides to stay as he is captivated by ‘Tadzio’ a Polish youth staying at the hotel.

Carving it up in Hikkaduwa

Update and reflection of project 30/03/2018

Week 6

This collaborative art project has not only worked from an artistic prospective, but also on a personal level. The connections made with the people in Sri Lanka, particularly those I worked with on a daily bases has left a lasting impression and given me a real insight into the their thoughts and lives.  This particular project was undertaken in over six weeks working with Sri Lankan woodcarver Nalin Nalinda to create a series of wood carved objects copied from washed up plastic objects found on the beach.

The complete installation was exhibited as part of the Moving Out exhibition at Sunbeach Hotel in Hikkaduwa on the 24th March 2018 and will be exhibited in Scotland in 2018 as part of the Residency exhibition.

week 2

The wood carving project is progressing really well now. I have been working with Nalin for nearly two weeks and we are becoming good friends; he has a mad side to his personality which I can easily relate to! One of the main aims of this collaborative project was to exchange ideas and skills. Watching Nalin carve is a delight. He has a really good eye and has been careful to copy the plastic objects that I found washed up on the beach to perfection.

Nalin starting work on first carving challenge

We worked together all day yesterday with the rain lashing down outside and rattling on his shop’s steel roof. It was really amazing to see the dramatic change in the skies as the clouds swept in from the ocean. By the end of the day we were both pretty tired, partly due to the change in weather and the fact that we had carved for nearly seven hours in the heat. As I was about to leave he said that he had learnt so much from working with me and would never have imagined himself making carvings like this before. I replied and said that I too had learnt so much from working and spending time with him. I smiled inwardly, delighted that we had made this connection so quickly through our shared love of craftsmanship and that he was gaining equally out of the project.

We have visited other wood carvers in the area and spent several hours looking in the beautiful galleries in Galle, the large town near Hikkaduwa; even allowing ourselves time out to saviour a delicious lunch in the very elegant Maison de Raux Hotel – best iced coffee I’ve tasted in years!


Traditional carving – amazing detail.

The aim is still to make upto ten carvings which will be exhibited alongside the plastic objects. It will be difficult as each one can take several days to finish, but fingers crossed we have enough time. I’m still debating in my mind how this will work, but early thoughts are to have two circles on the floor of the gallery; one of the carved sculptures and one of the plastic objects found on the beach.


Kaduru [Balsa wood] carving of plastic container


Three objects carved in Jack wood and Kaduru

My wife Susan emailed me a picture of an island of floating plastic bottles and waste out in the Ocean that was on the news back home. Perhaps this would be a good reference for the final shape of the installation and help draw parallels to the growing awareness of the damage being done to the delicate ecological balance of the world’s oceans.

First week in Hikkaduwa

I have now been in beautiful Sri Lanka for four days and have settled down into a good balance between developing my work and taking time to relax and absorb this amazing place. Perhaps allowing myself this rare time to reflect and explore new ideas is the very reason for being here!

I am on this residency with some fantastic artists who have all shared their art practises with their inspiring slide shows. I’ll come back to each of them as the weeks progress and point you to their websites. It has been such a bonus to sit and chat about each others experiences; although we are all very different it has been interesting to see how some of our thought processes and methods cross over. As our collective ideas blossom there’s an infectious buzz of excitement! I’m looking forward to collaborating with them in the last two weeks of the residency.

Siripala Nalinda, a traditional wood carver in the area, introduced me to his son in law Nalin who has his carving business in Hikkaduwa. I am pleased to say Nalin has agreed to help me carve replicas of found rubbish washed up on the beach. At first he was rather taken back! Can’t say I blame him, odd Scottish fellow asking a skilled craftsman to make a copy of rubbish found on the beach. Fortunately after spending some time together we are forging ahead with the collaboration and I think he is now embracing the idea, which is exactly what I had hoped for with this particular project. It is really important for me that they also gain new skills and understanding from this project.

I want to give these throwaway objects a new value by intricately carving each one. Spending days creating them celebrates their design and redefines their purpose and aesthetic value. I am interested in how as a society we differentiate between objects and materials, some thrown away and others cherished and protected. Hopefully this idea will not only reflect the intrinsic beauty of these objects, but also question why we discard such interesting objects, often to the detriment of the natural environment, particularly the ocean and its marine wildlife.

I hope to make ten different carvings of varied sizes and shapes, these will then be exhibited in a gallery space at the end of the residency.


Siripala Nalinda in his workshop


Found objects from the beach front


Starting work in Nalin’s workshop in Hikkaduwa


First challenge for Nalin