by Najrin Islam

History and memory are the two channels through which one remains cognizant of the past. However, neither (institutionalized) history nor memory can claim absolute representation of the past as they are dependent on each other. This dependence stems from their ability to act as channels of mediation and thus widen the ambit of a given discourse. Thus, one is compelled to question the politics of remembering and forgetting past events as they are governed by larger questions of historical reflection and their political urgency in the present. In the exhibition “Days without a Night”, curators Leonard Emmerling and Kanika Kuthiala present works that look at trauma and its attendant notions of repression and commemoration. The task is undertaken via a contextually-specific lens, generated primarily out of discussions over how communal conflicts and genocide have largely come to shape our memory of the twentieth century.

Situated in a former orphanage on Barakhamba Road, the visitor is thrown into a labyrinthine structure, as each work reveals different facets of personal and collective trauma; through depictions of affected ecologies, scarred psyches, memories, mourning and reconciliation. Pallavi Paul’s video installation, ‘Nayi Kheti’ (‘New Harvest’) looks at the origins of cinema and chronicles a series of speculative encounters between the late Vidrohi (the common man’s poet, who called Jawaharlal Nehru University his home) and the Spanish poet, Garcia Lorca. She places their conversation against illusory dreams harboured by a farmer: “I am a farmer who is trying to grow paddy in the sky”, says Vidrohi. This may lead one to think about the urgent issue of farmer suicides in India, the exploitation of their labour and resources, and their many dreams that are crushed under this weight. The film takes a surreal approach, situating the farmer’s predicament in a language of mourning and nostalgia.

Varunika Saraf looks at the lived reality of the Dalit community and the fleeting memory of the upper-caste urban bystander through her sketches from the ongoing ‘Citizen Z’ series. Arranged neatly in rows, the portraits reveal gestures of torture and resistance - images we are familiar with, from newspaper and television news. The sketches are minimalist in nature, and mock the distance and numbness cultivated by the viewer against harrowing imagery in the media.

Filmmaker Amar Kanwar’s ‘A Night of Prophecy’ travels through the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland and Kashmir while charting out how its demonyms navigate their condition. Each of the episodes in the film is saturated with music - of both resistance and commemoration. This leads one to think about post-memory [1] and the trans-generational transmission of trauma. A young man sings about caste discrimination as tears roll down his cheeks with the rising crescendo of emotions; a young boy plays cricket on a graveyard in Kashmir; a school teacher in Nagaland sings about the loss of their forefathers and comrades in the war for Naga independence. The songs however, also speak about pulsating prejudices in a nation imploding under its inability to accommodate diversity. Merging resistance music and landscape, Kanwar’s film looks at the people on the other side of history, documenting their protest as it manifests in psychosomatic responses. A commentary on the politics of freedom, the documentary takes a look at the many cultural latitudes. Trauma is also represented through personal testimonies in T Shanaathanan’s ‘Cabinet of Resistance’. Going against the grain of institutional accounts of the Sri Lankan Civil War, the installation comprises a library catalogue cabinet as a repository of personal memories. Each of its drawers contains cards with intimate testimonies about the hardships faced during the war. They take the form of narratives, photographs and rudimentary sketches that come from three decades of war, when the Sri Lankan state fought the militant separatist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Archiving civilian history through memories of economic hardships, displacements, restricted movement, censored communication and gastronomic improvisations, the cards detail the names, age and designations of the people in question. The installation thus compensates for the inadequate documentation of intimate records of survival during the war; through a collage of oral history, text and drawings. The archive opens up a new space for reflection and reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka - as the art begotten by the war slowly reveals itself through micro-histories of lived realities.

The spectre of a past trauma also manifests in Israeli artist Omer Fast’s fictional narrative, ‘Continuity’, where a young soldier (by the name of Daniel) returns from having served in Afghanistan, back to his family in Germany. The film has multiple episodes of essentially the same premise of homecoming (with some variations); where the young man’s character is portrayed by a different actor (and personality) each time. As the 40-minute film unfolds, one observes the psychosexual tensions at play - mother and son engage in an incestuous negotiation of power, while the father looks on each time as an emasculated bystander. An ethically and politically difficult territory, the film looks at the perpetrator and his view of the Afghan ‘Other’, as it manifests in his post-traumatic hallucinations. An especially telling scene is when Daniel is going through a flipbook that illustrates a soldier clawing at a burqa-clad figure in vain, ultimately giving up and getting torched by the spectre. The burqa becomes a tangible symbol of the white man’s fear of what appears beyond his grasp.

Christine Brendt’s video installation attacks the inadequacy of speech itself. Different people are seen reading a letter written by a Jewish woman detailing her hardships preceding Hitler’s mission of ethnic genocide. Once they finish reading the entire length of the letter, they get up and leave the frame of the camera. We observe that they often forget about the microphones attached to their lapels, which was meant to record their comments. It’s a comment on the futility of spoken language when confronted with a tragedy through text, and how words take a backseat when emotions overwhelm. In a similar strain, Peter Rosel’s installation consists of two official telephone directories from Berlin, dated 1941 and 1945 respectively, placed in guarded cases. On display is the first edition of the 1945 directory, printed after the Second World War and the last edition of the 1941 directory, printed during the War. Simple at the outset, the directories are repositories of the collective memory of the Holocaust, with the records of the victims, conspicuous in their absence on paper. The directories are placed next to each other in the glass case, the absence starkly visible in the diminished thickness ofthe1945edition.

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s ‘Come Out’ takes a closer look at how trauma locates itself in the human body. Originally made in 1982, Fase (comprising 3 duets and 1 solo, of which the piece in question is a part) is shaped to Steve Reich’s early "phase music", in which short sound loops move in and out of register, to create complex and ordered patterns of interference. In tandem with this discipline, Anne Teresa’s choreography follows rigid patterns of movement. In ‘Come Out’, two dancers are anchored to their respective stools as they twist and gesticulate with the changing positions of the camera, while restricted to a nine-point square radius throughout. As the intelligible words in the soundtrack gradually become a haunting noise, the androgynous figures in the composition dance in repetitive patterns in a compulsive rhythm. The progressive intensity of the movements in this durational piece, strikes one all the more in its formal repetition. The video plays on multiple screens with differing sizes and colour saturation; setting a new code for the expression of unprocessed trauma.

Artist Sigalit Landaus’s video installation consists of a naked female body playing with a hula-hoop on the beach; except, the hoop is made of barbed wire that leaves scars on the waist with each circular motion. The act is performed at sunrise on a southern beach in Tel-Aviv (the only natural and calm border in Israel). A ritual of self-flagellation on loop, the actor in the video is not a victim of the violence, but an active perpetrator of the same. The contrasting feature of this violent act as set against the calm of the sea complicates the intended message of freedom. The sea is a natural border for Israel while barbed wire is an aggressive boundary and a metaphor for incarceration of the political body. The pain is released in the act of speed as it makes visible the many invisible borders around the body. The persistent conflict in the Middle East informs generations of Palestinians and Israelis, whose trauma is as much a generational transmission as a lived reality.

The motif of the “traumatized landscape” is also explored by some artists including Vandy Rattana, whose photographic series, Bomb Ponds, depicts lush ponds that historically resulted from bombs dropped by the U.S. on Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The serenity of the idyllic landscape in the photographs belies its violent genesis, while drawing from an innocuous phrase used by the locals for its title. The series effectively, and paradoxically, compensates for the inadequate documentation of the war at the time of its occurrence. Installations, photographs, drawings and text become mediums through which the trauma of an event is transferred to the spectator; who is historically, temporally, as well as geographically removed from the event in question. Trauma is re-enacted in the exhibition by different artists inhabiting different socio-historical moments simultaneously; with all the resultant works coming into a seamless dialogue with each other. The exhibition both accommodates and rejects historiography in order to foreground memory and its idiosyncratic ways of narrating the past. This takes place in tandem with the architectural intimacy of the site. The works explore the various positions that may be occupied by the subject - the mute witness, the survivor, the perpetrator or the complicit observer. Each event described or referred to in the various works of the exhibition, questions the ethics and aesthetics of remembrance and forgetting. In turn, it simultaneously draws attention to the corporeal and psychic ways in which trauma affects. In following the alternative methodology of approaching trauma through oral history, the exhibition consolidates it as a legitimate genre and an institution of study.

Other participating artists included Anselm Keifer, Gagan Singh, Gilliam Wearing, LN Tallur, Roee Rosen, Susan Hiller, Sven Johne, Nasreen Mohamedi, Vandy Rattana, Julius von Bismarck, Oscar Munoz, Nedko Solakov, Jagat Weerasinghe, Rohini Devasher, Santu Mofokeng and Marcel Odenbach.


[1] Hirsch, Marianne, The Generation of Postmemory. Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, Columbia University Press, 2012. ‘Post-memory’ refers to the relationship that the generation after those who witnessed cultural or collective trauma bears to the experiences of those who came before - experiences that they “remember” only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up.

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