Amar Kanwar “Such a Morning” at Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
Amar Kanwar, Laura Raicovich, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie and Nitin Sawhney in conversation
After the screening of his film titled “Such a Morning” presented at UnionDocs in Brooklyn—in association with The Vera List Center for Art and Politics—Indian artist and filmmaker Amar Kanwar held a conversation with writer and art worker Laura Raicovich, critic and writer Kaelen Wilson-Goldie and Nitin Sawhney, Assistant Professor of Media Studies at The New School (New York). The dialogue below focuses on what knowledge can be produced by art, and how the unknown can be a vigorous incubator in times of crisis. On the heels of the screening, Marian Goodman Gallery has presented in New York the film in a solo exhibition which runs until 21 December 2018.
LAURA RAICOVICH: Thank you all for being here with us tonight. I’m Laura. Now, I’ve seen the film a few times, and I realized I think you made a zombie film.
I thought I’d start with some observations given the various films Amar has made. I started thinking a lot about the ways many of his other films have been focused on how poetry and the language of documentary filmmaking could be used in evidentiary terms—as evidence of crimes. Those crimes can range from crimes of human emotion, crimes of real danger, profound human rights violations, and violations of the earth. I’m thinking in particular of The Lightning Testimonies (2007) and The Sovereign Forest (2012-2013). What really struck me about this film is the way it shifted with the professor retreating into the space of darkness and there being less of a focus on the documentary aspects and more focus on coming back out into the world after a period of withdrawal. I wondered how you thought about that in the larger scope of how you’ve been telling stories.
AMAR KANWAR: Thank you for inviting me here. It’s always tough to talk after a film, and after this film particularly. It’s like every question can have four answers. I have to pick which one and all are quite valid… I don’t really feel like I’m shifting or moving from any one type of telling to another type of telling, though I did feel that something quite wrong was happening for quite some time. There was a need to step back—and this was not necessarily thought out in the way that one needs to step back to make a particular conclusion— but one needs to think as one steps back and sees where this goes. Which is very much what documentary does. You wait for things to happen. Since we are here at UnionDocs, it’s also necessary to say that it’s not that I scripted this film and then executed it. I didn’t know where this was going. So I scripted, and I filmed, and edited… and I scripted, and I filmed and I edited. Nobody knew how it was going to end.
LR: Is that typical, Amar, of the way you’ve worked before?
AK: It’s to some extent typical with the essence of the documentary filmmaker. Essentially you go out and try to comprehend and see how the world exists and where it goes. Even being inside the train and doing nothing—you can’t control the wind, so when the wind blows, light changes. When light changes, you see different kinds of light, different kinds of darkness. That’s pretty non-fiction.
Coming back to your point—personally the reason for stepping back is to come out— is to see. Is to configure again. I was not in doubt about that. I just didn’t know how to come out.
LR: I think we all can identify pretty profoundly with that. The other piece that I was thinking about is the the woman who appears unexpectedly in the the film. Her weapon is quite remarkable, and she doesn’t use it. There’s something about that moment when she first appears and her house starts crumbling around her that made me think of democracy. Of course, she can mean many things. To me, it was this moment of crumbling and this not knowing what to do— or perhaps just allowing it to happen. How did she enter the film?
AK: Sometimes we are not even aware, but we are in a perpetual state of apprehension and, therefore, in a perpetual state of protection of oneself, which is also a perpetual state of possible aggression and possible retaliation. This is a condition. I felt this was my condition. This was the condition of everybody. In some senses, I wanted to enter into the zone of this condition. That’s how I came to her. There are multiple interpretations of her, him and the house. Often, I feel it’s not right for me to say that this is the interpretation.
There is a bit of her in all of us. And there is a bit of him in all of us. We’re analyzing her, or interpreting her, or attempting to interpret her in our own way. For me that is critical. You could feel she was destroyed and someone else could feel that she was freed. Completely opposite. Both interpretations can be valid. She could be freed from having to be in this state of perpetual apprehension and the need to protect herself. In that sense, she could also be released. I’m not saying that’s what I’m saying necessarily at the moment, but sometimes I do feel like that as well. That has many implications to think through. There is a contradiction there which one needs to resolve. Why didn’t she fire? What is the possible answer for that? Did she not see them? Or did she see them and ignore them? Or were both events actually happening in the same time? Maybe they were happening in different time periods.
LR: Or maybe she was just bending the cosmos.
AK: Maybe. Or maybe this was to be. We see many things that are likely to happen to us as our present. We live our present imagining what could happen. It could also be in the past. It could be a construct. There are many possibilities—some of which are mine and some will be yours.
LR: Kaelen, you’ve written about Amar’s work before. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts about this particular film and your reactions to what Amar had to say.
KAELEN WILSON-GOLDIE: I’ve come to see different forms of violence in watching the films. A Season Outside (1997) is responding to the violence of partition and the violence of the reenactment and commemoration of partition. The Lightning Testimonies is reacting to sexual violence. The Sovereign Forest is an active long, simmering, invisible conflict over resource extraction in a very specific place. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing these specificities in the films. There is specificity in the story of the mathematician, but I read it as a fiction. I was surprised to see that some of the writing came out after the film was speaking about allegory and comparing it to José Saramago’s Blindness (1995), which really surprised me. I love José Saramago, but for me, your work is completely different. Watching the film, I was thinking about to what extent could this be interpreted as an allegory and if it is an allegory—for what? And how many layers of allegory could there possibly be? I do get the sense that the film is responding to a very specific condition that is unnamed that has to do with power and violence. One of the things that struck me is I read her as his writing, almost as his dream.
The idea that she’s sitting there with a gun as if expecting an intruder to come in the front door while the roof is being taken from above her made me think that the allegory that he’s writing—that’s somehow filtered through you [Amar]– is about rights.
KW-G: Rights. It’s this incredible occurrence to have a work of art make a proposition and then for someone in the world to respond to it and develop something. I was thinking about freedom of speech as a right that is so specific to one constitution. I was interested in this subtle shift of freedom of speech and freedom from speech. This was my long set-up to ask about that switch.
AK: Which has not really happened has it—the switch. I won’t comment on the earlier part of what you said because, again, it’s open. I will say a few things that triggered me to work on this. This is definitely responding to violence. I feel I’m still making exactly the same film as I did in 1997, 1999 and 2002. I feel no different. I’m still trying to comprehend. I’m still trying to respond very clearly, and I’m figuring out different methods of responding to violence. I still feel I’m in that paradigm. Not necessarily from the position of being clueless, but finding different ways to respond to it with each way having validity. About three or four years ago, I felt that I did not want to argue anymore—that I wanted to respond, and I wanted to speak without the specificity and still speak equally clear and equally powerful and equally engaged. I felt the need for conversation, which was not in the realm that I was witnessing around me. I wondered when all the arguments are over, what kind of conversation begins? And more so, with whom? In that conversation—at least in the preliminary part of that conversation—is there speech? Probably not. So, if there is no spoken word, and there is a conversation then what kind of conversation is it, and with whom? How could I trigger that? How could I enter that zone? Also, there was a feeling in me for a long time to look at the question of arrogance. I feel that I’m interested in what we cannot see. I’m also interested in responding to the question of arrogance. I cannot argue against someone’s arrogance. I cannot say that this is my blind spot or your blind spot for two reasons: it would be arrogant of me to say that this is your blind spot— and if it is my blind spot I do not know whether it is there in the first place. I’m trying to find a method or a state of mind to be able to find it. I feel that it is possible, that there is a view or a vision that you can see if you enter into a a zone where you see nothing. So, what is it that you see when you see nothing. I’m not saying this is in a kind of a pretty way. I think it can be answered, and it can be discussed whenever. Maybe not now. I see this as a quite concrete thing. I don’t see this as just a metaphorical toss in the air.
LR: But it is in response to the consolidation of power and violence?
AK: Yes. The consolidation and the execution of it as well, but in many realms. Also, at some level, I must confess that I felt quite done with us “good people.”
NITIN SAWHNEY: As Kaelen said, there is kind of freedom from speech that you offer us in watching it because I don’t think we have to describe every aspect of the film to actually enjoy the revelations it provides. There are kinds of possibilities of revelations that darkness might offer through this extended solitude. I think part of what the film might be trying to do is allow this long durational contemplation to search for different kinds of answers that aren’t easy to unpack in the rational discourse. When so much happens around you that’s hard to explain in terms of violence, how do you even grapple when you lose your family or children, and you believe in higher power and cosmos, and you can’t quite make sense of that injustice? The professor is a metaphor for what’s left of humanity in some sense. He feels betrayed by the eclipse and is going inwards to look for a different kind of revelation. So that passage of time—that durational process—is really crucial, but also it’s crucial for Amar and his work because his work often takes many, many years to gestate. As we heard there isn’t always a script.
I wanted to also understand a bit about that process of solitude and contemplation you go through in finding that carriage car in your own home to sort of delve into these works.
As someone who’s grown up in India, I might offer a slightly more contrary commentary that Amar is unwilling to do. As someone who’s family also left the partition and bore some brunt of violence, I can empathize with maybe part of what Amar has been confronting in his films. But knowing the periods that Amar is making his films in such as the riots in Gujarat came to my mind. You may have unconsciously chosen the railway car, but as anyone who knows about the riots in Gujarat and what happened during the partition—the railway car was a very imminent part of that violence where many people lost their lives. For the professor to go into that railway car, to go into that darkness—that very violent darkness—to find 49 shades—21 of which he felt were possible to unpack— that was extraordinary for someone like me who is thinking of the film in that discourse. But you don’t need that discourse to enjoy the portrait of the film. It still works.
I saw the woman dealing with the dispossession of her land—of her home—and dealing with it with extraordinary dignity. Without firing a shot and leaving only when everything was taken away from her. I’m reading many things in the film, which I think Amar is allowing all of us to interpret in so many other ways— which is extraordinary. I also loved how the professor was mapping out the special geometry of his railcar. Both by walking and by using sound. I just found that really beautiful. I might ask as a filmmaker, more about the process of production—the process of working with your crew, the process of constructing this imaginative world in a nonfiction project. Because for us, there are so many layers to unpack. I’ll leave it there.
AK: Just responding to you and what you said earlier—I can articulate it only because I have to articulate, so I have found a way to say it. I only understand it once I say it myself. I think quite fundamentally central to whatever I’m doing or have been doing, something that I have managed only after several years, is to be able to develop a reasonably positive attitude to one’s own inadequacy.
To get out of a negative attitude toward one’s own inadequacy and to a productive relationship with one’s own inadequacy has been quite a relief. I say this in the context of doubt: that if one is able to embrace it fully, then you lose voice. You then do not know how to proceed. If you stare it in the face and you understand it as much as you can, it becomes very hard to proceed further and sovery hard to speak. For instance, if I’m in a situation where everybody is incredibly articulate, but nobody is actually listening to each other. Or if I’m in a situation where there is a mass crime visible—completely crystal clear—but nobody is responding to it. Or there are different types of crimes that are taking place, and in some, one responds and in some, one doesn’t—and so on. There are many, many real specific incidents. I’m referring to incidences and places and events—and it’s not adding up. It’s not making sense. Our responses are not making sense—or even my response is not making sense. When you get in such a situation, and you face the doubt, the contradiction, then you do not know how to proceed. Then you accept not proceeding. In that sense, that’s the solitude of my carriage in my own home. I accept not being able to proceed further until I figure it out or figure out the first four steps. Politically, I think it’s completely critical. I know it’s critical to fight back, but it’s also completely critical to step back and configure—and reconfigure— and try to comprehend. If night became day and day became night as in the film – For me, that’s clear to see in the Middle East. It’s the United States. It’s India. It’s inside my home. It’s in relationships. You can see this happening rapidly in the last eight to nine or 10 years quite clearly. So, how are you going to respond when night becomes day and day becomes night? You cannot say no “this is not night this is day.” What are you going to speak? And to whom? You can say it louder and louder “No. This is not night, this is day.” You can say it louder and louder but if it continues this way, then what are you going to say? And how do you say it? And what state of mind do you need to be in? You may be feeling the need to have the freedom to speak. Fair enough. I may be feeling that the speech itself is destroying everything— even within us “good people.” So, how do I respond to that? In that sense, I was pushed into silence for a while.
LR: I guess the question then is: how do we get out of that space of silence,. There’s a recurring circular theme. There’s the moon and the hole in one of the curtains that’s perfectly round and then at the end he climbs through the circle. There’s something very infinite and ancient about the circle and its symbolism. But there’s something also really complete about a circle that I don’t think we ever expect to achieve or understand. For me, that’s a big part of where the film sits—this kind of doubt around how we can comprehend these levels of violence and corruption of power. While there’s sort of so much hope when the mathematician finally gets out through the hole and sits on the roof and he’s writing away and things are sort of flowing— it’s about trying to enact that potential future to make it arrive. Because it’s so untenable. There’s this powerlessness that you feel that drives the mathematician inside, but in a way there’s no solution—he’s not going to solve for x. That’s just not going to happen. So maybe it comes down, Amar, to what you’re saying about putting the doubts into a vessel of some kind.
[to KW-G] Anything else you would like to say?
KW-G: I think I responded also to this idea of mapping out all the X and the Y axes and the space in between them. This moment in the film appeals to anyone who remembers building a fort in childhood and having playfulness and ingenuity toward thinking about everything that you need and how you would make something out of the space. I wondered if this was also the idea of retreating really back to basics. You don’t need to buy anything. How did you find that train car?
AK: I made it.
KW-G: That’s why it was so perfect.
AK: I was unhappy while making it because it seemed like very stupid thing to do—and difficult. I never made a train car before.
KW-G: But is it based on any sort of historical precedent of a train that you remember?
AK: Perhaps. I’m connected to the stories that I heard about partition with the trains. I’m connected to what happened in 2002 in Gujarat. I’m connected to what happened with the trains in Europe and Germany—equally. It’s not just because my family was there during the partition. I also grew up with that image of the trains in Germany and it has also not left me.
At the same time, I’m also getting a sense of being in a construct which is supposedly strong and modern and has strength and movement in it but which is actually going nowhere—which has perhaps already run aground and that I still think it’s going somewhere. In that sense, the train as a structure, as a symbol worked even more so because we are in motion and we think we are proceeding somewhere, but we actually are not. If that is so, then what do I need to do to get out of that state of delusion. Back to the basics was very much there. I was aware that it could be considered a masculine luxury, to step back , but I quizzed myself quite a bit, and I felt that it was not coming from an inbuilt masculine desire. I felt it was genuinely coming from a need to step back
Sometimes I even feel that maybe it’s the woman telling the man’s story. I also feel it’s actually the woman who has guided him out. He needs to interpret the woman—he has understood what happened. It’s only after understanding what happens that he gets out. But even when he gets out, the only concrete thing that he’s saying is that I cannot teach anymore until we reconfigure. It’s very concrete. It’s not a metaphorical “let’s hope for the best type of thing.” It’s very clear—he’s saying that we even need to identify each of the 49 types of darkness and then reconceive. He’s saying it’s a preliminary study into what the 49 are so that you can you can get into a curriculum, so that you can speak, so that you can teach. It’s quite clear.
LR: You’re taking us back to these very basics, and it’s an intense journey because it’s not shiny, happy people. At the same time, you manage to get some funny one-liners in there. Now that I’ve seen the film a bunch of times, I definitely laugh. This humor is really important. It’s essential to the film and it’s really important for us as humans to delve into that. Can you talk about your relationship to those funny moments?
AK: It’s very difficult to make a funny film. For me, it’s absolutely impossible. So I would credit that to my daughter who just said: “lighten up.”
I would totally credit her for that—for being very clear that it’s possible to be normal—and to be normal means to smile and laugh.
LR: And to also be in crisis at the same time.
NS: I also felt that the professor was far more vulnerable and the woman was much more resilient and he was learning about that resilience through his inquiry.
AK: Yes, Absolutely.
NS: What does the film leave us with? Where do we go next? I think it’s a quiet resistance that the Adivasi in India and the indigenous tribes consistently nourish. Maybe that’s another state that we have to honor.
AK: If you’re speaking about indigenous communities, I think they understood a lot more than us, about how to exist: philosophically, practically, ecologically and so on. There’s a lot of meaning in what they wanted us to know. There is a lot to learn from them. If you can bear it, then you should come to the show at Marian Goodman Gallery and see this whole thing all over again because you will most likely experience it quite differently from how it’s been tonight. You’ll see the fact that he writes to the chancellor of the universities, he writes to his colleagues, he writes to students, children, but then he writes his fifth letter to all of us. And the story continues outside the film, and his sixth and seventh letters are then presented to us there. His seventh letter contains an open call, a reaching out, a formal proposition to all of us.
at Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
until 21 December 2018