Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) presents the first major UK exhibition of new and internationally acclaimed work by highly respected Indian artist Amar Kanwar. The exhibition, in YSP’s Underground Gallery, centres on The Sovereign Forest (2012–), which explores the impact of mining and other commercial activities on the landscape and communities of Odisha (formerly Orissa), India.
The Sovereign Forest presents poetic and complex contemporary narratives in which intimate personal experience is linked to far-reaching social and political developments. An installation of film, books, seeds and ephemera, it was internationally acclaimed at dOCUMENTA (13) and the Kochi Murziris Biennale. Produced with multiple collaborations between the artist and several groups, institutions, farmers, artists and activists in India, The Sovereign Forest has particular resonance at YSP, which is on the Yorkshire coalfields and ringed by former mining communities. The Sovereign Forest has its most extensive iteration to date at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Central to the installation is The Scene of Crime (2010), a 42-minute film shown in the UK for the first time, which presents the natural landscape of the eastern coastal state of Odisha ahead of acquisition and division by industry for commercial use. The film reveals a unique insight into what the artist describes as a ‘war against the people and their land’ and is presented alongside a range of ‘poetic evidence’ in multiple forms and vocabularies, legal and personal artefacts, framed documentation and ephemera, including residents’ proof of right to occupy.
The exhibition debuts a new element of The Sovereign Forest and a commission by the artist especially for YSP. The Listening Benches are Kanwar’s first sculptural objects for the open air, sited around YSP’s Bothy Garden, a place for rest, pause and contemplation overlooking the 18th century Bretton Estate.
Organic materials in the installation, such as 266 different varieties of rice seeds brought together from the terrain of crime, point to the disappearance of indigenous crops and the influence of global agriculture and high-yield sterile seeds on small farmers. Exquisite, handmade books with texts silk-screened onto banana-fibre paper with jewel-like images projected from above, tell lyrical and moving stories. In these stories, Kanwar shines a light on the intimate concerns of those affected by the flux of global demands, revealing human situations of strength and compassion. The Counting Sisters with exceptional abilities, The One Alone with photographic memory, The Prediction, about a crime that took place 22 years ago and The Constitution with embedded words are a few of the narratives included.
The second film in the exhibition includes A Love Story (2010), an urban counter point and cyclical companion to The Scene of Crime, it memorably documents the break up of a romance in four acts through music, pace and visual sequences. Set on a rubbish dump at the edge of an expanding Indian city, the film presents a world of continuous migration and separation.
Artist and social activist, Amar Kanwar is renowned for his compelling and meditative filmic essays, which evolve from documentary practice and explore the political, social, economic and ecological conditions of the Indian subcontinent. His multimedia works question the validity of historical ‘facts’ without human stories and poetry becomes a subtle but powerful force. Having journeyed through distress and dislocation, the works of The Sovereign Forest frequently return to the natural world and the implication of its ability to nurture and heal. Kanwar points to possible routes by which we can navigate.
The associated public programme includes opportunities for all ages to delve into the themes and issues of Kanwar’s work and their relevance within contemporary society. There will be a focus on YSP’s woodland ecology through information, tours and workshops as well as a special session convened to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike to consider the historical and continued impact of mining internationally and locally.