A Season Outside:
violence within an exhibition on nonviolence

di Valeria Lauricella

                              “The reason I was doing that is that there are more ways to understand than just with your mind. (…)

it’s more about preparing to that condition, to be able to understand.”

Amar Kanwar

In the exhibition Experiments with truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence an interesting audiovisual artwork entitled A Season Outiside created by the Indian artist Amar Kanwar has been exposed as a powerful expression of the aims of the entire project. Despite the several explicit aspects related to the figure of Mahatma Gandhi, the documentary shows significant elements in contrast with the idea of nonviolence: how can it be explained that images of violence have been included among a collection of artworks which are supposed to give exactly the opposite meaning?

 

The following analysis will try to answer the question by illustrating some core assumptions regarding theories of visual culture applied to the case under discussion. The article will be divided in a first descriptive part of the specific artwork, which will be further contextualized in the section concerning its brief history, the ideas of the artist for the production of the video and the general intentions of the exhibition. In conclusion, the particularity of the video will be explained through a consideration on the characteristics of the specific form of political art.

A Season Outside is a notable documentary video set in India and produced in the mid ‘90s: the combinations of moving images and the narrative voice of the artist show different locations and touch various themes. The main focuses are posed on the exposition of the border between India and Pakistan (both in the area of the gate and in the quite countryside), on the display of specific Sikh ancient weapons during a religious festivity and on the representation of the Tibetan Refugees Camp in Delhi. The scenes are interchanged with several episodes of what seems the everyday life (like the evening celebrations) in a rural town, alternated with pictures of violence among animals, military parades, people traveling in trains, kids playing, Chines police beating Tibetan monks, and historical footages of Mahatma Gandhi. Even though for the most of the time the descriptive voice helps understanding what is presented through the images, often it does not have any connection with the visual elements. Moreover, two important dialogues are reported at the beginning and at the end of the video; the first one enacts a conversation between a representative of the British Empire and Mahatma Gandhi on the question of truth and nonviolence, while the second represents the discussion of the artist with an old Tibetan monk on the issue of action and reaction related to violence. The “powerful film-poem” [1], as defined by the curator of the exhibition J. Helfenstein, endsexactly where it began: the artist, who is not only the first person narrator but sometimes is also involved in the stories illustrated with personal experiences, closes his journey “fleeing from a circle of violence” [2] and in search for answers, with a mysterious statement affirming “maybe there is another season locked inside this line” . [3] 

The video under analysis is the first of a trilogy constituted by A Season Outside (1997), To Remember (2003), A Night of Prophecy (2002); its duration is of 30 minutes and it was performed various times in different countries before having been incorporated in the exhibition Experiments with truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence, which took place for the first time between Oct 3, 2014 and Feb 1, 2015 at the Menil Collection in Huston (USA). As Amar Kanwar explained during the “Coffee Talk” with the curator of the exhibition at the Redcross Museum in Geneva in April 2015, where the exposition was later displayed, the film was also shown in Pakistan and in countries that were in conflict: it received a positive response because, according to the artist, “it really doesn’t matter where you show (…) even though I would understand audiences as differently (…) of course there are specificities to every situation, but at large people responded quite similarly.” [4]
During the interview, the creator of the video affirms that, first of all, in making the audiovisual work he “had a strong sense that perhaps I (he) was surrounded by people (general people, friends, family) who were believing in the increasing necessary logic of violence. There was a sense of that it was desirable, necessary to be violent.” [5]. The artist continues his argumentation affirming that the reality which surrounded him made him “move”, questioning various aspects about the actual phenomena happening in the specific world he was living in: he mentions the story of his family, which had to flee to India after the Partition, he witnessed both the days of violence that followed the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi in Delhi in 1984 and the human disaster caused by a gas leak in a plant in Bhopal. The observation of these crucial historical events, established a potential action from the part of the artist who argues that “it wasn’t possible to make a film without understanding what my position would have been with violence. It was necessary to interrogate myself in many ways (philosophically, practically, emotionally) if I could end to some conclusion after such interrogation yes, I had the capability to proceed in making the film.”

In this sense an evident parallelism can be found in the assumptions formulated by S. Buck-Morss around the figure of the artists, that “began as locally grounded practitioners who, because they came from the socalled periphery, had to be aware of global realities at the same time that they responded to the historical events of their own lived experience.” [6] It appears to be the same situation that occurred to Amar Kanwar, if we consider his production as “effective opposition (which) is hindered by the bogus logic of intellectual property as the basis of free expression for which academics and artists have been used as poster children.” [7] These points of view help us positioning the relevant figure of the artist: on one side his cultural knowledge and his personal experiences stand for the fundamental background of the production of his works and on the other side an idea of “artist” as a specific authoritative agent seem to affect a general public opinion. In particular, it must be noticed that an artist is “an agent who is capable of deliberating form a first person point of view. Any such agent must make two assumptions about itself in the context of deliberation: first, it must assume that it faces a plurality of options from which to choose, all of which are equally open to it; second, it must assume that what it chooses will be done.” [8] In my opinion the words of C. Rovane clearly define a significant characteristic of the action of an agent and, therefore, of an artist: the process of freely selecting and representing specific elements implies that the operation of framing not only objects to represent but also meanings, begins exactly with the author. For this reason we can talk about “the producer function”, which, as explained by M. Sturken and L. Cartwright, “is linked to the idea that someone (an artist, a company) must stand behind any given image. (…) authorship derives not just from who created something but often from who owns the rights to something.” [9]

In the study of A Season Outside the effort to determine certain suppositions regarding the role of its visuality results difficult because of the particular techniques used in the artwork: its audiovisual form may create confusion or overlaps of readings and meanings when trying to concentrate only on the moving images. For this reason I find useful to take some examples of pictures used in the documentary film in order to point out the effective visuality which emerges out of them as an “authority as self-evident, that division of the sensible whereby domination imposes the sensible evidence of its legitimacy.” [10] In fact, the video by Amar Kanwar could be read in the terms suggested by N. Mirzoeff, if we affirm that its “selfauthorizing of authority required a supplement to make it seem self-evident, which is what I am calling visuality.” [11]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first simple image here reported as example, displays only legs and feet of two persons who are meeting one in front of the other (we can guess it from the direction of their positions) on a thick white line drawn on the ground. It claims its visuality because from the very moment of its existence and from the set of relations, which take place in the presence of a viewer (and counting the combinations “of informations, imagination and insight into a rendition of physical and physic space” [12]), the picture establishes its visual power. Reflecting on this peculiar topic, it must be also illustrated the strong idea of “counter-visuality” that the entire film recalls: if before, analyzing the figure of the artist, we could have thought of the rights to do or produce something, and after recognizing the visual right as inherent authority of an image, at this point it is also appropriate to drive the attention on “a right of the right to look (which) contests first the right to property in another person by insisting on the irreducible autonomy of all persons, prior to all law.” [13]

Even though the indispensable notion developed by N. Mirzoeff can be successfully applied to the current analysis, in the process of distinguishing the individual autonomy of every single viewer, it must not be forgotten how essential the study of the specific context and space where the artwork is performed is for the formation of the gaze in relation to each spectator. In this particular situation I am referring to the gaze “as something being enacted through a spatial field” [14] and depends fundamentally on a series of changeable variables like, for example, the time and space of the practice of looking, mood, behaviors and personal knowledge of individuals. In the specific argument under analysis, as I have decided to present A Season Outside as an audiovisual artwork belonging to the exhibition Experiments with truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence, we can suppose that the video acquires determinant hints concerning its identity , its powerful expression and its possible multiple meanings since it has been exposed in a peculiar artistic institutional context. A concise attention to the main aims of the exhibition will be opportune to insert another relevant topic in the discussion: as the curator J. Helfenstein states, it was important “interpreting Gandhi’s concept of nonviolence for the purpose of an object-based exhibition” but at the same time “without eclipsing the otherness of those on display or minimizing the complexity of Gandhi’s ideas. One of the principles for Experiments with truth was to avoid the trap of using artworks and artifacts as merely illustrative or anecdotal, and to give them the right to speak for themselves.” [15] Therefore, the project conceived respected the basic important characteristic of exhibitions as “privileged arenas for presenting images of self and other”. [16] As it has been pointed out, the artwork effectively presents an independent authority, considered as its own visuality: despite this aspect, a further argumentation should instead disclose the inherent meanings of the video especially as it is subjected to the given readings and influences of the exhibition. In this regards, among the intentions expressed by the curator for the realization of the exhibition, it has been reminded that “it is impossible (and has never been our aim) to separate ethics from aesthetics in this project - the exhibition takes place as much in the mind of the visitor as in real space; it touches on strong emotions as much as it visualizes ideas and concepts; it alludes to the spiritual as well as the political.” [17] Only thanks to these central explanations, the current analysis may be broaden to better and effectively understand the issue on the basis of essential informations.

Acknowledging the fact that Amar Kanwar produced his audiovisual work several years before including it in the institutional context I am referring to, a certain degree of autonomy and independence from the precise purposes of the exhibition must be recognized at least in the realization of the video. Nevertheless, imaging a spectator who finds himself in the actual setting of the exhibition, it seems that he would be certainly affected by the probable implicit readings and allusions conferred by the institutional environment.

At this point I find helpful to adopt the distinction formulated by R. Barthes between a “coded iconic message” and a “non-coded iconic message”. Since the first case implies to “read the image, to understand that it assembles in a common space of identifiable (nameable) objects” [18], it can be seen as the way of interpreting the audiovisual work within the context of the exhibition, while a “non-coded iconic message” corresponds to the reading of an image according to the only “knowledge bound up with our perception”. Although the two characteristics highlighted by R. Barthes are conceived as functioning together, I would underline the point that “what appears to the gaze is supposed to represent a familiar category and not a singular situation regarding which we must now start from scratch, come up with a suitable category for it, and explain why an intervention is necessary at all in such a situation as this.” [19] Hence, circumscribing determined elements within an artwork and trying to frame determined significances within the field of the exhibition, implies also a great attention from the part of the producers to the probable knowledges of a supposed spectatorship, since the existing informations will be used to decode the works, to read meanings, hence to make them comprehensible. Moving the scrutiny again to the figure of an hypothetical spectator who approaches the audiovisual work by Amar Kanwar in the specific environment of the exhibition, it may be applied another unusual topic related to an idea of “comfort”, which, as noted by M. Sturken, “as a mode to be consumed and a style is a key factor” [20], here manifested in the different ways employed to read the moving images. Rethinking the role of individuality, which comes into play in a specific personal behavior and differs according to each spectator subjected to the visuality of the video, it must be count also the relative amount of every kind of embedded knowledge in the observers. Considering that the exhibition interests an important historical individual as Mahatma Gandhi, we may affirm that his image “becomes an icon not only (because) is transformed into a stand-in for an event but also, through the very process of iconicity, contains and reduces that event and the subjects imaged within it.” [21] Therefore the previous informations and knowledges belonging to a possible spectator will be essential to observe and understand through his/her own path, the theme analyzed both in the audiovisual work and in the entire exhibition. This last assumption is useful to understand why A Season Outside received a wide positive response because it can be observed that a recognition of the icon, M. Gandhi, and the elements or concepts to him related has occurred among several spectatorships, which could have been culturally, geographically different and subjected to the audiovisual in completely distant periods and contexts. Despite this, it has also been argued that a deeper critical reading of the artwork may highlight its contrasting aspects in relation to the exhibition: I would interpret this type of approach as one of the “acts of perceptions as disjunctive associations between and among cultural experiences dissociation, which enable spectators to participate in the creation of meaningful yet mutable conjunctions.” [22]

Moreover, to find a useful explanation to the core question previously posed, it is necessary to adopt another perspective related to the notions of art and politics. Observing the art world system, Coco Fusco distinguishes an important feature too often underestimated: “too many people in the arts have bought into the notion that their capacity for aesthetic judgment and the imaginative capacities are compromised by ethical concerns. That may be very convenient for institutions that want to avoid controversy, but it is also a tragic form of self-censorship.” [23] This criticism may arise wide debates on the relationship between artists and institutions (as political elements) where they are meant to perform, but in the case of A Season Outside we have noticed how the connection with the exhibition Experiments with truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence was made only after the completion of the audiovisual work: therefore it was not compromised during its production but, as it has been examined, it is the point of view of spectator which may be “institutionally” influenced and compromised.

Nevertheless, to fulfill the discussion, a further view on the combination of art and politics should be traced as regards to the concept of aesthetic. In particular I would introduce a complete definition of the theme as expressed through the words of J. Rancière, for whom “aesthetics can be understood in a Kantian sense - re-examined perhaps by Foucault - as the system of apriori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience. It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience. Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.” [24] It is interesting to notice that all the elements here mentioned can be found in the video studied: in this sense it is pertinent stating that A Season Outside represents a remarkable aesthetic artwork, mostly if we consider the juxtapositions of the various and even contradictory images used to awaken the substantial balanced multiple meanings. Moreover, considering the work of Amar Kanwar as an impressive expression of art, it can also fit into the definition given by J. Valentine because “art aspires to something that is not art (…) and cannot be achieved. Yet this does not cancel out the aspiration; rather it confirms by reference to that which would prevent it, that is, everything to which art is opposed. Hence, the politics of art is more art because the political dimension of art hangs on the failure of art to achieve its political objectives. Hence, insofar as art fails its political dimension, it is preserved. Hence, the paradox. Success depends on failure. This summarizes the political casualty of art within modernity. As art fails to achieve its political effects, the solution is more art.” [25] Since the video created by Amar Kanwar displays also diverse images of violence, often accompanied by a narration of significant historical facts, it may be argued that the audiovisual actually inspires to determined “political objectives”, as defined by J. Valentine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the second scene here selected from the video, the spectator is faced with confused and dark representations of “raging Chinese police brutality against monks in Tibet” . [26] It is a valuable example of what is shown through the active development of the artwork, where the first person-narrator enacted by the artist, accomplishes his journey in search of answers concerning various themes, with unresolved questions. If we interpret the enigmatic conclusion which is given at the end of the artwork as a sort of failure of the initial aspiration, and considering the persistence of the moving images to interpellate the hypothetical viewer, then it must be knowledge that A Season Outside stands for an incredible piece of political art. Moreover, as observed by C. Fusco “there is more at stake in the making of art that addresses social and political issues than immediate gratification. There is a general social good that comes from the persistence of cultural practices that, in their very articulation, maintain the possibility of oppositional thought and discourse, that offer engagement with art outside a market context. I still support the existence of art made for publics other than curators, collectors, and fashionistas, despite the fact that this kind of work is subject to endless derision from mainstream art critics and high-profile art-world players.” [27] From this further viewpoint it must be recognized the final set of reasonable effects on the socio-cultural and maybe also political ideas of a possible spectator, who may understand the artwork through a critical and independent attitude. Indeed, if we employ a vision from the prospect furnished by C. Fusco on the specific case of A Season Outside it is not absurd to declare that the video, although presented in a specific institutional environment, keeps addressing the public in a unique way thanks to its basic artistic characteristics.

 

Concluding the study, I would summarize the principal findings observed to explain the reason why it has been possible to include in Experiments with truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence a political artwork presenting ostensible contradictory characteristics compared to what at first seemed the objectives of the exhibition.

The prior consideration that occurs is that it has never been mentioned that images of nonviolence must not show violence: in this case the content of A Season Outside, beyond proving its strong relation with the theme of the exhibition by reporting both images and discourses related to Mahatma Gandhi and his conceptions, shows also the opposite aspects to somehow reinforce its assumed main purpose.

On the other hand, the explanations given by the artist articulate the idea of an interpretation of what nonviolence is by using at the same time assumptions on violence; hence, as Amar Kanwar affirmed in the interview above mentioned “it’s not so much about figuring him (Gandhi) out (…) as figuring we out, how we engage with his ideas.” [28] It has been demonstrated that, although the general wide and opened 28 intentions of the exhibition permitted the insertion of different artworks independently produced, the informations derived from the institutional context and its actual space could have embraced the ambiguities of the audiovisual work in order to render a basic “coded iconic message” in the practice of gazing and subsequently of meanings-formation by a spectator. The final speculation has proven instead how a mere form of political art is always a manifestation of “artistic practices (which) are ‘ways of doing and making’ that intervene in the general distribution of ways of doing and making as well as in the relationships they maintain to modes of being and forms of visibility.”[29] Since A Season Outside embodies certain political purposes in questioning forms, it will persist to express its fundamental artistic value.

 

[1] Josef Helfenstein, A Provisional Introduction, in Josef Helfenstein and Joseph N. Newland, Experiments with truth: 1 Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence, The Menial Collection, Houston, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, p. 38

[2] Amar Kanwar, A Season Outside, 1997. 16mm film transferred to video, color with sound, 30 min.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mNBSLgkgR0
[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mNBSLgkgR0

[6] Susan Buck-Morss, Questionnaire: Buck-Morss, OCTOBER 123, Winter 2008, pp. 27–30. © 2008 October Magazine,Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, p. 30

[7] Ibid., p. 30

[8] Carol Rovane, What Is an Agent?, Synthese, Vol. 140, No. 1/2, Knowledge and Decision: Essays on Isaac Levi (May,2004), p. 182

[9] Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright 2001.Viewers make meaning. In: ibid. Practices of Looking : An Introduction to
Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 53
[10] Mirzoeff, Nicholas 2011. The Right to Look. Critical Inquiry 37 (3): p. 475

[11] Ibid., p. 480

[12] Ibid., p. 476

[13] Ibid., p. 478

[14] 14 Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright 2001. Modernity. Spectatorship, Power, and Knowledge. In: ibid. Practices of
Looking : An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 103
[15] Josef Helfenstein, A Provisional Introduction, in Josef Helfenstein and Joseph N. Newland, Experiments with truth:Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence, The Menial Collection, Houston, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, p.
34

[16] Nederveen Pieterse, Multiculturalism and Museums, Discourse about other in the age of Globalization, Theory,Culture and Society, 14.4 (Nov 1, 1997): 123., Sage Social Science Collections, p. 123

[17] Josef Helfenstein, A Provisional Introduction, pp. 17-54 in Josef Helfenstein and Joseph N. Newland, Experimentswith truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence, The Menial Collection, Houston, Yale University Press, New Haven andLondon, p. 50

[18] Barthes, Roland 2009. Rhetoric of the Image. In: Nicholas Mirzoeff (ed.), The Visual Culture Reader. London:Routledge, p. 137

[19] Azoulay, Ariella 2011. Photography without Borders. In: Thomas Cushman (ed.), The Routledge International
Handbook of Human Rights. New York: Routledge, p. 676
[20] Sturken, Marita 2011. Comfort, Irony, and Trivialization: The Mediation of Torture. International Journal of CulturalStudies 14 (4): p. 424

[21] Ibid., p.429

[22] Charles R. Garoian and Yvonne M. Gaudelius, The Spectacle of Visual Culture, Studies in Art Education, Vol. 45, No. 4(Summer, 2004), p. 308

[23] Coco Fusco, Questionnaire, OCTOBER 123, Winter 2008,. © 2008 October Magazine, Ltd. and MassachusettsInstitute of Technology, p. 62

[24] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, the distribution of the sensible, Gabriel Rockhill, 2004, p. 13

[25] Jeremy Valentine, Political Art, Cultural Policy, and Artistic Agency, Social Analysis: The International Journal of Socialand Cultural Practice, Vol. 51, No. 1 ( SPRING 2007), p. 105

[26] Josef Helfenstein, A Provisional Introduction, pp. 17-54 in Josef Helfenstein and Joseph N. Newland, Experimentswith truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence, The Menial Collection, Houston, Yale University Press, New Haven andLondon, p. 38

[27] Coco Fusco, Questionnaire, OCTOBER 123, Winter 2008, © 2008 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, p. 55.

[28] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mNBSLgkgR0.

[29] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, the distribution of the sensible, Gabriel Rockhill, 2004, p. 13.

 

References 

Azoulay, Ariella, 2011, "Photography without Borders". In: Thomas Cushman (ed.), The Routledge International Handbook of Human Rights. New York: Routledge, pp. 669–681. 
 

Barthes, Roland, 2009, Rhetoric of the Image. In: Nicholas Mirzoeff (ed.), The Visual Culture Reader. London: Routledge, pp. 135-139. 
 

Susan Buck-Morss, Questionnaire: Buck-Morss, OCTOBER 123, Winter 2008, pp. 27–30. © 2008 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Coco Fusco, Questionnaire, OCTOBER 123, Winter 2008,. © 2008 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pp. 53-62. 
 

Charles R. Garoian and Yvonne M. Gaudelius, The Spectacle of Visual Culture, Studies in Art Education, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Summer, 2004), pp. 298-312. 

Josef Helfenstein, A Provisional Introduction, pp. 17-54 in Josef Helfenstein and Joseph N. Newland, Experiments with truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence, The Menial Collection, Houston, Yale University Press, New Haven and London. 

Nederveen Pieterse, Multiculturalism and Museums, Discourse about other in the age of Globalization, Theory, Culture and Society, 14.4 (Nov 1, 1997): 123., Sage Social Science Collections. 

Mirzoeff, Nicholas, 2011. "The Right to Look", Critical Inquiry 37 (3): 473–96. 

Carol Rovane, What Is an Agent?, Synthese, Vol. 140, No. 1/2, Knowledge and Decision: Essays on Isaac Levi (May, 2004), pp . 181-198. 

Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, the Distribution of the Sensible, Gabriel Rockhill, 2004. 
 

Sturken, Marita, 2011, "Comfort, Irony, and Trivialization: The Mediation of Torture", International Journal of Cultural Studies 14 (4): 423–440.

Sturken, Marita and Cartwright, Lisa,  2001, "Viewers make meaning". In: ibid. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 49-91. 

 

Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright 2001. Modernity. Spectatorship, Power, and Knowledge. In: ibid. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 93–139. 
 

Jeremy Valentine, Political Art, Cultural Policy, and Artistic Agency, Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, Vol. 51, No. 1 ( SPRING 2007), pp. 96-111.

 

http://www.desorg.org/titols/a-season-outside/

 

http://kultur-online.net/node/21438

 

https://www.menil.org/exhibitions/32-experiments-with-truth-gandhi-and-images-of-nonviolence

Amar Kanwar, A Season Outside, 1997. 16mm film transferred to video, colour with sound, 30 min.

Amar Kanwar, A Season Outside, 1997. 16mm film transferred to video, colour with sound, 30 min.