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Christopher Kulendran Thomas: 'Being Human' (2019)

The opening scenes of ‘Being Human’ have the feel of a travelogue. The digital projection, which spills onto the side walls of the V-A-C Foundation, as if there is just that bit too much content to contain in the one acrylic rectangle, offers a drive-by view of Colombo. As the chanting soundtrack rings out, you can imagine a Michael Palin voice-over bringing a gently intrepid, but still unmistakably colonial, vibe to the proceedings.

From the outset, Christopher Kulendran Thomas (in collaboration with Annika Kulmann) reminds us that there’s the way the external world looks in upon and utilises Sri Lanka, and there’s the way it functions on the inside for its own, currently in a time of newly acquired prosperity. And that neither view, given what’s happened to other global cities under capitalism, describes a great place for many but the wealthy few in the future. As the British son of Tamil parents who left the self-governed state of Eelam in the 1980s during the civil war, he appears not quite of, yet inherently connected to, the country as he describes its shift through a period of rapid change.


The work features in the V-A-C Foundation’s excellent show of new commissions ‘Time, forward!’ at its relatively new and beautifully adapted site in Venice’s Dorsoduro, on the Zattere. It's curated by Omar Kholeif and Maria Kramar. Having already negotiated the bulk of the Biennale beast and witnessed some impressive contributions by this ensemble (the likes of Walid Raad, Haroon Mirza, Rosa Barba), I wasn’t expecting an encounter like this. To stand out here and in the wider crowd is no mean feat.

Part history lesson, part timely cautionary tale/plan of action for the future, what takes place during this breakneck game of mental hopscotch across decades, continents and many intellectual miles, is hard to describe after just one viewing. There are many visual elements to consider and narrative routes one might take through it. It’s actually a film installation, incorporating an exhibition of recent works by contemporary Sri Lankan artists bought from a Colombo gallery, which sit in a space behind the screen and are exposed to view at certain points during the film.

Certainly, the residual feeling is of having been through an important experience, as if you’ve just been hacked and given a cerebral update. With the warmth and clarity of a favourite art-school lecturer, Kulendran Thomas aligns the developmental trajectory of art into its current contemporary multiform with that of human rights, using Sri Lanka as example of a sovereign nation, and one not far the other side of a long and violent conflict.

As a visual essay on art, alone, this work is utterly compelling (and I hope it finds its way onto many curricula). Though it resonates far beyond this sphere. Having introduced the fact of art being promoted as a form of societal glue in flourishing post-war Sri Lanka, Kulendran Thomas takes us on a whistlestop journey through recent history, audaciously cherry picking his destinations with the confidence of one who has time travelled.

“This is contemporary art, it’s everywhere,” he says, “but what exactly is it and how did it get here?” We jump from Kant’s theory of perception to Duchamp’s assertion that art can be anything. Then back to Kant and his universal principle of human rights – as central to (yet now somewhat missing from) international law – and onto notions of the self and authenticity mediated by Taylor Swift and Oscar Murillo (in digital avatar form) as if the new exponents of cultural theory for the Linkster generation.

He posits that our, largely 20th century, understanding of societal rules and geopolitical boundaries bears increasingly little relevance to the state of being human in 4IR. And that contemporary art as an amorphous construct that suggests the existence of “theoretical equality”, but is essentially “mediated by unequal powers”, offers a useful model for understanding and thinking about power, polity and personal autonomy. In particular, data as currency and the algorithmic technological performances re-shaping societies and the lives of their citizens, as well as new forms of governance designed to reflect the needs of the individual rather than simply the largest (politically useful) majority.

Kulendran Thomas is a joy to watch and holds the attention as an articulate narrator in a stunning sea of art imagery, slick digital visuals and documentary footage. While the artist’s (instructional but also tender) exploration of his Sri Lankan heritage – particularly his father’s role in supporting his Jaffna community during a time of war – ensures our full engagement with his labyrinthine enquiry. During an international face-time conversation, the artist takes his father back to the site of the centre he set up to serve the persecuted, the displaced and those looking for missing persons.

The production and staging of the work, aptly illustrates Kulendran Thomas’ point about the contemporary art canon as an endlessly reconfigurable biennial-of-things: “An art so liberated that its only foundational premise is that there is none”, which encourages an open approach to defining oneself and the frameworks that determine how we are collectively defined. Even if he acknowledges that art, given its commodifiable nature, has long occupied a contradictory theoretical air-space, leading us like a bobbing balloon over the paths of wealth and power.

All photos: Installation Views from 'Being Human', 2019, Time, Forward! © Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti, except 4: Still from the film © Christoph Rohrscheidt, and 5: Still from the film © Viviane Hausstein.

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