On August 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” said then British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, “we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” A hundred years later, his words were honoured. The UK plunged into darkness between 10 and 11 pm. The Blackpool illuminations were turned off, as were the lights at the houses of Parliament and national institutions. Thousands of candles were lit across the UK, in memory of the many lives that were lost during the first global conflict.
It was amid this darkness that illumination came from artwork — as focal points on public buildings in the UK’s four nations, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. India, too, was represented, in the form of Nalini Malani’s large-scale video projection and shadow play across the entire west elevation of the Scottish National Gallery. A version of her celebrated work In Search of Vanished Blood that debuted at Germany’s Documenta in 2012, this politically trenchant work featured artistic interpretation of the images of war witnessed through the eyes of a young woman. Malani commented on “the ongoing collective wars of which we have all become a part and to which there is as yet no solution”.
This was not the lone work from India gleaming in the Scottish skyline. Blinking on top of the Old Royal High School is Shilpa Gupta’s neon work Where do I end and you begin. The Mumbai-based artist’s work is also the title of the exhibition at the heart of the Edinburgh Art Festival, coinciding with the Commonwealth Games, and will be on show till October 19.
Inviting perspectives from across the globe — Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK — this “underpins notions of community, common-wealth and the commons”. “Today, we seem to have entered an accelerated phase of globalisation, which creates its own complicated dynamics and seems far removed from the earlier manifestations of colonialism. The terms ‘common’ and ‘wealth’ are now being debated widely in terms of the ethics and politics of coexistence and shared resources,” says Vidya Shivadas. The curator from India has chosen from the subcontinent works of five artists — Gupta, Amar Kanwar and Arpita Singh from India, Pakistani artist Masooma Syed and Naeem Mohaiemen from Bangladesh. Their works are in dialogues with over 20 artists from the chosen nations.
“These artists engage with the world by building structures; forging cartographies and reassembling archives to redress issues of inheritance, amnesia and present-day political struggles while also mediating on form, time, poetics and play,” adds Shivadas.
If Singh presents a suite of watercolours replete with political events and personal memories, Syed has sculptures made from alcohol packaging that entices viewers to “take the time” or “embrace the night”. Kanwar’s project, The Sovereign Forest investigates illegal mining and privatisation of land and resources in Orissa. The new work Small New Little Book records the process of referendum on mining in Niyamgiri in 2013. “The placement of the work at the Old Royal High School is appropriate. The building was conceived as a venue for Scottish assembly in the ’70s,” says Shivadas.
Shared histories manifest in Mohaiemen’s Kazi in Nomansland, based on poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, with India, Pakistan and Bangladesh honouring him and publishing commemorative stamps for him. The artist delves into his personal history to speak of Bangladesh’s formative years, in the work Rankin Street.
Even as artists share space across the exhibition venue, the dialogue is not confined to the subcontinent — Auckland-based artist Gavin Hipkins travels to Chandigarh for his work Leisure Valley, inviting opinions on Le Corbusier’s blueprint. Evidentally, in the globalised world, the common is universal.