There have been few exhibitions in recent memory as moving as Amar Kanwar’s The Sovereign Forest + Other Stories currently on display at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
The exhibition reveals how large multinational corporations are destroying rural life in India by appropriating vast areas of land for mining – the authorities are unwilling or powerless to intervene.
“I feel compelled – it’s a kind of need – to find out what is happening around me,” says Kanwar.
“I look for multiple ways to comprehend. I find that legal ways, journalistic ways, formal ways, forensic ways – many of these established ways which are used to comprehend these crimes – they do illuminate, they do inform, but they do not necessarily help you to understand the scale, the meaning, or the depth of what is happening. A lot of my work has been to try and find a method to do just that.”
Kanwar aims to present stories and evidence through films, poems, photographs, documents and objects to highlight the deeper meaning of land and community.
“In one way there’s this economic boom taking place in India, which is a positive development. But at the same time, there are many things being destroyed along with it,” says Kanwar.
For Kanwar, land is linked to communities, knowledge and traditions. When that land is lost, generations of knowledge disappear with it.
Within the exhibition is a display of 272 different species of rice. Beautifully lit, and carefully arranged, they demonstrate Kanwar’s issues with industrialised farming.
“Land is not just dimensions. If you lose a piece of land, and the state wants to compensate you for that piece of land, the method for working out the value of the land is a multiplication of the area on the basis of real estate price at that time,” he says.
“You have 272 varieties of rice here, which is a knowledge system. So if you lose this knowledge system which has been tried, tested, shared and re-tested over so many decades, how do you place a value on this loss?”
Not everything in the exhibition is symbolic or poetic. The final room in the exhibition presents mountains of evidence from deeds and documents to one particularly graphic photograph of a victim of brutal violence.
“Sometimes if something is quite graphic and hard to see, then you have to consider the intention with which you show that,” say Kanwar. “First, and most important, is your intention. If you’re clear and honest about your intention, then I think people understand why you do that.
“Violence is a part of our lives, and people need to know that these things happened in a particular way, so it’s necessary for me to include that image, but I try and do it in the most respectful way that I can.”
The exhibition continues outside to the gardens of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. A series of ‘Listening Benches’ use audio recordings of Kanwar telling stories to add further layers to those presented in the gallery.
“For a long time I’ve wanted to find a way I could take the stories and give them a form that exists outdoors,” he says. “The benches are very simple – they are functional, they have a use.
“I wanted to make the benches here out of local wood from Yorkshire – some waste wood from either fallen timber or pre-existing wood.”
The benches were built from wood recycled from a large disassembled church organ which was once housed in the Sculpture Park’s chapel.
“Nobody knew what the wood inside of the organ would be like – all you see is what's on the outside.
“When the organ was ripped apart, they had all types of wood – small pieces, long planks. So we made the benches as they emerged from the wood,” says Kanwar.
“We just picked up pieces of wood to see what goes with what. We didn't cut it, we didn't define it, we didn't saw it, we worked with the material that was there.”