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Sri Lanka Residency - Week 4

Another very full week! On Tuesday morning we made our way to Colombo to present to students and staff at the University of the Visual and Performing Arts. Upon arrival, we were guided through the building where a great number of music students were rehearsing for their exams. The endless cacophony of mass Kandyan drumming reverberated throughout the corridors and into the open windows of the hall where Joshua, Zoe, Mary, Lewis, and I gave retrospective presentations of our work and working practices.

After a delicious meal at the Gallery Café in Colombo (highly recommended), we headed to our hotel and rested before what would prove to be a very gruelling day at the Immigration Office to extend our visas. If I could sum up the experience in one phrase, it would be ‘5-hour Kafka-esque nightmare’ – during which: you get your photo taken, pay for photo, take to 4th floor room, get form, complete form, hand back form, get it stamped, get a token, take form, passport, and token to another room, queue, get form and passport taken from you, return to 4th floor room again, await your token number being called, get form and passport back, take form and passport to another end of the room, queue, pay for visa extension, get form and passport taken from you, go back to original side of room, wait for token number to be called again, get passport with visa extension returned, run screaming from the building.

It wasn’t all misery, however. There was one particularly beautiful moment when we witnessed a young Ukranian boy making friends with a monk, who subsequently taught him a game on his phone. The boy then befriended our group and we played various silly games, even allowing him to scribble on us with a pen. Shortly before we got our passports back, he came over to me and handed me a small boat that he had made out of one of the immigration leaflets. I have to admit that it brought a tear to my eye.

After escaping from the Immigration Office, we had lunch at Prana Lounge – a beautifully calming space which did a wonderful job of decompressing us from the bureaucratic nonsense of the morning.

This was followed by a visit to the impressive Pettah Market. Each street is lined with stalls and small shops which have, by some kind of arrangement, been themed. For instance, what could be termed “electrical street” is all lightbulbs, phones, and power adaptors – it was on that street that I purchased two radios for the purposes of my installation.

On Thursday morning, we had a conversation over breakfast where Lewis expressed feelings of being strongly overwhelmed by our trip to Colombo, and that, despite the stresses of presenting and later enduring the process of getting our visas extended, the collective comedown (experienced through the beautiful meals and trip to Pettah Market) was profoundly affecting for him. I recognised this in my own response to events in previous weeks, such as the climb up Sigiriya or to the Dambulla Cave Temples, all of which resulted in a raw emotional state and a desperate need to create. I’ve been overwhelmed on these occasions and lacked the capacity to comprehend or quantify the magnitude of the experience and the importance of it being shared by this particular group. Mary has suggested a couple of times that we’ve acquired a kind of pack mentality, and it’s true that we feel the absence of even one member of the group. The enormity of these shared experiences lingers for days afterwards and, certainly for me, can feel almost too much to contain – what emerges is the stinging of inexplicable tears or uncontrollable laughter rising in my throat. I think that we’ve each identified a deepening importance of our shared experiences, and the sharing of our individual experiences to the group.

10 March 2017

Those two days in Colombo had certainly been stressful, but, I think, bore fruit for each of us. We returned to Hikkaduwa (or “home” as we’ve taken to calling it) on Wednesday night. I had for some time been feeling the need to go off on my own – not to get away from the others, but rather to get some practice in for week 7 when the residency would be complete and the others will have returned to the UK. I decide to return to Galle on my own. As it turns out, we send messages back and forth to each other and even spend breakfast together via Messenger video.

I spent most of Thursday 9th wandering through the streets of Galle Fort, occasionally stopping to capture an interesting sound recording – there’s a surreal moment when I spot a group of men sweeping away leaves from the front of a bandstand while a US Navy jazz band rehearse, presumably for some kind of evening performance which I have no desire of attending.

I feel tired, sweaty, and unmotivated. It’s around 5.30pm and I can feel myself close to nodding off – so, I force myself to leave the hotel and get a burger and chips which I take back to my room. The food gives me a fresh burst of energy and I compose for the next four or five hours. The window’s open, the fan is on, and I’m still pouring with sweat. But I’m on a roll. At 6.30pm, then again at 7.30pm, I hear singing from a nearby mosque. I don’t know what is being sung, and if it’s purely for ceremonial purposes, but it’s heartbreakingly beautiful and performed with great control and grace.

With this music drifting through my window, I stitch together recordings that I’ve taken over the last three weeks: Lewis reading the Gaure quote, the Hikkaduwa fishermen’s song, the Muslim call to prayer from Kandy… I repeat the recording of Lewis six times against the soundscape montage and accompany it with my recently-purchased radio, slowly scanning through the stations, allowing fragments of spoken Sinhala, cheesy pop, adverts, and the whistling, bending frequencies to merge and respond to the other music. The entire process is intuitive and exhilarating, and I feel like this is where I’m pouring all the energy that’s come from the climb up Sigiriya, the Dambulla Caves, the Immigration Office, the lightning storms, the tuktuk rides, the sunsets, and a million other experiences.

I returned to Hikkaduwa on Friday afternoon and did some further planning of the installation. After a very helpful chat with Zoe, I’ve decided that the installation will take place in the corridor of Sunbeach Hotel – a corridor which is a transitional space between the busy Galle road and the tranquil Hikkaduwa beach. Lining the corridor will be 5-6 radios each playing an impressionistic audio response to my encounters in Sri Lanka and will feature the Gaure quote as spoken by each member of the group (as well as Chathura from Sunbeach). A possible addition will be an ambient sound work which would be played in the courtyard of the hotel.

13 March 2017

With a sense of clarity about the installation (and with it some relief), Joshua and I decided to make the journey to Mirissa to do a bit of whale-watching. We left Hikkaduwa early Saturday afternoon and made an impromptu stop at the village of Koggala. We had lunch at a place called The Fortress – a very fancy-looking hotel inhabited by mainly English tourists. Our reason for stopping off in Koggala, however, was not to get lunch, but to visit the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum of Folk Culture – which, conveniently, is directly across the road from The Fortress.

Entry to the museum was a mere 200 rupees (around £1). Neither Joshua nor I had heard of Martin Wickramasinghe before. For those similarly uninformed, he is Sri Lanka’s most celebrated writer, of both fiction and non-fiction. Wickramasinghe (1890-1976) often wrote of changing patterns in Sri Lankan culture and the museum does a wonderful job of encompassing the island’s cultural and technological developments with its impressive range of artifacts. The grounds are beautifully-kept and feature gardens, ponds and a long terrace containing all manner of vehicles, including elephant-drawn carts and early ambulances. Towards the rear of the grounds is the house that Wickramasinghe was born in. At the back of the house is a display containing photographs, letters, and souvenirs belonging to Wickramasinghe. I got a strong impression of a life well lived. He was a prolific writer; he lectured, and travelled all over the world, sometimes meeting with royalty along the way, and he lived out his final days in the small house he had been born in. Before leaving the museum, I buy a copy of one of his books: Lay Bare the Roots – a record of childhood impressions. That night I read the first chapter and felt that I’d gotten closer to grasping an understanding of Sinhalese culture and history than in all of my time in Sri Lanka so far.

Following a short train journey and tuktuk ride, we arrived at our hotel in Mirissa and were greeted by Jagath, the friendliest hotel owner I’ve met, and a gifted salesman – he convinced us to cancel our original whale-trip excursion and got us the same experience for around half the price. We left the harbour in Mirissa at around 7am the following day, and about half an hour later had our first sighting of the day: a pod of dolphins leaping from the sea. It was a spectacular sight. Travelling further, there was a growing air of anticipation, everyone on board carefully scanning the horizon for disturbances in the water. The boat would slow, the tourists would fall silent, and then someone would gasp “There!” or “11 o’clock!” at which the boat roared back into life and people leapt to their feet, cameras in hand. We then witnessed the awesome sight of a huge blue whale rising out of the water, disappearing, reappearing to spray water from its blowhole, then, to the cheers of everyone on board, its great body would curl and a tail would rise out of the water before disappearing deep below. There were another 5 or 6 similar encounters, and it became increasingly comical to watch everyone racing to the left or right like paparazzi trying to capture a prize snap of a celebrity.

We decided to take a tuktuk back to Hikkaduwa. After passing through Koggala, our driver pulled over to point out the small air base there. Laughing, he told us that there were six “roads” running parallel to where we were parked - to our left: the sea, and the runway; to our right: the motorway, the footpath, the rail track, and the river. It was a lovely observation, and one that he seemed proud of. Six modes of transit…perhaps there’s something there that resonates with my installation – or perhaps I’m just digging too deep. Regardless, a beautiful observation.

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