Sri Lanka Residency - Week 6
27 March 2017, Mirissa
Yesterday morning (our final morning in Hikkaduwa) Lewis asked if I was feeling emotional at all, to which I replied “I think if I sneezed right now I’d burst into tears”. Our final few days together have been beautiful and heartbreaking and it’s a strange melancholy that I feel despite the idyllic surroundings I’m currently sitting in.
Our final week began with one of the highlights of the entire residency: a catamaran ride around Rathgama Lagoon near Dodanduwa. We all knew that the pressure would be on for the final event on Friday, so it felt good to experience some serenity before the days of preparation ahead of us.
On our boat ride we encountered 3 monitor lizards – 1 of which was a tiny baby sitting on the branch of a tree. Partway through our journey, we stopped at the shore and climbed the steps to a Buddhist temple hidden in the trees. Unlike the other temples we’ve visited since arriving in Sri Lanka, this one had some extremely horrific imagery which belied the serenity of its surroundings and, to my thinking, the religion it was designed and constructed for. The outer walls of the temple featured a series of disturbing black and white illustrations of demons and sacrifices. These were made in the 1940s and looked like they’d come straight out of a Manga comic. The artwork inside the temple was no less unnerving. Tableau scenes of infanticide, maiming, and disease were vividly rendered in the sculptures and paintings, the stories behind each matter-of-factly described by a temple monk. At the centre of the temple, however, was a beautiful giant Buddha standing some 20ft high and gazing serenely down at us.
By the time we returned to the boat, the sky had become a little darker. It must have been around 5.30pm. We took the opportunity to let our feet dangle from the boat and cut through the warm water as the rowers’ oars made gentle splashes. We made our way around a small island which, we were told, held a temple that was home to 8 monks. Our guide explained that access to the island was only possible with written permission from some powers-that-be in Colombo.
As we curved around the island and made our way back to our starting point, the sun was close to setting. At the same time, an impressive lighting storm was illuminating the darkening sky. As if things couldn’t get any more impressive, we were then greeted by the sight of thousands of fruit bats rising out of the woods ahead of us. At one point I leaned back to see these massive creatures fly overhead as a giant fork of lighting tore through the sky above them. It was spectacularly dramatic. The lightning storm increased in scale – almost to a blinding level – as we sped back to Hikkaduwa in our tuktuk.
Much of Tuesday and Wednesday was spent doing the remaining preparations for the event, including floor plans, schedule, and the purchase of equipment. With most of the components for my installation completed, I was able to assist Mary and Zoe with the sound and music for their solo performances. Mary’s piece Mas & Mayhem, devised alongside Lewis Sherlock, was concerned with the deconstruction of carnival. Mary mentioned that she liked the idea of taking a clichéd reggae song and “messing it up”. With that in mind, I took a recording of Arrow’s Hot Hot Hot and time-stretched* it from its original 7 minutes to 1 hour. Around 9 minutes of that featured in Mary’s performance. The time-stretching resulted in the cheesy, slightly electronic song sounding epically majestic.
On Thursday we had our dress rehearsal. While things went fairly smoothly, it was agreed that certain things would be changed for the final performance. With feedback from Neil Butler and Bob Palmer, as well as invaluable support from Sarah Hannan, we made the necessary edits for a tighter event – including the removal of the ritual treacling (which I’d secretly been looking forward to).
Friday’s event was attended by a mix of local residents and westerners, including several artists. My installation filled the main corridor of Sunbeach with its blend of multilingual monologues and field recordings taken throughout Sri Lanka since I’d arrived. Half an hour after the event had commenced, Joshua gave his captivating presentation on tea (after serving everyone cups of tea). I’d learned a lot from him about tea’s history in Sri Lanka and the larger political issues surrounding it. This was followed by an opportunity for audience members to engage with the artists and learn about our various projects. For Degrees of Separation, I explained that Sri Lanka was the noisiest place I had ever been and that the corridor filled with sounds and voice was a bit like how I felt walking along Galle Road – a walk through chaos. With the installation, however, there was the opportunity to stop and zone in on specific voices (via each radio) almost in the manner of eavesdropping. And, of course, the radio had an important resonance – both in terms of my relationship with it from the moment I set foot in Sri Lanka, and its place in the country’s history.
After the ‘artist conversations’ section, the performances began. First, a minotaur-horned Zoe guided tour through her labyrinth to a pre-recorded vocal soundtrack, then Lewis’s jittery, frenetic parade up and down the Sunbeach audience-lined corridor (freshly relieved of radios), followed by Mary’s emergence in white to the time-stretched chimes and horns of Hot Hot Hot, and shortly joined by Lewis, transformed into the same white costume as Mary. They butoh-slowly made their way to the beach front accompanied by the audience who could see Zoe emerging like Botticelli’s Venus from the centre of her labyrinth. Leaving the banana leaf nest she had constructed in the labyrinth’s centre, Zoe climbed the steps from the beach up to the main deck of the hotel where Mary was hammering and tuning away at a steel pan. Finally, the five of us gathered around the pan and began beating out rhythms – some straight, some calypso – and kept banging louder and faster until Mary called “1, 2, 3, 4!”, a final downbeat, then a cheer from the crowd. As the applause was dying away, fireworks and bangers erupted from the front of the deck. An amazing banquet of rice and curry was arranged by Chaminda, and after some short toasts by each of the artists (my own toast was to the fishermen of Hikkaduwa harbour and their song), everyone made their way down onto the beach for a mass participation photo – a long-exposure light painting.
As the night drew to an end and most of the audience had left, Mary instructed me to make my way down to the beach where the others were all suspiciously waiting. Before I knew it a bottle of treacle had been emptied over my head, I was covered in sand, and then dunked in the sea. It was a truly joyous moment!
It turned out, though, that Friday night would not be our final performance together. An informal performance-presentation had been arranged at the beautiful Sooriya Village in Colombo. Sooriya Village is "a facility fabricated to educate and cluster artists by bringing them together from all corners of the nation" and "provides amenities such as rehearsal suits, a top gear recording studio, library and research services, a tech based lecture room, a restaurant with mouth watering delights, dorms, tea/coffee/juice lounge, performance spaces and plenty of hang out area."
However, due to some communication issues, there was no audience other than those dining in the restaurant and it became clear that our technical requirements had not been passed on. There was a definite sense of tension in the air as the five of us gathered at the back of the restaurant to try to put together a show in 15 minutes. Neil and Bob later commented that it was our ability to put together something that was expressive and accomplished in such a short space of time that showed our true connection as a collaborative team, even more so than the previous night’s show. I believe there's a lot of truth in that but also that it was Joshua’s clear-headedness and mediating that saved the day.
In the end, I had the ambient Degrees of Separation track that I had composed (and chosen to abandon for the purposes of the Sunbeach installation) play through the in-house speakers of Sooriya Village while Zoe (complete with minotaur horns) climbed to the top of a tree while a small Sri Lankan girl gasped in delight below. At the same time, Lewis and Mary were separately emerging in their white costumes and coir headdresses from hiding spots in the “village”. There were beautiful solos and beautiful collaborative moments, such as Zoe passing the horns to Mary. Crowds gathered and dispersed as the performance came to a slow and natural conclusion – no fireworks necessary.
In those 15 minutes of intense planning prior to the performance, Joshua had suggested that he give a short presentation, an overview, of what people were about to witness. Asking each of us for a brief explanation, I retrieved my handwritten copy of the John Guare quote and began explaining my intention behind its use in the installation. This is the original quote:
“I had read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The president of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it A) extremely comforting that we’re so close, and B) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close – because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection… I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.”
John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation
As I was explaining to Josh that for me, it wasn’t “six” but “five”, that latter word caught in my throat and I felt tears come very suddenly to my eyes. I think the other four must have been a bit bewildered by my sudden crying, but when I was finally able to get the word “five” out, there was an incredible moment of realisation. I’ll never forget the look on Josh’s face as he recalculated in his head and reached the point I was trying to express. He later described it as his brain doing a 180 degree turn.
Our final journey to Hikkaduwa together was subdued, though punctuated by the usual moments of hilarity. We were all exhausted and emotional. Joshua and Mary would be leaving at 1am and it would be just Lewis, Zoe, and I for the final day. Neil sat up front with the driver of the van, behind him Mary and Bob (who were looking at photos on Mary’s laptop), Zoe and I were behind them, and Joshua and Lewis were in the back. Over Mary’s shoulder, I could see her slideshow of images – randomly selected – from the last six weeks. There was Sigiriya, Kandy, Ambalangoda, Galle, beaches, sunsets, labyrinths, temples, markets, costumes, and games.
By this time, the sun had almost set. Just as the laptop slideshow came to an end, a couple of us spotted something amazing illuminated in the headlights of the van. A little distance ahead was a couple on a motorbike. From between them a tiny bare arm appeared. The arm was gently pulled back by the woman (presumably a mother) who was sitting at the rear of the bike. But shortly after two arms appeared on either side and began to rise up and down in a slow flying motion. We eventually overtook the bike and as we did so, saw a beautiful young girl still in glorious flight.
Our last meal together was garlic prawns followed by mango ice cream. We had agreed that we would each toast another member of the group. My toast was to Lewis. I won’t print it here, but I will share a part of it – a part that was written by someone with a much greater grasp of words than I:
“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them--words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were In your head to no more than living size when they're brought out. But it's more than that, isn't it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you've said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That's the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”
Stephen King, ‘The Body’
We sat up until 1am when the van returned to take Joshua and Mary to the airport.
Sunday 26th March (Mother’s Day) in Hikkaduwa was a day of shutting down. Salty Swami’s – a favourite haunt of the artists (due in part to its reliable WiFi) – felt like the busiest place in town, notable even before entering:
Elsewhere, though, the beach felt empty, entire restaurants and hotels had closed up for the season, apparently overnight, and even Galle Road seemed to lack its usual roar and hum. Before making our own departure, however, there was still some final work to be done: the dismantling of the labyrinth. With yet another stunning sunset backdrop, Zoe, Lewis, Bob, Neil, and I carried the sticks, logs, and banana leaves off the beach and piled them up by the side of the hotel where they came to resemble a giant armadillo. Afterwards, I stood on the deck to watch the sun – now a sliver of red on the horizon - set. Behind me I heard a voice shouting “Happy Mother’s Day!" I turned to see Maria (Neil’s wife), who was on the phone, on the balcony above me. By the time I turned back, the sun had gone.
Time moves differently in Sri Lanka. All of the artists commented on this at least once. It’s surely impossible that it was only a month ago that I stood on top of Sigirya or made the climb to the Dambulla Cave Temples. And it’s impossible that I didn’t know these four people six weeks ago, these people that I feel so bound to.
* Time-stretching is a process of adjusting the duration of a sound recording without affecting its pitch.