Amar Kanwar's latest installation captures life and its extinction, in rural Odisha and elsewhere

01 February 2014

IN LATE AUTUMN LAST YEAR, I travelled to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in northern England to visit Amar Kanwar’s latest exhibition. In The Sovereign Forest, an installation of films, objects and texts, the Delhi-based artist and filmmaker focuses on the impact of corporate mining on Odisha’s ecosystem and communities—a subject that seemed very distant from the light morning traffic and flocks of sheep congregating in the green shimmering fields of West Yorkshire. Yet, although there’s no sign of it now, coal from beneath these fields in the former mining zone had once propelled Britain’s ships across the seas and enabled the building of intricate railway networks in India and elsewhere. As in many other places in the world, including Odisha, coal mining here went hand in hand with conflict. Though coal had fuelled the machinery of empire for over a century, by the 1980s it was at the heart of a violent industrial struggle within the UK. Coal blackened the history of both the Left and the trade union movement in Britain, with the crushing defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985 at the hands of Margaret Thatcher’s government, which forever altered England’s industrial landscape.

Situated in a disused coalfield in the 500-acre Estate of Bretton Hall, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a 15-minute taxi ride from the Wakefield Westgate railway station. The park’s landscape was developed in the latter half of the 18th century by Thomas Wentworth, fifth Baronet and the last Wentworth to own Bretton Hall, and was designed by Richard Woods, a talented contemporary of the famous landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Woods introduced a rich variety of trees and plants, and also designed the idyllic vistas that are still enjoyed by visitors today. The park is now an archive of the extravagant botanical caprices of its former Georgian owners. I arrived there to see fig trees providing an umbrella-like canopy of lacy leaves, and swollen persimmons glowing in the sun. The foul smell of ginkgo biloba fruit permeated the air. Within this setting, the individual works of The Sovereign Forest take up three large rooms of the park’s Underground Gallery and also spill out into the open.

The exhibition, curated by Claire Lilley and on view from 10 November 2013 to 2 February 2014, coincides with the thirtieth anniversary of the miners’ strike. Its themes of exploitation and industrialisation resonate with Yorkshire’s coal mining history and the defeat of its labour unions. The exhibition also involves related workshops and tours through the Sculpture Park’s woodland ecology, which has recently been threatened by encroaching real estate developers.

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    Emilia Terracciano is a writer based in London. Her book Art and Emergency: Modernism in Colonial and Postcolonial India is forthcoming from IB Tauris.

    Keywords: artists documentary activism art installation environmentalism natural resources Amar Kanwar