Searching for Discomfort
To be curious about the myriad relationships between historical knowledge and memory leads inevitably, in one way or another, to their collection and storage in some kind of physical form, however notional this might be. Here records will remain, stacked, shelved, filed in boxes, catalogued by codes and abstracted into 10- or 12-digit abbreviations. Waiting in lines, queues or piles, they take their position in an ever-increasing data bank of meta-information, perpetually linked to the past yet adequately disembodied to have currency in the present. Here they wait in a space of taxonomic darkness—until the request to be read, consulted or analysed awakens the record’s exploratory potential to retrieve, remind and reassign perceived registers of knowledge anew. Herein lie the workings of the archive and the continuums of knowledge, understanding and, lest we forget, fabrication that move in and out of its clutches. The archive’s preoccupation with grasping pieces of an ever-growing totality makes it unlike any other information system. The incompleteness of any archive is not an inadequacy but its strength and compulsive charm. This compulsion, Derrida tells us, is a kind of sickness, a mal d’archive1 which underlines a widespread malaise in all of us to search for hidden truths, believing them to exist somewhere in the stacks and piles of the archive, even though we know this is just an illusion no matter how long we search, how much we search or how determined we are to find what we are looking for.
In November 2015 a researcher visited the Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design to conduct a keyword search for the word [End Page 187] “discomfort” from a selection of materials of their choosing. Research was limited to printed matter in English and included the following synonyms: ache, annoyance, displeasure, disquiet, embarrassment, hardship, soreness, trouble, uneasiness, distress, inquietude, malaise, nuisance, upset and vexation. The antonym “comfort” was also included. The research was limited to and conducted over seven days. The search results are listed below, ordered in the manner in which they were found, all of which are accompanied by their cataloguing number within the Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design.
Sasanka Perera, Artists Remember, Artists Narrate: Memory and Representation in Contemporary Sri Lankan Visual Arts (Colombo: Colombo Institute for the Advanced Study of Society and Culture, 2012). SLACAAD 709.95493PER
“His installation created a sense of culturally induced discomfort in at least one exhibition. One recorded instance was, when his works were included in an exhibition of contemporary artworks of a number of Sri Lankan artists in the Colombo office of the German Technical Corporation between February and April 2004.” (p. 69)
“Nevertheless, despite such well-known examples to the contrary, the relationship between art and politics within modernism has been difficult while a lingering discomfort in mixing politics with art has endured (Landuer 2006: 1). This was mostly due to the perceived risk an artist has to take in venturing into politics through his art which might be interpreted as banal or naïve (Landauer 2006: 1).” (p. 7)
“This has mostly come about as a result of being imprisoned within the modernist credo of art that was ambiguous or uncomfortable with art that dealt with politics.” (p. 9)
“They were painted black and midnight blue.… and with such compositions Jagath had brought out a very disquieting truth about these instruments of communication.” (p. 29)
“The kind of art that the Ceylon Society of Arts represented has been described by Weeraratne as ‘a manner of painting that perpetuated the tastes and ideals of an English middle class that was embarrassingly simplistic, and often sentimental and at best naïve’ (Weeraratne 1993: 13).” (p. 20)
“Dissanayaka also situated Shanaathanan’s work in the larger global context marked by political violence when he noted that ‘he is an artist for our time, and of our time, not only Sri Lanka, but for the troubled world in which we now live” (Ceylon Daily News, July 1996).” (p. 32) [End Page 188]
“The association he makes between the words of the Buddha and the unpleasantness of war and destruction is clear enough.” (p. 96)
“In the comfort of our living rooms, these are mere flickering moments that do not touch most people while most would hardly ponder to think about those directly involved, touched and hurt.” (p. 98)
Malsha Fernando, Scrap Book of Chandrajeewa, Newspapers & Magazines Collection from 1985–2010 (Colombo: Karunaratne & Sons Ltd, 2011). SLACAAD 730.925493FER
“Whenever an exhibition like Chandrajeewa’s ends, I become painfully conscious of the lack of Gallery possessing permanent collection of this country’s modern Art.” (p. 66) [End Page 189]
Ruwan Laknath Jayakody, The Power of Sri Lanka Art 1943–2012 (Galle: Sri Serendipity Publishing House, 2012). SLACAAD 709.95493JAY
“Another figure, but this time a female in a bluish tinge, raises her frail skeleton, gasping for water like a leech pecking on skin to latch on (it must be mentioned that these gothic postures and grotesque gestures are not sex positions found in “the perfumed garden” or “Kama sutra”) while the figure from the mirror, now in a somnambulist trance, rests in a mummy’s crypt set against the blackish overcast blue of the sky at night with gleaming stars like chattering mice interlocked, while another man, once again slave-like, arms and legs hacked-off, his form draped on the floor in a state of discomforting abjection, decaying groin exposed, the blunted ends of his chopped humerus raised as if trying to shy away from light like the sun struck half man creature from Murnau’s Nosferatu in its last moments. The air is one of unease and apprehension, a portending of horrors, spiritual and ghostly all, which mirrors in an uncanny sense an alarming similarity to the claustrophobically vast denseness found in [End Page 190] Edward Hopper’s work, along with the kind of dead to the world situations and hopeless characters found in an universe populated by post-modernists such as Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo, the unrest of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Natsume Soseki, Mesao Kume, Naoya Shiga and the Carcasses of Patricia Highsmith. This is the world of Kelum Chandrasekara’s art, the world of a tortoise venturing outside its shell and ducking back into its terror soaked nightmare of being buried alive, suffocating on a shattered reality, like Buddha upon seeing the sick, the ageing, the dead and the ascetic – the desolation of our grimaces and winces, our pangs and crashes into other beings and as a child like Morpheus descends upon our troubled days.” (p. 68)
“Nelun only paints things about which she is distressed and unhappy.” (p. 116)
“Bringing in personal elements to her art very much like Louise Bourgeois did, Anoli manages to unravel motivations, trepidations, ambiguities and problems while retaining a quality that unveils itself in disquieting modes, moods, and semblances which leaves a weighted sense of opposition suspended, making way for uncomfortable realities to surface and break through the veneer and sheen of conventional expectations.” (p. 217)
“While asserting that ‘becoming’ is ‘A moment where my thinking processes namely “restlessness”, “anti – conformity”, “curiosity”, “critic”, “intervention” finally come together which becomes a space of creativity in process.’” (p. 217)
“Not just war, but everything about the extent of the war, even so far away from the ‘warzone’ and I mainly looked at how it was all uncomfortable for us, from the road restrictions due to continual security checks, traffic cones and bombs going off.” (p. 226) [End Page 191]
“In most cases the violence of an artist’s work and its subject matter suffocates the viewer by the grip of chokehold, but rarely, very rarely does the work’s beauteous malaise escape untangled through the barb wired fortress of art theory and hope remains not strangled, here in Vaidehi Raja’s, she has achieved what seems to be the impossible.” (p. 232)
“He has lived through the early demise of both his parents, the violent deaths two of his close friends (two brothers who were both shot separately one week apart) and seen his elder brother have his own marital troubles.” (p. 270)
“In 1998 he joined the Sri Lanka University of Visual Arts and immediately had to face a severe mentally distressing problem, one of being ostracized.” (p. 270)
“The impressionistic brushstrokes of this piece give a clear indication of disjointed emotions contained within. The central figure, imprisoned within the firm grasp of the fist, remains faceless and androgynous – a humanization of a community’s constraint and distress.” (p. 355) [End Page 192]
Sylvia S. Kasprycki and Doris Stambrau (eds.), Artful Resistance, Contemporary Art from Sri Lanka (Altenstadt, Germany: ZKF Publishers, 2010). SLACAAD 709.95493ART
“But however vexed the problem is, it cannot be bypassed whenever one tries to ‘understand’ or to ‘read’ the kind of art that was produced in the 20th century and labeled ‘modern’ in societies like Sri Lanka.” (p. 13)
“Writing on 20th century modernist art in countries like Sri Lanka demands an attempt to define the tension-loaded relationship between modernization and nationalism.” (p. 13)
“Her subsequent exhibition and large installation works (dinner six and comfort zone) have further probed into uncomfortable positioning of women in society, especially focusing on middle class women.” (p. 54)
“In this context, it is worth remarking that women’s ‘uncomfortable position in the society’ also extends to their artistic ambitions: ‘as a woman in Sri Lanka, you are not encourage to be an artist … every body is telling you to be a professional.’” (p. 70)
Neville Weeraratne, 43 Group — A Chronicle of Fifty Years in the Art of Sri Lanka (Melbourne: Lantana, 1993). SLACAAD 709.95493WEE
“It had embarrassed him before the Peradeniya University community.” (p. 3)
“A kind of malaise hung over the country to be punctuated only by two fierce expressions of discontent, the first in 1848 – the so called Kandyan rebellion – and in 1915.” (p. 7)
“Unfortunately what the Ceylon society of Art entrenched was a manner of painting that perpetuated the tastes and ideals of an English middle-class that was embarrassingly simplistic.” (p. 13)
“He told with enormous glee of discomfiture of Dr. G.P. Malsekhara.” (p. 120)
Sasanka Perera (ed.), South Asia Journal for Culture, vol. 1 (Colombo: Colombo Institute for the Advanced Study of Society and Culture and Theertha International Artist’s Collective, 2008). SLACAAD 709.95493SOU
“Apparently, Archchi had become a nuisance to this crowd as he treated them with disrespect, ordering them around and embarrassing them with rude criticism.” (p. 40)
“A senior Ratnayaka told me that Hatton had withdrawn from the community perhaps because he was embarrassed about his own conduct.” (p. 41)
“It is interesting that Hatton’s pratibha to detect the cosmic anubhava was [End Page 193] not present in him in social situations. Perhaps, in some individuals, pratibha occurs at times of distress only as it in Hatton’s case because they lack Vasana to develop pratibha needed to detect the dhvani in their own actions in everyday life that might produce hostile reaction in others.” (p. 46)
Art South Asia—The First International Program of Visual Culture from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (SHISA, 2002). SLACAAD 705. 95493ART
“However steep the contours of this debate are, the more disquieting questions that arise seem ultimately to stem back to connotations of categorizing art and craft under the western canon simply by the fact that the division itself, of beauty and use, intellectual pleasure and vulgar joy of recognition, preserve as well as demonstrate the privileged view of the cognoscenti.” (p. 47) [End Page 194]
Lionel Wendt—A Centennial Tribute, The Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund, Colombo, 2000. SLACAAD 770.925493WEN
“One recalls with delight many such explosive attacks, which must have caused incautious critics considerable discomfiture.” (p. 41)
Tariq Jazeel, Sacred Modernity, Nature, Environment and the Postcolonial Geographies of Sri Lankan Nationhood (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013)
“Paradise is an aesthetic illusion of sorts, and in this very sense speaks to what I have been suggesting through this part of the book is the tropical modernity’s aesthetic seduction; a seduction that in fact hides a much more uneasy discomfort.” (p. 163)
“We can read this discomfort both in terms of the classed exclusions that Lunuganga undeniably instantiates, but also and in the context of my arguments, given the Artist’s Shanathanan’s own biography we can read this discomfort in terms of the ethicized politics and conditions of hospitality embedded within the estate’s aesthetic composition.” (p. 164)
Fareed Uduman, Fareed Uduman, Paintings, Poems and Cartoons (Colombo: Zepplin Advertising Service, 2005). SLACAAD 750.92095493UDU
“My father was an enigma and sometimes an embarrassment to most of his family and friends.” (p. 5)
Neville Weeraratne, George Beven—A Life in Art (London: Amici Dance Theatre Company, 2004). SLACAAD 750.92095493WEE
“For all but the most intrepid the steps were faltering and insecure, often embarrassingly native and clumsy.” (p. 7)
Neville Weeraratne, Art of Richard Gabriel (Colombo: Moosajees, 1999). SLACAAD 750.92095493WEE
“Fortunately for him the letter telling him about the award arrived ten days late and so he was saved the embarrassment of having to receive it in person.” (p. vi)
“At international showings of their work they have won prizes and the praise of discerning critics much to the discomfort of their conservative, local dissenters.” (p. 3) [End Page 195]
“‘This is the sort of friend we have lost,’ lamented Gabriel, ‘a man who though himself in great distress was still solicitous of his neighbor’s need.’” (p. 27)
Neville Weeraratne, The Sculpture of Tissa Ranasinghe (Colombo: The National Trust, Sri Lanka, 2013). SLACAAD 730.9254931WEE
“These have a fluidity and an urgency that overcomes embarrassment and hesitation.” (p. 44)
“The smith, or founder, is a master of fire. It is with the fire that he controls the passage of matter from one state to another … and is an art that should be practiced by one who is accustomed to the sweat and many discomforts which it brings … he who wishes to practice this art must not be of a weak nature, either from age or constitution, but must be young, strong and vigorous … in [End Page 196] addition this art holds the mind of the artificer in suspense and fear regarding its outcome and keeps his spirit disturbed and almost continuously anxious.” (p. 66)
“He not only directed the students but also contributed to the labor himself. Clearly he was well-accustomed to the sweat and discomfort of metal-crafting.” (p. 145)
“Hovering in mid-air above the battlefield, the master called forth dread darkness over the Nagas and, comforting those who were distressed, he once again spread light abroad.” (p. 74)
“Tissa, therefore, dares to show the Buddha in distress and wounded as in Mara Yuddha.” (p. 81)
“Whereupon a large number of students, some one hundred of them, decided to show their displeasure by boycotting their classes.” (p. 82) [End Page 197]
Exhibition Catalogue, George Keyt(Colombo: Lionel Wendt Gallery, 17–21 April 1991). SLACAAD 750.745493KEY
“Three books of Keyt’s poetry published in 1937–38, analyzed elsewhere, offer some insight into personal disquiet experienced by the artist during this time.” (p. 20)
The results obtained by the word search for “discomfort” attest to the way in which the usage of a word evolves and meanings become unmoored, giving rise to new definitions and contexts. As the excerpts make plain, different writers use the same word to talk about entirely different events, people and ideas.
Writing about archives Carolyn Steedman remarked, “The past is searched for something … [but] the object has been altered by the very search for it … what has actually been lost can never be found. This is not to say that nothing is found, but that thing is always something else, a creation of the search itself and the time the search took.”2 [End Page 198]
With Steedman’s remarks in mind, what follows is one of potentially many observations that ponder the use of the word “discomfort”.
An installation by an artist is capable of producing discomfort,3 either culturally or when painted in black and midnight blue.4 By contrast Nelun only paints things that are discomforting5 while the large-scale installations of another artist, Anoli, bring to light the discomfort of women in society, “as a woman in Sri Lanka, you are not encouraged to be an artist … everybody is telling you to be a professional”.6 So immense was the 43 Group painter George Keyt’s discomfort that he published three books between 1937–38.7 For the family of the painter Fareed Uduman, being a discomfort to the family and friends was part of his enigma rather than an element of his work.8
Should the Ceylon Society of Arts be criticised for making “discomfort” a painting style, as a reaction to English middle-class tastes,9 or should they be celebrated for their stand against class-orientated art practices? Moreover, the relationship with class and discomfort in Sri Lanka also resides behind what one author describes as tropical modernity’s aesthetic seduction,10 which refers here to the class exclusivity of places such as Lunuganga, the country home of the renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa.
All things considered, discomfort is not always a serious matter when it gives delight to laughing at the discomfiture of critics, as has been, and may still be, the case regarding the career of Lionel Wendt.11 Overall, however, these are exceptions, much like Wendt himself. Discomfort causes pain. As is the case when someone stops to think about Sri Lanka’s lack of a permanent collection of modern art.12 Until things change, there is comfort to be found in living rooms.13
The Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture & Design is a public space and educational resource located in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. The organisation was established in 2013 and collects materials in English, Sinhala and Tamil related to the development and study of visual culture in Sri Lanka. In addition to housing a reading room, the archive also hosts a programme of free public talks that engage with the contents of the archive. To this end, the archive is one of the first public spaces in Jaffna, following the cessation of hostilities, to create a space for discussion. Through its collection of catalogued materials and talks it aims to encourage debate, support historical correctives, raise [End Page 199] questions and open up more critical exchange across histories, generations and modes of practice in Sri Lankan art, architecture and design. The archive is located at 199 Temple Road, Jaffna in a traditional, recently restored Jaffna courtyard house. It is open to the public from 10 am–5 pm, Friday to Monday.
1. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press  1998).
2. Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), p. 77.
3. Sasanka Perera, Artists Remember, Artists Narrate: Memory and Representation in Contemporary Sri Lankan Visual Arts (Colombo: Colombo Institute for the Advanced Study of Society and Culture and Theertha International Artists’ Collective, 2012), p. 7.
4. Ibid., p. 29.
5. The Power of Sri Lanka Art 1943–2012 (Galle: Sri Serendipity Publishing House, 2012), p. 116.
6. Sylvia S. Kasprycki and Doris Stambrau (eds.), Artful Resistance, Contemporary Art from Sri Lanka (Altenstadt, Germany: ZKF Publishers, 2010), p. 70.
7. Exhibition Catalogue, George Keyt (Colombo: Lionel Wendt Gallery, 17–21 Apr. 1991), p. 20.
8. Fareed Uduman, Fareed Uduman, Paintings, Poems and Cartoons (Colombo: Zepplin Advertising Services, 2005), p. 5.
9. Neville Weeraratne, 43 Group – A Chronicle of Fifty Years in the Art of Sri Lanka, (Melbourne: Lantana, 1993), p. 13.
10. Tariq Jazeel, Sacred Modernity, Nature, Environment and the Postcolonial Geographies of Sri Lankan Nationhood (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013), pp. 163–4.
11. Lionel Wendt – A Centennial Tribute (Colombo: Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund, 2000), p. 41.