In 2014 we spent 6 weeks on a residency with Sura Medura in Sri Lanka. It was a timely opportunity to challenge and extend our practice. We were interested in exploring the relevance of our work in an unfamiliar environment and culture.
During our time in Sri Lanka we developed a series of temporary pieces at different scales. In a contemporary art context, we made a work (After Image) for the ‘Making History’ Biennale in Colombo in which we explored bureaucracy and the recording and interpretation of historical events. In the jungle village where we shared a house with fellow artist, Hannah Braxton, the density and simplicity of life made us question what work we might make in response. Our approach was to make a series of small-scale ephemeral works that explored observed details of local life and place.
Life in Welwelgoda Village, Hikkadua
We lived in a house in the jungle during our time in Sri Lanka and needed some time to acclimatise to the heat and humidity. This was a real challenge with the slightest exertion leading to being covered from head to toe in sweat. The humidity affected our brains too and we felt that we were constantly thinking underwater, trying to get some clarity, if only the surface could be reached. Sleeping was difficult and we mapped our sweaty and disturbed nights in a series of photos of our morning sheets.
Observing day to day life in Hikkadua, we became fascinated with the bags that the street food vendors use. These are home made, usually out of old children’s schoolwork or office paper waste. You can be standing on the corner having a snack and reading some child’s attempts at maths or looking through someones office records. Our favourite was a list of spare parts for a Sri Lankan military jet.
This led us into developing a series of our own designs including images and writing reflecting our time in Sri Lanka which we made into bags to give to street vendors to use. These became part of a new ephemeral communication system as we made an extended intervention, inserting the bags into the food system as we travelled around Sri Lanka. The text pieces explored our response to the surroundings and the climate and were designed to be small provocations dropped into the street life in the towns and cities. Ideas ranged from the dreams of lost cosmonauts to swimmers in underground oceans, All explored the feeling we had that there was more than one way that we were ‘present’ in this place.
Within the bag project we developed a small-scale collaboration with Garry Duthie, Prof. of Nutritional Science at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, Aberdeen who had developed a recipe book called ‘Stovies Reloaded’, reworking traditional Scottish recipes to make them healthier. We had been surprised to see so many vegetables commonly grown in Scotland on sale in the markets in Sri Lanka; leeks, potatoes, cabbage , beetroot etc. (a British colonial legacy?) We used recipes from ‘Stovies Reloaded’, had them printed and made them into bags for street sellers. We wondered if some Sri Lankan homes would end up experimenting with Scotch Broth and leek and potato soup! We sent images to Garry Duthie which made for interesting discussion points about recycling and healthy snacks as well as the history of global food systems back in Scotland.
‘Stovies Reloaded’ in Sri Lanka
Everybody wears flip flops (called slippers) in Sri Lanka and leave them at the door when they enter a house. Often there are many ‘slippers’ outside a house if people are visiting.
We made ‘slippers’ out of sheets of handmade paper which have different plant materials from the area embedded in them such as grasses, banana leaves and rice. The paper is beautiful and was made at a small workshop nearby. The paper ‘slippers’ were very delicate and seemed to have distinct personalities and we came to see them as representing distinct people.
We made about twenty five pairs in all sizes and experimented with the shoes in different places. We installed them (temporarily) in different formations at natural gathering places along the local tracks in the jungle as ephemeral installations marking public space as well as outside houses and in gardens. This process helped us to explore the public space in the village which seemed to be mainly temples and space outside the small shops. This caused much interest as well as discussion and identification of the plants that the flip-flops were made out of.
There were many dogs along the Welwelgoda Road where we lived and we came to know them all, as they had to be navigated as we walked to and from our house. Some were aggressive and could bite. How to deal with them became a much-discussed subject amongst the Sura Medura artists.
Cataloging, identification and categorisation is very much part of the education system with hundreds of posters available in shops……..
As a response we produced our own educational posters entitled ‘Dogs of the Wewelgoda Road’ which we gave out to the children in the village.
DJ in a Tuk Tuk
Dominda is the 18 year old son of one of our neighbours. His brother died in a tuk tuk accident the previous year and his family had been paying for the gradual repair of the tuk tuk ever since. It was still on HP and a considerable drain on resources but they want to keep it. Dominda drove at speed round the jungle roads but as yet had no licence to carry passengers. He had a massive sound system in the tuk tuk which keept the neighbours awake, much to his mothers embarrassment.
We recorded the sounds of our neighbourhood – the daily sweeping, bird calls, monkeys and his tuk tuk horn and engine, which we sent back to Glasgow to musician and music producer, Anders Rigg. He produced a reggae track incorporating these sounds, which we gave to Dominda to play in his tuk tuk as he drove round the village.
Dominda with his tuk tuk and his speakers
Our house was at a crossroads in the village and many people passed us everyday as we worked in the garden. Much of our time there was spent smiling, waving and saying hello to passers by. We made friends and people came to visit and chat to us. Everyone was intrigued by what we were doing so we decided to have a community showing of the work that we and fellow artist Hannah Braxton had been making.
We made a ‘Busby Berkley ‘style stop frame animation with the paper ‘slippers’ using photos of the flower that grow in the village as the backdrop, reflecting our feelings of surrealness during our time in Sri Lanka. We put up a screen between the pillars of our house, which was viewable from the road and borrowed a projector from the local community project. We projected the animation at dusk together with an animation that Hannah had made of local house brooms. We also made an installation with the paper ‘slippers’ and the dog poster was on display.
We told a few people about the event on the day of the showing and hoped that word would spread – it did! Loads of children came and helped with the preparations and at dusk people started arriving. We were also graced by the presence of one of the dog ‘stars’ of the poster. Together with Hannahs work, there was a lot to see, and the garden was full of children and adults having a good time – a great night.