Vengayam – Solo performance installation at Critical Animals, This Is Not Art festival, September 29th, 2018

VengayamOnSite

Vengayam (‘ven-gaah-yum’) – meaning ‘onion’ in Tamil – is a performance installation that investigates the constructs of identity as traced through the signifiers of citizenship, migration and nationalism. Responding to a recorded bilingual critical essay and the personal reflections of the artist, the installation attempts to dissect and understand relationships between the project of nationalism, neoliberal capitalism, and the dictates of culture as they play out upon contemporary generations of Australian immigrants.

The work traces the journey of citizenship across three nations (India, Singapore and Australia) using markers of the artist’s birth certificate, passport, citizenship document and visas. Through this process, it explores transnational sources of ideology that govern the dictates of ‘Indian-ness’ and the paradoxes therein, whilst also highlighting the expectations of contemporary Australia upon the assimilated model minority, and the dysfunctions between these two spaces.

These pathways and their associated provocations are an attempt to articulate and communicate the complex psycho-spatial landscape of identity-formation for contemporary generations of Australians. It also aims to better understand how the expression of individual identity is vulnerable to the dictates of political and cultural hegemony.

Vengayam will be performed as part of Critical Animals in the This Is Not Art festival in Newcastle, NSW in 2018.

Location: The Lock-Up
Date: 29th September
Time: 12pm – 12:50pm
(Panel talk on identity at 3pm)

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(Re)negotiating identities: Hippie, what? Goa, 18 (II)

They are a parasite, he says.
They find a host tree that they like, grow around it and suck up all its nutrients, strangling the tree and taking over its shape. They’re basically killing the tree.

They’re suffocating it.
That’s the only way they can live.

/

Sunrise vinyasa, Hatha, Iyengar, Ashtanga,
Pranayama, Tantra, Osho meditation, Ayahuasca,
Reiki, Hula, Poi, DMT, 
Lomi Lomi, Ayurveda, Mud-bath,
Pancha Karma,
 Uropathy, Acupuncture, Buddhist chanting,
Kambo frog medicine
, Erotic dance, Wild women circle, African drumming…

I peel back one of the signs to see what is beneath: The symbol Om is printed in the corner. A small body soars across its page. I can make out the words “TANTRIC MIDGET TOSSING, 500 RPS PER MIDGET. 200 RPS PER DOG”. A phone number is listed.

/

Appearing like something out of Where the Wild Things Are, they emerge in all sorts of places along the streets of North Goa, their sinewy frames simultaneously haunting and enchanting, knuckles and boughs smoothly imitating the tendons and nerves of the human body as though a million men writhe beneath their bark. Tendrils reach from their archways and sway weighty in the wind, whipping the faces of those who ride through.

* * *

In the photographs, a few hundred young men and women roam a pristine coastline, dressed variously in elephant collared shirts, neutral toned linen and leathers, and the trademark Bohemian garb of the Woodstock generation. Palm trees lean cinematic behind their silhouettes, captured in various states of wandering, dancing and conversing. One shows a woman sitting before an open shawl housing small balls of what looks like animal droppings (it is hashish). Her handwritten sign reads: MANALI SHIT. She is almost stoic beneath her matted locks, surrounded by revellers hazed and languid. It is the late 1970s in Anjuna Beach, Goa.

Image by Jacque Lastry

/

The girls at Twice the Garden look the part but their feather earrings are made of plastic and cost Rs.50. I know because less than a fortnight ago my own faux-feather earrings revealed their bleached veins to me and I rued my juvenile Ishka-buying ways. Swaying along to a bassy Om Namashivaya remix bellowing from a speaker mounted by a plaster-cast Natarajah’s feet, I inadvertently catalogue my way through the outfits around me, recollecting the festival gear frenzy of Melbourne over summer. Most of the tie-dye clothes and tribal accessories I see can be bought at the local shops along the main drag in Arambol; Ali Baba pants made of cheap cotton, acid-wash polyester t-shirts screen printed with images of Shiva, Buddha and Ganesha, crop tops and strappy dresses of viscose  and pleather in earthy maroons and mustards. Detailed with Rajasthani patch-vests, semi-precious stones, and hard-scavenged nomad treasures, many almost look the real-deal.

/

‘Australia!? I’m pretty good aren’t I? See how I could guess?’

The lanky fellow speaks to me across the windy upper berth of a bamboo-built eco-cafe; a regular haven for the wifi needy of Ashvem beach. His accent is British, but he quickly informs me that he has some Spanish-Moroccan ancestry, the whites of his eyes glinting against his otherwise liberally bronzed and sand-dusted skin.

Max is a yoga teacher. He teaches a new kind of yoga that only a few people know how to do. He has been practising it for years. One of his key contributions to the development of the practice – reportedly rooted in an Indian lineage somewhere – is that one must drink all liquids through the nose. It’s a yogic practice, he informs me. A woman woven with leather straps and feathers giggles in the crook of his arm as he tells me. ‘She’s from Germany. We met last night at the Holi party’. The woman smiles at me. ‘Actually, she met me drinking red wine through my nose’.

* * *

In early 2014 I travelled India solo.

I’m not sure if it was three weeks in low-season Rishikesh, waking to the glacial Ganga every morning and reading scripture and philosophy that I had never before had the interest, nor maturity, to absorb. It could have been the immense clarity brought on by a 10-day Vipassana in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal and the intense relationships and transcendental experiences that followed. It could even have been the simplicity and synchronicity that only a place as full of chaos-forced harmony like India can deliver. But more likely, or perhaps in equal measure, it was the fact that I had packed my bags in Melbourne with an intention of finding something true of myself – something that years of cynicism and depression caused by corporate Western city-living had all but erased. I went to India to be saved. And perhaps because of this, India saved me.

Street art – Rishikesh 2014

Is it an illusion? Is it something of the soil? Is it the weighty and ornate presence of idols and worship forcing trespassers to question their faith? Or is it the desperate need for the insulated Western citizen to experience a terrain of raw anti-fragility in order to know they are alive?

Whatever it may be, India’s lore precedes it’s travellers, hundreds of thousands whom make their tracks across this bloated and burgeoning country in seeking. And consciously or not, we follow the paths of those others who came before us. We cash in our privilege for a few months, or a few years, roaming the city-pockets we can afford on the cheap, finding hilltop labyrinths that serve meditation and yoga, (and bang lassi); places that allow us to live an alternate life to one ruled by Western values of propriety and culture;  that allow us to forget the known version of ourselves, and create, discover, (or forget again) a new meaning for our existence.

That/this. It does not happen by accident, but out of necessity. Out of a deep existential despair of humanity to break the bonds that dictate its being – a trait shared along the continuum of those who trek these paths.

/

I look at the photos I find on the internet of the paradise that Goa appeared as in the late ‘80s. The hues of oceanic blues and earthen reds beneath the nostalgic tint of the film romanticise the characters in the images. I look at them and feel a sense of the ‘good old days’, the original rebellion, the Woodstocks and Ginsbergs and Stones, the Lennons and Yokos and No War in Vietnam. I look at the clean beaches, and rue what it has become, questioning the doctrine of the modern-day “hippie” – and of myself here amongst it.

I want to believe we are just at a different end of the timeline, but I wonder if it is more than that. Could it be that the tenets of spiritual belief that were sought and interpreted for the world by many of that pioneering generation have not been diluted with a lesser, more corporatised brand of spiritual consumerism? Those places once considered a mecca for wisdom, becoming outlet malls for self-help?

Image by Jacque Lastry

Or did they too came to India in seeking, only to find themselves constrained by the inability to actualise spiritual beliefs without corrupting those of the host country? Full of ideals of ecology and sustainability, only to be sadly mocked by their tendencies for consumption and comfort.

* * *

Ashvem beach is usually nicer than the others in the North. It is quiet and clean with good sand. But now you need a special ticket to cross the bridge from the river, and glass bottles and plastic rubbish wash up on the shore overnight from the earlier revellers. It’s the worst on Mondays, probably because every Sunday night Riva has a party and everyone goes. Poi and hula hoops are rife on the lawn as the DJ spins psy-trance and Indian and Nepali men in starched whites serve barbecued burgers, salad and cocktails. The cost is Rs.100 to get in.

The main supermarket has a fridge section almost completely labelled in Cyrillic. The grocery seller a few doors down has honed his Russian to a finely nuanced tongue over the last seven years, rebutting his customers playfully in intimate phrases. In some areas of the strip, you would swear you were in Eastern Europe, were it not for the coastline and the sun.

On the day of Holi the main street turns into a rave. Revellers who have been going almost all night are a slicked mess of colour and alcohol by early afternoon. The 24-hour bar is pumping dubstep loud enough to send a vibration down each end of the street. The next morning the remnants of this mindless debauchery is strewn across the paths. Dark-skinned women with bejewelled blouses and multi-coloured cloth tied around their heads will pick through the rubbish, collecting plastic water bottles and other worthy recyclables that can be exchanged for money.

/

We live in a cottage by the river which runs inland near to the beach. Pigs and palm trees cluster across the hilly expanse of reddish dirt, dry grass and brambles between us and the bridge to cross the river. There are four or five houses that run along the make-shift dirt suburb. They were designed by a Danish woman who first came to Goa in the nineties, and has been returning every year since.

When we move in, Aggie – a Goan man, whose wife and family have been running the property for years – comes to greet us. He tells us about the space, about his children who run about (his daughters are both in need of eye surgery in Chennai). He tells us that he takes care of everything and we should invite others to come and stay too. ‘But only nice people’ he says, with a cautiousness of ‘you-know-what-I-mean’. ‘Only smiling people’.

A few doors down, Johnson invites us over for omelettes. He is wearing a checked towel as a lunghi whilst making his coffee, and his large belly protrudes as he greets us jovially with his wide Austrian accent. The wooden sign above his verandah entryway is decoratively painted with his name and his partner’s. They live here six months of the year and have done so for 10 years. Together with Aggie they have expanded the homes, paid for renovations, tended to the animals. ‘Have you seen my dogs?’ he asks us gleefully, as three stray puppies and their mum come nipping at our feet from inside.

/

I came here because I thought it would give me a chance to really look at this. 
To really deal with it, you know?
As she speaks, she self-consciously tucks her hair behind her ear.

I tell her that I do know. I tell her that it can feel crippling, and a I tell her what I do to try and deal with it. We talk of our struggles, our families, and the things we read to help along the way.

Out in front of the sun-beds, women are sitting in lotus and meditating towards the water, as others take photos in yoga poses, and write words on the sand: ‘SHANTI’. It means peace.

/

We rise at 6am to make it to class, dodging school buses and airport pickups across a decrepitly pot-holed road. The early sun imprints a near-fluoro red circle upon the sky. It crests behind the palm trees and paddies that sprawl between homestead restaurants and random shops and pharmacies. Bound against the crisp wind in a scarf and cardigan, I pathetically try and capture it on my phone. But the elation can only be felt in person, zipping through the unwieldy mosaic of facades somehow a reminder of your wholeness amidst the chaos.

Mats in-tow, we walk up the front path without speaking. The stillness of the surrounding foliage, thick and live, seems to sand the wear of the street from our pace.

At its end, a vast red clay-cement platform with angular white pillars and Portuguese-style roof tiles hums a silent welcome. Inside its walls, there is only breath: 40 – 50 bodies on rows of mats not 30cms away from one another, each making their way through the Ashtanga primary series in absolute solitude.

My mind strays with chatter as I wait at the back of the class. I think about Melbourne, our bodies stiff in the car as we try and beat morning traffic to make it to the studio. I think about how long we might stay here, about where we’ll go next.

I look at the outfits people are wearing, their physical feats of strength, their tattoos, their vulnerabilities, the stories I imagine for them, the questions I have about what brought them here.

I sit, and I wonder.
But then she calls my name, as she will each of the others,
and I unfurl my mat,
so that I can stop,

if I am to begin.

* * *

Commonly known as the Ficus, or Fig tree, the Banyan tree cannot spread its seed independently. Rather, the animals and insects that live within its branches and hollows must carry its seed to a fresh host tree in order for it to procreate. The tree is unique in this way: it is not an independent entity, but one that requires carriers of different species in order to spread its seed, and relies upon another tree sacrificing itself as the foundation. The tree itself, cannot survive without this cooperative synchronicity of occurrence. This emergent multi-species collaboration occurs again and again; this gathering of insects, plants and animals of different description recurrently partake in a concerted cycle of biodiversity that allows the tree to survive and grow ever larger, breeding more of its own kind, and assuring a home for those who rely upon it and whom cannot live anywhere else. It lives through this co-creation, while ultimately destroying – or transforming – that which gave it landing. And this process underpins a cyclical chain of regeneration that is vital across soil, insect, animal, and air.

* * *

(Re)negotiating identities: Curious gazes, Goa’ 18 (I)

It’s the dogs that keep me awake. Otherwise, I can stand the heat, and the rumblings of traffic that pass from time to time. But it’s the dogs. They bark and bark, aimlessly, for the sake of complaint, or so it sounds. I toss and turn, and pretend it doesn’t bother me. And as though it knows, one will always respond to my attempted nonchalance by stretching its bark long, melodiously like it is the end of its ballad, burning and grazing its call into a mournful low.

***

We amble on the dirt-road outside our compound, waiting for the call-taxi to find us. My room mate – a French-German political science intern – has flagged down a boy from the street to explain where we are to the driver. He is probably not more than 18 years old, as guessed from the younglings of a moustache sprouting above his lip. He starts walking up to the main road and we follow him. His red polyester track pants shine radiantly against the bland dirt road. Every so often he turns his head backwards as he is talking and glances at me, curious. I am familiar with this gaze, though I do note that the gaze is for me, not my fair-skinned room mate. The twins from the compound keep tailing me until I reach the car, their small gold drops dangling by their buzz-cut bobs: ‘Aunty! Your pant is torn!’.
I know, I want to tell them. I spent $190 on these jeans.

The driver pulls up, mildly irate from not being able to find us. He unloads his navigational complaints on the boy and clocks me with a passing flick of his eye as I climb in. But once we start moving, he turns back and has a proper look. There it is again. That curious gaze.

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It occurs to me then, that my tall-haired French-German room mate standing on the road in full salwar kameese is a sight that the locals can blink away. The possible narrative arcs of her presence – and others who appear like her – are well-known, predictable, and accepted without threat. But I am a subtler discrepancy. As I’ve been told before, the styling of my thin glossy hair, the shape of my eyebrows, the gleam of my skin and my sartorial preferences are more difficult to reconcile once noticed. Perhaps because, for all intents and purposes, I am Indian. For what reason, then, could I appear this way?

I imagine myself lean over and touch him gently on the shoulder, my chubby-faced driver with his headphones in. I imagine saying: it’s okay. It’s okay that you can’t understand what I am. It’s okay, really. Look again, and let’s both accept it.

/

It must be strange for you.

She says it sincerely, looking up at me from the day-bed after the seller-women have passed. They heckle all of us to buy beads and sarongs, but when I say ‘no, thanks Ma’am’, they give up sooner, though their gaze upon me trails on behind their steps.

It is. I reply. It’s like, I’m definitely not one of them, but I’m not fully Australian either, you know? On both ends, I am…exotic, or strange… something. I float between the two spaces, like bubbles at the top of a soda.

She is silent, but I feel her nod in understanding. We look up towards the water, letting the thought rest. I unfurl my legs and splay out on the day bed, opening my Kindle and sipping a Coke.

/

Thamizh pesuvela?: Do you speak Tamil?

I always ask eagerly. I am glad when the back of his head nods in response. Thamizha?

Aanh: Yes.

That’s right. I am Tamil.

It is late afternoon and the auto rolls and grinds through Bangalore’s nightmarish after-work traffic. The driver, Samir, pleather-clad with the dark-lined doe-eyes of so many Muslim boys in the district, drops in questions as they come to him.

Where are you from? What do you do? Do you like Bangalore? What’s it like to live in Australia? Is it hot like this? Is the traffic like this? Do you have a husband? Was it a love marriage? What art do you make? Could I live in Australia?

We talk and I titter happily as he compliments my fluency and laughs along with what I tell him. He stops several times to check the route (I have no address, only a hotel name to give him), but he is young and earnest and assures me we will get there somehow. I think to myself that I will tip him for all this effort.

But there is no need for me to make such considerations.

40 minutes later I will walk into the hotel, stuffing my notes into my purse, flustered and upset. I will retrace the steps of our conversation, trying to sift authenticity from our communication. I will berate myself for assuming foreign rules of politeness in engagement. I will block out that moment where his tone changed to begin his bidding, the moment I realised my Tamil lacked the vocabulary to fight back. I will quietly be reminded that I am a foreigner in sheep’s clothing. And I will give him 170 rupees.

***

The family down the street has purchased a Saint Bernard. It is monstrously large and chained up in the front verandah, ogling strangers and no doubt keeping local dogs away from the chickens. There are other special breeds around too: Chow Chows and glossy Cocker Spaniels are walked by familial servants in white half-sleeved shirts. The strays don’t go near these dogs when their minders are around. Looking at them, you can see in the sheen of their coats that all they know is the care and luxury of high-class domestic living.

***

The waiters at the Taj mostly stand in a semi-bow, a state of cat-like readiness should they need to greet their patrons with practiced servitude. My friend’s partner, an Indian expat himself, attempts to joke with them, but they receive his humour as reflecting dissatisfaction and, apologetically, only work harder to please.

Neatly dressed Indians, expats and foreigners alike are arrayed across the settees, ordering grossly overpriced food and cocktails with careless flicks of the hand. I realise that I receive no curious gazes here. Instead, an unbreakable hierarchy is at play between guests and staff; it is impolite, insulting even, to try and interfere with its order. It is articulated at all times between wait staff and patrons by a measured distance of standing. It recalls its own caste system, reminding me of my last trip to a temple in Chennai where a “low caste” man humbled himself to the ground for nearly bumping into an Iyer priest.

We eat dinner and the bill comes to Rs.6400.

My earlier folly begins to sink in and I quietly acknowledge Samir and his bidding.

/

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Thankyou.

Welcome.

I am too engrossed in typing to look him in the face, and frankly, he doesn’t give a shit. I am the only Indian-looking person at this place, and I have to accept what that makes me; or is it what I am? Whatever the case I resume my focus and order a soda water to pass the time.  I am a patron at this beach side restaurant in Goa, and that’s all I need to be.

The bikini-clad Europeans tanning on the sun beds barely flinch as the local seller girls walk up to them. One woman asks to take a photo and the two Goan girls pose for the camera, before resuming their bidding. I see them shaking hands and smiling. A good price for my friend.

Down by the shore a stout middle-aged caucasian man plays soccer with the local boys. His skin is sun-drenched, camouflaging him momentarily, but he can’t be missed, carefree in play as his dirty white jocks jiggle their wares.

Occasionally, men high on bang and whatever-else stream down from further up the shore, trying to ‘befriend’ the tourists sun-baking in their petit two-pieces. For a culture submerged in principles of modesty, this is an overwhelming feast for the eyes. But the lifeguards come down from their post to shoo them away, as burly Russian men raise from their tanning to bark their disdain.

/

When I was younger, my relatives in Chennai would lend me their children’s clothes, and I would fade into the background of 40th street in Nanganallur. Except when I would beckon a stray puppy to follow me home, or a calf at our gate would bring me running from the verandah, calling for a banana to slip onto its sandpaper tongue. The women of the street peering down from their balconies would smirk, bemused, as they combed their long oily hair. She’s Lakshmi’s girl: my Aunty would call. Australia lenthu vandirka.

/

She says, Don’t stretch your hand to him, as I move towards Gundu, opening my palm. He is barking and trembling, fiery eyed.

He used to be a stray before we adopted him. When you offer him your hand, it triggers some sort of trauma for him.

I coo at him naively, but withdraw my hand and back away as he watches me wearily.

/

At some point I have to give up. Give up attempting to know the unknowable systems and spaces that I inhabit here. For all of it’s difference, my status as an anomaly – as the bubble rising to the top of the glass, neither part of the water nor the air – is shared across millions in our diaspora. These small unfoldings I observe are but the fractured splays of colonisation, immigration and capitalism. It’s not something I can reconcile, although I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me sometimes.

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***