Christopher Kulendran Thomas

by Marta Gnyp for ZOO Magazine #39, May 2013

The work of London-based artist Christopher Kulendran Thomas focuses on questions of how the art of our time produces reality and how the ecology of art structures its world. Of Sri Lankan origin, Thomas was born in London after his parents fled escalating civil conflict in their home country. His work now engages the social and cultural dependencies between the West and the East.

Marta Gnyp: Lets talk about your on-going series When Platitude Becomes Form, whereby you re-use artworks by Sri Lankan artists who are well-known in their local art scene.

Christopher Kulendran Thomas: The artists whose works I purchase have become successful in the Contemporary Art boom that has happened in Sri Lanka over the last couple of years. Before the brutal end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, there was no context for art that was called ‘contemporary’, only a market for traditional Sri Lankan art. Now a gallery system for Contemporary Art is developing as a result of the island’s post-war economic liberalisation (with Sri Lanka now one of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world). So I physically reconfigure what counts as contemporary in one remote part of the world into what is demanded of the contemporary at the heart of its globalising mission. For example, an expressionistic canvas in muted brown tones by one of Sri Lanka’s most celebrated young painters is wrapped with blue plastic sheeting and framed with neon pink Perspex. A figurative sculpture by another rising star of Colombo’s new contemporary art scene is encased in a one-way mirrored, fluorescent-lit vitrine and modified with expanding foam.

When platitude becomes a form, 2012

When Platitude Becomes a Form, 2012

MG: Is it your intention to show that the art system is as corrupt as a third-world mock-democracy?

CKT: I think it’s more complicated than that. What I’m interested in are the ways in which art produces (and is produced by) its contiguous reality in all sorts of ways – structurally, economically, societally. . . We tend to ignore all these ways in which art produces its reality and instead we prefer to concentrate on art’s consequences only through the viewer’s interpretation. I’m interested in understanding art ecologically; by this I mean understanding all art’s actual consequences.

MG: You are interested in showing how the field of art functions.

CKT: Well it’s more than showing. One thing is to show how something functions; but that presumes again that art’s consequences are to be seen through the viewer’s interpretation. Through doing this work I have come to understand spectatorship as part of the materials of this work, as opposed to its sole purpose. I understand spectatorship, as well as all the transactions and conspiracies and my own participation as well as part of the materials of this work. The purpose, more than to show, is to actually produce how art functions.

When Platitude becomes a form, 2013

When Platitude Becomes a Form, 2013

MG: Which means that all actors, structures and positions in the art field are actual material of your work.

CKT: Yes. I guess I’m interested in reality; in real stuff, real art. It isn’t a proposition for appropriation across cultures but the actual artworks bought and reconfigured from one market to another.

MG: Your work owes its real character because you are using real existing artworks, making real deals, buying real works. What do you want to achieve with this way of working?

CKT: The big challenges or questions for me are to do with whether this work, as it unfolds, will merely absorb the system of art or whether it can actually also shape it? I like to think about what the art system would be if the art system itself was an artwork? And could art be democratised through its increasingly networked condition?

MG: What do you mean by networked condition?

CKT: Art now is globally networked. Most of the art we see now is on the Internet. Most of the shows we know about are in our inbox. Could this networked condition produce a democratisation of art, much like the recording of music did for that form. Before recorded music, it cost a lot of money to commission music and employ musicians to play it for you. The gap between ‘sophisticated’ music and what most people heard communally was huge. The technological innovation of recording democratised music so radically that it is now a daily part of most people’s lives. I wonder whether the networked condition of art might hold a similar potential for art.

MG: Lets go back to the series of works presented at your recent show in Berlin. Firstly you take on the role of the collector since you are trying to find the best artists and art works. You visit galleries, buy artworks. You have been quite successful in that the artists whose works you bought are becoming famous within Sri Lanka. So you have a good eye, which every collector wants to have. For example, you were telling me that one of the artists whose work you reconfigured has recently won the President’s Award, which is Sri Lanka’s equivalent to the Turner Prize. And the gallery you bought that from is the equivalent in Sri Lanka now of what White Cube was in the 90s in London. Do the artists like what you are doing with the works or consider it annoying?

CKT: I have no idea because I don’t have a personal relationship with any of the artists. I’ve been very precise about dealing only with their commercial galleries. And with those I have good relationships. Their galleries are happy that I’m buying the work but are not particularly interested in my art practice.

When Platitude Becomes a Form, 2013

When Platitude Becomes a Form, 2013

MG: After you have bought the works, how do you rework them? Is there a language of ‘hip Western art’?

CKT: Absolutely. And I’ve come to see what I’m doing as a sort of archaeology of the Contemporary as it occurs in very different parts of the world. And this comes from my own difficulties with the differences between the visual culture of where my family is from and the visual culture I’m working in now. I guess I’m facing these first-generation immigrant issues in a way that is sufficiently antagonistic to be truthful to my experience of these issues. I really wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I was exploiting my ethnic identity in a multicultural pretence of equalisation that denied globalisation’s asymmetric structuring of power. I confront that by doing this work, trying to understand the complex relationships between where I’m from and where I’m going.

MG: I heard that using the money you get from the sales of your works you want to finance a project in Sri Lanka.

CKT: I don’t like using the word ‘project’ because that implies something that is neatly contained, happening on the side, with clear boundaries and outside the main purpose of something else. But I see it as part of the overall composition. And what you refer to is an online / offline media platform for social change that I’m developing with collaborators in Sri Lanka.

MG: What is your plan?

CKT: Well it’s based on Forum Theatre which was developed in the 70s by August Boal as a methodology for improvisation through which communities in difficulty devise scenes which they replay again and again, with their audience exchanging roles with the devising participants. Through this you can get a different approach to the problem. This is a very simplified explanation of what it is but in the past some of the consequences of Forum Theatre, especially in South America, have been quite profound, not only psychologically but also structurally and even legislatively.

MG: You decided to import these ideas to Sri Lanka.

CKT: Well what we’re developing is a way of applying this kind of Forum Theatre methodology in a geographically dispersed way, not live in a room in one go but through networked video over a longer timeframe.

MG: How can you make it through video?

CKT: Workshops will produce scenes that can be responded to by anyone anywhere in the world. Initially these will happen alongside institutional exhibitions of the gallery-sited work of When Platitudes Become Form but responses could also be made independently from anywhere. I’m interested in this platform as a media form even beyond the specific context of Sri Lanka. Now that everyone is a filmmaker, perhaps it could work anywhere.

MG: What do you expect from the participants in the media platform?

CKT: On the one hand its purpose is to connect the people with whom I’m working who have fled Sri Lanka. That’s the immediate diasporic audience. But for it to be useful, outside influence is needed and I’m hoping that the audience for my work will also get involved and perhaps it will grow beyond my work or even the context of art.

MG: What makes you think that this work could also function outside the context of art?

CKT: It is an open-source tool that can be taken up by anyone anywhere. Creating situations where participation by networking people in the world can produce structural change. But I’m also interested in it as a media form comparable to the cinema but kinda the opposite of cinema.

MG: Do you intend to make it an on-going structure as well?

CKT: It becomes whatever it becomes. I started doing this work with some degree of control; it was about setting something in motion. But now I’m following where it goes.

MG: Could you imagine that you stop producing objects?

CKT: No. It’s important for me to make the gallery-sited work as it’s the engine of the whole enterprise, not just financially but it also produces the thinking that leads my understanding of this work. It’s all part of the same ecology. I wouldn’t be instigating the media platform if I wasn’t an artist. It came from indignation about the military brutalities of 2009 in Sri Lanka but my interest is more complicated than activism alone. Whilst structural change might be its horizon, it’s part of an artistic composition as well because art is part of Sri Lanka’s actual ecology now. Maybe parts of what are set in motion will cease to be ‘art’ but I think risking its own status has long been an interesting frontier for art.