gods in the street

keith gallasch: the light in winter festival

Uupekha Jain as Kali, When The Gods Came Down To Earth, Srinivas Krishna and Divani Films Inc

Uupekha Jain as Kali, When The Gods Came Down To Earth, Srinivas Krishna and Divani Films Inc

NIGHT AND DAY FOR A MONTH AT THE FLINDERS STREET ENTRANCE TO FEDERATION SQUARE, OPPOSITE ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL, AND VISIBLE FROM MANY PERSPECTIVES, THE GODS OF THE INDIAN HINDU PANTHEON DANCED, PERFORMING THEIR ETERNAL ACTS OF JUSTICE AND BENEFICENCE. SOME ARE MULTI-LIMBED OR HEADED, OTHERS PART ANIMAL. SOME HAVE FLESH RICHLY HUED IN GLOWING BLUES AND REDS. IN RESPONSE TO A COMMISSION FROM FEDERATION SQUARE’S LIGHT IN WINTER FESTIVAL. CANADIAN FILMMAKER SRINIVAS KRISHNA [RT84, P20] CONJURES A BEAUTIFUL, OFTEN EERIE, OTHERWORLDLY POLYTHEISM IN HIS CREATION OF “A THREE-SIDED BEACON”, FULFILLING A DESIRE “TO TAKE THE GODS INTO THE STREETS.”

Inspired by the mass production of images of Hindu gods that commenced in India in the 19th century and its spread into many other media since, Srinivas Krishna clearly sees god-populated popular culture as a rich spiritual repository.

Using Toronto-based classical Indian dancers, Srinivas and his many collaborators have enriched the live action with hand painted sets, fine costuming, elaborate makeup, animation and a variety of digital effects. The elephant god, Ganesh, is a perfect merging of the human and the divine; the many-armed Kali is frighteningly spider-like; the “vision of Universal Being revealed by Krishna?to his friend Arjuna during a moment of doubt” is spectacular in its multiplication of heads and limbs; while the lotus growing from Vishnu’s belly is central to an image of beauty but also of the complexity of creation as a cluster of serpents hover above.

Each of the installation’s three screens plays the same loop of the gods in action, but not in sync, so that as you walk around the work a series of mysterious events unfold. Alternatively you can watch one screen, contemplatively, from a distance—aesthetically the best position given that the large size of each of the many screen units has a kind of pixelating effect close up. There are a few irritations.The absence of a sound score seems odd, especially for gods represented by dancers from a musically rich culture, and the dull grey of the supporting plinth seems inappropriate, not least when girded with municipal potted shrubbery. There was also no information about the installation that I could see. The artist’s website for the work (www.godsonearth.com) is a valuable corrective, providing images and names for each of the gods and footage of the installation in operation.

Given the noise of traffic, cafe music and public announcements of Federation Square, Srinivas Krishna told me he chose not to compete with a soundtrack, let alone face the economic and logistical challenges involved. However, he addressed the issue when the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum and the Toronto International Film Festival invited him to present When the Gods Came Down in Toronto in September as part of the festival’s Future Screens program, with the installion located outside the Royal Ontario Museum.

Srinivas worked with Toronto-based composer, Debashish Sinha, to create three to five minute compositions every half hour in a three-hour rotation, with the sound built into the installation and explanatory titles. He sees the sound as “focusing the attention of passers-by and, as well, signalling the time (which is what the images do when they are so typically used to adorn Indian calendars). In using the sound this way, I want to see if it will serve, in some way, to ‘frame the work’ and the experience of it for viewers, which as I had discovered in Melbourne, is the challenge of public art (unlike gallery art which already brings with it a host of viewer expectations).”

From Toronto, Srinivas writes that he “improved the facing and structure of the installation, added a new figure, Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge and the Arts,…repurposed the imagery and added a border because we were displaying on screens that were different proportions (but higher resolution than Melbourne).” Toronto’s The Globe and Mail declared, “The revelation came not in a cinema, but on the street…This utterly breathtaking video installation was far and away the strongest work in an especially strong TIFF, causing pedestrians to stop and gape. Genius.” [Sept 13].

Federation Square’s 2008 Light in Winter Festival also involved nine local communities—Indigenous Aboriginal, Vietnamese, Afghan, Japanese, Hispano-American, Indian, Sudanese, Turkish and Tuvalu-South Pacific—each displaying light-based works they had made in collaboration with artists. Doubtless these were best seen on the night of their premiering in Federation Square. By the time I saw them them they’d been tucked away into various locations, some easily found and with identifying labelling.The glass foyer leading to the NGV was spectacularly festooned with chains of internally lit richly and subtly coloured paper flowers created by the Japanese community.

The square itself was warmly re-cast in light sculpted by Nathan Thompson of The Flaming Beacon design group, if having to compete with a multitude of lights from restaurants and cafes and the square’s big screen. Thompson’s long lines of fragmented light hung high overhead (like the gridding in a Richard Foreman stage production) and from these were suspended thin red pods, suggesting an organic quality akin to the community group creations using animal and flower shapes. Light in Winter is a small scale festival, distinctive amidst many generic ones. May it continue to glow.

When the Gods Came Down to Earth, director Srinivas Krishna, producer Sherrie Johnson, cinematographer Rhett Morita, choreographer Janak Khendry, Divani Films, commissioned installation for The Light in Winter, artistic director Robyn Archer, Federation Square, Melbourne,?June 13-July 13; www.godsonearth.com

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 26

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2008
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