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Art Protests to Protect Biodiversity

Can a wrongdoing against nature and other living species be viewed as an outright crime? For some decades, the societies we live in have increasingly tended to answer the question in the affirmative.

Jut a few days ago the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague announced that from now on it will prosecute crimes of land grabbing, indiscriminate deforestation and wholesale exploitation of natural resources, just as it has done with crimes against humanity and genocide since 2002. This is a groundbreaking decision for the court, which has adopted a broad interpretation of the concept of crimes against humanity: now, for example, by prosecuting in cases of land grabbing, it will also clamp down on the mass deportations that result from it.

While the law is late catching up, these issues have been illustrated for a long time by artists and writers—arguably always. Suffice to remember how in the first book of his Georgics, Virgil associates the devastation of the fields to the tragedies that ravaged humanity during the civil war. Or, to cite a contemporary example, the mobilization organized by the artist Amy Balkin to have the atmosphere granted UNESCO heritage status, and her subsequent demand for commercial air routes, hence pollution, to be limited.

Amar Kanwar, of Delhi, India, is one of the foremost interpreters of the artistic trend that is exploring transformations of the landscape prompted by man and his geopolitical interests. A guest at Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, Kanwar has explained in a conversation with Carolyn Christof-Bagarkiev, curator of the Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art (GAM) in Turin and the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Castello di Rivoli, why he moved from his original calling as a documentary film maker to his present militant artistic commitment.

Speaking about nature and sustainability isn’t always easy for an artist,’ said Christof-Bagarkiev, ‘because often the two terms are coopted by industry and economic interests and their real meaning lost.’ Kanwar’s Damascene moment came when he was just 20 in 1984. It was then that reprisals against the Sikh minority following the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the disaster in Bhopal, where a fire at an American pesticides plant caused the death of about 21,000 people, triggered his radical activism.

He first gained international fame with A Season Outside, an investigation into tensions between India and Pakistan through the faces of soldiers changing the guard at the border between the two countries. But he caught attention above all with The Lightning Testimonies, a film in which his questions the meaning of violence.

One episode in particular struck Kanwar while he was shooting the film. In a mountain village in India, he found himself talking to a young man about an act of sexual violence that had taken place there. ‘The young man was trying to explain what had happened but without being overly direct,’ he recalls. ‘He took me to the highest point of the village and showed me an orange tree. He explained to me that the tree was the oldest in the village and had thus, in a certain sense, witnessed the events experienced by the human community.’

Kanwar is fascinated by the parallel between violence against people and violence against nature. ‘Speaking to them, I realized how many victims, and many relatives of victims, tend to shelve their memories in nature,’ he says. ‘In many respects the environment that surrounds them becomes a repository of memories of the violence suffered.’

Hence the artist’s subsequent project, The Sovereign Forest (2012), a multimedia installation comprising the film The Scene of Crime, screened for the first time in Italy at Rivoli Castle during Terra Madre Salone del Gusto. The film is dedicated to rice growers in the Indian state of Odisha, or Orissa, an area incredibly rich in biodiversity that has been devastated both ecologically and socially since the multinationals began buying up huge swathes of land there.

With my works I don’t ask questions about a single issue, but speak in general about the scope and spread of violence,’ explains Kanwar. ‘The destruction of biodiversity is associated with a huge amount of violence too.’ Sometimes, he adds, it is necessary to detach oneself a little from the object observed to comprehend it better. ‘In The Scene of Crime I decided to take a step backwards to observe the “scene of the crime” better. I wanted to present pieces of evidence as if I were in a court of law.’

Aside from making a protest, Kanwar’s goal is comprehension, and Terra Madre has offered him an extra opportunity to achieve this. ‘Terra Madre is connected with many scenes of crimes against animals and plants all over the world. I asked myself why these crimes should happen. And my answer was that the problem is that we don’t truly understand them. Which is why we continue to perpetrate them.’


Andrea Cascioli

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