Australian-Bangladeshi artist Omar Chowdhury’s first solo exhibition ‘Ways’ is currently on at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. Based in Sydney and Dhaka, the artist produces large-scale, richly detailed audio-visual installations.
Lucy Rees: You have been living in Dhaka, Bangladesh for the past two years working on these four new works. Tell me about your experience there.
Omar Chowdhury: I moved to one of the harshest and densest countries on earth. It is so intense on every front. The food, sanitation and pollution are bad. There is a lot of complexity too – the economy is growing by 6% every year and it has been for the last ten or fifteen years. It’s also at the juncture of tectonic plates between modernity and tradition. The edges aren’t cleanly cut. Past and future are mixed up and they react to each other. It’s a really alive environment.
LR: Locus I and II document rituals undertaken by attendees in a Hindu temple and Isamlic Mosque in the ancient city of Old Dhaka. They run for 146 minutes and 74 minutes respectively. Torsions is filmed at a Hindu Festival and Shia Muslim Festival and runs at 106 minutes. All up this show incorporates 7 hours of video…
OC: I literally film hundreds of hours. 7 hours was cut from 120-130 hours of footage. I never know how long these works will be, that would defeat the purpose. What is crucial to the process is that I want to be reacting to the world. I feel I am constantly pulled in so many different directions and I get lost. My camera is more stable than I am. It doesn’t have consciousness like I do. I can point it and use it, and then have a look at what it sees, and see the world as something more still. I realised I could do things with the world if I wanted, which is the whole impetus behind why we make art.
LR: You maintain an interesting balance between a documentary and a creative whimsical approach.
OC: There are many fictional elements throughout where I interject and change what is going on in front of me. In Vastness In Eclipse, for example, the tea plantation worker is walking in front of an elephant that doesn’t exist. The back channel of this work is also interesting, which reveals a colleague and I editing another version of the film that was never made. Sometimes I actually walk into the shots but most viewers don’t notice. Along with artifice, other important elements are the rhythm, music and flow. I want the viewers to be able to let themselves go – their desires, wants and identities – and to become lost in the action. It is in this state that you can really learn to exist in the world.
LR: Are your works art or film?
OC: They are installations. I am very interested in spatiality – how these objects exist in space and how they make us feel. Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an important influence for me as he represents the duality between art and film.
LR: Your works have a beautiful, painterly quality. Are you afraid of exoticising?
OC: I don’t think we should throw away beauty; Arte Povera taught us a lot about finding beauty in the ugly. Exoticising is a big concern of mine though. At one point I film a man who is involved in a process of self-flagellation, his back is bloodied completely. Afterwards I shoot him on his mobile phone as he scrolls down, as though using Facebook. I use techniques to say to the audience ‘you don’t know this. This is a real place with real people and there is modernity here too’.
LR: What are you working on next?
I have a trip around Australia planned. I am doing exposure paintings – canvases that are exposed to things like smoke, like the way film is exposed to light. I am going to be working with the early Australian bush paintings and will make a video work of the forest towns. Following that I have a residency and solo show at MOMENTUM, Berlin during Berlin Art Week. Then I return to Bangladesh where I will be starting on two very large new projects.
Omar Chowdhury: Ways, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, 30 May - 2 August 2014.
This interview was first published on the ARTAND Australia website.