Kunsthalle Zürich presents Christopher Kulendran Thomas: FOR REAL, an exhibition across both floors of the institution by the British-Tamil artist, in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann and with Aṇaṅkuperuntinaivarkal Inkaaleneraam.
Christopher Kulendran Thomas: FOR REAL takes the failed struggle for an independent Tamil homeland, Tamil Eelam, in the north and east of present-day Sri Lanka, as its starting point. Another point of departure is the observation that, with the end of the war there in 2009, the contemporary art world was able to establish itself in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, with new galleries, a museum and a biennial projecting democratic values internationally. Conceived and realised in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann, the exhibition retells the story of this attempt to create a new reality on the island, and traces the revolutionary creative scene that was extinguished by it. But the exhibition is more than what it seems. Melding historical documentary with speculative sci-fi, the show plunges you into a hall of mirrors of propaganda and hallucination, an algorithmically-generated psy-op from an alternate reality. Except that everything is true.
The war for Tamil Eelam began when an armed struggle broke out on 23 July 1983 between the Tamil minority on the island and the Sinhalese majority. The Tamil liberation movement sought freedom from oppression by the Sri Lankan government and the complete independence of the Tamil areas in the north and east of the island. This war – the culmination of previous decades of conflict – came to a brutal end in 2009, having claimed the lives of countless civilians and driven hundreds of thousands to flee to other countries, including Switzerland. Today, around 50,000 Tamils live in Switzerland; it is one of the world’s largest Tamil diaspora communities. Nevertheless, it seems this history might be forgotten.
Kulendran Thomas explores the struggle for his family’s homeland through a variety of diverse works exhibited at Kunsthalle Zürich, beginning with a cycle of paintings that metabolise Sri Lanka’s postwar art scene, alongside a series of figurative ceramic reliefs extrapolated from the defeated Tamil revolution, and two immersive film installations, as well as collected architectural drawings, appropriated exorcism masks and sculptures fashioned from repurposed camouflage clothing. Using a wide range of media, styles and strategies, a body of art emerges that grapples with questions of history and propaganda – of documentation and fiction – and that is, it has to be said, very entertaining. For Kulendran Thomas’ work not only experiments with how history is recorded and told, it is simultaneously seductive, full of artistic ambition, both pessimistic and hopeful, detached and deeply personal, utopian and despairing.