Omar Chowdhury is an Australian-Bangladeshi film artist based in Sydney and Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The artist’s durational film works weave together multifaceted yet deeply reflective narratives of contemporary life in Bangladesh. Durational and cinematic, Chowdhury’s latest multi-channel video installations depict life in immaterial temporalities, in metaphotical moments, and in spiritual eternality. Exploring the spatiality within ourselves — body, intellect and emotions — Chowdhury’s work connects rhythms, viewpoints, objects and gestures, forming a sort of language that transcends time.
Omar Chowdhury’s work has been widely exhibited in Australia, Asia and Europe. In 2014 he had solo exhibition ‘Ways’ at 4A Centre for Contemporary Art, Sydney. Omar Chowdhury is also a recent recipient of Keir Foundation/4A Commission, Skills and Development Grant from Australia Council for the Arts and Edward M. Kennedy Grant for the Arts. His debut feature ‘Torsions’ is also due to be released in 2015.
Can you please describe how you came to create the video works in ‘Ways’?
I prefer to get as close as I can to a kind of hyper-focused, close experience of the present moment. But this conscious moment is very complicated—for all of us. It’s full of dreams and hopes and lies and other abstractions along with the exactness of our senses. Looking at our reality wholly, we see a deep admixture of the fictional and the ‘real,’ of the abstract and the concrete. My works are an exploration of how to represent the complexity of that experiencing or being.
I try to balance the tensions of varying methodologies: we (I work with three assistants in the warrens of Old Dhaka) plan very little about what the works will be, but we plan a lot about how to make the works. I try to know as little about the situations as I can get away with, but I’ll spend months and months on location, trying to feel something. In the end, I create these minimalist sculptural installations but playing on them will be ostensibly emotive and kinetic works. It’s out of these tensions that I’ve come closest to a form of representation, or a way of acting in the world with the camera, and with the constructions of objects, that feels ‘right.’
I have no idea what ‘right’ here means, and the idea of what feels right changes. You change your work but your work changes you too, and sometimes you have to change to fit your work. It’s also about attempting something, learning from it, and then reattempting—a lot of truths can only be gotten at through reattempts. We work on levels of concentration and meditative focus so that we can get beauty or meaning from, say, very long shots. That comes about through deep practice.
We have to do very little to say a lot and I believe the best life a human can live is one of a concentrated looking and hearing and feeling of the world and moment you’re in. My process is trying to find the clearest way to do that. And then, if I ever get close to it, I’ll try to complicate it. That’s a part of it too.
Omar Chowdhury, Locus II, 2014 [Trailer]
The length of your work is often a point for discussions. You have mentioned on a number of occasions that the long durational form is a representation of consciousness. Is it a comment on the medium/form, or is it an embodiment of the subject, the viewer, the self?
The works themselves are my inching towards a modelling of a certain kind of consciousness, a certain way of being in the world. It’s a semi-working model as all film can be, yet you can lose yourself in it and it simulates your own experiencing of the world at that moment.
Perhaps you can learn something from giving yourself up, to having faith, in the model of being that the works in ‘Ways’ provides you.
As soon as you begin to work with film you are dealing with time and how time works. In fact, the material being time itself is, in our human experience, initially simple. There is only now. But that leads to some confusion: if there is only now then what do we mean by the past and the future? Soon you realise that you are in the territory of memory and cognition about the future too.
I want to deal with these things. I’m forced to by my projects of getting close to human consciousness or being. I need this amount of time to explore these issues. And it’s not particularly revolutionary, it’s just a little unorthodox, and unseen to be working on these scale for most video art these days. It takes a lot of time and resources.
What I’m actually thinking about when I consider the lengths is rhythm. Rhythm is integral because in the moving image you are working with time, sculpting it, and time implies rhythm or beats. The world couples the rhythmic and arrhythmic, so I try to reflect that. I’m very interested in the form and structures and composition of electronic music, classical Western works, but especially Indian classical music, such as ragas and their slow development at the beginning, the length of time they take to establish a mood. Their understanding of mood but also of mistakes and false starts, their braiding and unbraiding of notes and concepts and passages and the experiential and spiritual nature of making that music is for the musicians is fascinating. The time they devote to the learning, and the playing.
You have mentioned previously that your family resisted the idea of re-visiting Bangladesh.
For you to return and to create this series of works – I assume – would be significant to your understanding of your families, or how they have made that journey to Australia. Is it a reciprocal journey for you?
There’s been an obsession to know the place for its own sake, beyond my background and the historical residue of my past and the stories of my immigrant parents (they weren’t initially very encouraging of me coming here). It’s a very dense place, with a long meandering history, much of it lost. It’s enigmatic and a very fractured place in some ways but very cohesive in other ways.
I feel a huge gap in the culture here. Because of wars and displacements, I see an opportunity for me where there’s this ripe, full history of art, the thread of which has been artificially cut. Yet it’s still there and it can be used. It needs to be continued into the future and combined with what’s contemporary, with what I’ve learnt out in the West. It’s not so much about weaving those two together instead it’s something far more laid back: to allow both sets of influence to naturally arise and combine in the work.
Practically it’s been a revelation but it’s also been very difficult. The raw material that this place surfaces for you is incredible: it’s chaotic, and crowded, and kinetic at a level of intensity that I just couldn’t feel or find back home. It’s also very open. I have access to see things that I wouldn’t have otherwise because of legal, or other logistical constraints. But even more importantly, this place gives me time to experiment, reattempt, and also to do nothing. Time to just think. The demands on my focus, observational ability, my manoeuvrability, and stamina are intense. It’s welcome because it all results in a deeper exploration of method and process and what I actually desire.
Having access to a large studio space and staff allows me to make the works I want to make at the size and scope and intensity that I like. But it’s a dangerous city, in terms of your health, the danger of the roads, and logistical limitations of access to materials and technology.
Your video works often carry a sense of stillness. In such stillness there is also immense power. How would you interpret such power? Is it your own manifestation of spirituality?
Stillness is a key part of being. I wouldn’t argue that it is a more truthful form of being, or that it gets us closer to the ultimate in opposition to the moving. I think the human experience is a combination and balance of so many things, stillness being one of those things. It offers us the temporal-spatial perspective required to see our position and context in relation to reality, to the universe. Which is of course humiliating, scary. To be able to see the size of everything, of the darkness of death, the inevitability of the iterations of evolution, to see time stretching forwards and backwards from this moment. That’s frightening. Perhaps that fear produces the great force that you’re referring to as power.
Stillness is a big part of the way I see the world. That being still shows us something different about the world, that can get clouded in the immediate concerns and compressive nature of being when we are moving.The works hold both of these things in an interpenetrative tensions. Because in life it’s like that. The spirit of the world for me is constant change and indeterminacy. It is impermanence and anxiety as much as it is peace and stability. You’d think the first would subsume the latter but it does not. They both exist in a kind of continuing balance. To be comfortable, and accepting of this permanent insecurity of existence is what I consider to be spiritual. It’s admittedly a narrow view.
I am trying to frame this question the right way. I am interested to hear about your take on the Buddhist idea of ‘being’, through a mindful way of living. There’s a sense of personal exploration in your work… one that can only be explored through connecting many small, seemingly irrelevant details in the surrounding environment. Everything matters, it seems.
Such exploration of self, or a subject is similar to the way our identities are constructed, in which they are always constructed and understood by the external, from the outside. My understanding of myself would be different to my mother’s understanding of me, for example. In some ways, an individual’s understanding of any one thing (or a person, or himself) is only a small fraction of what it truly is (or what it could be). I guess what I am asking is, what are your thoughts on this way of ‘being’? What does it mean in relation to our bodies, our identities, or our past?
Yes the Buddhist doctrines around perception and ways of being have been very important to me. The grasping and want of our desire, the prioritisation of an egoistic view on reality narrows us and causes us much unnecessary suffering. Noticing more of what is there, and what is now is an important step towards being in harmony with ourselves and the world and reaching a form of contentment. Extending and altering the definition of yourself in the face of others, or through love and grace towards the world is a powerful corrective.
Yet, I break from Buddhist (and Taoist) desire to escape suffering in the final case. I feel that such an escape is impossible and escapist in this or the next life. That it is metaphysics and not ontology. It is important for me to be out in the world and not in a monastery. But perhaps a more accurate view is that I want my monastery to be in the fallen world. So my works take very seriously the parts about being in harmony with reality and getting close to it by not overlaying narratives on top it which are partial. It’s the worst if it comes from the fearful acquisitive part of us. My works are essentially moral works. There is a very subtle, perhaps too subtle, insistence on being good, or being better.
Everything does matter. Evil matters, pain matters, and it shouldn’t just be accepted in this moment, so that you can escape it in your next life. The pain and evil and confusion and uncertainty you feel is as much a part of your life as anything else. And it must be respected and venerated and understood and lived through and welcomed as much as contentment and happiness.