Strange Landings. Max Limbu.
Objects are being handled and examined, young green shoots grow out of building equipment, a strange cube-like object stands in the middle of a rice field. Like visitors from other times and places it simultaneously evokes mystery and menacing power. My experience of Max Limbu’s practice began with the conversation. We were working together and spent most of our time discussing ideas on creative practice, social engagement and community contexts, both dominant and dominated.
Limbu’s work is about strange visitations and orders of strangers, of cubes and alien landings, of forgotten or lost cultures and civilisations altered forever. It is about orders, systems and ruins; about power, domination and collapse.
It is the work of someone in liminal position between the worlds, fragmented from their homeland and not exactly merged with the new habitat. Forever in-between.
Infrathin lies in the Monolith. Practice, positioned on undefiable separation of colonised and colonising, cultures and stories interwoven and over-imposed, tells of not exactly successful rewriting. It deals with the impossible to define and difficult to describe, entangled intricacies of internal dependencies, like scarring of ‘old’ and ‘new’ narratives, of self or familiar and the other estranged. It is a story of cultural perils of old and new colonialisms and the tricky road of having more than one belonging and being subjected to more than one order of dominance.
Discrete Life of Infrathin:
The cube-like, modernist form of the New Ruin keeps on reminding me of the iconic Monolith in Stanley’s Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey ''. “New Ruin”/It Seems to belong to imagery of science-fiction. I actually see a lot of very subtle references to cinema overall in your work. And perhaps, it originates in this strange parable between the event of the alien race imposing a new order of so-called evolution happening in Kubrick’s masterpiece (which in the movie is so strongly connected to violence) with the event of colonial order (bringing many new and future ruins along with it) imposing ew domination even in the process of its collapse.The Monolith, its strangeness, its otherness originates in its complete unfamiliarity with the place. It belongs to another order.
What do you think about this idea of connection between strangeness, dominance and mysteries like those of the Monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and this new ruin you positioned in the landscape with all layers of their colonial histories, failures and manipulations? I suppose this really is a question about ruins and orders, because for ruin to occur there first, there has to be order to fall into it. What is the order collapsing in your work?
The concept of New Ruin originated in my dream. It was during a difficult period of life, I was filled with doubt, alienation and confusion. I used to constantly dream of this cold concrete environment where I would be stuck. That claustrophobic environment was something that inspired me to design the sculpture itself.
I can see the comparison of New Ruin to the Monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The arrival of the alien monolith. In that aspect, yes, my intervention in the creation of the 10-foot-tall concrete structure in the village in which I was born - was unannounced. But the brutality in my context is nostalgia. In the sense of the loss of my personal identity - being an immigrant in the UK and being considered a “foreigner” in my birth country, Nepal, when I returned. The idea of the sculpture was conceived during my time in the UK but the only place where that work could exist was in Dharampur, then a rural village.
The violence is the interruption of the topography: agricultural land disrupted by an unannounced object. The structure has another meaning and this relates to my nostalgia connected to the local water reservoir that I grew up swimming and fishing in. A flood in around 2011 demolished the reservoir exposing its bare foundations and revealed that the structure had no metal rods or any support, just cement and bricks. I wanted the New Ruin to juxtapose with the reservoir. Hence, it’s built with a strong foundation and framework (iron rods and stones), to last longer. So, to return to the question of my relationship to the village I suppose I am trying to preserve my memory through the banal structure. I guess this action of mine can be read as a certain kind of colonial imposition of nostalgia.
To quote Mark Fisher, “The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or if there is nothing present when there should be something.” The absence of water in the reservoir exposed the presence of this functionless object. And the Monolith in a Space Odyssey is portrayed as a totem of eerie objects. I have used the singing of Kirati Mundhum (the tale of a Limbu culture as a background music) that in itself to me is a reference to an ancestral language which I can’t speak or understand.
Talking about cinema, I am very much influenced by Asian new wave cinema. Especially by the works of Wong Kar Wai, Park Chan- Wook and Takashi Kitano. Recently I have been looking into the works of Bi Gan, Apichong Weerasethakul and Diao Yinan.
I remember when we were discussing the project I have been working on and we spoke about the notion of epistolary exchange as a relationship performed at distance and enacted in solitude. I remember you telling me you did a lot of writing yourself. I love your written piece “Piss Off” about a dog named Kalu. How important is written word and the lexical in your process and what position it has within your creative practice?
I draw a lot of my influence from philosophical sources - exploring and experimenting with forms of epistemology, logic and archaeological thought. Text and narrative are devices I use to contextualise the broader subjects I mesh together in a work.
Writing is something that has been the most important part of my life. Growing up, I never read anything until I arrived in this country and in my late teens I picked up a novel or any creative writing. But since I was young, I have always found solace in expressing my feelings in words. I used to write a lot of prose and short stories but I always separate the process of making art and writing. Writing to me is meditative and very personal. I hadn’t found enough reason to combine these two practices until the earthquake of 2015 in Nepal. By now you can guess why that event is very crucial to me; that tragedy affected me. The art works I have produced since then are all in some sense a personal love story to my birth country. It might have an undertone of socio-political commentary but ultimately the texts I use are very personal. “Piss Off” was written in a spur of the moment and it involves similar themes to New Ruin: the outsider and my place in the village. The inevitable changes the villagers want and what Kalu needs.
When I think about the title of a work, I always intend to get straight to the context of the work. Therefore, most of the titles are usually one or two words of implication.
Let’s talk about “Vendors”. Personal and intimate stories act in the film as reflection of global economics and foreign influence (repercussions of colonialism, impact of neo-colonial economy beyond the impact of pandemic). The shot that really gets me every time, is a caged, emotionally disturbed Moon Bear. This traumatised, abused bear seems to be a metaphor for otherwise gently, delicately and sensitively shown trauma and precarity present in the story. Which brings us to nature shots in the film. They leave the underlying impression, almost as if being half-forgotten references to the classic period of Asian and Western cinema portraying this part of the world. I believe that there is a certain tension between dream-like quality and dream-like artificial orientalism of this imagery and your work. I am genuinely curious if i have a good intuition if it comes to this aspect? Did you have these in mind when working on the project?
That shot of the bear was taken in this obscure Zoo, in Jamun Khadi, a wetland in Eastern Nepal. I first encountered that place during my trip to Nepal in 2016. The living conditions for the animals in that place are atrocious. That trip really affected my perception of this whole “New Nepal” image the politicians were telling people about. All I could see was the rapid pace of houses being built with the prices of land skyrocketing. The Zoo was located in a wetland but instead of securing the space for the animals that live there, the stakeholders had planned to cage all sorts of animals and birds in the dire conditions for human entertainment.
Four years later, when I went back in 2020, the place had begun to deteriorate. The living conditions of the animals were probably even worse. I took a day to film various animals, monkeys, snakes, wild cats, deer, vultures etc. but the interaction of the bear and the kid in the clip stood out the most. The kid can be seen singing a popular Nepalese rap song by VTen where the hook goes, Sahi hoo, Sahi hoo! (That’s right. That’s right) while the bear bobs his head side to side while he moves up and down. The irony of the song and the naivety of the child who doesn’t realise the bear is tormented; the movement of the body isn’t a dance but a distress signal.
Vendors itself tells the story of precariously surviving as a vegetable vendor during the time of the Pandemic where I purposefully used the higher saturated imagery to underpin the reality of the conditions, while we look through the prices of vegetables in comparison to the highly inflated price of gold and silver.
In terms of dream-like sequences in my film, I am conscious about the pacing and the editing of my work. It’s very collaborative when it comes to my film-making. Sustika Limbu, with whom I have collaborated for nearly a decade, is an equal partner in the process. It was as much her decision as mine to use a certain fade and overlapping transition which are quite prominent in old classic cinema. Black and white filters are something I always use in my films. That can be seen as an homage to classic cinema or the transition of the mood in the film.
Your latest work “Harbinger ’brings again this juxtaposition between the natural and the artificial, the local and the imported/-the invasive which re-occur in your practice. I sometimes think of it as a quality similar to that of bio-machine, where morphology is created by the new collapsing into old. ‘New Ruin ’crushed into the land(scape) repeating the fate of local ancient monuments, while here the machine’s original function is taken away; now it is a ruin overgrown, containing new life. All brought, performed and enacted in solitude. I wanted to ask you about this layering of various forms of decay coming back in your work. By decay I don't mean only the breakdown of things, disintegration of matter. I also mean collapse of economic, political, systems and cultural influences and invasions.
Juxtaposition has always been a theme of my art practice. From the ‘New Ruin’, that contrasted the topography to importation of curio-objects in ‘Usurp’, 2018 where an old iron lock is performed under a discursive light to give it a different life as an art object. I guess, my interest in this stems from the idea of slowing down, opposed to the whole concept of accelerationism. I wonder what if we are to slow down and look back. That’s where I guess the whole notion of hauntology comes into play in my work: as the memory of the past resurfaces through these stark objects.
I think I touched on the notion of decay in a response to a previous question where I mentioned how a geographically diverse nation like Nepal, which can produce most of its own agricultural produce, is so reliant on imports from India and now China. Vendors resonate with some of those issues. This is mainly because of immigration and the country’s reliance on remittance as most of the youth after the civil war in the 2000s has fled the country for better paying jobs and better livelihood. This has led to rise in housing costs and the abandonment of rural villages for affluent towns. Here I see the decay in our social and economic systems and also in our traditions. While the villages are turning into towns, the remote parts are overgrown and taken over by nature. Once the reforestation has been successful vis a vis the congestion and pollution is rising rapidly in cities.
I guess my work ultimately deals with this subject of change and the loss of tradition and cultural activities and value.
I wanted to ask how do you see practice as such? I ask everyone participating. When practice is discussed with artists, the assumption is that it is the creative practice that is always the focus of investigation.
Practice is not only about doing things and the process leading to them. It is also everything around or sometimes separate. Consists of tidal rhythms, sequences and repetitions; but also of connections, networks or solitudes.It is not only about people (other & person practising). It is also about places, things, states, experiences.
Practice is built (and co-creating it) around the grid of someone’s life.
How do you see your practice in context, or more to the point, in relation to this daily practice of living (as a part of a community, or an individual within a social body)? Does it include the tension placed between an individual addressing a group and an individual within a group?
Throughout my art practice I have always questioned myself: do I want my artwork to specifically mobilise a new social movement and to document the changes it makes? Or should I separate myself from the actual activism and have a more malleable approach and work with sculpture and objects as an evocation of the problem?
The intellectual core of my work is inspired by the British cultural thinkers like Stuart Hall and Mark Fisher whose primary concerns were rooted in a reflection on the political situation of the diaspora in Hall’s work, neoliberal tendencies, cultural studies of cinema and music. I use it as a vehicle to think about my own involvement in cultures and in relation to my relatively privileged position, but also to consider the sense of otherness I experience as a Nepalese immigrant in the UK, responding to the political situation in Nepal through art. This field of theory and research has also helped me think about what it means to produce art works that speak for others or speak about others in Nepal.
Max Limbu's practice explores the relationship between culture, heritage and politics through the lens of architecture and artefacts in the context of contemporary Nepal. He seeks to reconfigure objects and narratives that address and highlight local struggles confronting rapid urban change in a globalised world. He is particularly interested in the role of communal memories and narratives as a way of documenting historical changes and envisaging political possibilities. He often works with found or repurposed objects and use film as a primary medium to present collected narratives and myths that tell the story of urban conflict and cultural struggle, loss and change.