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Horizontal Interference in an Australian Forest

Author: Beena Sarwar      Publications: The News - Encore (p.32)      Dated: 14 Sept 1997

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Far away, in a regener- ated forest in Australia where burnt tree stumps tell of the bushfires which in 1939 destroyed large tracts, stands a wooden sculpture by Shahid Sajjad. Titled Horizontal Interference, t.he family of three stylised wooden figures grouped around a horizontal piece, is one of nine outdoor sculptures created at an international event in the Toolangi National Forest last November. The event was organised by the Australian National Committee for the International Association of Art (ANC-IAA).

There was no mention of this in the Pakistani papers – the low key Shahid Sajjad is not someone who seeks out the press. But when mention of the event came up at a hello and what have you been up tokind of exchange at an art exhihition in Karachi some time back, it seemed that the issue merited a wider audience. Later, more information was supplied by a glossy 68-page book, which documents the making of the sculptures and the people involved, besides an analysis of the work by Dr Rob Haysom, lecturer and coordinator for the Visual Arts at Deakin University, which organised a seminar on the Toolangi project.

The idea of an international sculpture event, initiated and organised by the ANC-IAA, had for some time been in the mind of Australian sculptor Ernst Fries, President of the ANC-IAA, according to his note in the brochure. A number of projects had been discussed and explored when a chance visit by Fries to the Toolangi Forest Discovery Centre, an ideal venue with its amenities, accessibility (75 km northeast of Melbourne) and environmental qualities, decided the matter.

The committee wanted to “focus on an event which addresses contemporary issues with a leaning towards ecology and environmental concerns. The staging of such an event would allow us to share and appreciate the perception of similar concerns by different cultures and leave a legacy for future visitors to the Centre.”

The idea of outdoor sculptures constructed, with available materials, on-site, is of course not a new one. A Sculpture Project was established at the Grizedale Forest in Cumbria, the English Lake District, in 1977. The Project provides a working environment for sculptors through the form of artists residencies, in what has become Brltains largest collection of outdoor sculpture. An article in the October/November 1996 issue of Art Bulletin notes that the Grizedale Forest is “not a sculpture park because it is an ever changing working forest”. The length of the Grizedale residencies used to be six months, which has now been reduced to two, because of the perception that “a shorter length of time makes the artists focus immediately on what they are doing.”

The Grizedale Society which administers the artists residencies is now designing an International Woodland Sculpture Trail, and invite leading sculptors particularly from the Pacific Rim and South American countries to construct work in the forest. Once the plans are finalised for this, it will begin a new phase in the Grizedale Forest Sculpture Park, which is already recognised as a leader in environmental art.

The Toolangi project is on a much smaller scale and differs from the Grizedale on many counts, although the basic idea is the same. For the Toolangi project, the ANC-IAA aecia a to involve “top professional artists*from diverse cultures of the Asia-Pacific region and from Australia. The participation of Australian Aborigine artists was pivotal to our aims. It was also deemed important that participants Live and work in the country of their nationality”.

Funds and other assistance (like material, power tools, equipment, professional expertise, staff) came from UNESCO and Australian organisations.

Information and interest forms were widely distributed throughout the Asia-Pacific region and Australia. An independent, highly-qualified panel of artists and curators had to consider over 60 applications from Australia, and proposals from 10 different countries to select four Australians and five artists from Asia-Pacific region. Besides Shahid Sajjad from Pakistan, other international participants who were selected came from the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia and Mongolia.

The participating artists were required to produce three-dimensional and site-specific work with durable qualities, using materials provided by the forest – in the tight time frame of just ten days.

For someone like Shahid Saijad, who can take up to two years to complete a sculpture, and who is still mulling over the completion of a piece started a decade ago, this presented an immense challenge. The positive side of participating in such an event was that it pushed him into spontaneity. “The whole experience was so new,” he says. “There were no guidelines; each person had to think of his or her own subject, scale and material.”

Sajjad decided to work with four separate logs, using a chainsaw and chisel to hand-carve the shape and fashion patterned details on some of the forms. “The time constraint necessitated the figures being more stylised and rougher than the fine work Shahid normally executes,” comments Dr Rob Hayson of Deakin University, in the International Sculpture Event, Toolangi, and book. “The burnishing technique gave the works an additional resonance with the local environment. By placing them on the hill the figures have become defiantly charred sentinels with standing the ravages of bushfires.”

In the back of Shahids mind was the thought that the figures would represent the transfer of knowledge from the past- “like a dead body.”

“It is this psychological knowledge that we are carrying that is destroying life,” he elaborates. In Horizontal Interference, the horizontal body being transferred from the larger parent figures to the smaller, child figure represents death, and that “psychological knowledge” – the “conditioned response that perpetuates old patterns of behaviour rather than seeking new ways of experiencing life. The act of transferring our message shifts the burden from one generation to the next.”

“Because life is new, always to be experienced. But what we are doing is applying old rules to new experiences in the quest to find out what it is all about,” maintains Shahid. “It is this backward thinking that causes chaos, which leads to environmental destruction and people getting divided along ethnic, national or religious lines. The secret of life is not in particulars but in generalities.”

What was the Toolangi experience like? “It was not academic,” responds Sajjad. “It had more to do with human relationships and interaction, not just with people but with nature. It is this kind of thing that gives you a feel of real life.”

He should know. This is the man who travelled the world on a 125 cc motorbike for four years (1960-64), studying and absorbing different cultural expressions in art, more than making up for his tank of formal education. This was followed by two years of living and working with the tribals of the Chittagong Hills (1965-67), recording methods and impressions in woodcarving when the back to nature bit was not yet as fashionable as it is now, and when Pakistans eastern wing was still a part of this country.

Although Sajjad is perhaps better known for his bronze casting, over the years he has returned to wood as his medium.

The bottom line, he believes, is that the “clerks and bureaucrats sitting in Islamabad should sit up and take note that this is what is happening in the world of art. They should think about this kind of change, this kind of experience. I really hope more people contact the organisers of this, or other such events, if just for the exposure and to experience something like this.”