My name is Ansuman Biswas. I am an artist living in a Gothic Tower in the Manchester Museum, which is part of the University of Manchester, England.
I will be confined to this Tower, with no physical contact with another human being for forty days and forty nights.
Over several months I have been exploring the museum stores and collecting my own little cabinet of curiosities. Each day over the next forty days I will choose an object from my collection and offer it up in a spirit of sacrifice. The object will be announced through a variety of media, including this blog.
I will then destroy it.
This destruction will inevitably take place unless someone cares for the object. Anyone who cares may show that they do in whatever way they choose. Recognized experts and potentially interested parties will be specifically invited to contribute their views. Manchester Museum curators and staff are also welcome to share their expertise, but all responses will compete in a transparent public forum.
In the absence of some positive appreciation of the object – a poem, a video, a child’s drawing, a scientific assessment, etc., etc. – I will assume that it is of no value to anyone and should no longer take up space in the archive.
Although objects will be revealed one by one, the fate of each object will remain open until a clear consensus is reached. The most beautiful appreciation or cogent argument will be chosen by general agreement. Stewardship of the object will then be transferred to the respondent who may decide to return it to the Manchester Museum or some other place.
I feel a deep dismay at the ecological crisis facing humanity, which I experience as a loss of beauty. And I feel challenged to respond using the full weight of my training as a contemplative and an artist. But, along with this strong agenda, I am also interested in an art which is abstract or open-ended.
This tension between purpose and play is also an essential condition of the hermit, who is introverted but has a social role. I am interested in exploring precisely this ambiguity.
The hermit is conventionally a benign and pious figure, but I also want to invoke his destructive aspect. Artistic precedents for this approach are in the auto-destructive art of Gustav Metzger and John Latham. Eremetic forerunners include the great Hindu ascetic Shiva, who is celebrated as the destroyer of the world, and the Christian anchorite, Anthony the Great who burned away his wilfulness in order to surrender himself to the will of God. My own hermetic training is in the Theravada Buddhist technique of vipassana.
Vipassana is essentially an exhaustive cataloguing of every aspect of experience, up to and including the cessation of everything. The vipassana yogi, like the Victorian collector, is engaged in taxonomy – a taxonomy of things which are disappearing. Someone practicing vipassana trains his or her awareness on every minute detail of experience, and observes it while it burns away. At the completion of this enlightenment nothing is left. The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word nirvana is ‘extinguishing’, referring to the going out of a light.
This idea of extinction will be the main organizing principle for me. By my action I hope to sensitize us to the sorrow of loss. My aim is to engage emotionally with the fact of the massive loss of memes, genes and habitats which we ourselves are precipitating on a planetary scale.
I can begin to approach the real enormity of this sorrow if I deliberately engineer a temporary loss of part of my life. An aspect of the hermit’s work is to physically perform loss, actively embodying death by incarcerating himself and becoming dead to the world.
I will forego the richness and diversity of my life, renouncing it while entombed with the riches of the world’s civilisation, in the heart of a vibrant, living world city.
The museum itself is a library of Babel, a seed bank and an ark. It is Gaia’s memory. At the apex of this body of knowledge, perched in a tower as a brain is perched on a spine, the hermit might symbolise conscious agency. The hermit dramatises the dialectic between deliberate, mindful knowledge and the hidden, or forgotten unconscious. I will use his presence to focus questions of stewardship, storage, and conservation, of profligacy, amnesia, and extinction.
The hermit’s work is to become humble, to erode arrogance to the point that the self itself becomes extinct. This is done by determinedly relinquishing control and clearly cataloguing every aspect of the embodied self. The hermit sees right through himself by fully appreciating the immense variety of phenomena, without either coveting or rejecting any of those phenomena. The hermit examines himself as a specimen. He treats the body as a museum. The sort of museum that should be in museums.
Any hermit reduces the noise of society and treats himself as an archive. The artist makes this act public.
The hermit’s act of recollecting, of remembering himself, places personal experience at the heart of the collection. The artist’s works radiate and interact with the world.
By sampling, mounting and encasing myself in a vivarium, I want to publicly present the ultimate exhibit. But while offering myself up I want to make clear that the real exhibition is not of me ‘Ansuman Biswas’, but the self each of us thinks we have.
As with a well-prepared laboratory specimen, isolation and framing allows fine detail to be examined. In the case of the Manchester Hermit examination is welcomed by anyone with access to the internet.
By stepping outside it for a moment, I want to expose, and interrogate the notion of the network. I am not pretending that it’s possible to cut myself off completely, but neither do I want to be lost in an incessant babble. The hermit hovers in a space between total solitude and unbridled communication, neither rejecting everything, nor being completely dependent. I hope, by physical isolation, to throw into relief global commerce and connectivity and the fecundity of the metaphysical or virtual environment.
The House of Memory
Museums represent a kind of species memory. The Museum functions in human culture as memory functions within the individual human body, or as the human species functions within the biosphere. Human culture is the planet’s self-consciousness. But now this global sentience is at a critical juncture, being at the dawn of the realization that it is gnawing away at the very branch it is sitting on.
A virulent strain of human culture has irrationally placed itself above nature, collecting, cataloguing and controlling the world out there. Now this culture is being forced to see itself as part of the nature it manipulates. The illusion of a separate self is becoming unsustainable.
In the Victorian ideal of the museum the riches of the Empire were gathered together to be studied. The one thing missing from the collection was the collector himself…
The Manchester Hermit Blog on Manchester Blog Awards Shortlist
I’m delighted to announce this blog has been shortlisted for The Manchester Blog Awards in the category of Best Arts and Culture.
You can see the shortlist here:
You can see more blogs from The Manchester Museum here:
On behalf of everyone involved with this project I’d like to say thanks to everyone who has read the blog and especially to those who’ve commented and joined in with the discussion.