The violent struggles between repressive regimes and resisting citizens that convulse so many developing countries are notoriously hard for residents of the wealthy West to keep straight. Such confusion seems a premise, and a target, of Amar Kanwar’s 19-channel film installation. Called The Torn First Pages (2004-08), it concerns Myanmar, the name given by its brutal ruling junta to a country that remains widely known as Burma. Using still and moving images of modest size and varied subject matter, rear-projected onto sheets of paper held by binder clips to metal frames—the effect is something like laundry on the line—Kanwar created a fragile-seeming environment full of elusive information.
The easiest thread to follow is hinted at in the title, which honors a Burmese bookseller who tore out, from each book he sold, the page of injunctions (“Oppose those trying to jeopardize the stability of the state. . . . Crush all internal and external destructive elements”) that is an obligatory preface to every volume published in the country. (A table in the gallery held examples—including telephone directories and cookbooks—in which these first pages were intact.) The edicts recur (in English) over black-and-white film clips of the dictatorship’s “smiling generals” projected onto one set of paper screens.
Irregularly spaced text frames (and also a catalogue, displayed on another table) provided further reference points. One extended series of projected photos shows dissidents held at the infamous Insein prison, each captioned “condition unknown.” Occasionally, there are flashes of bloodshed, as in footage showing a 13-year-old girl fatally injured, text explains, during a street action, and film fragments of seated monks whose faces bear signs of beatings. But there is little explicit violence. Much of The Torn First Pages follows Burmese into exile, in particular a group that has settled in Fort Wayne, Ind. We see forlorn rooftop Christmas lights there along with interchangeable suburban homes, a numbing English-language lesson and the deft but mechanical handiwork of an expatriate cross-culturally employed as a sushi chef.
Making the American heartland seem bleak isn’t that hard, but conveying to Westerners its foreignness for everyone else is a bit of a trick. Kanwar accomplishes it in part by juxtaposition. Watching a senior officer of the Myanmar regime throw rose petals on Gandhi’s memorial in New Delhi (where Kanwar lives) would be confusing to anyone. Similarly, viewing a barrage of unexplained images that seem to have been generated by dissident websites, personal cellphones and other handheld electronic devices helps defamiliarize the otherwise banal Midwest imagery.
Also on view was The Lightning Testimonies (2007), an 8-channel video installation first shown at Documenta 12. A harrowing montage of accounts of women and girls raped by men on both sides during the war of partition between India and Pakistan, it has a ferocious clarity that makes for an illuminating comparison with The Torn First Pages. The earlier work can move you to tears and righteous anger. The recent one, both more alienating and, for many viewers, closer to home, forecloses the comforts of catharsis.
Photo: Amar Kanwar: The Torn First Pages, 2004-08, 19-channel film installation; at Marian Goodman.