After making his way from one of the most densely populated places on earth to one of the least, Australian-Bangladeshi artist Omar Chowdhury currently has two solo exhibitions running in Sydney, each shedding light on how spirituality is revealed through physical and cultural landscapes.
Ways at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art is a collection of video works, weaving together slices of everyday life from urban and rural Bangladesh. With a patient eye, Chowdhury turns his lens towards different religions and the daily behaviours of their members. From mass worship to individual prayer, the fact that he is able to untangle moments of quiet contemplation from the cacophony of collective existence seems like an achievement in itself.
Means at Alaska Projects, on the other hand, has a very different feel. Experimenting with a slew of new mediums, Chowdhury delves deep into the Australian bushland, turning over bushfire blackened stones and wandering through quiet pockets of suburbia. In addition to a video work, there is a pair of smoke-stained canvases, a galvanised steel wire stretching across the exhibition space, some brush photographs coiled like tree trunks, a thick piece of charred bark, and three neatly framed extracts from different sources.
Cumulatively, these enigmatic works have a strange, elliptic quality. There is a quiet dialogue between them, like viewing sections of a broken narrative, each charged with a totemic significance. In contrast to Ways which hovers over landscapes that are heavily populated and culturally tilled, this exhibition conveys a sense of eerie vacancy and unfamiliarity — it is more absence than presence.
Speaking of broken narratives, the three extracts are quite interesting. With their yellowed pages and old-fashioned font, there is an instinctive pleasure to be derived here. Two passages reflect on being subsumed by the quietness and darkness of the bush, corresponding to the mysterious atmosphere set up; however, given Chowdhury's practice of playing with fact and fiction, there is a hint of doubt as to whether these are from real publications or if they're simply 'out of context'. Abstracted from the whole, their cultural properties become magnified, fluid and able to acquire new meanings.
Playing to his cinematic strengths, the untitled video work in Means is imbued with a kind of curiosity played out from a distance. Tending to focus on isolated phenomena, there is a 'blank stare' style of camera work as we watch the slow movement of a snake and cattle crowded at a gate, patiently expectant. There is a gentle rhythm that is continued by the set pace of retirees shuffling around a local pub. But then there's a prolonged shot of a burning tree, evoking a kind of ritual significance, particularly as its corpse hangs nearby. The impression is of ethereal spirituality that hasn't been distilled down to a formal ceremony.
Full of rich detail and thoughtful compositions, Chowdry's presence as artist is often unintrusive. With these companion exhibitions, he has produced a suite of works that oscillates between ritual and routine, holiness and banality.