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b. 1964, New Delhi
Amar Kanwar was born in New Delhi in 1964. In 1984, while he was studying history at the University of Delhi, two events occurred that impacted his subsequent philosophical and artistic development. On October 31, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh bodyguards, resulting in mass retaliatory violence against Sikhs in Delhi. Then, on December 3, a toxic gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant, known as the Bhopal disaster, killed thousands of people and exposed hundreds of thousands more. These pivotal experiences instilled in Kanwar a commitment to social activism. Enrolling in the film school at the Mass Communications Research Center of Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi, he began to work on pushing the poetic limits of documentary filmmaking. He later expanded his practice to multi-channel video installation, adding other audiovisual elements. Kanwar was the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship in India (2000), the first Edvard Munch Award for Contemporary Art (2005), and an Honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts from Maine College of Art (2006).
While Kanwar works strictly with documentary and archival images, he employs various methods of editing and presentation to exceed their immediate facticity, conjuring atmosphere, underlying motives, and furtive histories. The Torn First Pages (2004–08), which is included in the Guggenheim collection, is a nineteen-channel video installation arranged in three parts that surrounds the viewer with examples of oppression by and opposition to the Burmese military junta. The work pays tribute to the modest yet significant resistance enacted by a bookshop proprietor who excised those pages bearing requisite state slogans, and went to jail as a result. Not only does The Torn First Pages address past abuses, it also emphasizes the continuing struggle against dictatorship by staging its documentation as a contentious chorus in the present. Reflecting on his most recent project, The Sovereign Forest (2012), which was exhibited at Documenta 13, the artist outlines the defining characteristics of his practice: “The validity of poetry as evidence in a trial, the discourse on seeing, on understanding, on compassion, on issues of justice, sovereignty, and self-determination—all come together in a constellation of moving and still images, texts, books, pamphlets, albums, music, objects and organic materials, events and processes.”¹ Kanwar orchestrates actual traces and records into something that surpasses fact, revealing a richer perspective on reality.
Kanwar has had solo exhibitions at the Renaissance Society, Chicago (2003), Whitechapel Gallery, London (2007), Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris (2008), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2008), Haus der Kunst, Munich (2008), Marian Goodman Gallery, New York (2010), and Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland (2012). He has participated in Documenta 11, 12, and 13 (2002, 2007, and 2012), Biennial Jogja XI, Indonesia (2011–12), and Being Singular Plural, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2012). A retrospective of his cinematic oeuvre was presented at the 5th International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala in India (2012). He has been honored with the Golden Conch at the Mumbai International Film Festival (1998), Golden Spire Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival (1999), and Jury Award at the Film South Asia in Nepal (2001). Kanwar lives and works in New Delhi.