Alia Syed’s Eating Grass: A Film Installation at Los Angeles County Museum of Art

TRACY BUCK, University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Art History

From August 11, 2012 until July 28, 2013 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art displayed the work of experimental filmmaker Alia Syed in a gallery on the fourth floor of the Ahmanson Building. The South and Southeast Asian collection at LACMA is renowned for its Hindu and Buddhist sculpture, Indian paintings, and collection of decorative arts. Given that most of the South Asian exhibition space is comprised of this remarkable collection, visitors must have been surprised to encounter a contemporary installation there. Alia Syed’s 23-minute, 16mm film Eating Grass (2003), projected onto a large screen at the far end of the gallery, provided a striking intervention into an otherwise largely pre-modern collection of works. A series of Indian miniature paintings was shown on an adjacent wall; the film, perhaps in a manner similar to a display of miniatures, also strings together a sequence of vignettes. Framed around the routine structure of daily rhythms and habits, and constructed with a poetic pacing, Eating Grass subtly questions the effectiveness of language in bridging and creating intimacies. Through the use of images, film processing technique, and voiceover in Urdu and English, Syed’s film offers a depiction of memory, displacement, and home. The film portrays the experience of split cultural identities and interpersonal connections—lives that almost, but not quite, line up.

Alia Syed, still from Eating Grass, 2003, 16mm film, transferred to HD DVD, sound, 22:56 min. Image courtesy: http://www.lacma.org/art/installation/alia-syed-eating-grass  

Alia Syed, still from Eating Grass, 2003, 16mm film, transferred to HD DVD, sound, 22:56 min. Image courtesy: http://www.lacma.org/art/installation/alia-syed-eating-grass

 

Alia Syed, born of Indian and Welsh ancestry in Swansea, Wales is currently based in London. She trained in the United Kingdom—earning a BFA at the University of East London and a post-graduate diploma in mixed media at the Slade School of Fine Art— and has exhibited in Europe, North America, New Delhi, and Sydney. Syed works in film, and, in compelling juxtaposition with this largely visual medium, is also a poet. Eating Grass was filmed in London, Karachi, and Lahore. Each city, Syed has said, falls into another— and the film is organized around the five daily prayers of Muslim traditional practice. Noting that calls to prayer provide a regular punctuation to daily tasks, Syed compliments this in her film with an underlying poetic and lyrical rhythm.[1] As recounted in a 2012 interview with LACMA assistant curator Julie Romain, Syed originally wrote a short story in relation to an early morning call to prayer she heard in Karachi.[2] She realized that the call she had originally taken to be the traditional one of a muezzin was actually a distorted tape recording. The voice Syed heard had become stretched into an unnatural and unpleasant sound as a result of the repeated usage of the cassette; this fact provides the central image to her story. Syed then went on to write four additional short stories that relate to the remaining daily calls to prayer, and together these five visual and audio vignettes make up the film.

Calls to prayer, Syed has stated, serve as access points to memories, demarcating the points in the day when one is habitually performing one task or another. The stringing together of these memories through our daily lives results in a feeling of continuity, and it is this flow she calls upon in the film. One visual vignette in Eating Grass flows into another. It is a mistake, however, to think of these demarcations as simple and straightforward; in fact, the spaces and thresholds between periods of the day and our behaviors within them are in reality quite complex. Watching the film, the viewer is moved visually through public and private spaces—a bazaar, a home—and, however briefly, through the boundaries that provide transition points between these worlds. Visually, Eating Grass relies on swirling impressions and shadows, which register as scenes remembered rather than scenes witnessed for the first time. The film has a “ghosted” appearance—a result of Syed’s painstaking filming and processing technique—one that emphasizes her portrayal of memory. Aurally, it is a dizzying and captivating mix of English overlaid onto, but not directly in-sync with, Urdu. A woman’s voiceover recites Syed’s prose in both languages, in a lyrical rise and fall that follows its own cadence and is independent of what is happening visually. The two languages are not quite direct translations; they do not precisely correspond either in meaning or in pace and this fact portrays both the disconnect and the complexity of communication.

Alia Syed, still from Eating Grass, 2003, 16mm film, transferred to HD DVD, sound, 22:56 min. Image courtesy: http://www.lacma.org/art/installation/alia-syed-eating-grass  

Alia Syed, still from Eating Grass, 2003, 16mm film, transferred to HD DVD, sound, 22:56 min. Image courtesy: http://www.lacma.org/art/installation/alia-syed-eating-grass

 

Similarly, five overlapping but slightly out-of-step visual narratives are interwoven in the film. Taken together they evoke the emotions, intimacies, and public experiences that are slipped into and out of during the course of each day. The result is a non-linear flow of images that move from private to public sphere, set against a somewhat haunting drone of voice. The film varies in speed: sometimes the pace is rapid and exhausting, and this is matched by the increased volume and cadence of the voiceover. At other times the focus is instead on stillness and calm.

This varied construction mimics the actual pacing of our individual days, as well as the agile shifts between our social and private selves. The film creates a rhythm of calm and then hurried pace, light, and then darkness.

Life, Syed has beautifully said, is littered with intimacies.[3] Her film Eating Grass gives visual and aural form to these intimacies, places them within the flow of a day, and recreates the experience of the drift between public and private, outer and inner, realities. Throughout, Syed’s work recalls both the delicate balance and the inherent instability between the two worlds. Syed has suggested that viewers allow themselves to “feel” the film and to follow it in a dream-like manner, rather than to attempt an intellectual reading.[4]

This instruction is recommended as it frees the viewer from trying to decipher a pattern or to invent a coherent story, and allows him or her to instead give in to nuance and impression. Approaching the film in this way makes the experience similar to reading poetry: the viewer is struck by aesthetic properties and is moved emotionally rather than convinced intellectually. An analytic reading would render the work less compelling.

Syed has said that the title Eating Grass refers to a 1965 remark by then-Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The remark followed a contentious series of post-Partition land disputes and came amidst reports that India had plans to establish a nuclear program. Bhutto, who later became Pakistan’s Prime Minister, stated that if India developed nuclear technology the people of Pakistan would go hungry, eating such things as grass or leaves if necessary, if it were required for the government to acquire nuclear arms of its own. In effect, his suggestion was that India’s nuclear force would be a larger threat to Pakistani safety and well-being than would starvation. In her film’s title, Syed, whose own heritage is comprised of two vastly different traditions, adapts this reference in order to signal the complexity of identities that are simultaneously shared but disparate.

Alia Syed, still from Eating Grass, 2003, 16mm film, transferred to HD DVD, sound, 22:56 min. Image courtesy: http://www.lacma.org/art/installation/alia-syed-eating-grass

Alia Syed, still from Eating Grass, 2003, 16mm film, transferred to HD DVD, sound, 22:56 min. Image courtesy: http://www.lacma.org/art/installation/alia-syed-eating-grass

The migrant experience of living in two cultures or countries at once demands a negotiation between different worlds and multiple identities. Such a life requires the individual to continually evaluate what is lost, what is salvageable, and what is uniquely created as a result of this experience. India and Pakistan—two countries that share an intertwined and complex past as well as a conflicted present—represent this split of identity in the title, Eating Grass. Syed has said that we each contain different “cultures” inside ourselves; the film’s pace, language, and title emphasize the permeability of identity, the instability of the zone of “multiculturalism,” and the increasingly omnipresent experience of the diaspora.

The Eating Grass installation at LACMA is part of a recent increase in the display of works by contemporary South Asian and diasporic artists in Los Angeles museums. In late 2012, the Hammer Museum exhibited an excellent retrospective of works on paper and sculpture by artist Zarina Hashmi.[5] With some overlap in theme to Syed, Zarina explores experiences of displacement, dislocation, and the strong but pliable connections to home, memory, and language. During the early summer of 2013, REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles commissioned and displayed the Otolith Group’s 41-minute film, Medium Earth. This film, as I have argued elsewhere, reverses the gesture of the American and European Land Art movement of the 1960s–1970s.[6] Whereas Land Art artists such as Robert Smithson manipulated and created sculpture using earth and rocks, Medium Earth instead assigns artistic agency to forces below the surface of the land. Rocks, architectural structures, and even human bodies are explored in the film as mediums for unpredictable and capricious seismic forces. Syed’s film, Eating Grass, is a remarkable and poetic contribution to this landscape of recent installations—a landscape that, one hopes, will continue to flourish.

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TRACY BUCK is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles. She holds a BA in Anthropology and Humanities from the University of Northern Iowa, an MA in South Asian Cultures and Languages from The University of Texas at Austin, and an MA in Museology from the University of Washington. Her current research is focused on modern and contemporary design, urbanism, place-making, and vernacular architecture in India. Recent research has included work on the National Museum of India and art historical narratives as they relate to nationalism and Indian Independence.

NOTES:

[1] See her comments at: http://lacma.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/eating-grass-qa-with-filmmaker-alia-syed/

[2] Read a transcript of this interview at: http://lacma.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/eating-grass-qa-with-filmmaker-alia-syed/

[3] Taken from an unpublished poem written by Syed and read at an October 2, 2012 presentation to UCLA art history students.

[4] Suggested by Syed during an October 2, 2012 presentation of her film at UCLA.

[5] Zarina: Paper Like Skin at the Hammer Museum from September 29–December 30, 2012.

[6] See my May 19, 2013 online review of Medium Earth for the SaffronArt Blog: blog.saffronart.com/2013/05/19/the-otolith-groups-medium-earth-at-the-roy-and-edna-disneycalarts-theater-los-angeles/

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