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11 Jul 2009

Manchester Museum Hermit-in-Residence

© Ansuman Biswas

The Hermit Project


27th June - 6th August

T: +44 (0)161 306 1583

University of Manchester
Oxford Road
Manchester M13 9PL

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Live Artist Ansuman Biswas has become the Manchester Hermit, living in the Museum's Gothic tower for forty days and forty nights

The Manchester Museum at the University of Manchester holds a collection of over 4 million specimens and objects, only a tiny proportion of which are on public display. Artist Ansuman Biswas will ask the public to reassess the value of the Museum's hidden collections, casting light on a different object from the stores for each day of his residency. Via a Blog at he hopes to engage members of the public in an examination of how our society collects and conserves some things, while allowing other objects, cultures and creatures to become extinct and forgotten. Biswas hopes to engender a feeling of appreciation for what is disappearing and respect for what is not ours to take.

Confronted by the fact of extinction Biswas will respond by personally embodying this loss. and proposing the destruction of museum objects. He will 'perform death' by renouncing his own liberty and cutting himself off from all physical contact. Continually examining himself through a technique known as vipassana meditation, he will present his own mind and body as no more or less than any other exhibit in the museum. In this way he will question the relationship of human beings to the natural world they study, and also hint at the inevitable extinction of the human race itself.

Working closely with the Museum's curators, the Manchester Hermit will select 40 objects from the Museum's vast collection, focusing on the hidden gems. Some of these objects will be highly valued in terms of their academic and scientific importance, rarity or aesthetic beauty, whilst others will be forgotten objects that have been overlooked and underused by the Museum.

Throughout the duration of the residency, the Manchester Hermit will ask the public to comment via his blog on the individual objects, reflecting on how, why and by whom they are valued. He will be inviting the public to consider where these hidden gems are best housed and how they should be treated.

Ansuman Biswas
Born in Calcutta and now based in London, Ansuman Biswas has a wide-ranging international practice encompassing music, film, live art, installation, writing and theatre. He often works across and between conventional boundaries, those between science, art and industry, for
instance, or between music, dance and visual art.

He has worked with a range of art institutions such as the Royal Opera House, The National Theatre, Tate Britain and Tate Modern, but he has also been invited to work with many non-arts institutions. Amongst these are the National Institute of Medical Research, Hewlett-
Packard's Research lab in Bangalore, Portsmouth Cathedral and the Russian Space Agency.

Over the last few years his work has included directing Shakespeare in America, translating Tagore's poetry from the Bengali, designing underwater sculptures in the Red Sea, living with wandering minstrels in India, being employed as an ornamental hermit in the English countryside, touring with Björk, spending two days blindfolded in an unknown place, travelling with shamans in the Gobi Desert, playing with Oasis, collaborating with neuroscientists in Arizona, co-ordinating grassroots activists in Soweto, being sealed in a box for ten days with no food or light, making a musical in a maximum security prison, redesigning Maidstone High Street, being a soloist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, running seminars on democracy for monks in a Burmese monastery, and even flying on a real magic carpet in Russia.

The Manchester Museum
As a university museum, The Manchester Museum uses its international collection of human and natural history for enjoyment and inspiration. Working with people from all backgrounds, the Museum provokes debate and reflection about the past, present and future of the earth and its inhabitants.

The Manchester Museum is home to one of the largest and most important collections of ancient Egyptian artefacts in the United Kingdom. The Vivarium houses a wide variety of live animals including frogs, toads, snakes and other reptiles and amphibians. One of the star attractions in the Museum is the T.rex, displayed in the pre-historic gallery alongside rare examples of fossils dating back to the Ice Age.

The Manchester Museum was Highly Commended in the Large Visitor Attraction category of the Manchester Tourism Awards 2008
Lindow Man: A Bog Body Mystery won the Temporary Exhibition Design Category of the Design Week Awards 2009. The exhibition's marketing campaign and educational initiative were also shortlisted for the Museum and Heritage Awards 2009.

Artist's Statement
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.

Self destruction
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…