Alex Cunningham’s Exhibit – Shifting Waters: Lenses on Mythology & Environmental Change in India
If you are a frequent visitor to the Kenan Institute for Ethics, you will notice that the Voices of Home photovoice exhibit is no longer on the walls. Rather, when you walk the halls of Kenan, you will find TV monitors with short films playing; aerial shots of green, brown and blue landscapes; Indian newspapers; and photographs of Indian glacial landscapes. The exhibit is called Shifting Waters: Lenses on Mythology and Environmental Change in India. It was curated by Alex Cunningham, who is the current KIE Graduate Arts Fellow working toward a Masters in Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts.
Alex’s exhibit examines some of the ways religious narratives can shape people’s understanding of environmental change. It includes work captured over his four visits to India in the past seven years. He first visited India the summer after high school with a friend and his family. His next visit was a semester study abroad program in college. During these five months, he photographed glaciers, in addition to learning Hindi and about Hinduism. For his BFA senior thesis at Ithaca College, Alex took a brief 14-day trip in 2012 to film the Ganges River and its nearby highways. After graduation, he worked in the archives at Cornell but longed to return to India.
His most recent trip was this past summer, traveling alone for two months. Although Alex had no concrete plans of where he was staying and how long, the main goal of his trip was to create a film about the monsoon rains. However, although Alex chased the rains, visiting villages where they were rumored to be, he kept missing them throughout the entire summer. The running joke became that whenever he left a town, the rains would start. Alex seemed to be the only one distraught about the lack of rain. When he talked to locals, they did not find it unusual that there had been a change in rain patterns.
As Alex traveled solo, he continued to film what he saw, not really knowing what was his subject or goal. Since he could not film the monsoon season, he struggled for a new vision for his project. Alex realized that although the monsoons were a fascinating weather system for a foreigner, the annual rains were just a way of life, commonplace for those who had grown up with them. It was “inherent folly” thinking that an individual could capture the Indian rains as just an interesting weather system. Rather, the project became about the experience of trying to follow the monsoon rains: his interactions with others, the long history humans have had with the changing environment, and how these changes have recently been accelerating. He connected his experience to Hinduism, and how it is “not a religion but a way of life.” He discerned a spiritual connection between the environment and religious monuments that dotted the landscape.
Back in Durham and prior to the exhibit’s opening, Alex was still reflecting on his adventure. With the added distance and time away from the summer’s travails, it was easier to contemplate what his videos had documented, and to bounce ideas off friends, family, and peers. Christian Ferney, who oversees the Kenan Graduate Arts Fellowship at the Institute, was able to help Alex digest and make sense of his experience. Working together, Alex and Christian formulated an overview of the exhibit:
Although climate change is occurring at a historically fast rate, the geography and climate of the earth has never been unchanging. In the Indian subcontinent, which has been continuously inhabited by civilizations for thousands of years, religious texts, mythologies, and artifacts record a long history of the changing physical earth. As fast melting glaciers and recent variability in the monsoon show us today, change remains constant. This exhibit examines some of the ways the physical and spiritual landscape of India have intersected over time, raising questions about how we understand the current climactic moment of inflection and can prepare for a future of shifted water.
Alex’s fieldwork experiences illustrate how ethical reflection is not usually a programed event. Rather, ethical reflection is a struggle that has a complicated path, typically leading more to questions than to answers. His exhibit is the culmination of extensive reflection and work. It reminds that the end result is not something you might come by in a straightforward manner. Similar to the ever-changing world, there is always an evolving, amorphous, and elusive goal.
Alex’s exhibit, including his recorded reflections on each piece in the show, will be in the Keohane-Kenan Gallery through the end of the calendar year. You can listen to his thoughts on each piece at dukeethics.org/gallery.