The following is a review essay of artist Bevan Ramsay’s show, entitled Harmonia Hindi, which opened in Norfolk, Connecticut in August, 2012. Ramsay is a Montreal, Quebec native now based in New York City. Harmonia Hindi is based on a year he spent in India before moving to New York City. His work can be found at: http://bevanramsay.com/
We suggest you follow the images of Harmonia Hindi as you read this, which can be found at: http://bevanramsay.com/gallery/hi/hi.html#../hi/img/him01.jpg
Bevan Ramsay’s latest work, neatly encased in square, thin and minimalist white attire, bursts open to reveal only, in retrospect, what it could: soft, sensuous curves, bombastic colors, and a quite loving embrace for the chaos of this world as well as the beauty that such chaos can reveal. In Harmonia Hindi, his most recent exhibition in Norfolk, CT, Ramsay takes one of the strangest and most superfluous representatives of our culture—the silk scarf—and repurposes it to reveal the ways in which the common, the everyday and, indeed, the thrown away, can be reclaimed and, perhaps for the first time, become part of something beautiful. CDs, old photos, liquor bottles, and other refuse rub elbows with items boasting more auspicious origins and all, it seems, serve equal measure in Ramsay’s painstaking arrangement of their parts to bring wholly new, brightly illustrated, and inexplicably moving compositions to the silk scarf via digital print architecture.
If Harmonia Hindi had a theme song, it would be a South Asian remix of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” set to sitar music. Like Cohen, Ramsay is a Montreal native. Both share a deep-seated aversion to romanticism and a worldview that could be perhaps best described as tragic. Keep these lines from “Suzanne” in mind as you contemplate the first six pieces that comprise Harmonia Hindi: “Now Suzanne takes your hand / and she leads you to the river / she is wearing rags and feathers / from Salvation Army counters / And the sun pours down like honey / on our lady of the harbour / And she shows you where to look / among the garbage and the flowers / There are heroes in the seaweed / there are children in the morning / they are leaning out for love / they will lean that way forever / while Suzanne holds the mirror.”
Like Suzanne, Ramsay shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers. Like Cohen, he resolutely refuses to be a passive observer. There is no Emersonian all-seeing Eye to be found here, no patient wildlife photographer hiding motionless in a bluff, seemingly embarrassed to be human. All to the contrary. Ramsay is a part of this world and he knows it. As such, he interacts with his environment fearlessly and, at times, perhaps recklessly—even irreverently. In the works that comprise Harmonia Hindi, Ramsay doesn’t just gaze at the refuse of a consumer culture gone haywire, he actually plays with the garbage and the flowers, arranging them into intricate patterns and gorgeous designs—which are, incidentally, strikingly reminiscent of the sand mandalas carefully constructed (and then destroyed) by Tibetan Buddhist monks.
Although the subject matter of Harmonia Hindi is set against the backdrop of a year spent in India, nothing Bevan Ramsay has produced thus far in his artistic career more clearly reflects his Montreal roots. Bevan grew up in the working-class Montreal neighborhood of Verdun, a rough part of the southwest with a bad reputation that it long ago ceased to deserve. Even so, though it’s gotten much better recently, Verdun remains one of those places that Bruce Springsteen used to sing about when he was depressing and awesome. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Bevan was a kid playing in parks, corrupt Verdun mayors allowed the entire city of Montreal to dump its filthy brown street snow along the banks of the St. Lawrence River. By late January, the mountains of snow by the river were treacherous and imposing. Each spring, they would thaw, revealing tons upon tons of garbage, and leading some to derogatorily refer to Verdun as “Verdump” (a tag that the neighborhood has yet to live down).
Bevan Ramsay’s large devoutly Catholic family lived in a small house on Galt Street, a mere stone’s throw from the St. Lawrence River; so playtime meant, more often than not, playing in (and with) garbage. This is where he developed his straightforwardly honest relationship to the material world. This is also where he developed the kind of comfort with garbage that makes him at home in India’s delightfully chaotic landscape.
But it was, most importantly, on Galt Street that Ramsay learned and, in this work, teaches us, the lessons of the world’s great rivers. The saltwater seas have lessons to impart, as do freshwater lakes, voiced through their crashing waves and lapping shores. But the river’s voice is different. Listen carefully. It’s there. And in Montreal, it is the voice of the St. Lawrence—the Queen of North American Rivers—a messy, practical, ancient watercourse whose voice flows, like a pulse, right through Bevan’s soul. It reminds us that long before we were connected by highways and railways and airways, we were connected by rivers. It is the waterways of great rivers like the St. Lawrence which connect us, viscerally, to everything and everyone else in this world. In their timeless flow, we begin to know and feel how everything in this world—even what we consider most permanent and immutable—is in a constant (and thus unstoppable) state of change. The wisdom of Ramsay’s work is river wisdom, just as its beauty is river beauty.
The philosopher Slavoj Žižek has recently implored us all to “Love trash, love decay – because it’s real and it’s the only thing that’s going to inspire people to be aware of the planet’s true ecological state. Pictures of beautiful healthy wildlife in natural settings only serve to reassure us that everything is OK.” We couldn’t help but think of these words as we looked at some of the later pieces in Harmonia Hindi. Ramsay has clearly followed Žižek’s advice. He loves trash and decay—and, because he’s a talented artist, he knows how to make us love them too.
Ultimately, however, he achieves this not by rejecting the beautiful—he still, after all, loves pretty things—but by relating to the South Asian landscape the way theologian Martin Buber says we ought to see pretty much everything: namely, as a YOU, as a THOU (as opposed to an IT). Ramsay asks us, in Harmonia Hindi, to accept Buber’s contention that it is possible to appreciate a world in which “There is nothing from which I would have to turn my eyes away in order to see, and no knowledge that I would have to forget.” Garbage and flowers, beauty and ugliness, life and death, and a wasteful consumer culture are all boldly confronted, without the need to reconcile them, through Ramsay’s painstaking compositions.
What is clear, more than anything, in the creation of the beautiful set of images imprinted on these scarves, is not how much is intended by their existence, but how much is revealed through them in Ramsay’s careful and discerning lens. What, with the human body and the human condition as one’s canvas, you might ask, could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot, truth be told, but not in Ramsay’s world. Through him we see only his truth and, more importantly, we learn how beautiful that truth—even the ugly parts—is to him. Yes, scarves are superfluous and silly, particularly juxtaposed against the story of deprivation and striving that our world so often seems to tell, but the answer is not to get rid of them. Indeed, Marx was wrong about what we need in this world. Life isn’t about fulfilling our basic needs, it is about finding a reason for which we should go on doing so. What better answer than something so clearly enamored with all of the messiness of this world, gifted to us by a man so much inspired and thankful to be living in it.