By James Balmond & Azara Jaleel

Spotty collection, Battaramulla

The Lionel Wendt Arts Centre is built on the grounds of Lionel Wendt's home, Alborada and within its foundations, he buried, a copper casket, which to quote his words, “contains this writing, for a symbol of my loves and my desires that are bound up in the house that will with good fortune rise above these foundations.” The closing words on this scroll read, “May this house prosper. May all honest endeavor in the service of Beauty flourish therein and win its reward of inward content and the Peace that is only in ceaseless effort.” Culminated with the vision of an artist's mind, this living space, which transformed from a private home to that of a public art space, comprising primarily of a theatre which was opened in 1953 with a performance of Maxim Gorky's Lower Depths directed by Neumann Jubal. The Art Gallery, thereafter was opened in 1959 and the balcony to the theatre was added in 1972 and momentously the Harold Peiris Gallery opened in 2000, each, a living site, symbolic of elevating artistic consciousness, stimulating those of us who perceive paradigms, the critical relationship between cultural life, living spaces and time. 

The past and present are two distinct entities separated by temporal chronology. However this binary interpretation is problematic as it implies that the flow of time is linear; a progression of autonomous events, clearly defined within the conventional model of past, present and future where there is no interdependency, overlap nor feedback. In fact, we have crystalline epochs of independent moments of time forever frozen in a vacuum. However, the reality isn't so neat and tidy as evidently, we see causal influence bleed, simultaneity and cycles evidently signifying that the nature of time is a little more complex. In a cultural or technological paradigm, time creates a series of conditions, norms and standards, those of which form an experiential framework of reference where we create a new series of future parameters. In other words, the past forms the present and the present reflects the past. This is not to say that the balance is harmonious but a push and pull between the bygone and the contemporary. So what does this mean for mankind? 

Within the worlds of art, design and architecture some fear that tradition and heritage are becoming eclipsed by innovation; shadows resigned to the inert pages of history. However, when seeing the artistic evolution and the cultural impact of Lionel Wendt Arts Centre, situated at Guilford Crescent, Colombo, which began, as Neville Weeraratna in his Introduction to Applause at the Wendt states that it has been the meeting of East & West, so to speak, when the Sinhala language theatre found acceptance in 'the bastion of the Colombo 7 bourgeoisie', when the theatre at the Lionel Wendt Arts Centre was chosen for the first performance of Dr. Ediriweera Sarchchandra's 'Maname'. The intimacy of the space was recognized as eminently suitable for Bharata Natyam Arangetrams which also hosted performances by the Sangitha Natya Sangham of Ceylon to contemporary performances to date, evidently proving that us individuals and even living spaces are not passive units in this process of promoting cultural life. We can tap into, and become a part of, the feedback loop - ensuring that we live with a healthy connection between the bygone and the contemporary in any area, culture or discipline.   


To engage with any point in the temporal flow (be it past, present or future) in stimulating artistic consciousness, we need to concentrate our focus on cultural, societal or artistic moments to keep the conversation alive as they form part of the discursive consciousness. If the past exists in a realm of cerebral emphasis, it is only natural that we should interpret or define the contemporary by drawing on the bygone as well in carving our living spaces, be it in our homes or the public spaces we create or engage with. 


Discourse and debate fuel the cultural and existential blend between past and present. We cast the net wide to capture as much thought as possible. In doing so, we have to drill down and refine our thought processes. We need to obtain insight and understanding from dialogue. Moving into the architectural sphere for instance, we can examine specific architectural features from various time periods, however the value lies in understanding and identifying the key ideas, crafts and resources behind these features. These are more fluid concepts that, when identified and understood, are easier to integrate into, as well as relate to in the contemporary architectural paradigm. Understanding leads to more potent engagement within the fluctuating temporal eco system. 


This is the key mechanism at the heart of the feedback loop between the bygone and the contemporary. Relation is the connective tissue that binds both temporal points. We actively interact with the feedback process by creating bonds of relation. Shifting from the abstract to the slightly more tangible, we take our understanding of the past and relate it to the present. We consider how the former synchronises with the latter. Is there a natural synergy there? Do bygone disciplinary paradigms compliment or contrast with modern sensibilities? From our understanding, which elements can coexist with the contemporary and which facets are now defunct? The very action of relation marries the two 'polarities' of past and present by default. Distinction further evaporates. Interdependency and overlap strengthen. 


Once we have examined the relationship between past and present adaptation comes to the fore. How can we take the insights from these relative connections and take some kind of positive action? Essentially we adapt the bygone. We keep the core DNA, and splice the metaphorical helix with a set of modern genetics. The result is a hybrid creation of a space fuelled by artistic nuances informed by the past but reimagined and updated within modern parameters of possibility. Consequently, the traditional courtyard of Sri Lanka first appeared in the original Jaffna homes dating back centuries and evidently the courtyard concept morphed over time, fusing with colonial sensibilities and aesthetics from both the Dutch and Portuguese in Galle. These new hybrid courtyards were in turn re-imagined, transforming into the Wallauwas we find in contemporary homes. The series of adaptations that has taken  place in this transformation is a constant interactive force driving each manifestation of the courtyard implying the common distinction between past and present being reductive and inert.  

To live in the contemporary with influences of the bygone is to exist in a non-linear temporal flow as we are right in the middle of an exchange; individuals surrounded by a constant dialogue between past and present. What does this mean to the upliftment of cultural life, living space, and an artistic mind? It is that we can affect and alter the conversations, create or be part of living spaces that have the power to engage and create unlimited possibilities that meet artistic impetus and ends that stimulate a valiant imagination, reflecting the splendour immersed in the ordinary, like that of Lionel Wendt's photographs, reflecting the allure of the human spirit, the profundity of sacred visions and the magnificence of Sri Lanka's heritage. 


18th February, 2021 Applied Art