Common Boundaries and Refused Exits: Aman Sandhu and Andrew Black

Aman Sandhu, "The Magic Roundabout," 2020 (video still). Courtesy of the artist.

A double-sided screen hung in the middle of Centre Clark’s main gallery, suspending two landscapes like a portal. On one side was Aman Sandhu’s video The Magic Roundabout (2020), which takes us through a concrete urban labyrinth. On the other was Andrew Black’s The Naked Man in April (2021), which traverses the decay of a pastoral valley in the English countryside. The installation, titled The Magic Roundabout and The Naked Man, originally debuted in 2021 at the Glasgow International contemporary art festival and featured the two films alongside several wall-based pieces. On the walls, sketches, paintings, and stone rubbings gathered, featuring materials such as gouache, bronze, carbon, and wax. Together the artists depicted poets, protestors, and pop musicians, flooding the gallery with a chorus of resistance. By joining the films on the same screen and surrounding them with additional works, the installation went beyond a collaboration. It became an interface—a site of radical connection through seemingly disparate forms.

In The Magic Roundabout, the camera is placed on the hood of a car that drives continuously through what drivers voted to be one of the “scariest” junctions in the United Kingdom: six intertwined traffic circles in the southwestern town of Swindon. This complex roundabout serves as the backdrop for Sandhu’s film, which recounts fragments of his family’s history in a voyage of resistance against linear colonial frameworks. The Magic Roundabout makes this resistance palpable in two ways: firstly, in its central premise of a vehicle that refuses to exit and thus declines to comply with the order of the traffic circle; and secondly, in the text layered over the footage, which reflects on how British colonialism has impacted Sandhu and generations of his family.

Aman Sandhu, “The Magic Roundabout,” 2020 (video still). Courtesy of the artist.

When I spoke with Sandhu, he described the roundabouts in the film as a stage for stories about how his family members refused linearity and thus ultimately refused British order. Sandhu guides viewers through a tour of four generations, recounting their livelihoods as a factory worker, a bootlegger, and a tax evader, among other vocations. By considering his family’s experiences of traversing colonial structures and contrasting it with his own, he weighs the histories of his ancestors against the greater social system they disrupted. “I’ve come to think of my family who engage in illegal means of subsistence as a refusal of the colonial linear rendering of the good immigrant,” reads the screen text. The illegal activities of his ancestors are reevaluated through the film, recast as radical acts of decoloniality.

As the vehicle’s exit from the roundabout is infinitely postponed, the film’s text lists central figures in Sandhu’s life, setting us up to expect stories of “great-grandfather, grandfather, father, uncles, cousins.” We get glimpses of these relatives through written anecdotes and a home video of Sandhu’s parents dancing, all briefly superimposed over the roundabout footage—but none of their stories are entirely told. Instead, echoing the motion of the circling car, the film is intended to critique the normative colonial frameworks foisted on people of color. Sandhu’s work takes the systemic constraints his ancestors have withstood and considers them in the context of the art world. In his own expressions, he addresses how artists of color are often expected to essentialize or reduce their heritage to something easily understood, pushed to deliver work that translates legibly to a Eurocentric audience. The resulting criticism artists of color tend to receive is often reductive and overly straightforward. In contrast, The Magic Roundabout is averse to all things linear, rejecting the premise of an easily navigable story in favor of one that loops, winds, and arrives at no destination. Yet if the film lacks linearity, the voices and stories give it a feeling of fullness that was supplemented by the surrounding wall works, which breathed life into the film’s framework as a site of connection.

Aman Sandhu, “The Magic Roundabout,” 2020 (video still). Courtesy of the artist.

The wall works, too, commemorated challenges to the British order. Intimate pencil drawings depicted events such as the protests of India’s farmers in 2020 and 2021 as well as a public apology by Punjabi pop musician Sidhu Moose Wala in 2020, which bears a new significance in light of his murder in May 2022. In Pash (II) (2022), the eponymous leftist Punjabi poet, killed by Khalistani extremists in 1988, is depicted in varak—a silver foil often adorning Indian sweets—on a sheet of carbon paper. By mounting a culturally distinct material on carbon, a compound integral to all known life, Sandhu prompts us to consider the contrast between his cultural expressions and the essentializing colonial standards from which his work departs.

These essentializing standards are not only convoluted, as Sandhu demonstrates, but they also verge on deterioration, as Andrew Black examines. While Sandhu’s film uses geography as a springboard to access greater cultural, social, and political themes, Black approaches the location of The Naked Man in April as an excavation site, peeling back the layers of myth and history that aggregate across the Washburn Valley in Yorkshire. The film gets its name from Ye Olde Naked Man Café, an inn that once stood in the valley and that the opening title card describes as “now ruined, derelict, or possibly submerged beneath a reservoir.” By touring a once-populated location that is now wrought with debris, Black exposes the failures of a place, speaking to the wider failures of a once-robust and now disheveled English social system. The valley has been a host of Yorkshire civilization since the Bronze Age, and Black’s work surveys and connects the many shades of history the land has sustained.

Andrew Black, “The Naked Man in April,” 2021. Courtesy Centre Clark.

Andrew Black, “Naked Jogger,” 2022. Stone-rubbing made at Snowden Carr, Yorkshire, England.

In the film, Black integrates centuries-old artistic expressions such as ancient carvings and poetry written in the valley by a stonemason in the late nineteenth century. Taken from the diaries of a rural worker posthumously published as Timble Man (1988), the poems, which intercut Black’s footage, frame the dilapidated landscape through the experience of a man writing about British society just as it was beginning to crumble. In addition to this, Black examines the shades of the valley’s contemporary deterioration through brief glimpses of the United States spy station RAF Menwith Hill—a cluster of spherical radomes looming over the Yorkshire countryside like giant golf balls. By bringing together these and many more moments, Black demonstrates the land as a site of connection that extends out to us as we look on from the gallery.

Filmed by the artist’s father, Peter Black, The Naked Man in April begins in search of a prehistoric rock carving known as the Tree of Life Stone in the valley. Overshadowing the valley is the spy station and its gaudy phantoms of mass surveillance. Since Peter films with his smartphone, we can assume that the footage is being surveilled by the station. The digital corruption of the valley is made visible by layers of garish and disruptive effects—Andrew distorts the footage by giving his father junky clip-on lenses to film with and later, in the editorial stage, through the process of datamoshing. Through the added dimension of the degraded footage, Black creates what he described to me as “a portrait of a saturated and decomposing place.” Indeed, by taking corrupted footage and corrupting it several times over, Black presents a new kind of decay, a synthetic friction against a landscape already rife with debris.

Debris from the valley floated beyond the screen and into the gallery through a collection of wall-hung stone rubbings. Black created the images—titled Tree of Life, Leap Years, and Naked Jogger (all 2022)— by placing interfacing fabric directly over stone and taking an impression with wax. Attached to the stone rubbings are bits of plant detritus from the day he took the impressions, as well as historical badges from the Greenham Common protest camps. One of the motifs on the badges is a spider’s web, what Black described as “an ever-expanding, carefully crafted network of resistance.” This network stretches throughout Black’s work, echoing the decades of government oppression and responding protests that have passed through RAF Menwith Hill over the decades.

Much like Sandhu’s handling of carbon and bronze, Black’s use of interfacing fabric brought me back to the significance of the interface itself: a surface that forms a common boundary between two bodies, spaces, or phases. Throughout the entire exhibition we saw such boundaries at work. There was no single storyteller here—it was a collaboration, a plane of transmissions across time and space. At its heart, the exhibition brought together many stories, culminating in a narrative that refused singular definitions. Sandhu and Black’s work demands that we acknowledge the many voices that make their artwork possible. The Magic Roundabout and The Naked Man confronted us with this collectivity—an interweaving of experiences that unfolds indefinitely in the present.

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