24 Jul 2015 – 30 Jul 2015

Event times

10 am to 7 pm

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An Exhibition by Chandraguptha Thenuwara


The Electric Chair for Sale

Those who bragged that with the ‘war victory’, terrorism was completely wiped out of the island, later dwelled upon a particular word - ‘electric chair’. Hope this is not forgotten. War heroes, international courts of justice, and the electric chair, were mentioned successively during the past election campaigns, to seduce the minds of the Sinhala Buddhist masses. Therefore, the electric chair has won a special place in our political culture.

The electric chair originates from America, i.e. the use of a chair to electrocute a person sentenced to be executed. The idea was to electrocute the convict, bringing about instant death. This concept of the electric chair took on a significant place in Sri Lankan society, during the time of the ethnic conflict in the north of the island, when a sympathy wave was created saying that the people behind the mass murders will be taken to international courts of justice and from there to the electric chair. The fear psychosis behind the concept of the electric chair was multiplied manifold with its association with the phrase, international conspiracy. The thought of engaging in a visual intervention of this entity, came to me, while the persons associated were still in power. As the so-called war hero who let out the cry, saying “They are trying to take me to the electric chair” had to vacate his chair on 8thJanuary, the demand for the electric chair was instantaneously taken away. Therefore, its meaning and existence became rather obscure. Now, the chair should be sold with immediate effect. Accordingly, the definite plan to sell the chair, was finalized as an act to be carried out within the gallery space. 

The electric chair, along with the gallows, stoning to death, guillotine, etc. are ways of carrying out the death sentence. It was Andy Warhol who first presented the Electric Chair as an artistic execution, in 1963. The photograph of the electric chair used to carry out capital punishment was displayed as a silkscreen print, by him. He returned continuously to this topic and produced copies of the same photograph in a range of colours and textures. In the same manner that he designed his other art works of Mona Lisa, Marilyn Monroe, Mao Zedong, the electric chair was also made into an art piece. The principal model that I received from the art world is Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair. However, the electric chair I conceptualize is not exactly that. Another thing that comes to mind is Plato’s argument about a bed. A craftsman builds a bed, which is still not its original form. The true bed is the Form of a Bed. That original is recreated by a carpenter. That copy is imitated by an artist, in creating an art work. Thus it is a reproduction of a copy of a copy. What should I do? The electric chair that I conceptualize cannot be the instrument of punishment used in America. Therefore, Warhol’s visual is not important for me. In that case, from where do I extract the original form of the electric chair? The leader who had won over the hearts of weak masses, and who engaged in lamentation over his victimization by the electric chair, cannot be anything but an assumption. Why, because during the time of those lamentations, Sri Lanka had not signed up for the level of investigation that can lead to the electric chair. During the time this proposal was presented in 2002-2004, the Prime Minister of this country was Mr Ranil Wickramasinghe. Not only did he repeatedly state that he has not signed any such document, he also stated that it was a myth. If Sri Lanka as a country has not signed any such thing, where can there be any truth in it? 

Accordingly, my electric chair is not a real electric chair. It is mythical. Also, its volume is more than what normal citizens could bear, as it has been designed for a gigantic male. If the lap of that ‘hero’ is about one metre across, how much electricity will be needed for such a gigantic figure? My visual of the electric chair developed with such thoughts. When one places it in the Sri Lankan context, one cannot forget things such as pandols erected for the Wesak Festival. 

In conjunction with the electric chair, I have placed another ‘object’ or ‘item’ in this exhibition. I obtained that from a sales centre of Tibetan cultural objects, in Bangalore. It is the Vajraudaya (Thunderbolt), which is a symbol of Vajrayana Buddhism. Have you seen someone who clasps such an object in his hand? And demands people’s votes? Does that object have powers of mass seduction? What is its magic? 

I too now have a Vajraudaya that can demand mass consent. It has been exhibited as an exotic object, in the gaze of the public. It has been displayed so that people can come closer to some extend and see it. You can look at it from a specified distance. If you get too close, the security sirens will go off. 

By exhibiting this object with these technical paraphernalia, the public is able to see it in reality, with their own eyes.

By removing it from its original context, as the main symbol of Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet, it has been distorted and a power from elsewhere has been thrust upon it. I feel that it is people who do not have inner strength that try to gain power through external objects. A power of a teacher who holds a cane, is symbolically depicted through the cane. It is an instrument of punishment rather than that of intellectual capacity or advancement. The sward of ancient kings, the mace of ancient pharaohs, are such symbols of power. When you consider people who are powerless and then take up strange objects to gain power, one can see that they are a weak lot. If the Vajraudaya is taken up omitting its religious context, as a means of hypnotizing through power, it is definitely a feeble act. An object hidden in the hand invariably creates a doubt in people’s minds. By the very act of hiding, it gains power. The myth starts taking shape. My aim is to destroy that myth. I propose that if the citizens want such a thing, they can purchase it through a Tibetan cultural institution. By placing such a purchased item in a gallery space, and displaying its material manifestation, I hope I will be able to generate a discussion on the visual reality reflected by it. 

Among the other works of the exhibition are a series of visual games, with words. Although there are many visual aids, we are experiencing how they are being neutralized as words. During the past regime, incidents witnessed by our own eyes have been turned into lies within seconds. Any statement can be easily covered up through a lie. Using words to promise and then dishonouring those very words and re-issuing different statements has become a habitual action of politicians. An example could be the Mahinda Chinthana document which surpasses a fairy tale in its rendition. By using words surrounded by thoughts, I have utilized a method of exposing men whose words are cloaked in lies. It is the word that I have used as the visual in these works. By reading the multiple meanings of these words and reaching for the historical and cultural contexts that these words bear, I allow for some kind of an aesthetic experience for the spectator. 

The spectator can experience the coexistence of particular sounds written in the English alphabet and the interplay of these with each other. Although, in earlier exhibitions the sculpted and painted results added a significant value to the art work, on this occasion, the idea is what remains important in the art piece. However, I have also added some of my recurring themes as portrayed on canvas, to this exhibition.  

Chandraguptha Thenuwara.

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