Site-specific installation is to modern galleries what fresco was to 15th century palaces and churches. It can transform a place and inject illusory, trembling notes into the consonance of a space. If done well, it can be as powerful as good theatre. Not a lot of local galleries allow artists to take messy liberties with their pristine interiors but Rohtas 2 in Lahore is one of the few that do. In 2012, Lahore-based artist Wardha Shabbir converted the gallery into a grassy cuboid to which dead butterflies and crows stuck stiffly. And, more recently, the compact space was used in its entirety for a vivid production of sorts by Julius John, a young visual artist who graduated from the National College of Arts in 2013. Curated by Seher Tareen, the mind behind P.S. Art (an initiative to showcase ‘politically and socially driven art’ from Pakistan), John’s first solo show was a fine, somewhat angsty, wholly contemporary specimen of trompe l’oeil.
John’s work so far has dealt with marginalization of religious minorities and low-income groups which is reinforced by often blatant geographical circumscription within the city. His large, rambling drawings in monochrome are usually displayed with a roughness that befits his unflattering subject-matter. They are seismographs of an urban anxiety that vaguely stings us all, but none more so than these communities that have been dislodged from what is considered the legitimate social front. The strength of his work lies in its honesty. There is no affectation to it. It shows gradually eroding facades and cold, half-constructed interiors from shadowy regions of the city, its forgotten quarters. No conscious attempt is made at touching upon the lives of those who inhabit these. Everything about their lives can be gathered just by looking at the ruins parading as dwellings in John’s drawings.
[quote]From the gate, no light was visible in or around the gallery[/quote]
The following Biblical verse shaped his new work for Rohtas: ‘…and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining’ (Luke 23: 44, 45). The foreboding of this line pervaded the gallery and even extended to its roadside entrance. From the gate, no light was visible in or around the gallery. It looked abandoned. But as you walked in you discovered that this semi-darkened state was a requisite for John’s work. In the 2-3 weeks John had spent working inside Rohtas 2, he had covered the walls with looming, dark drawings of barren rooms and cells that offered not a semblance of protection. In a bizarre Escher-like way, their insides and outsides served as one, and the shadows cast by their pillars and partitions interlaced with the very real shadows cast by the gallery’s windows and bars. Using only two sources of misty brown light – bulbs strategically placed outside the gallery windows – John had created a deserted playground of criss-crosses inside the room, a strange world of elongated strips of light and dense charcoal shadows.
The alienation he claims to have felt every time he ventured to and from Kot Lakhpat, his neighbourhood, to the primmer localities on either side is powerfully conveyed by means of a bleak presentation. It is wry and sad, in a way reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’ desolate vision of urbanity, that the words Kot Lakhpat can be translated into something like Millionaire Colony or, in a more colloquial vein, Moneybags Junction. The place today is a far cry from the image of great riches its name conjures. Like Williams’ Elysian Fields in A Streetcar Named Desire, which look to Blanche more like ‘the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir’, the area’s name becomes a bitter little twist in the face of its apparent dereliction.
The urban segregation faced by residents of Kot Lakhpat is also alluded to by means of an installation symbolizing the open sewer that ropes the town off from the rest of the city, giving it a state almost of quarantine. John placed two bathtubs in the centre of the room, one filled to its crusty brim with black oil and the other facedown, with a sharply glistening red plastic Christmas tree jutting from one end of it. Side by side, the tubs with their arcane offerings looked at once inviting and menacing. The tar-filled tub, meant to be seen as a small sample of the aforementioned sewage canal, was like an obdurate glass, revealing nothing but what is cast upon it – in this case, a partial view of the tree and the window behind it. Usman Saeed – artist and writer, and curator in his own right – commented on how John’s installation, in triggering olfaction as part of the experience (for the strong smell of oil hit you as soon as you entered the gallery), reminded him of Richard Wilson’s 20:50, a permanently installed work at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea that allows viewers to walk through an entire floor filled with recycled engine oil. The oil’s opaque, unyielding surface mirrors its architectural surroundings with torturing exactness, awing and disorienting viewers. The reflecting tub, as part of John’s installation, does something similar by padding the experience with an additional layer.
[quote]Despite addressing religious persecution and social discrimination, John’s work is at its core intensely quiet and introspective[/quote]
What I consider the most significant aspect of John’s work, however, is that despite addressing religious persecution and social discrimination, and addressing them with something as sonorous as scripture, it is at its core intensely quiet and introspective. He may have had a particular geographic division in mind when he set about sooting the gallery walls but he succeeded in imparting, like a good poem, alienation and insecurity we have all felt at some points in our lives, and mixed feelings of love and resentment for places we belong to yet long to leave. The Christmas tree, to those who wish to read it as such, can be a reminder of the demonic attack on Joseph Colony last year, a reminder of the silent suffering of Christians in Pakistan. But standing like it did in the midst of that charcoal plantation, twinkling like a faery glen, it was so much more than a bounded reference. It was colour marooned in gloom. It played lambently upon the image of the sludging sewer. It was art in the face of every situation detrimental to creativity. I do think it symbolized miracles.