1) The show titled ‘Labyrinth of Reflections’ costs Rs 10. The catalog is for Rs 15,000 (that’s nearly the price of your airfare from Lahore) and its size could easily break your fashionable glass-top coffee table. This kind of appreciation and art-historical validation, withheld from most living artists, is given here with a hefty stamp of local approval and funding. The show is on until February 15th. Don’t miss it.
2) Don’t take pictures because you can’t. Really. The museum guard’s mustache curls up and he has the air of a rugged chowkidar in a conceptual art gallery, which is exactly what he is. Plus he’s got CCTVs to track you down if you so much as pull out your phone.
3) In the opening galleries you may be surprised to find yourself among actual paintings. Stand about 6 feet away from the giant one that is labeled Untitled 6(1992-93) (Image 1). It is painted in shades of grey with acrylic paint but the sharp, precise execution might trick you into mistaking it for a print. Its scale will overpower you (which is why it should’ve been in a bigger space, if you ask me). It gives you the illusion of being suspended in a vast skeletal scaffolding; a bar appears nearest to you but is overshadowed by another that seems even nearer but is technically farther away. After your near-psychedelic experience you’ll read the plaque in the corner and realize that it isn’t about distorting space so much as the nature of barcodes.
[quote]Tastelessness and transliteration have been transformed into a heady Pop anthem [/quote]
Remember: the crisscross of horizontal and vertical elements here is associated with Rashid’s mentor, the late Zahur ul Akhlaq, who toyed with the frame-within-a-frame aspect of Mughal miniature painting. (He was interested in the border of the miniature, which contains both decorative elements and text.) Zahur’s geometric evolution of this form resulted in a grid which became history’s step in the direction of Rashid Rana. (Image 2)
4) In the same room, look at the painting titled For The Sake Of Spirituality iv (Image 3). The work’s relationship to its title is uncertain, but its intimation of video static and its obsession with symmetry are prescient. And it is just so pretty to look at, like hundreds of frenzied gelatinous worms.
5) Walk down the hall to What Is So Pakistani About This Painting? (Image 4). This title text is printed on the central panel of a crowded and cheap-looking print. The words Painting and Pakistani are written in Roman letters and the rest of the English sentence is in Urdu. Tastelessness and transliteration have been transformed into a heady Pop anthem.
It just so happens, of course, that the title is a central question of contemporary art practice in Pakistan. No one who wishes to situate an artist’s work in the present period can escape it. Rashid Rana has clearly been bludgeoned with it. And with this piece he has decided that it is no longer his problem. It’s yours.
When you look at Rana’s photorealist paintings of the 19th century bacchanalian sculpture group by Jean Baptiste Carpeaux, commissioned by the Paris Opera House, you may ask if he painted these himself. (And if he didn’t, you may wonder whether he laughed all the way to the bank.) Whoever nurses such conservative grievances, however, should know this: in today’s art world, when you’re startled to learn that a prolific multimedia artist didn’t execute his vision with his own hands, you’re considered anachronistic and rather sweet. In a way, then, this work is cocky and cheeky: it subtly undermines you as well as the august institution in which it hangs. Deal with it.
6) Although this is a photograph, In The Middle Of Nowhere (Image 5) is the only picture in which a single story unfurls using the tools of a traditional narrative painting. It is a small and edited-looking sepia photograph. Rana tenderly regards the dripping wet corpse of his doppleganger in the dramatic pose of the Pieta, as if he has just retrieved his drowned twin brother. Behind them is a painted landscape in the manner of a PTV stage set, or the idyllic “sceneries” painted on trucks and rickshaws. Amid the snowy mountain peaks and philosophical distances and all the pines and streams has sprouted a rude Shell petrol pump. Even the most sensuous and tragic endings, Rana seems to say here, are passing episodes in the global conspiracies around the division of resources.
8) After the paintings, this show is about intimidating acrylic gloss and a cool formal elegance – both becoming of a digital artist. The micro/macro formula is used in a number of permutations and combinations until it is nearly exhausted. Which is when it morphs into video mosaics or single or double channel mirror image suicidal video projections (look at Ten Differences). (Image 6) These can lead you to think that if the artist were to direct a feature film, it would be an action-suspense-thriller.
[quote]It may become routine for you to lean into an image and go: Oh! I see! [/quote]
The mosaics enact sensual quotations from Caravaggio and Rubens; they take platitudes from bomb-site photojournalism; and, upon closer inspection, you find that they are composed of many little scenes of bloody sectarian violence, or many bits of garbage, or puffs of smog that punishes the eye for the pleasure of the larger art-historical reference. It may become routine for you to lean into an image and go: Oh! I see!
9) You probably know this image of Rana’s Shah Jahan in I Love Miniatures.(IMAGE 7) The Mughal’s profile is a mosaic of billboards for products and local films. The heart of this particular micro-macro relationship (it sounds like something from Economics 101) is not only the conceptual relationship (the dance around “identity”) between the prince’s visage and the pieces that make it up but also that it is impossible to see all of these “micro” images at once, in the way that you can see the larger “macro” picture. This very human frustration echoes the injustice of categorization, for the sake of organization, of thousands of separate entities by a monolithic slogan. (Think jingoistic nationalism.)
[quote]It is impossible to see all of these “micro” images at once, in the way that you can see the larger “macro” picture[/quote]
This picture sets the tone for what’s coming, and it accommodates the following buzz phrases associated with contemporary dilemmas of representation:
f) There is a Stampede for Meaning (but there may be none)
g) Multiple Readings and Meanings
Before you move on, note how the artist has put the gilded frame where traditionally, in a Mughal manuscript illumination, there would have been a built-in border. This transgression is even more pronounced in the next piece – a giant pixelated Khalid Iqbal landscape (A Day In The Life of Landscape). (Image 8) Here the same physical, gilded frame has been made virtual. Zahur ul Akhlaq’s presence is most palpable here.
10) Offshore Accounts and All Eyes Skywards During The Annual Parade are twists on form: what seems like a flat surface is actually folded at ninety degrees, resembling an open book. Does that make it a sculpture or object instead of a picture? Artists playing with new forms will like this.
11) You have reached the lair of three-dimensional aluminum box sculptures in the form of commercial and quotidian objects. Regard the pixelated TV, the fridge, the flower vases, and the stove. They resemble three-dimensional wish lists on Amazon and eBay. These referenced objects could be a daughter’s dowry or two years’ pay for a cook in an urban household. Across our divides of class and caste, everyone understands these little gods of material comfort. And this gives them a certain sentimental value. (Image 9)
But don’t get excited because there is a contemporary sting in all this. Appearing to be dysfunctional mockeries of useful appliances, or snarky musings on merchandise, these works are in fact the ultimate commodities themselves. Even the more conceptually complicated objects like Plinth From a Gallery In Lahore (my personal favorite) or The Step or Courier Package will be shipped to the ivory towers of auction houses, not utility stores.
12) Desperately Seeking Paradise is where Zahoor ul Akhlaq’s (and subsequently Rashid Rana’s) experiments with the grid reach their grand conclusion. It draws a parallel between two forms of circumambulation, one ancient and the other modern: the first is devotional, and the second is critical (playing the role of “the spectator” in an “art space”). The shape of the Ka’aba is given a panoramic global context worthy of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. It buzzes with the now-familiar post-9/11 motifs of First World skylines and visa stamps and ramshackle Third World ghettos, if not our loaded relationship with airplanes (the tremors of which can be felt in the video titled Meeting Point).
This is formally inventive stuff, but it is devoid of poetry. (Image 10)
13) Which is why the seekers of aesthetic and metaphysical pleasures must go and stand in front of the massive The World Is Not Enough, which shows mounds of garbage.(Image 11) No micro/macro formula is needed to make this an all-encompassing and transcendent experience: the breathtaking immensity of kachra or trash is nothing but, well, trash. And, despite the banality of that subject, its putrid swells and tresses have never looked so lushly abundant or, indeed, beautiful.