Monday, April 9, 2012

Rashid Rana, 2010

I am including this essay about Rashid Rana in Conversations though it contains no quotes from the artist, because substantial portions of the text are based on Rashid's account of his development. The piece appeared in 2010 in a book published jointly by Chemould and Chatterjee & Lal. Originally, I was to offer a personal interpretation of Rashid's work, but when it became apparent that none of the writers was covering the entirety of his career, he requested me to take on that task. I hesitated, because there was so much he had created that I hadn't seen, but he said a long interview would fill the holes. The conversation was delayed by weeks as he travelled to Paris for work on an upcoming show at the Musée Guimet. Ultimately, he transferred a PowerPoint presentation containing about 200 images, and talked me through it in the course of an enlightening three-hour Skype conversation between Lahore and Bombay.
Reading the essay now, it feels in need of breathing room. The original brief was for a 2000 word piece and, though the assignment's nature changed, I didn't want to go over that limit by too much (I overshot by 50% in the end). Producing a 5000 word whopper risked unbalancing the volume and crowding other contributors, among whom were friends like Kavita Singh and Quddus Mirza.
Still, the slightly cramped narrative aside, it's a reasonably good skeletal account of Rashid's trajectory from 1991 to 2010.


On 18th October 2007, Rashid Rana switched on the television to watch a broadcast of Benazir Bhutto’s homecoming. Her return to a frenzied welcome after an eight year exile brought hopes of a brighter future for Pakistan. As Bhutto’s parade wound slowly through the streets of Karachi, Rana left for a slaughterhouse in his home town Lahore. The abattoir revolted him, but eventually he was able to focus on his task: taking pictures of animals being led to the knife; kids lying with their throats slit; blood pooling on the floor; and carcasses being readied for the kitchen. That night, suicide bombers struck Bhutto’s convoy, leaving 136 dead, three times as many injured, and turning the artwork he was planning, an ornate Pakistani-Persian carpet composed from photographs of violent killing, into an unnervingly prescient conception.
The opposition between beauty and death integral to Rana’s Red Carpet series has been explored by generations of artists, and sometimes overturned. The Symbolists, at their most decadent, replaced truth with death in Keats’ paradigm, asserting that beauty was death, and death, beauty. In our own time, we have grown familiar with that dazzling marker of our last end, Damien Hirst’s diamond skull, produced in the same year as the first Red Carpet. Rana’s take on the theme accords with his practice of first engaging viewers with iconic, picturesque or monumental images and then revealing these easily recognised and digested views to be constituted of mundane, gruesome or explicitly sexual details. He sets up contrasts that sometimes appear simplistic, but possess an undercurrent of signification, one usually related to the conditions and confusions of the subcontinent, that destabilises categories which seem mutually exclusive.
The photomosaic and the carpet share the property of elaborateness, though one is crafted with the help of high-end software and the other through a painstaking technique barely changed for millennia. Our curiosity about the manner of the print’s manufacture leads us to consider the same for the carpet it depicts. This brings to mind the fact that carpet weavers and butchers aren’t that far apart: they ply traditional trades and mostly struggle to make ends meet. Such interplay between the big picture, its components, and the nature of their creation, breaks down an initially perceived stark opposition into a complex pattern of relationships, differentiating the image from, say, photomosaics of George Bush made from visages of dead US soldiers. Those are startling and effective in their own right, but not amenable to interpretation beyond the immediately obvious.
Rana’s dialectical compositions hinge upon a series of binaries: time versus space; two dimensions versus three; conceptual versus political; wholeness versus fragmentation; handmade versus machinemade; abstraction versus Pop; and artifice versus illusionism, to enumerate the most persistent. His earliest mature works, created at the Massachusetts College of Art where he studied after gaining a degree from Lahore’s National College of Art, were austere compositions of vertical and horizontal lines of varying thickness. His professors saw a belated homage to that arch-modernist form, the abstract grid, but Rana intended an echo of bar codes on the one hand, and, on the other, a reconciliation of Islamicate geometric, symmetrical rendition with the concerns of post-War American art. In the latter pursuit, he was following his teacher from NCA, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, one of the moving forces behind the renewed attention paid to miniatures in the 1980s and 90s. The neo-miniaturists, who became the best-known representatives of Pakistani art by the end of that period, adapted the decorative delicacy of Mughal art to contemporary subject matter, but Akhlaq’s own paintings were more intellectually distanced than theirs. The synthesist side of his search, which the neo-miniaturists largely ignored, was taken up and brought to fruition by Rana. This came to pass, however, when the guru was no longer present to witness his disciple’s achievement. In 1999, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, the gentlest of men in the account of all who knew him, was shot dead in his own home by a distant acquaintance. The killer first fired at the painter’s daughter Jahanara, and then three others, for reasons never made fully clear, though professional jealousy had some role to play. The impact of those gunshots on Rana’s later work, while unquantifiable, cannot have been negligible.
The artist’s contribution to a show mounted as tribute to the fallen professor was a piece of wrapping paper, a generic floral print, stuck on board. A painting made soon after, Love is Eternal for as Long as it Lasts, contained a similar grid of roses smudged in the brushing so as to recall bullet wounds. Beauty and death. Rana’s use of commonplace kitsch to express profound personal sentiments was his first public engagement with the possibilities of Pop. While the neo-miniaturists ruled Lahore, Pop flourished in Karachi through the work of Elizabeth and Iftikhar Dadi, Durriya Kazi and David Alesworth. Their efforts bolstered Rana’s resolve to let found images seep onto his painting and sculpture. He drew on childhood memories of the movies, whether broadcasts of Hindi films which could be seen in areas of Pakistan near India, or made-in-Lahore productions. As his work began to access more of the world, it became more accessible itself.
In 2000, he presented a series of canvases, interrogations of machismo, centered on negative images (in the formal sense of tonal inversion and colour reversal) from Pakistani movies. The two most significant works produced that year, though, had no connection with cinema. What is so Pakistani about this Painting and Who is Afraid of Red, possessed a defiant irony encapsulated by their titles. The first was divided into three sections, with the left and right showing a positive and negative copy of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s The Dance, randomly appropriated as a signifier of academic art history. Between Carpeaux’s gambolling nude figures was a piece of fabric with a flowery print, chosen in the Duchampian manner, with a total absence of good or bad taste. The only things definitively Pakistani about the work were its visualiser, and the prominent title painted upon it, part English and part Urdu transliteration, questioning the impulse to slot art by nationality.
The artist was to return to the theme of Pakistaniness four years later, through A Day in the Life of Landscape, a mosaic print in which photographs of urban traffic and crowded streetsides combined to create a vista of the sort favoured by members of the Punjab Landscape School. The landscapists, led by Khalid Iqbal, frequently painted perspectives of semi-rural areas on Lahore’s outskirts, where panning a few degrees left or right would ruin the idyll. Rana’s montage brought in everything they were intent on leaving out. The derivative of French Impressionism that Iqbal and his acolytes purveyed, normalised as authentically Punjabi, was not just an import, but a greatly attenuated one. The best Impressionist paintings, particularly those by the movement’s foremost exponent Claude Monet, involve a significant shift when seen close up, a dissolution of topography into abstract daubs and swirls of colour. Though Rana’s photomontages are resolutely representational, the shift between the long view and close up arguably allies them with impressionism at a level deeper than that achieved by the Lahore landscapists. The frozen moments in the cameos also relate to an Impressionist ideal of capturing an instant in time. This buried genealogy adds a typical, art historically loaded layer of irony to the debate about identity generated by A Day in the Life of Landscape.
Who Is Afraid of Red, which referenced Barnett Newman’s magisterial series of canvases, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?, consisted of a length of rich red fabric embroidered with an Urdu transliteration of the title and flanked by two halves of Rana’s wedding Sherwani. The work treated personal trauma, in this case the artist’s separation, in a considerably more sophisticated manner than his memorial piece for Zahoor ul Akhlaq, signalling how far he had progressed in one year.
In 2002, he created his first photomosaic, titled I Love Miniatures. Snippets from advertisements were carefully put together, without the aid of the sophisticated software he would later discover, creating a profile of the Mughal prince Khurram. Though the title sounded flippant, the artist must have felt keenly his outlier status. With conventional painters like the Lahore landscapists popular at home, and neo-miniaturists dominant abroad, there seemed no place for his kind of complex negotiation of identities. The mood of the world, however, was changing, thanks to two fallen New York towers. Conservatives embraced Samuel Huntington’s idea that civilisations are in constant conflict motivated by essential differences. In response, the Left gradually abandoned extreme cultural relativist positions and began emphasising common ground between societies. Where international curators and collectors had sought culture specific creations representing something akin to a different language, they now grew interested in cosmopolitan styles inflected with local dialects. The two subcontinental artists whose work possessed the perfect balance of local and global at that moment were Rana and India’s Subodh Gupta, and they were to lead the unprecedented boom in contemporary art of the subsequent years.


If Rana’s mosaics are usually about opposites revealed on deeper examination to be co-existing realities, a reverse movement occurs in his pictures of twins in irreconcilable conflict. In the Middle of Nowhere, completed just before I Love Miniatures inaugurated this theme, a natural extension of his interest in symmetry. The artist himself is posed, almost naked, holding the slumped body of a fully clad doppelganger, against a sylvan landscape adapted from photo studio backdrops and Pakistani truck painting. It was first exhibited as part of Aar Paar, a collaboration between Indian and Pakistani artists, the context heightening its allusion to the rivalry over the Kashmir Valley which has bedeviled relations between the neighbouring nations since they split apart. “No war is a war until a brother kills his brother”, says the arms dealer Marko in the Serbian director Emir Kusturica’s epic film, Underground. Rana’s twins take that bitter logic a step further.
Ten Differences (2004) was a short, looped video, its single frame split laterally. The artist’s persona entered at both ends, pointed a gun, fired, was himself shot, and fell back dead. One side of the mirror image lagged the other by a few frames, giving the duel the feel of a proper narrative. The two channel video Meeting Point (2006) obliquely referenced the September 11 attacks, showing identical airliners, projected on adjacent walls, seemingly about to crash into each other. A loud jet engine roar and animated lines behind the planes provided an illusion of movement, but the machines stayed suspended in their sectors, perpetually deferring the expected collision. Rana added a kinaesthetic dimension to visual and aural illusion in the gigantic Departure Lounge, installed within Singapore’s City Hall as part of the 2006 Biennale. The building, slated for conversion into an art museum, had witnessed the Japanese general Itakagi’s surrender to Lord Mountbatten in 1945. Lee Kuan Yew had announced Singapore’s final separation from Malaysia there, unfurling the nation’s flag as the new national anthem played. Rana aimed to evoke reverberations of such large historical events without direct allusion. A six channel video of an airplane’s wings was projected on facing walls; they appeared to turn constantly rightwards, taking along the entire hall and those inside it.
While the employment of illusions broadens the appeal of Rana’s creations, he ensures they are subordinated to coherent ideas. The same is true of his citations of pop culture artefacts. In the photomosaic When He Said I Do, He Did Not Say What He Did (2004), two heavily armed Arnold Schwarzeneggers stalk an unseen enemy against a calm grassy plain stretching to a line of mountains in the distance. The landscape is laterally inverted, but the Schwarzenegger figures are not, nor are the tiny details, drawn from media coverage of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. On the viewer’s approach, the landscape flattens out, as if moving from traditional recessive depth to early modernist rejections of perspective. Illusionistic space is entirely eliminated when the miniature battle scenes become clearly visible. Geopolitical and formal enquiries unravel side by side, even as the playful Hollywood borrowing prevents the implied association between militaristic cinema and real militarism from hardening into overt statement.
Offshore Accounts – 1 (2006), a seascape composited from pictures of sailing ships and landfills, is set in a purpose-built niche, widening as it gets closer to the corner, giving the impression of a flat, perfectly rectangular composition when seen from a distance. Rana’s most ambitious optical illusion was See Through, a site-specific project created at the Manchester Art Gallery in 2006. On the high glass doorway of the institution, the artist pasted photographs, printed on Dura-film to eliminate cast shadows, of the immediate exterior of the gallery. Seen from a certain spot in the atrium, the print perfectly simulated the pediments and columns of the buildings outside, but detached itself to become a ghost image when viewed from other points. Up close, it was revealed to be composed of cheek-by-jowl edifices of Lahore. Both Offshore Accounts - 1 and See Through dealt with postcolonial themes. The former, perhaps the artist’s most explicit averment, sided with influential critiques of neo-liberalism in tying the history of imperialism to the wastefulness and environmental decay associated with modern consumer society. The latter, less manifestly political, evoked issues of cultural exchange, of migration to and from the subcontinent.
Rana had employed architectural motifs before See Through, but at this time the subject took on a new prominence. Two-dimensions and Twins (both 2007) presented the front elevations of high rises, marking a return to the abstract grid he had investigated in the early 1990s. Pakistani buildings may have compared unfavourably with European ones in See Through, but the vignettes from Lahore’s streets used in Two-dimensions and Twins felt imbued with character, in refreshing contrast to the forbidding facades of the concrete, steel and glass towers. In the Dis-Location series (2007-08), colonial era buildings from Lahore were paired with stills taken at different times of day and night around the same spot, adding the dimension of time to space, and sparking a dialogue between built form and use value. The series raised a number of questions: What precisely was the dislocation being cited? Was it situated in the form of architecture, imposed in a region unsuited for it? Conversely, was the aural and visual noise of the surroundings a betrayal of the sophisticated planning that went into the buildings and roads? Or was it the time that was out of joint?
Rana has noticed that viewers who are not part of the art world spend far longer scrutinising his photomontages than insiders, who frequently move on, with an I-get-the-idea attitude, after a cursory look. Desperately Seeking Paradise (2007-08), though, demanded careful attention from all who confronted it. A stainless steel cube with sides nine feet across, it was equipped with vertical slats placed aslant to reflect the environment from certain angles, and, from others, to let spectators look in on images of tower blocks and low-rises pasted on the surfaces. The shape of the structure, and the circumambulation required to absorb its contents, was suggestive of the Kaaba, a site adored by Muslim seekers of paradise, desperate or not.
The artist believes in a serial monogamy of styles, but in the years between 2006 and 2008 he turned polygynous. A new entrant to his zenana was a form of photosculpture made by glueing all-round views of objects onto acrylic boxes. The Stove was a pixilated image of a stove stuck somewhat perversely on a box the size and shape of a stove. Pixilation, associated with movement, was here employed for the humdrum and the static. Plastic Flowers in a Traditional Vase replaced the undulations of chinaware with the geometry of two acrylic cubes. The pattern on the vase was retained precisely in the transfer, while the flowers were pixilated to the point of unrecognisability. Through these manoeuvres, Rana was taking on an entire history of representation. One-point perspective attempted to translate three dimensions into two through the illusion of depth. At the climax of the modernist revolt, Cubism posited a radically different approach to capturing all-round views onto a plane, but lost the sense of embodiedness in the process. Rana’s Plastic Flowers were a wry and elegant comment on that impossible but enduring impulse to depict the totality of objects. They marked a return to formalist exploration, but a return accomplished concurrently with the visceral Red Carpet and the flamboyant Desperately Seeking Paradise.
By early 2008, after years of hectic and rewarding creation, the artist was in demand in a fashion he could scarcely have dreamed possible at the turn of the century. He was in the process of putting together a final, gigantic Red Carpet, when he stopped. He gave up on that photomosaic, halted his other projects, and took a break from an art circuit grown delirious. Through the years, he had retained his commitment to teaching, and now gave his students the time and attention they craved. A few months later, the markets collapsed, leading to a period of fear and trembling before a measure of sanity returned to the world.
The break didn’t alter Rana’s central concerns, but his recent digital C-prints demonstrate a more straightforward engagement with art’s history and with political violence than he previously ventured. In Origins and the series What Lies Between Flesh and Blood, he conjures up adaptations of Rothko and Courbet from wounds and goose pimples. In Transposing, death turns into arousal through the mediation of the pixel. Instance-Anatomy has fragments of bodies becoming fragments of photograph. No film heroes, Edwardian buildings, carpets or seascapes beguile the eyes of the uninitiated, and there’s little playful irony to take the edge off graphic and pornographic images. This is not art for anybody who’s afraid of red.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Sudhir Patwardhan, 2001

I am a huge admirer of Sudhir Patwardhan, the painter and the person. His remarks on art -- his own and that of others -- combine lucidity and depth in equal measure. For this interview, published in Art India in late 2001 or early 2002, we spoke about two paintings that rank among his greatest achievements.

Sudhir Patwardhan: At the Edge of Conception and Perception

Two monumental canvases dominate Sudhir Patwardhan’s new solo exhibition at Sakshi gallery. Ulhasnagar, a four-panel panorama, traces the path of a river as it curves past an industrial township on the outskirts of Bombay. Lower Parel, which portrays the city’s erstwhile industrial heartland, contains three structures: a bridge in the foreground, one of Bombay’s inoperational mills immediately behind it, and a high-rise building in the distance. The river in Ulhasnagar appears to traverse different times of day in the course of its journey. In contrast, Lower Parel gives the impression of one moment frozen in its tracks. These two large paintings are accompanied by a number of charcoal drawings, studies of figures later incorporated into the large works. Patwardhan spoke about his new paintings at his studio in Thane.

Panoramic painting relates to the idea of the picturesque. Were you conscious of working within, or against, this tradition while painting Ulhasnagar?

I suppose there is another kind of panorama, Altdorfer’s visions of battlefields and some paintings of Brueghel. Brueghel’s Tower of Babel was very much in my mind while painting the central section of Ulhasnagar. But the picturesque is something that attracts me very much, particularly the works of Poussin and Lorraine, their use of light.

Can you speak a little about the origin and development of the image in Ulhasnagar?

The Ambernath-Ulhasnagar belt is a very different kind of industrial landscape from what we find in the city proper. You see a lot of greenery there, but also scattered industrial structures. The experience of seeing this landscape was with me for many years but I wasn’t sure what it actually meant. When one tries to use such an experience as an anchor around which to create art, one suggests a meaning to that experience that takes it beyond just the local. And one brings in other elements, it could be the light in certain Venetian landscapes, for example. So the painting is always something different from the experience but, if it is successful, something of that original experience will be captured in it. The particulars one brings in will prevent the experience from evaporating into a generalisation. That’s the balance I wanted to maintain.

In the second panel from the left, there’s a kind of ripple painted using a bold, expressionistic red. It draws one’s attention immediately. What led you to choose this colour?

There are actual streams you see in places like Ulhasnagar where the pollutants discharged into the water give it a weird colour. In one way these polluted streams form extremely attractive sights. On the other hand we are also conscious about the fishes dying in the water as a result of the effluents. Something similar happens when one sees a layer of heavily polluted air with clear sky extending above it, that’s an amazing sight. I’ve always been interested in this contradiction, and used it in that part of the painting which, in any case, represents the darker aspect of the landscape.

Did you conceive of four panels right from the start?

No, the idea evolved after I began my sketches and studies. I considered an evenly lit panorama to begin with, but then I felt that a movement from morning to evening in the light might work well. This tied in with the different stages of industrialism, starting with the non-industrialised periphery and moving to the dense built space in the centre. A kind of historical time is present in the painting as well.

Both Ulhasnagar and Lower Parel appear to be very confident works, confident in the validity of the medium. Have you moved beyond a period of doubt about the potential of painting?

If you are referring to my trying out media apart from simply paint, that was a phase when I needed to investigate whether there were limits to what painting could say, and whether I could overcome these limits by using other materials. But I increasingly feel that the medium is just that, a medium, and what you say, you say through it. The idea of the language or the medium defining what you can or cannot say has loosened for me. What I’m saying is a half-truth. Of course it matters to some extent what the medium is. But what I am certain about now, is that my own practice as a painter, and the personal as well as larger history of that practice, offers me a density which is more important to me than the variety offered by different media.

Like Ulhasnagar, Lower Parel also shows layers of historical time appearing in one frame, as indeed they do so often in India…

With Lower Parel, again, I was going back to an experience that has been with me for years. On the one hand it was the visual experience of those bridges -- not just the one at Lower Parel -- that had made a considerable impact. My early experience of the area in the 1970s was a charged one, there was a wholeness to it, provided by Marxist ideology. One knew the people there belonged to a certain class, that was part of the experience of seeing people, which gave it density. Later, that feeling gradually dissolved and one could no longer create the same sense of that place.
And yet there were things I wanted to paint there. I wanted to try and discover what was still alive from that initial experience and to make sense of the changed circumstances. At a basic level, just the architectural complexity of the bridges remained constant, of course, providing a starting point for the painting.

You speak about that early experience with a great deal of nostalgia, but no nostalgia clouds the work. I find that quite remarkable.

When I started the painting -- I wouldn’t call it nostalgia -- but there was a kind of anger in it, about all these skyscrapers coming up and displacing what existed before. The figures, too, had a stressed-out look to them. But I felt a definite false note there. I had wanted to make the painting dramatic, with the dying mill in the centre, but none of it was working. I actually re-did the sky more than twenty times. It seems a simple, clear sky now, but I was stuck with the original idea for a long time.
Also, the figures just did not seem right. In a way this was a continuation of an old problem I’d faced for the last ten years, that the figure sometimes tended to stand for something, it came down as a sign rather than a fact. Before this crisis, however distorted my figures were, I used to feel there was a factuality about them. In painting Lower Parel, for the first time I started using photographs as a basis for the people in the painting. This created its own problems, I had to escape from the particularity of the people in the photographs, so that the figures in the painting related to each other, held together as a group.

Did your ideas about this part of Bombay change as the painting progressed?

I realise that many of the people one now sees in Lower Parel, often sons and daughters of mill-workers, are trying to make the best of the changes which have taken place in Bombay, and the new opportunities these provide. I think there is no going back on those changes, apart from a few piece-meal measures that might be possible. I don’t believe what’s happening is such a terrible thing.

Is the act of painting itself, for you, a way of coming to terms?

The act of coming to this studio, to work regularly is very important for me, I feel uneasy if there’s a gap in the habit of painting for any reason. At that level, I’d say yes. But I’m not sure whether painting allows me to discover something about myself, of which I was earlier unaware. Coming to terms occurs at different levels, some of these prior to the act of painting.

You spoke of using photography for the first time as a basis for your figuration. Many painters in India today are using photography-based and photo-related imagery, often in a hyper-realist style. How do you place yourself in this context?

I am interested in art where there is a tension between the act of painting and the image being painted. A lot of photography-related painting being done today is conceptually oriented, where the image relates mainly to other images. These paintings can work, provided the concepts underpinning them are complex and rich. But I am interested in painting things that I can see, and in painting them as I see them. In this respect Cézanne has always been a touchstone for me, particularly the relationship between the mind, eye and hand in his work. He painted at the edge of conception and perception, and that’s important for me, it’s what I aim to do.