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.

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