Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Rashid Rana 2, 2012

Rashid Rana's mid-career retrospective titled Labyrinth of Reflections opened at Karachi's Mohatta Palace Museum earlier this week. This is a profile I wrote for the inaugural issue of IQ: India Quarterly, based on an interview with Rashid conducted in late April 2012. Both the magazine launch and the show were originally scheduled for September 2012; but the publication was delayed by two months, and the show by over six. This profile is best read alongside an earlier essay, also available on this blog, which focuses on Rashid's artistic development without including too many biographical details. I've also written a more theoretical piece for a monograph accompanying the Karachi show, which is probably hugely expensive. There were minor changes made to this piece in the final edit which are not reflected in the version I'm uploading.

 Up Close and Impersonal

 It’s a mirror. It is a skyline dominated by high rises. It is thousands of tiny images of Lahore’s streets. Rashid Rana’s Desperately Seeking Paradise II is all of these things; its nature shifts with the viewer’s perspective.  The sculpture is a massive stainless steel wedge covered with a grid of slats, the vertical fins attached at an angle so only shiny metal is visible from one side, while a shift in position reveals hundreds of niches. Each pigeonhole shows a photograph of a low-slung house, or an ordinary street view. Move back and the fragments coalesce into a towering cityscape.
When I meet the Lahore-based Rana at Bombay’s Chemould Prescott Road gallery in early April, a day before his solo show Apposite I Opposite is due to open, the fascinating Desperately Seeking Paradise II is in position, but a few works are still being placed, and more are held up at Customs. Those fail to arrive even the next day, and so the exhibition, spread across Chemould and Chatterjee & Lal galleries, is restricted to just the former on opening evening. Representing Pakistani artists is a fraught exercise for Indian gallerists. A thaw in relations between 2003 and 2008 spurred substantial cultural exchange, and growing demand within India for art from across the border. The terrorist assault on Indian targets by Pakistani assailants in November 2008 ended the d├ętente, and led to restrictions on visas and trade. By then, Rashid had shown solo four times in India and established an enduring bond with art lovers here.
The bulk of his oeuvre, certainly the work for which he’s best known, consists of photomosaics in which micro and macro images stand in sharp contrast: A carpet constituted of slaughtered animals; a veiled figure made from pornographic stills; a Mughal prince composed of contemporary commercials; rush hour traffic aggregating into a pastoral idyll; and garbage turning into a seascape. After years producing two dimensional prints, Rana combined the mosaic form with his interest in architecture through two iterations of Desperately Seeking Paradise. The wedge displayed at Chemould Prescott Road was preceded by a stainless steel cube that cost USD 1,00,000 to fabricate. Rana can afford artworks as ambitious as these because he’s among South Asia’s top selling artists, represented internationally by the leading London-based gallery Lisson, which hosted a solo show of his work last year. Success, however, came to the 44 year old neither easily nor early.
His parents moved to Lahore from Eastern Punjab during Partition while still minors. His father joined the local police force and, seeing juniors pushing past to officer grade while his own lack of schooling restricted him to head constable, resolved to do whatever it took to educate his children properly. Rashid, the baby of the family, was spoiled by his parents and four siblings, as youngest children tend to be. He grew up without the burden of caring for or marrying off brothers and sisters. By the time he gained a Bachelor’s degree from Lahore’s National College of Arts (NCA), his eldest brother was a qualified aeronautical engineer with a job outside Pakistan, willing and able to subsidise further art studies in Boston. Rashid started off, though, in a municipal school, where pupils sat on the floor and wrote on slates. In sixth grade, he made the merit list of a state-level test, and was offered a seat in a better institution.
As he conveys these details about his childhood, he raises his voice to be heard above the racket made by the hammers and drills of workers rushing to get walls ready to hold large-scale photomosaics from a series titled Language.  He is briefly called away to supervise the positioning of one of the digital prints, and takes up the story where he’d left off once he returns.  “After I got a position in the board exam, my father told me he wanted me to become a badaa aadmi, a big man, and that thought stuck with me. I realized later he meant a civil servant or army officer, someone with power. But I was never interested in becoming a government official.” Outside of the military or administrative service, medicine and engineering were virtually the only respectable choices open to teenagers like him in the 1980s. Rashid presumed he’d pursue the latter since he was good at mathematics.  A career in art wasn’t on anybody’s radar. He painted as a hobby, spoiling old black-and-white family photographs by colouring over them, and excelled in drawing diagrams in biology class.
Happenstance led him to join a course at NCA, and he was soon hooked. The generation of artists who trained alongside him in the early 1990s would introduce Pakistani art to an international spectatorship, beginning with his batch-mate Shahzia Sikander’s selection for the 1997 Whitney Biennial. Sikander and fellow NCA alumni like Talha Rathore, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid and Nusra Latif married traditional painting techniques with contemporary subject matter to create a style that came to be called neo-miniature. Rashid, who in the mid 1990s returned to NCA to teach after completing an MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art, found himself out in the cold during the period of neo-miniaturist domination. His art used contemporary technology rather than traditional technique; cited Euro-American art history more frequently than South Asian painting; and questioned cultural identity instead of fetishising it. “I put a lot of effort into my teaching in that period, but I was sulking a little bit. At that time, some NCA faculty members recently returned from abroad had developed an awareness of feminist issues and it was part of their agenda to encourage women artists. At least that’s what I observed. So I was doubly sulky”.  Today, secure in his current status as Pakistan’s most recognized artist, he gives neo-miniaturism its due, though not without tacking on a series of caveats. “It was the only significant trend, with the possible exception of Karachi Pop, to have emerged from Pakistan. My issue with neo-miniature was that it became a kind of obligation: it was the way you were supposed to paint if you were Pakistani. I objected to the bandwagon phenomenon, not only among artists but also among viewers. For about a decade people didn’t want to see anything else from Pakistan.” The sardonic titles he gave his own works at that time signaled his non-conformism. One was called What Is So Pakistani About This Painting, and another, his first photomosaic, I Love Miniatures. Exhibited in an ornate gilded frame, I Love Miniatures resembled from a distance a famous Mughal portrait of Prince Khurram, later known as Emperor Shah Jahan. The pixels in the mosaic were contemporary advertisements, laboriously cut, scanned and manipulated to make the larger image. Later on, he would discover software that did a better job of blending micro and macro. I Love Miniatures suggested the visual clutter of daily life in Pakistan ought to influence contemporary art at least as much as any historical painterly practice.
In 2002, the same year he made I Love Miniatures, he shifted from NCA to the School of Visual Arts and Design at Beaconhouse National University, a newly established private college in Lahore, where he was instrumental in framing a curriculum that departed dramatically from NCA’s focus on miniatures. By the middle of the noughties, the vogue for neo-miniature had faded somewhat, and other voices began to be heard. Rashid, never prolific, had become more productive since discovering photomosaics, and was increasingly recognized as the leader of a different kind of Pakistani art which explored new materials and techniques, and was international in style.
His rebellion against the hegemony of neo-miniature hints at a contrarian disposition. If pressured to act in a certain way, he is tempted to do the opposite. In 2007, he was invited to create a site-specific work in Manchester’s Curry Mile as part of an international arts festival. He proposed a photo-based piece in which individual frames hanging in street-facing windows would cohere into one giant image of rotting flesh. He knew perfectly well it wasn’t what South Asian restaurant owners, cajoled into participating in a community-based art initiative, would expect or desire. When the idea was vetoed, he showed, instead, a series of stills from a video that captured traffic and pedestrians in the neighbourhood. The grabs were pixilated to the point of abstraction, so it was impossible to tell White people from Brown ones. Rashid had replaced visceral engagement with cool, detached, formal exploration, while taking a swipe at the politics of multiculturalism. Both the options he offered the organizers of the Manchester engagement undermined to some degree the premise of the project. A version of the rotting flesh piece, titled I Do Not Always Feel Immortal,  was displayed at Chatterjee & Lal gallery in 2007 and acquired by Anupam Poddar, one of India’s leading contemporary art collectors and a vegetarian. It now hangs in a study at Poddar’s Delhi farmhouse.
Rashid’s recent double-gallery solo oscillated between viscerality and formalism in a manner similar to his Manchester commission. Having expanded the photomontage to a third spatial dimension with Desperately Seeking Paradise, he annexed the dimension of time in a series of new videos whose very title, Anatomy Lessons, suggested flesh and blood concerns. Huge monitors showed large-scale images seemingly broken up by glitches; each small glitch was a short video running in a loop. Anatomy Lessons 1 had a group of wrestlers going at it in a Lahore park, but with their body parts scrambled, inducing viewers into a guessing game of what exactly was being shown. A finger making a sudden gesture, repeated endlessly, seemed from a distance a little like a thrusting penis, and the entire tableau appeared more orgy than grappling match.
In contrast, another new process, which he calls photo-sculpture, led him to create a suite of austere meditations on the history of representation itself. He photographed objects from multiple angles, stitched the different views together digitally, introduced pixels to blur the images, and stuck the prints on metal cuboids. In some cases, the aluminium base was more or less the size and shape of the object photographed. A photo-sculpture of a gas stove, for instance, was easily recognizable as a pixilated simulacrum of the object it represented.  In other instances, the final form departed substantially from the reference object: a vase holding flowers was transformed from curvilinear to geometric. The movement from real-life object to flat image and thence to cubical form commented on the history of art’s attempt to capture the totality of three dimensions in two, whether through illusionistic rendering or the fragmentation of cubist painting.
There’s little of the austere intellectual in Rashid’s appearance. He is gregarious and enjoys the attention that comes with critical and financial success. His receding hair, very closely cropped, is set off by a soul patch. He’s gained some weight over the past six years; his sharp features have been blunted somewhat, and his pitted cheeks have grown just a bit pudgy. It’s not a face you’d notice in a crowd, but it comes packaged with plenty of charisma and a flashy dress sense. He favours all-black ensembles at openings and parties, but will wear a red shirt now and again, and occasionally try white-on-white. When he travels to an unfamiliar city, exploring shopping options is as high on his agenda as visiting museums. “I admit I believe in retail therapy, but I’m not as flamboyant as Subodh (Gupta, India’s best-selling contemporary artist, whose career parallels Rashid’s in many ways). I do like socializing, but after I got married a few years ago, I went through a period of being disoriented. I’d be chatting at a party, and suddenly think to myself, ‘What am I doing here; I don’t need it, I’m married!’ When you’re single, so much of your social life is focused on your libido. It took me a while to realize there are other reasons for small talk besides trying to impress women.”
Not only is Rashid a dandy, he’s also a diva (or divus, to use the accurate gender). He drives his gallerists to distraction with difficult demands. At the India Art Fair in early 2012, he was displeased with the way a heavy work from the Language series had been hung. As frantic dealers rushed to get their booths ready, he asked for a team of helpers to be summoned to the site, and finally settled on a position that was marginally higher than the original placement. “Five inches!” one of his dealers says, with a roll of the eyes, before adding that the work looked surprisingly better after the adjustment. Staff at Lekha and Anupam Poddar’s Devi Art Foundation, where he curated a seminal exhibition of Pakistani art titled Resemble Reassemble in 2010, remember him insisting a large false wall be moved by one foot the day before the show was due to open. They also recall with awe his ability to distinguish between six shades of grey, and to tell instantly when a wall had been painted one shade too dark or too light. “Those who dislike me call me a control freak. People who want to put a positive spin on it think of me as a perfectionist.” He points at a photomosaic. “Take this work. Most of the effort goes into building a library of images, but then, after it was almost 99% ready, I spent another month on it till I was satisfied.” The division he makes between ‘control freak’ and ‘perfectionist’ is a little like the contrasts in his montages, which tend to break down on careful examination. Those close to Rashid see him as both control freak and perfectionist.
If it helps that his control freakery is accompanied by perfectionism, it can’t hurt that his creations sell remarkably well. He’s among just a handful of South Asian artists whose market stayed reasonably steady following the global economic meltdown of late 2008 which brought to an abrupt halt a vertiginous rise in prices of contemporary art witnessed in previous years. While prices commanded by his work at auction have never approached the USD 623,000 dollars garnered by the photomontage Red Carpet I at Sotheby’s in May 2008 -- the highest amount ever paid for a Pakistani artwork -- three prints from the same series have been sold at Christie’s since for between USD 170,000 and 287,000.
At this moment, everything seems to have fallen in place for Rashid Rana. Perhaps because of the explicit nature of much of his work, it has been seen more widely abroad than in Pakistan. This discrepancy is being rectified through a retrospective display at Karachi’s Mohatta Palace Museum scheduled for September. He suffered a personal tragedy two years ago when his mother died; but she had the satisfaction of witnessing, before illness claimed her, his marriage to his wife Aroosa, also an artist, and the birth of his son Raed. His parents weren’t the sort to comprehend his work; Rashid never even invited them for show openings. But his father keeps beside his bed a large monograph published two years ago about his son’s work. “I don’t think he’s read it, but maybe it’s his way of indicating he’s proud of me. One thing my mother said tells me of the distance we’ve travelled. She was playing with Raed, and she turned to me, holding his hand, ‘Look, he has long fingers like yours. I think he will be an artist, too’.”

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