December Issue 2015
Art Beyond Optics
Recently, in response to my post on Facebook regarding the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, with its piles of recycled iron rods, I got an angry response from senior artist Aftab Zafar, who called the rubbish used not worthy of art. To quote him, “is it art or a joke [on] fine art? If this is called art, then I can collect all [sorts] of waste and rubbish items from my house and display [it] in [an] art gallery and [call] it [an] installation.”
The pictures I posted of Cristina Inglisias’ life-size, cast iron works fitted with flowing water, that are inspired by brooks and streams, got similar criticism from Zafar:
“[One learns a] lesson by looking at this. It [serves as] a very good example [to] KMC officers that instead of cleaning the city of Karachi they should erect small cemented floors around all the filth and garbage of the city and name it the ‘THE BIGGEST INSTALLATION IN TOWN.’ The people of Karachi [must] come and admire [this] great new art form.”
I think it’s important not to dismiss these comments of a senior artist and reflect on what art means to him and millions of others. And, additionally, to dwell on the sometimes confusing nature of the contemporary avatar of art.
Art, for long, has been about optics and aesthetics. The history of aesthetics shows a distinct human affinity with beauty, symmetry and balance, which for centuries has been translated into visual grammar to suit the taste of each age. The main rupture came when the camera relieved the artists from the task of faithfully representing physical reality. This unleashed their imagination, and they began to look at the art of other civilisations for inspiration. Perhaps the most documented of this is Picasso’s response to African Art. Japanese Art too was explored as an important influence in the early 20th century.
As a multiplicity of artistic philosophies emerged, it led to different schools of Modern Art. By the 1970s, Modern Art seemed to have run its course as postmodernist priorities began to chip away at its formalistic concerns. With an emphasis on pluralism, theory and appropriation art were nudged into directions where all previous rules were challenged. The term ‘contemporary art’ used today, embraces the entire spectrum of artistic expression that followed, which is articulated not only in a stunningly wide range of materials but also unorthodox forms that borrow from non-visual disciplines. The space and scope of this column does not allow me to go into a discussion on the impact of technology on art.
Ai Weiwei’s message of ‘corruption and tragedy’ would have been conveyed in a literal way in another time, but because he lives in a world of 24/7 news broadcasts and an overload of images of tragedy, he chose to use objects embedded with memory and turned them into unforgettable symbols of great human loss.
The hundreds of iron rods were arranged in an undulating pile against a backdrop of lists of the names of the students who were buried under collapsed school buildings during the massive earthquake in China some years ago. These rods were found in a mangled state at the sites of the earthquake, and corruption was traced as the cause of this high death toll. Ai Weiwei bought this scrap metal and transported it to his studio, where dozens of labourers beat them into their original shape to be incorporated in his art. The first sight of the work is almost poetic, but as it draws you to the video that traces the process and the display of the lists of lost children, the work is transformed into a dirge for the dead youth.
The ‘Pheriatic Zones’ of Cristina Inglisias, that Aftab Zafar equates with the gutters of Karachi, is informed by the timeless presence of nature in art – from Japanese and Chinese ink drawings to European odes to the countryside. To connect and yet break away with a new interpretation is the tension that Inglisias seems to be dealing with. According to her, her work is about “pieces that are like thought, places from which one sees, spaces that fall between reality and image, between presence and representation, spaces that speak of other spaces.”
The rapid changes in art within the last few decades can be bewildering as it allows no easy reading, and visual familiarity can no longer be taken for granted. The only way to bridge this gap is to approach art sans the baggage of past expectations and engage with what the artist has to offer.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s December 2015 issue.
The writer is an art critic and curator. Her work covers art criticism, art history, curatorial projects, art education and art activism. She has been regularly contributing to national and international journals since 80’s.