June Issue 2015

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Published 3 years ago

Art world superstar Rashid Rana’s current installation at Lahore’s Liberty Market marks several firsts. It is the first time Pakistan and India have a defacto pavilion presence at the 56th Venice Biennale (Biennale is the right term for this event and while there are precedents of two countries having joint pavilions, it is the first time that two South Asian countries have a joint pavilion). The work also marks the Lahore Biennale Foundation’s first public art commission, and the first time an art work has been split between a Venetian Palazzo and a Lahori bazaar. This is also the first time an Indian patron has contributed to the projection and placement of Pakistani art at the world’s most eminent art event, and the first time such a translocal network of creative collaboration been established between several people, institutions and places on this scale.

Commissioned by the Delhi-based Gujral Foundation, in collaboration with many patron organisations, including Pakistani partners and supports such as the Lahore Biennale Foundation, the Rangoonwala Foundation, the Zohra and ZZ Ahmed Foundation and Ambreen Zaman, the exhibition, My East is Your West features works by Lahore-based Rashid Rana and Mumbai-based Shilpa Gupta in the Palazzo Benzon on Venice’s Grand Canal. Officially tagged as a collateral event, but considered more a national pavilion, the high-profile show sees both artists deliberating on the intrinsic nature of a people divided. Explaining the impetus behind the project, founder and director of the Gujral Foundation, Feroze Gujral writes, “Whilst we share a common history, we have a divided present. We are now working together for a more collaborative future.”

A glimpse of this collaborative future can be seen in its full glory in Venice where Gupta’s work reflects years of research on security barriers along the India-Bangladesh border. Rana meanwhile, shows what he describes as a “series of interconnected architectonic structures, each of which offers an immersive visual experience centred on ideas of (dis)location; the nature of visibility; archive and memory; and the construction of an identity.” Essentially made up of six spaces, Rana’s installation is split between two cities with five rooms in Venice and a sixth in Lahore. The fifth room in Venice, connected via live video and sound feeds to the installation in Lahore, is a massive undertaking, from securing permissions for using public space, to ensuring that the live link does not snap. Titled, ‘Viewing, Viewer and Viewed’ Qudsia Rahim, a director of the Lahore Biennale Foundation, explains, “It is a rather large scale project to have carried out and it helped the foundation in capacity-building. The technical complexity of the piece was a huge challenge and due to the project’s scope we experienced a range of subtle nuances related to making art with public, private and government engagement as a goal.”

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Set up for five months in the middle of one of Lahore’s busiest bazaars, the architect of the Lahore pavilion, Raza Ali Dada explains, “The installation is meant to engage with whoever is curious or interested enough to approach it, and a variety of characters can be seen enjoying their moments of discovery and chance interactions. It will be there for some time so there’s a great deal of content to look forward to.” Qudsia Rahim adds, “This project allows people to make their own experiences. Many beautiful stories are coming out of the project – people are writing to us saying how this project has moved them.” Opening in Lahore and Venice simultaneously, the video link inspired much waving of hands, the usual frenzy of selfies and a very surprising conversation between an elderly Lahori man and two Italian women –  in perfect Italian.

Flashes of genuine contact between the ‘viewer’ and the ‘viewed’ were an anticipated outcome of the installation, but to what degree was a chronicle unforetold?

There were also questions about pairing the 17th century palazzo and the broader semiotic environment of Venice against a purpose-built white cube in Lahore stripped of any connection with the city’s image of itself. These critical doubts hinted at an urgency to connect rather than an insightful pairing of contemporaries at both, the urban and human scales.

Compounding these doubts were further questions about the basic nature and depth of human interaction over a video link. For instance, does a video feed reduce human interaction to a flattened image, or does it boost human contact? There was also the nagging suspicion that Rana’s installation reduced narratives of colonialism, orientalism, Partition, and otherness into a neo-orientalist trope geared for art-world heavies on the other side. From all descriptions, it seems that Rana’s installation is best experienced in Venice which, in turn, raises questions about the decision to incorporate Pakistan into the spatial experience in Italy in the first place, especially given that the Lahore location is neither culturally loaded, nor a permanent structure.

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“We let in eight people at once, and have had more than 1,000 visitors since the show opened two weeks ago. People start to ask each other about the time and weather. But if they start talking they can take up to 25 minutes exchanging words over the video link. A group of journalists from that side also conducted interviews over the link and we have had people at both ends coordinate meetings. Mostly though people are surprised to find that the image in front of them is not a mirror,” says architect Mustafa Shabir.  Shabir works at the Rashid Rana Studio and has been one of several individuals handling the location since it opened on May 5. For him, the question of using a heritage building does not even arise as, “heritage buildings wouldn’t have allowed us to set up the equipment that’s required for the video link.”

Nabeel Kamran, a graphic designer from Rashid Rana Studio, elaborates, “Even though heritage buildings like the Lahore Fort are public buildings, the footfall would have been smaller and we would have had a limited audience.” Shabir adds, “Over here in the market, people just drift in. They also like the air-conditioning and looking at the women on the other side. There’s a guy who comes every evening with his son and daughters and they hang out meeting everyone in Italy. From that side they want to see pictures of the space outside and want to know more about Liberty Market and where it’s set up.”

Conceived as a piece reflecting on the burdens of division, the urban artwork succeeds in uniting disparate characters in Pakistani society as well as bridging people across civilisational, linguistic and historic divides. As Mustafa Shabir most aptly notes, “This artwork is only possible because of the people coming to see it. It only works when people populate the space on either side.” Judging by the exuberance with which the public is engaging with the work and with each other, Rana’s installation perhaps raises the vain hope that of the many lines that divide us, one day East and West will fade, and that stark line that Rudyard Kipling once drew will become archaic and be forgotten.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s June 2015 issue.

Arshad Yusufzai has worked for Voice of America and has published in The News International and Central Asia Online.