October Issue 2014
Walk all over the city with an empty
Yoko Ono, City Piece.
The above quote is an artwork by Yoko Ono, which was printed in her book titled Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions by Yoko Ono. This artwork exists in two forms: firstly, it is created visually as printed text and secondly, it is presented as an execution of instructions to carry out. The viewers are invited to interpret the artwork in their own unique way by drawing on their own experience of walking and interacting with the city. The work remains open ended, thus the meanings and themes it explores are as diverse as the city it depict.
‘Flaneur’ was a term developed by Walter Benjamin during the 1930s, which describes an individual who wanders the city as an observer, getting lost in all its chaos and frenzy while silently experiencing its sights, smells and textures. Since then, artists and writers took on the role of the flaneur, making the city the focus and subject matter of their art. However the flaneur was seen as a solitary figure, who watched and immersed himself in the city, but still managed to keep a certain distance from it — sort of like a tourist in a foreign country.
It is hard to maintain that sort of aloof distance when analysing or observing a city that you live in, especially a city like Karachi which immediately engulfs you and threatens you with its political turmoil. Once Upon a Time in Karachi, an exhibition by Taqi Shaheen at the Koel Gallery, explores the evolution of this city and attempts to create that distance from it through maps and statistics.
Maps deal with facts, proportions, data and, in this case, the use of satellite images of Karachi, to reinforce the idea that the viewer is being presented with a collage of systematic information that is backed by numbers. For example, ‘Seasons of the Sea’ portrays a graph that reveals Karachi’s monthly mean sea level, while the spontaneous splashes of colour contrast with the rigid lines of the data.
The artist continues to play with this concept of ‘symmetry’ and ‘direction’ that a map provides by introducing more organic elements such as that of the human body, the mind and nature. Cut-out white doves are a recurring element in a few of the pieces, while in other works like ‘Expansions,’ the references are more subtle. The street and rivers are manipulated to take on a vein-like quality and begin to resemble a body part. The works that are less obvious — where one is not sure whether the winding alleys of the map are intentionally forming a contour of a face or not — are the more successful ones. This sensation of unease and uncertainty makes the artworks all the more interesting. Other works where the Vitruvian Man is clearly depicted or where the map has been cut out to resemble a heart feel forced.
Visually, the intricate quality of the work and the composition of the various elements of the maps are fascinating to look at. In some of the works, such as ‘The Right Man,’ Shaheen mirrors the maps creating a sort of Rorschach test of Karachi, introducing the element of the psychological into his works.
All of these motifs and references combine to create an incohesive narrative, making the viewer wonder about the development in the city and its effect on the lives of the various people who inhibit it and perceive it in their own individual way.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s October 2014 issue.