Sunday, 11 July 2010

Inhibiting Threads [review - Shivani Aggarwal, Gallery Vi-Art, New Delhi]

I walked into the newly renovated Ashna Gallery [previously Viart] on a hot April afternoon to a sparse offering by Shivani Aggarwal, of her recent works ‘Close Knit’. The painted photographs in off white, greys and whites with minimal use of red are neither comforting nor alienating. In fact the problem is that they do not engage you for their own sake but in their apparent incompleteness compel you question. 

Shivani not only paints and photographs the textiles portrayed in her work, but creates some of them to further work with. In ‘Pin-cushion’, the crochet piece held by fingers pointing at us, has been constructed by the artist and I wondered why she does not make the textile rather than paint or photograph it, but this is how she draws your interest and reveals that she is not concerned about making the fabric, but uses the process of construction and de-construction, where threads entangle, support, entwine, loop and sometimes fall apart, as references for those thoughts that occupy us in the relationships we engage with. The fact that she uses textile as the metaphor with which to elucidate this point is insightful, for etymologically textiles refer to the main body and defining this beyond the physical form, is essentially done through relationships
Living in the urban metropolis ofNew Delhi, Shivani as as much a part of its cacophonic frenzies as the rest us. This is what she seems to address through the relationships she encounters that reflect its morals and ethics or lack of, not in presenting their physical reality but disassociating from this altogether. The emotion seems to compel her expression more than the physical dimension of these relationships, implying that it is not a singular association, but a general state of being that is articulated. While the works are not entirely abstract, for she presents some physical attributes through threads, fabrics, implements and partial representation of the human body, they are not rooted in any physical space or context.
 In a large untitled work that occupies a whole wall; on its pale ground Shivani places a ‘potli’ of white fabric containing some unruly red coloured threads, above this, a semi-knitted red fabric hangs from apparently nowhere and on the right of the bundle, at a lower level, lie a pair of bent knitting needles that have miraculously knitted a few lines, again in red. The use of Red is evocative of strong emotions. Trying to contain unruly threads in a stark white bundle is a challenging endeavour. The bundle has been tied with ease; aside from a few threads that peep out of the ties, there is no sign of a struggle in containing them. While Shivani says that the works exhibited through ‘Close Knit’ are formed as a result of contemplation to understand, analyze and resolve thoughts and situations, this is not visually explored or presented in a way that displays any characteristics of the resolution of emotions. The implication therefore is not of dealing with the feeling and therefore containing it through a detached stance, but suppressing or controlling it and even so the bundle is too neat to convey this either. Can unruly thoughts ever be contained? 

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, the colour white is predominant in the lace or crochet work. In ‘Lace 1’, we see a series of six works where a body sews white lace onto itself, with red thread. The lace is readymade, easily purchased from the lanes of Lajpat Nagar market. Lace is intended as a metaphor for social affability and adornment, where regardless of the way you feel, this must be not be displayed when interacting in the social arena. The use of white here is not particularly evocative. As in the other works, there is an apparent hesitation to speak freely of the struggle in dealing with complex emotions or of the discomfort in suppressing them. She paints knitting needles, pins and cutters to express the process of construction and deconstruction, yet the cutters don’t cut, needles don’t knit and pins appear to puncture the skin only superficially. The inference drawn is that the artist speaks of either not being able to inflict pain, pierce right through the skin/surface of the body or relationship or that somehow, the idea or person is disabled from doing so.

All the works on display are very orderly and neatly painted; everything is carefully controlled, even at its most chaotic. The artist’s comfort level in textile making is clearly not enough to induce a creative presentation of her experience and therefore she resorts to using it as a metaphor, while photography and painting allow a certain comfort in representation. Given the underlying meaning of a desire to contain rather than inflict pain, this may however have been a useful endeavour. Engaging with the repetitive, almost chant-like, painstaking mechanics and tactile materiality of knitting or crochet would absorb and diffuse the intensity of emotion, calming like a mantra, thereby achieving a certain sense of detachment, but sublimation without excoriation does not appear to be the intent either. 

The work is subtle and does not have the visceral appeal of much of today’s art but sensitively leads deeper, questioning the very act of creation. Should this be about creating a more wholesome and fulfilling life, where the artistic practice becomes a means to resolve feelings/emotion and move beyond them? Or is it about creating for the sake of play, to nuance age-old dilemmas in a novel way. Which element of creativity should be valued, the artistic practice or human evolution? This point of view or any other is not clearly articulated and like the bent needles that can barely knit or pins that don’t prick, Shivani leaves us intrigued but is unable to convey what she feels.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Anupam Poddar Interview [Devi Art Foundation]


Saira Waseem
 GN. I was impressed with the disarming honesty and simple intellectualization of ideas presented through this exhibition. Would you say this is true of most artists’ work in Pakistan and what were your criteria for selection?

AP. The criteria for selection were primarily subjective. The collection includes works that move, inspire or challenge me. At the same time, I wouldn’t deny that works of most artists in Pakistan are very honest, both in terms of reflecting their personal history or their underlying meanings.

Imran Ahmad-Khan
GN. Though honest the work may sometimes appear simplistic. In the catalogue, writers have referred frequently to the political upheavals as beleaguered conditions under which the artists work. One therefore surmises that the work is a response linked directly to the prevailing threat which does not allow for much intellectualization.

In India a lot of work has a high intellectual quotient, such as Nalani Malani’s video - Remembering Toba Tek Singh, [shown at Devi Foundation - Still Moving Image] where understanding and appreciating the work requires considerable inquiry and study.

Noor  Ali Chagani
This was not evident in the works on display in this exhibition. For instance Noor Ali Chagani’s ‘Possession’, [2009]  
You do have work in this collection which is finessed - Saira’s Wasim’s ‘Nuclear Threat’ [2004], but the work is simplistic by comparison.

Some digital prints by Bharti Kher – ‘Chocolate muffins’, ‘Angel’, and others are designed to provoke. This larger than life concept is not uncommon in India and its absence in this exhibition of Pakistani art, seemingly grounded in the grim reality of their lives, is refreshing.

AP. For starters, I think it’s unfair to set a comparison of any sort between works of Nalini Malani and Noor Ali Chagani (a fresh graduate from the NCA, Lahore).  They are both in different stages of their career. Also, I believe that work comes from a personal expression, it could be political or apolitical, provoking or non-provoking; beauty lies in both.

Although scale is irrelevant to me, I would like to add that the larger than life concept has also been explored by Pakistani artists such as Ayaz Jokhio in his Titled series.
Ayaz Jokhio
GN. We are culturally linked in ways that would be impossible to dismiss, yet the art reflects an ethos that sets us apart. We have centuries of a shared history, so what is the definitive differential evinced through the art?  In your interactions with artists, curators and art educators, what is your perception in this regard?

Bani Abidi
AP. Despite having a shared history, I feel contemporary Pakistani art is more experimental in nature than Indian art. The artists follow their individual pursuits with convictions that are not driven by the market forces or contemporary trends; their personal expressions are highly skilled and insightful. For example, Ehsan ul Haq’s Life is Elsewhere or Unum Babar’s Then both of us were born anew.
Unum Babbar
 GN. The works in the exhibition - ‘Resemble Reassemble’ are indicative of global influences in terms of the media and visual language; however the dialogue appears rather insular. The artists do not engage with issues of global concern but are more involved in speaking of purdah, of relations between men and women in Pakistan, relations with India and other such issues that pertain to life within the subcontinent. 
A.P. I don’t see why in an age of globalisation an artist should be divorced from realities of their society? I think an artist should have the liberty of using new media to express their local realities or regional issues. 
Iqra Tanveer
Also, due to political and financial constraints, many Pakistani artists do not get an opportunity to travel which makes their work rooted in local realities which are far closer to them than that of an unseen world.

GN. Some of the artists have spoken of more universal human issues - videos by Ferwa Ibrahim and Huria Khan and while Unum Babbar attempts this in ‘Then both of us were born anew’, one draws a gender inference from the heavily clad woman, rather than a spiritual one, as referred to in the poem by William Cartwright whom she quotes in the title. The same happens with the screen prints of Nazia H Khan, where the distress in the folds of the organza fabric and the imprint of flowing hair evoke tension which the through context of the exhibition is inferred as emanating from terror[ism].

Ferwa Ibrahim

a) Do you think this inference is inevitable?

b)  Is it erroneous?

A.P I think most viewers come to see art from Pakistan with their preconceived notions, which Resemble Reassemble has tried to challenge by primarily shifting the focus to visual thinking and by not creating sections within the exhibition.

Additionally, what might appear to a viewer as addressing gender issues for example, Amber Hammad’s Maryam, holds a special meaning for me. It reminds me of the shift in her artistic practice and how her stature as a person has changed – from the girl who often portrayed fairly tales in her work to Maryam, a mother with responsibilities.

Amber Hammad
I think there is more to the work than ‘terror’. Bani Abidi’s The News, was made during her KHOJ residency. The video explores similarities and differences in language than merely depicting terror.
GN. The scale of works is mostly miniature or if not exactly within that oeuvre, the scale is contained more so than what one sees in India. The smaller scale creates finesse and a sense of delicacy as in Unum Babbar’s video installation on egg-shells or Mohhammad Ali Talpur’s ‘Leeka’ or his Bird drawings, which is in direct contrast to the large scale installations in India. Do you think this potential can and/or should be re-visited by Indian artists, given that we share a tradition in miniatures? 

Ali Talpur
AP. To me, the scale of a work is irrelevant; it is the quality that matters. Miniature or larger than life, it is the content that attracts a viewer. For example Unum Babar’s ‘Not quite sure till afterwards’, could be projected on a pedestal or a wall, the work remains interesting for its content and execution, not scale.
Mahreen Murtaza
GN. What do you think of the miniature tradition as re-visualized and presented by the Pakistani painters in this 21st century?

AP. I find contemporary miniature art from Pakistan very exciting. It challenges its own boundaries and often surprises the viewer with the outcome. 

GN. In the context of a global village, do you think traditions that specify an ethnic identity are relevant in the arts?

AP. Absolutely.  

GN. Do you think that we in India should also preserve some of our ancient traditional artistic practices by bringing them into the context of contemporary art?

AP. Yes. Our next show on Indian Folk and Tribal Art will explore this in detail. 

GN. India and Pakistan have had strained relations for the last 60 years. There have been attempts at a dialogue towards peace but the general opinion is that we are working to keep us apart rather than to bring us closer together. There is considerable distrust even as there is bonhomie; do you think that a cultural initiative can aid the dialogue for peace?

AP. Yes without a doubt! In my experience of visiting Pakistan, I have often felt a lot of warmth and friendship. Politics is played between politicians. On an individual level there is a lot of love that spills over.

Aisha Khalid
GN. As a viewer, I was rather touched by some of the work. We don’t really have a connection with Pakistan that pertains to everyday living. When we are affected by terrorist attacks of Pakistani origin etc, it has been convenient to believe the national propaganda, but now Pakistan has begun to have a more humane face. The conditions they live in, as exemplified through the works in this exhibition - the curtailing of freedom, implications of wearing a veil and the fact that death by terror is considered normal is horrendous and in a sense makes one less mistrusting and more compassionate.

Aisha Khalid
 AP. This is the beginning of a journey that we wish continues. I’m happy to know that the exhibition succeeded in marginally changing your vision of Pakistani art. However, this was not the real goal. The aim of the foundation is to set a platform for cutting edge artists; it is not so much region-based but encourages what in our opinion is good art.

GN. What do you think sets apart the art from Pakistan and that which is presently being made in India? What in particular draws your eye as a collector to either?

AP. What draws me towards Pakistani art is that it is honest, fresh, at the same time experimental and challenging.

GN. Do you think we can inform each others' practices through exhibitions, workshops and other means of artist exchange?

AP. Yes. Initiatives such as ‘Aar Paar’ in 1998 proved to be very fruitful in informing the countries of each other’s artistic practices and we hope there are more initiatives in the future.
Ali Talpur
GN. And does The Devi Art Foundation have any plans for this?

AP. The Devi Art Foundation has an education and outreach programme that is designed to work in conjunction with pedagogues and academia to forge a critical space. In the next two months we are planning to organize talks and seminars that will bring together artists and academics from both the countries.

GN. What made you think of adding Pakistani art to your collection? Bani Abidi’s video of the ‘Shan pipe band’, Ehsan Ul-haq’s installations ‘Zero point’ and ‘Life is elsewhere’ do bring into focus some of the similarities both culturally and of issues pertaining to urban development or lack of it. Was this a criterion?
Bani Abidi
AP. I saw images of works which very exciting. These prompted me to visit Pakistan and meet with the artists.

GN.  Do you plan to expand this, to include art from other regions of South Asia?

AP. Yes.

GN. The works in this collection are diverse in media and content, despite the fact that they pertain largely to issues within the Pakistani context. - Hamra Abbas in ‘Please do not Touch…’ uses the English language with a ‘jaali’ that is Islamic; while Bani Abidi’s digital prints – ‘Security barriers A-L’, use icons that are universal and others that use video, installation, surgical instruments etc. The diversity speaks of their creative prowess. Do you think that because people do not readily visit Pakistan curtailing the artistic exchange and dialogue, that this provokes their creativity?

AP. I feel struggle is an important part of our life and at some point, we all go through it. Indian art has gone through it and many Iranian artists are at the present facing it.

Even though Pakistan is not readily visited, I think in the recent years the art has attracted many curators, critics and is being addressed in many international exhibitions – ‘Hanging Fire at the Asia Society’, ‘When Three Dreams Meet’ at the Whitechapel Gallery – this will hopefully improve things.

GN. The works in the exhibition primarily represent the first decade of this century, from 2000 to 2009. Is there a reason that no work predates this? Most of the artists are born after 1970, what is reason for this predisposition towards the younger generation, where most are in their late 20’s or early 30’s and none is beyond 45 years old?
Nazia Khan

AP. That is what was prevalent when I started collecting art from Pakistan. I enjoyed the young, new energy of the students and also felt that somebody had to support them financially for them to continue their practice and reassure them of it. However we do have artists of all age groups. Some of the senior artists in the collection include Anwar Saeed, Ruby Chishti and Roohi Ahmed.

GN. Bani Abidi’s video ‘Shan pipe Band’ reminds of the parallels in our cultural make-up. The Star and Spangled Banner may have political implications regarding Pakistan’s particular relationship with America, but the bandwalla is as much a part of our ethos and art, brought into play by Krishen Khanna’s recent retrospective. These are things we know but take for granted, which art re-visits, reminding us of a shared heritage which makes partition a tragedy and more so our animosity towards each other.
Bani Abidi
a) Having visited Pakistan did you have had any such moments of surprised, tragic and hilarious cognition?

b) Would your collection have been influenced by these parallels?

AP. I guess I was surprised with the culture that spoke in a curious mix of Urdu, English and Punjabi. The love and the warmth that was showered on me left lasting impressions. For me the whole experience of being in Pakistan, interacting with new artists and works, was very exciting and intoxicating.