A sea of images


A sea of images

Rashid Rana’s work at the Karachi Biennale 2019 (KB19) was undeniably one of the highlights of the event. The artist had re-interpreted Caspar David

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Rashid Rana’s work at the Karachi Biennale 2019 (KB19) was undeniably one of the highlights of the event. The artist had re-interpreted Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog”, flipping the iconic image on its head in a fantastic subversion of the original painting while simultaneously adding another, far more relevant, thematic dimension to the painting. Rana had set up a video installation which displayed the artist with his back to the camera standing atop a pile of trash, in what appeared to be a garbage dump, as smoke billowed around him. The serene and contemplative landscape from Friedrich’s artwork had been replaced by a stark reminder of the pressing issues facing the world today.

This same narrative thread can be found across Rana’s work, including his latest display “It Lies Beyond” at the Karachi Biennale 2022 (KB22). Housed at the NED University (City Campus), the work adorns the walls of an entire hall and tells two different stories – one from afar and another one when the viewer gets closer. When viewed from a distance, the audience gets the impression that they are looking at the cascading waves of a stormy, ominous sea. Closer inspection reveals that the cluster of images that form the waves are telling an entirely different story.

According to Rana, “The work depicts the gravity of the climate crisis, particularly in the ocean, both with its magnanimous size and its intricate details. From afar, ‘It Lies Beyond’ is a display of the grey-hued seascape of the ocean. Up close, in its tiniest details, it consists of over 900,000 images of trash photographed at landfills.”

This concept is reminiscent of many of Rana’s artistic endeavours over the past decade, especially his other work at KB19. On that occasion, Rana had used smaller images of sea pollution to construct a larger picture of the sea. This time, however, Rana manages to take this concept one step further by integrating technology into premise of his work. As he puts it, “The work uses images and augmented reality to address global issues such as climate change, human waste and pollution. When you see these images through your phone using augmented reality, these still images morph into moving images, each telling a story.”

This fundamental element is what sets “It Lies Beyond” apart from, and elevates it over, other similar artistic undertakings Rana has embarked on in the past. Thus, the work evolves into a living entity, relaying a narrative which further emphasises the issues Rana wishes to bring to light. Fascinatingly, if viewers pointed their phone cameras at the windows in the hall, the outside view would be replaced by videos of the recent floods in Pakistan, depicting people wading through water.

About this particular inclusion, the artist said, “The work also includes the visual imagery of natural disasters due to climate change such as the recent flooding in Pakistan. The still images and windows are animated by using augmented reality (via the Artivive app) to add another dimension to this installation. The sheer scale of this work and thousands of images match the intensity of the subject matter which unfolds into a melancholic story of the ocean.”

The theme and the integration of technology in “It Lies Beyond” makes it an apt fit for curator Faisal Anwar’s tech-driven biennale. However, as one can gauge from viewing the artwork, realising this artistic vision and manifesting it into reality was a challenging task. “This has been a major undertaking,” Rana stated. “The drive to create this work of unprecedented scale was to make something for the community here and for the people of Karachi. I wanted to create something you don’t get to normally see in Pakistan. The serene seascape comprises of thousands of images of trash, and they are various chapters of the same story that begins and ends with water. My aim is that within the disparity of the macro image and the micro details viewers can construct their own narrative.”

The artwork challenges viewers to alter their perceptions of, as Rana puts it, “what is inside and outside, close and distant, within and without, real and fiction while bridging and dismantling these binaries.” This emphasis on co-existing in harmony, be it man with nature or man with other men, lies at the core of Rana’s philosophy. “The measure of progress is not just economic growth and technological advancements but how tolerant a society is. The real progress is the peaceful coexistence of all units, all constituent parts of the whole,” he said.

Given the varied breadth and depth of his work, it is evident that Rana is grappling with a variety of ideological threads. “I often ask myself why my practice is going in such different directions and has so many strands to it,” Rana stated. “Those of us who belong to Generation X have seen the shift from analog to digital. We have seen more development in our lifetime than any other generation before us. We have seen the way technology impacts our lives and we have adapted to it. Art is no exception to this; hence why my practice has kept evolving. What connects my different forms of production is my belief in the non-prescriptive notions of identity. Across my practice, I have, in some way or another, expressed that in my work.”

As Rana’s vision continues to draw more and more upon existing images and material to craft his artwork, he has become increasingly concerned with discovering an original perspective in that which already exists. “I left this obsession with absolute originality behind me and assumed this new role as the editor of images. We have access to an unprecedented number of images produced in the past or in recent times, and in that I saw potential in rearranging them to form a new meaning and a fresh association,” he said.

Rana’s pioneering works in the realm of new media, his dramatic usage of visual strategies and conceptual innovation manages to capture the pressing realities of the world in a new light. As showcased by his installation at KB22, Rana relies on metaphors to dissect the “post-renaissance materialistic inquiry, the explorations of and expansions to the other worlds, sea-trade, colonisation, industrial revolution, consumerism followed by global climate change resulting in various natural calamities like the recent floods – all unfolding as various chapters of a saga that begins and ends with waters.”