Even at its most basic, art is an experience- a journey into the thoughts and soul of the artist. All forms of art strive at creating an experience, be it through style or medium. However, it is important to remember that to thoroughly live through the work, all senses of the visitor must be edified though one rarely visits an exhibition with such an adept understanding of this notion. Fazal Rizvi is one such artist who has clearly achieved this feat. In a recent solo exhibition titled ‘The Fleet’ at AAN Gandhara Art-Space, the artist sets out to explore the Arabian Sea and takes his audience along the journey.
The sea is a vast ever-flowing body that connects across the globe and we tend to forget that such spaces also have boundaries similar to ones ashore. Not only are there international divides, but also sections policed within the national boundary. Through his various pieces, Rizvi looked at these divides and the turmoil caused to those actively using this passage. The exhibition was the product of a long-term dialogue between Rizvi and curator, Aziz Sohail. Initially commissioned for the New Art Gallery Walsall, this was the first time ‘The Fleet’ was displayed in Pakistan.
The first piece at the exhibition was a massive three channel video projection of a boat. Titled ‘the Fleet’, each section showed a portion of the vessel swaying calmly with the fluidity of the water. Accompanying the projection was a table with several blue digital drawings. Reminiscent of the colour of blueprints as well as the universal idea of a blue sea, these six by eight inch works were enclosed in a glass covering redolent of artefact-displays at museums. Each drawing was a minimal study of the artist’s observations at the port. With only upward curving lines he was able to draw out several fleet formations and created depth and movement through the thickness and size of the lines. Masterfully, the same line was also used to study the subtle stirrings of the water and the rigidity of obstructions at sea. Visual replications of the looped video installation are seen in these drawings thereby both works constructed a more inclusive understanding of the project.
Without description labels, one may not have noticed the difference in each drawing but that is also something to contemplate. By removing all detail, the sketches focus on the similarities and connections between space and vessel and therefore question why divides occur within such intermingling bodies. In ‘Coloured Fields II’ Rizvi rehashes this exploration through text and drawing. Speaking in first-person, the text constantly questions how far these rifts go, through ‘droplet’ and ‘atom’. As an admirer of Rizvi’s text-based work over the years, I was immediately taken in. The artist has such a perplexing ability to use text to evoke emotion in the reader and in so doing force them to experience the work at a personal level. The text was typed on lined paper but positioned perpendicular to the lines as opposed to the usual parallel placement. This in turn caused the line-work to become a visual representation of barriers with clusters of dots drawn in between symbolising those who are obstructed.
Completing the display was a three by four feet light box called ‘(floor) Plans to occupy and capture (upon) the sea’. The floor plan depicted the upper and lower decks of a fishing vessel with the lower deck crammed in with fish- head to tail, fin to fin. Immediate links were drawn to the text in ‘Coloured Fields 11’ that say, “Body against body. My skin against yours. Brushing. Thrashing. Flooding. Mostly Caressing.”
In addition to the display at the gallery, AAN-Foundation funded ‘Rooms Afloat’ which were site-specific audio boat tours headed by the artist and curator. Earlier when I spoke about experiential art, it was largely ‘Rooms Afloat’ ,an extended segment of the project, that accomplished this. With a limited number of participants per trip, this ride through the port to open sea truly concluded the experience of the project. Each participating member was given an individual audio track and a set of headphones and was asked to listen to it while the boat moored. The audio flowed perfectly with the scenery, the smell and the motion; there were times when one couldn’t differentiate between the sounds of reality and recording. Multiple voices and narrations played during the recording, some of actual fishermen telling of the hardships they face in a place that provides them livelihood but also victimises them. Evocatively expressed, voice-actors described harsh conditions of the fish storages in the lower deck, narrating the pain and congestion while also metaphorically describing the slaves and stowaways forced into similar conditions.
Again connections emerged between the tour and display at the gallery; the text and floor plans of a boat seamlessly tied together with the voiceovers. The audience also got the opportunity to live through Rizvi’s blue drawings to create a relation between boats, sea and barricade once again. The audio installation could have quite easily taken place in the comfort of the gallery but it would not have been as successful. The artist is commendable for orchestrating these tours that truly aided in appreciating the essence of the project and producing a seamless conclusion to the exhibition.
 From the text work, ‘Coloured Fields 11’ from ‘the Fleet’ by Fazal Rizvi, AAN Gandhara, Karachi.