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In Conversation with Rashid Rana

by Madyha Leghari
“My work is a negotiation between the actual and the remote. The actual is close at hand – something one can experience directly with the body as the site of knowing. The remote, on the other hand, is knowledge amassed indirectly, from sources scattered across time and space. The result is a meditation on location, both in a physical as well as temporal sense.”
– Rashid Rana
Madhya Leghari: Your practice, has in the past, addressed the idea of nation-state belonging particularly as it applies to art. You seemed to have shrugged this burden off almost a decade and a half ago in works such as What is so Pakistani About This Painting? Has the question reappeared with the project at Venice (in the works, or the conversations around the project)? Do you believe that nation-state categorization is an outmoded form of representation?
Rashid Rana: I don’t think that an ideal monolithic ‘Pakistani’ identity exists, and thus, one individual cannot lay claim to such representation. The question actually never disappeared in the first place even though at that time, I believed I had surpassed it. With time, however, the debate evolved in my mind and developed some nuance. I do not subscribe anymore to an East-West dichotomy. Naturally, I do recognize that geography influences one’s perspective and in that sense, I believe that the city of Lahore has automatically featured in my work as both a subject and an important resource. A lot of content I gather, has inadvertently, archived the breath of the city for that moment in time.
One does try to transcend the specifics of one’s time; I am presently more concerned with the idea of location and chronology from a more detached perspective. The project at Venice is not addressing the question of nation-state belonging directly and I hope that the framing of my works is not limited to this lens either. The very fact that we are putting up a regional rather than a country pavilion at Venice means that we are turning the rules inside out: it eventually amounts to subversion of and not subscription to the idea.
ML: Both India and Pakistan feature at the presentation at Venice. To what extent is the relationship between the two countries relevant to your work?
RR: It is not directly relevant to the work. It is also important to note that while India and Pakistan appear in the exhibition, the presentation pertains to the subcontinent as a region. The two nations are not being cast as strict polarities, which prevents the reduction of both to their supposedly insurmountable differences.
ML: Can you tell us a little about what is in store for Venice?
RR: The project at Venice explores the continuous negotiation between the actual and the remote. The former holds the body and sensory experience as the site and means of all knowledge, while the latter is made up of all indirect sources of knowledge including history, collective knowledge or contemporaneity as happening elsewhere. Over a series of semi-immersive settings, preconceived ideas of location and linear chronology are played out and undone.
It starts with the photomontage War Within II, which reassembles the neoclassical painting Oath of the Horatii by Jacques Louis-David, into something eerily familiar and yet chaotic at the same time. Moving into 3D, a number of works create illusory double spaces, both imaginary and located elsewhere, deluding viewers to gaze upon themselves or an ‘other’, and vice-versa. Lastly this other-space leaves the visual portals and becomes an occupant and reflection of the same room, dictating the visitor’s ambulation around it.
ML: It seems as if your formal concerns shift to the personal and back often within the same work. Would the series of works at Venice feature a similar progression?
RR: I think that my early formal training as a painter has had an influence on my visual vocabulary despite the fact that I do not paint anymore, in the typical sense of the word. I am still fascinated with flattening a representation across two dimensions, and its precarious claim to reality. Similarly, the fragment and the whole, the micro and the macro, visual parallels and paradoxes are all formal devices I often use. However, I am also looking at these things as metaphors and markers of meaning about the confusing and often contradictory world that we inhabit.
Admittedly, when I am working in 2D, it is more difficult to discard the baggage of the history of art. The shift of medium to one that doesn’t have much of a past allows me more freedom to push the exploration into uncharted territories. I do not know if that makes it more ‘personal’, because that’s a relative term. In any case, I believe that all works are formal and all works are conceptual. There is no escape from either.
ML: Tell us a bit about the Lahore leg of the project.
RR: For some reason, Lahore had been on mind for a while and when given the opportunity, I was inclined to drag it into my work. Given my exploration of disintegrating time and space, my somewhat irrational desire to feature Lahore perfectly coincided with my ongoing investigations. I was thinking also about something Quddus Mirza said about artists in Pakistan living as if in exile at home. The inclusion of Lahore was an attempt on my part to lessen that exile for myself. I am very thankful to the Lahore Biennale Foundation for stepping up to support the idea. It is very refreshing to see an organization enabling artists to carry out ambitious projects in the city.
Thus, through a live stream and an identically mirrored space, Venice and Liberty Market, Lahore, establish a virtual connection across which visitors may interact in meaningful and surprising ways. Viewers view viewers, blurring the distinction between passivity and participation, and giving rise to introspection about the gaze of the ‘other’ in the construction of a ‘self’.
ML: Do you think there is such as divide as a ‘local’ and a ‘global audience’?
RR: I do not think there is a strict division between a ‘local’ and a ‘global’ audience. One is often the other. I do not try to preempt and adapt to an imaginary audience, although, of course my vocabulary cannot escape the influence of my geographical location. This was particularly manifested in works such as The Step where a roadside structure from Lahore was quoting the object language of minimalists such as Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt.
ML: Your work, previously suspended in the tension between two- and three-dimensional representation, in the photo-sculptures for instance, seems now to be expanding in scale and enveloping its viewers. Do you see this simulatory shift as significant?
RR: I have always been interested in the tension between two- and three-dimensional representation. I think that between these, the real always remains contested and yet claimed just as rigorously. In the photo-sculptures for instance, I am interested in the scope of photography itself. It’s so familiar and yet so strange, wherein lie the limits of its claim to representation. Moving into an enveloping third-dimension, I am continuing this sense of unreality by using architectonic features to create fictional, impossible spaces that yet remain experiential to human senses.
ML: While Shilpa Gupta has been dealing with very specific histories and the situation of everyday activities within the ideological structures that contain them, you have taken a step back and are engaged in “a meditation on time and location”. Do you think the two of you share any common concerns? How did you arrive at a cohesive curatorial direction?
RR: While Shilpa and I use disparate vocabulary, our concerns overlap often. We are both interested in ideas of location and dislocation, visual perception, transnational belonging and an individual’s transaction with authority. Shilpa has a very sensitive affective expression over precise history while I tend to offer a more comprehensive perspective on similar ideas.
We visited the Palazzo Benzon together several times at the inception of the project. Since then, we haven’t been physically as mobile but have remained in regular touch over email. While our practices have remained relatively independent, our conversations have automatically defined the curatorial direction. I found it both challenging and exhilarating to be able to bounce off ideas with a mind as sharp as Shilpa’s.
ML: Tell us a bit about the impetus and process of bringing this collaboration about.
RR: The seed was sown at the last Venice Biennale where I met Feroze Gujral. We were both bemoaning the fact that neither Pakistan nor India had any representation. Simultaneously, I was also aware of the absurdity of this thought since I am highly skeptical of the whole national representation ideal. The idea of a regional pavilion arrived like an epiphany and I wishfully aired it. Feroze was receptive to it and has gone ahead to make it possible. I must say that I am very lucky that despite living in a world with hard political boundaries, I have been welcomed on both sides of the border. Living in Lahore, a solo show in India in 2004 became my launchpad and a gallery in Bombay still represents me. Being an educator, I teach students from all over South Asia at BNU. I hope that in the distant, if not near future, the subcontinent becomes a space akin to the European Union, where individuals and ideas are allowed to move freely. Art of course is already hinting at the possibility of it.
ML: Is the project at Venice expected to influence the course of your practice in a significant way? What do you think lies in store?
RR: Yes and no. Following my retrospective show at Mohatta Palace (Labyrinth of Reflections). I had already reached a culmination chapter of sorts in my practice. The current project at Venice arrived my way when I was already going through a transition so it has allowed me to experiment ambitiously and freely. I am shifting away from creating a series of works to single projects such as the one I recently did in Dhaka (A Room From Tate Modern). However, a shift in concerns doesn’t happen abruptly with me and in many ways the works at Venice are a continuation of earlier works such as the Transliterations series.
ML: What do you think is the relevance and critical currency of the biennale as a format of exhibition-making in the contemporary world? How do you respond to its proliferation across the globe?
RR: I do think that the biennale model is not only replicated ad infinitum globally but is also increasingly standardized. The optimist in me, however, is hopeful that when things reach a kind of moot point, it will lead to something fresh.
‘My East is Your West’, a joint exhibition by Rashid Rana and Shilpa Gupta, a collateral event at the 56th Venice Biennale supported by the Gujral Foundation, is on view from 6 May to 1 October 2015. More information on the exhibition can be found here.
Images courtesy of Rashid Rana.
Madyha Leghari is a visual artist, writer and a graduate in Fine Arts from the National College of Arts. She lives in Lahore. – See more at: http://www.artnowpakistan.com/articles.php?article=In-Conversation-with-Rashid-Rana#sthash.jUENTEcY.dpuf

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