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Participation issues: What really belongs to the viewers in an art exhibition?

I was once told by a prospective juror, that the viewer should never have to read an artist statement, they should just be able to gaze at the work and suddenly have an, ‘Aha! I get it now!’ epiphany.  The problem (or the multiple of problems) with this statement lies with the kind of person who would convey such a thought. If people from within the art circles undermine and anticipate minimal effort from the audience members to participate in exhibitions, it is no surprise that the viewers themselves feel absolutely no need to engage in the art work present.

 

Why then do artists and curators still yearn for exhibitions to garner viewers who are unaffiliated with contemporary art? In fact, why even bother creating an exhibition if the viewer is expected to simply saunter past the art work, nervously – and unfortunately– bump into the artist and avoid eye contact? The exhibition at Sanat Gallery, ‘What Belongs to You’ addresses these questions and perhaps the viewer could even get lucky and take away some answers if they decided to pick up the catalogue from the show.

 

The 6 person exhibition has been curated by Aziz Sohail who has written a catalogue which is written to overtly read as a guide for dummies through an art exhibition. However, the catalogue is a crucial aspect to the synopsis of this exhibition as the viewer’s perspective is being solicited. Hence the interesting title of the exhibition, ‘What Belong to You’ which subtly pokes the audience to ask, what aspect of an art exhibition belongs to or is contingent upon the public? Before guiding the reader through the participating artists’ work and their statements, the catalogue explores the role of a curator in the Pakistani art circle and the nascent inquisitiveness of the reader over how to become a curator and what it takes to be a curator. This catalogue intelligently provides the hypothetical opportunity of the reader/viewer to be the curator of the show using the 6 artists as an example allowing the viewers to participate, question and view themselves in an important light for this art exhibition. By providing lined paper and spaces under ‘Viewer Note’, a plan of the Sanat Gallery space and bullet points, the catalogue appears as a thin workbook.

 

We are introduced to the artists, Ammar Faiz, Farhat Ali, Madyha Leghari, Naira Mushtaq, Sajid Khan and Zoya Siddiqui. Of course it helps immensely if the reader has actually seen the show at Sanat Gallery to engage with the textures, visuals and display of the work. For instance, Ammar Faiz’s corrugated magazine bits and look like slaps of thick oil paint recreating images of commercials and advertisements which swarm around billboards and posters that have become part of the –ironically- natural environment of Pakistan’s metropolis cities.  The curator’s note helps the viewer to understand the importance of Faiz’s process, i.e. the documentation he undergoes and the interest of the artist in the 21st century landscape. The images of Faiz’s work are a cluster of overlaying pieces which eventually diffuse the initial composition or reference and the focus is turned towards the artists’ interpretation of the issues behind print ads and their overwhelming presence.

 

Madyha Leghari is another artist in this exhibition that plays with the interpretation of language and images through the format of media and press. Her oil large vinyl print is a section of a fictional newspaper ‘Artvestment’ titled ‘One in Three Texts’ that reads in English but is written in Urdu. The newspaper piece is difficult to read and the viewer is forced to enunciate words loudly, struggling to decipher the English through the Urdu. Leghari features an English translation of the newspaper painted with oil which discusses a quote about collecting art as it may or may not have larger connotations. This piece traces around the translation of the artists’ hard work and labour being a framed object to hang in the living room of a buyer.  As most Pakistani artists need to sell to survive, Leghari’s piece questions the ‘commercial’ aspect of art in this country and the idea of actually owning a piece.

 

Creating a sense of windswept time and faded memories, Naira Mushtaq’s 3 pieces compose a blurred narrative which allows the viewer to closely inspect the washed out faces and silhouettes, testing their imagination to conjure details of the story. With a digital print inserted in a closed music box, the artist inserts a sense of interaction with viewers,  experimenting to see if the ‘passive viewers’ will open the box and listen to the twinkling music. Using inspiration from family photographs, Mushtaq creates eerie visuals which do not categorize within a certain time period and takes note of this by commenting on how copyright laws are inapplicable to personal documents.

 

Following this introspective into personal spaces, Zoya Siddiqui’s display in the exhibition provides a hint to the viewer about the context of her work. Small post card snap shots of homes in Androon Lahore denote a sense of the family’s habits, aesthetics, income and memories. Looking through the camera lens creates both a sense of intrusion yet intimatcy – her images are especially impactful in this regard because of the odd shelves, storage compartments, wall textures and corner of the homes she captures.  Siddiqui writes that the photographs ‘seek to expose, acknowledge and question the work’s impersonalized (or nearly public) consumption with the gallery” highlight the artists’ interest in looking at the formal aspects of displaying contemporary art.

 

The last two artists, Farhat Ali and Sajid Khan create trajectories from the idea of displaying work in a white cube gallery as their pieces open a discourse over the need for artists to tuck everything neatly behind frames and glass. Farhat Ali’s immaculately painted blinds overtly speak about visuals which are hidden and ‘the human desire’ to alter things and live in an idealistic world. Our curator note in the catalogue suggests it would be useful to consider ‘the death of painting’ as technology seems to have surpassed the need to render things realistically. Sajid Khan’s  watercolour paintings are pieces which can also provide the viewer with hints to what the work is about through its rudimentary display. Like Naira Mushtaq, Khan uses history and memories to reconstruct alternate stories which overwhelms the artist to find a place for himself in this edited history.

 

The catalogue is the binding factor of all the art work, elucidating how important it is for the viewer to have not only a response but a process of their gone to understand the exhibition. The show emphasizes through the art work that the 21st century viewer, especially the occasional Pakistani art gallery visitor needs to understand that art, like all fields, requires effort and personal engagement to interpret the subject rather than simply waiting for the work to (literally) start speaking to the audience .

 

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