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Two Paradoxes of Origin and Originality: Mohammad Ali Talpur, Negation and Resistance

The question of origins seems to have receded into the background over the last decade or so of Pakistani art. The success of globalisation, the extension of the patient and professional curatorial gaze to every corner of the world, and the substantial stylistic and conceptual homogeneity of ‘global art’ – these rapid changes have come to be a state of affairs, within which the question of origin no longer arises as a point of friction.

It is worth remembering, then, that until the end of the 1990s and straggling perhaps a few years beyond, the major fault lines in Pakistani art lay between groups of artists who imagined the roots of their art very differently from each other. This is to say, that many artists believed that a particular relationship to the idea of ‘origin’ functions as a touchstone for authenticity, or relevance. I use these two latter terms advisedly – another way of formulating the broad divide I am attempting to portray is to say that one group of artists staked their claim to ‘authenticity’ and another to ‘relevance’. In this admittedly simplified picture, Shahid Sajjad’s sculpture was a paragon of authenticity, concerned as it was with forging a relationship to something essential to an indigenous philosophy, culture, mindset etc – while Rashid Rana, David Alesworth and Durriya Kazi, and the Dadis, for example, claimed for themselves ‘relevance’, contemporaneity, a synchronization with the speed of communication, the movement of capital, the transmission of images that made up the emerging urban landscapes of Karachi and Lahore. For these latter, it mattered very little what an originally Pakistani art might be, historically; in adopting the universalized position of the contemporary artist, they could inject explicitly local content into art, addressing in the process a vibrant if as yet undefined global ‘now’.

The above model, simplistic as it is, is hardly controversial. The hangover of the post-Zia years has ultimately broken into a mild euphoria, and the idea of distinguishing some traits of Pakistani art from those of Indian art, or from  European art seems ridiculous at the very least, and philosophically unsound at worst, given the diffuse if unexamined acceptance of  a ‘pluralism’ that requires no specific historical sense or dominant ideology. Further, the theoretical presence of postmodernity in a very general sense severely limits any attempt to talk in terms of narratives of nation or culture, of origin or teleology. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the debates at the heart of Pakistani art today are no longer about the status or nature of art itself, but about how art is to be administered and taught and exhibited, about what it should refer to and who should see it. Surely these are all good and democratic concerns? I will try and show here, that democratization and skepticism notwithstanding, in not talking about origin, culture and style in any meaningful way at all, we risk throwing away the baby with the bathwater.

I would like to say this in another way: the issue of origin is intimately tied to all issues of artistic style (as opposed to matters of ‘content’ and meaning). By this I mean that the movements and oppositions and ideas that animate art history, especially through the modern and our own era, have centred on the notion of origin, and the related notion of originality. The entirely original artist, of course, breaks from his or her origins, even denies them. In practice, this denial functions through breaks with the past, discontinuities and deformations- the Abrahamic prophets, including those of Islam and Christianity made violent breaks with their families, tribes, cities and points of origin in favour of something they perceived to be more universal still. That this typology of revolution persists from the axial age well into modernity is evident in the centrality of the great cities of the 20th century to the narrative of modernity- it was in Paris, then New York (as much as in Bombay or Calcutta or Lahore in South Asia) that artists could break with their bourgeois roots and strive for something like a complete originality. This attempt, figured as a kind of generational struggle has roots as far back as Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, but certainly without appreciating something of this dynamic much of Modern art must remain opaque and resistant to interpretation or appreciation. Harold Bloom’s theory of artistic anxiety- where writers begin from the devastation, the founding knowledge that there is nothing new to say, leading to an overcoming or strong misreading of their predecessors- remains perhaps the best general  depiction of the creative scene in contemporary art still.

What I am attempting to establish in this very limited space is that contested origins have figured extremely importantly in the understanding of art that practitioners continue to make use of to this day. Similarly, the concept of originality – over and above novelty, which is an art dealer’s concern – still remains foundational to how art is taught and produced around the world. This is equally the case in Pakistan as anywhere else, although it might be unfashionable to make the case for anything apart from radical contingency and nominalism in determining how our art looks and what it derives from (as opposed to what it responds to). In the spirit of provocation, and of unfashionability, I would like to suggest that there is a case for readdressing the concern for origins, against the prevailing current of contemporaneity as the name for an unchallenged globality.

As a test case, let us look at the practice of Mohammad Ali Talpur. It is hard to describe his work, or to talk about it amongst colleagues in Pakistan, without mentioning Minimalism, or Talpur’s own roots in the province of Sindh. These two points function as ‘origins’, in the weak or conventional sense, where they are assumed to provide a key which can unlock the meaning of his very abstract practice. Perhaps Talpur’s ethnicity, culture, language and stylistic affiliation are so talked about precisely because the actual work, stripped of semiotic surplus is deeply, ascetically meaningless. This, if I have approached his work correctly, is precisely his purpose – but that much is nothing new, and we have talked about pure abstraction and minimalism for over half a century now: the founding figure of theoretical postmodernism, Jean-Francois Lyotard, considered Barnett Newman to be the paragon of this ‘post-ness’, of modernity after modernity, at its extreme of self-interrogation (and thus coinciding with Clement Greenberg in his valuation of the great painter!). However, and this is crucial in the context, Talpur’s work arrives well after the avant-garde work of Newman and Agnes Martin has already exposed a certain limit or essence of the nature of art. In this sense, his work is neither avant-garde, nor original in Lyotard’s sense, but post-postmodern. How then can we understand or situate an appreciation of his work today?

Perhaps looking at another somewhat proximate example might help. In the tradition of music that belongs properly to the subcontinent, and specifically in that part that is the history of khyal singing, one of the great if somewhat obscure figures is Pandit Pran Nath, the Lahore-born musician and spiritual personality, whose presence looms over a parallel history in the Western world. Pran Nath, in brief, was a disciple of the spiritually inclined Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan of the Kiranagharana, serving his guru as a servant for many years and adopting his austere lifestyle and vocal presentation, eschewing showy technique and rhythmic play in favour of extremely slow expositions of the ragas – lasting, according to some accounts, over 10 to 20 hours. Pran Nath further perfected this approach living in near isolation in a cave monastery near Delhi, where the sound of a nearby creek gave him his ‘Sa’ or tonic note in the absence of a tanpura or other instruments. Commanded by his guru to leave this ascetic life and to perform and teach, Pran Nath entered the secular world after five years of solitude, becoming a teacher and performing, albeit erratically and unconventionally. It is with this background of unworldliness and devotion to the exploration of sound, that the legend of Pran Nath must be seen – sometime in 1970, the avant-garde composer LaMonte Young (an early ‘minimalist’ whose work can be said to have been one of the most powerful influences on that movement, from the serial art of the 1960s to the static films of Warhol) invited the unusual vocalist to America, having been intrigued by what he had heard of his technique on a rare recording.

Pran Nath’s subsequent influence within the history of minimalism and specifically on the American musical avant-garde is immeasurable. Young, Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley and others formally took the traditional vow to be his pupils, and have spent the subsequent decades learning from the nuances of this master and his teaching, and particularly his refusal to conform to the demands of pleasing an audience, so as to focus entirely on serving the demands of music as such. Typically, Pran Nath refused to perform the raags (which were ‘living souls’ according to him) outside their designated hour of the day – as the ancient Hindustani system assigns a time and season to each raag  –  and made very few recordings so as to ensure that his work was always heard in the correct context.

I will not go much deeper into the musical aspects of Pran Nath’s career here; the few available recordings at the peak of his powers might be puzzling to those of us expecting elaborate displays of skill or sweetness of tone. It will suffice here to say that his voice aspires to a kind of otherworldly drone effect, a pure quest for the minute variations around the heart of a single note, that provided the musical avant-garde in America with a powerful model for the relationship between humans and sound, between performance and musicality. In any case, in relation to my argument,  Pran Nath provides a further paradox, and one I readily admit I cannot explain away, namely: how can the purest tradition of one culture find a place at the avant-garde of another? Put another way, is Pran Nath an avant-garde artist, a reactionary traditionalist, or simply a unique individual locatable at the edges of two opposing world-views? For an avant-garde to function at all, we have to imagine art’s role as dialectically advancing the cause of art in some historical sense, even within Lyotard’s strictest sense of postmodernism. On the other hand, for Pran Nath’s practice to have any sense of purpose, it must rely on a rigid adherence to tradition, and a belief – perhaps naïve – in the universality of certain artistic and musical concepts. How can we reconcile these two positions conceptually?

One tentative answer might be that both LaMonte Young and Pran Nath moved deliberately against a certain, fashionable mainstream, and in so doing found their respective positions subsequently within their fields and histories. This is not just to say that they were ‘rebels’, in the countercultural sense of rock n’roll, ‘without a cause’. Indeed, they had a very defined cause that they put themselves at the service of, and through a combination of devotion and refusal, staked out a position at the margins of their own time, apart from the majority of their contemporaries. Such a cause can perhaps only be found in the logic of the discipline itself- and this might be something like what Lyotard calls ‘The Inhuman’, which he indicates as lying at the heart of true avant-garde practice.

Can such a paradigmatic case help us understand the late-minimalism of Mohammad Ali Talpur any better? Is there any congruity between the negation of Pran Nath and the abstraction of Talpur? I hesitate to answer in the affirmative, since I have no doubt that Talpur does not consider his practice to be about traditions or origins, about fidelity to the philosophy of a gharana. On the other hand, I am equally sure that Talpur sees his work as a kind of philosophical gesture, a radical devotion to the performance of line, to touching the space between the human and the inhuman. In this, he must draw on ideas and skills and poetry that remain in a profound sense traditional, while remaining unconcerned with any historical relation to a vanguard of art history. Perhaps, however, it is best to suppose that there is no exact correspondence between the two cases, but that instead we can see both as instances of a field of practice that still makes its way through negotiating a boundary between origin and destination, in ways that can profoundly restructure our experience of the world. I will take the need for this restructuring to be axiomatic, if art is to retain any spiritual or philosophical value within the realm of imagery, over and above the surfeit of advertising, TV soap operas, and purely commercial art that compete with it.  In the ‘now’ that obsesses contemporary art, the future of culture is by default global, Western, technological (and exhibited in Mumbai, New York and London) and the past is what has been overcome; or is simply the source of material and imagery, rather than of fundamental conceptual inspiration. If we are not yet ready to find philosophical alternatives, other origins from which to question the ubiquity of global art, then Talpur’s negation and abstraction – even untimeliness – might be the strongest preliminary, original gestures.

Adnan Madani is a visual artist and writer from Pakistan. He is currently doing a PhD in Visual Cultures at Goldsmith, University of London. His research interests include contemporary art systems, museum studies, theories of globalisation (especially in relation to the Islamic world and South Asia) and universalism. He has contributed to various publications and participated in several exhibitions both in Pakistan and abroad

 

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