The limitation or advantage of a work of art is that, once created, it remains static. However, its meaning and interpretation keeps changing. This indicates that an art work continues to generate interest though it is never fully approachable.
In our milieu, installation is perhaps a genre that provides the most options to multiple decoding. On many occasions, what is presented as installation is required to be acknowledged, accepted and appreciated as art, as something separate from life. Thus the arrangement of fruits on a road stall, or heap of junk material and furniture in a room, or a table set for breakfast are not regarded as examples of installations, even though these ordinary settings may look not too dissimilar from some installations displayed at art galleries and museums.
One of the major differences between art installation and real life situation is the distinction between ‘meaning’ and ‘function’. Accumulated stuff on a roadside, in an attic or in the dining room does not have a meaning in the real sense of the word but it does have a function. Although nothing in this world is devoid of meaning, the element of content in these arrangements is overpowered by their utility. On the other hand, installations do have a function and not just as works to be collected and to earn a living or fame; more than that they embody a subtext that is meant to be understood and deciphered by the viewer.
The aspect of meaning seems to be the most important component of Risham Syed’s installations in her solo exhibition (Kaal Pakhan — Blackbirding) being held at the Canvas Gallery, Karachi from Dec 2-11, 2014. The most striking work in the show is “….But the Whole Truth”, the room painted in yellow with nine canvases in elaborate gilded Chinese frames. These paintings have views of 19th century Paris with Eiffel Tower, historical buildings and avenues with carriages and pedestrians. The manner of making these pictures is commercial and hasty, accentuated with the gaudy and heavy frames.
Of course, the pictures are not painted by Risham Syed; she bought and hung these almost similar-looking urban views in a salon-like room. Once a visitor enters the space, he presumes that all frames contain identical imagery, only to discover later how each canvas is slightly different from the other.
These are manufactured in China and exported to local markets in Lahore. The artist’s decision to pick and place them at her solo exhibition is a comment on the debate of manual versus mechanical in art as well as on the industrialisation and commercialisation in the present age. Created with brush and oil paint, these almost uniform sceneries convey a sense of mechanical production for a market that yearns to own ‘authentically hand painted’. These canvases show the view of Paris before it was invaded with industrially-manufactured items such as motorcars etc.
So the Chinese paintings, in a way, are suspended between hand-made crafts and industrial products. Both the manner of execution and the selection of period for the city allude to romanticism with pre-industrialisation age and the tradition of handmade, but their being created in such large numbers refers to mechanical manufacturing.
Another layer of meanings in this installation is about Orientalism. The term is understood, especially after Edward Said’s seminal book, about European supremacy in/through viewing, interpreting and re-presenting the ‘under-developed’ Eastern societies. But Syed’s work signifies the shift in this order of things. Now with China’s triumph in the world economy, the balance of power has tilted; hence a Chinese painter’s depiction of Paris is also an act of Orientalism, or Occidentalism, since he undertook the task of representing the cultural capital of Europe as an exotic visual to sell it to large and far reaching markets.
The idea of Orientalism is approached in another installation ‘History as Past’ in which Syed has copied a small canvas showing the detail of a Turkish bath, with white women being led by a dark female attendant inside a historical building. The manner of rendering the marble floor, pink flesh and stones in the vault is so convincing that one assumes that instead of painting, Risham may have framed a printed poster of ‘Great Bath at Bursa’. A big towel is put under the framed canvas, thus creating a connection between the bare bum of the white woman and the soft white towel rolled towards the gallery floor. The artist’s choice of linking the painting with another object in our times alludes to invisible politics — in the act of making and marketing images.
Syed’s works at Canvas Gallery affirm her views on socio-economic systems and division of world based upon colonial designs. In another work, ‘History as Re-Present -Ation I’ a chair is combined with a stand holding a small painting depicting a long vehicle on fire, witnessed by a small family riding on a motorcycle.
Or in another work (‘History as Re-Present-Ation II’) one comes across an old Victorian tripod covered with dark fur, two hands cast in metal and holding a small painting. The picture portrays people against a dark background with some white areas. Sensitive application of paint makes a viewer believe that he is looking at a photograph.
Like the installations, her collages on paper are also efforts to join diverse sources and visuals to create narratives connected to history as well as to investigate the hidden politics in image-making. In her work, a viewer is aware of the presence of political substance, but these critiques are made through a range of metaphors and aesthetic strategies.
The small postcard-like panels which serve as a key are meticulously painted with scenes of violence and disturbances, but along with these one comes across the form of a bird in two works. For Risham Syed, the bird refers to the colonial history of slave trade, hence the title of one work and whole exhibition Kaal Pakhan — Blackbirding. Through this sign of tyrannical practice of the past, she hints at the exploitation of modern day markets and militancy (since blackbirding is the coercion of people through trickery and kidnapping to work as labourers).
Her new body of work affirms how an artist deals with multiple sides of work — material, pictorial, political, conceptual —keeping the poetics of painting intact. She does extend the notion of poetics, painting and politics. Much like the genre of installation where it is difficult to detect the difference between life and art, in the art of Risham Syed the distance between content and form is diminishing.