In The Thousand and one Nights, there is a story of a prince who, on the threshold of sleep and wakefulness, feels that a jinnee is transporting him to an unknown destiny. Upon arriving at the other place he starts his life, begins some business, gets married, has children, grows old. Lying in his room one night, he senses he has been lifted by the same jinnee and when he opens his eyes, he finds himself on his old bed that he had abandoned years ago, but it seems that he had not left it for an instant.
The fable is a perfect example of an important phenomenon of our time: migration on a massive scale. With the attacks on Twin Towers, immigrants’ normal movement was disrupted, only to be resumed after putting great barricades — both physical and virtual.
However, the human nature is endowed with a gift to resist obstacles using all faculties, especially the imagination. So those who can’t travel to distant destinations can dream about being there, and enjoy all pleasures and comforts associated with that place.
There are various ways of dreaming, and art is a means of dreaming collectively. Virtual media and electro-magnetic space are recent additions to the list. A person can create an imaginary profile on Internet, Facebook or Twitter and continue conversing with people across the globe. Even after death, the social media accounts, email address and Internet identity survive.
Actually both the world of art and the realm of virtual — like the jinnee of Arabian Nights — transport a person from one physical arena to the other, without really moving him. Yet the experience of this shift is so strong that once an individual is in that state/trance, he tends to believe in the factuality of it.
This switching of reality, space or world has been a favourite subject amongst writers and artists. But when it happens in the art of Rashid Rana, it has certain significance. Rana is now part of the 56th Edition of Venice Biennale with his work included in a Collateral project ‘My East is Your West’ organised by Gujral Foundation (Shilpa Gupta is the other participating artist in this project). Venice Biennale is a prestigious international exhibition structured on artists showing in their country pavilions. Hence the idea of internationalism exists side by side with local representations.
Yet, in the present times, as the brittle boundaries of nationhood are subject to change (who knows what will follow — perhaps corporate borders or religious maps!) artists have been switching their national spaces, as in one of the past shows of the Venice Biennale French artists were in the German Pavilion and German artists were shown at the French Pavilion.
In the South Asian project, Rashid Rana is exhibiting a range of works. Along with ‘War Within II’ (digital print) and ‘Anatomy Lessons III’ (9 channel video on 9 monitors), Rana has constructed images that deal with the idea of physical spaces and difference or distance in location.
One of the recurring motifs or ideas in his aesthetics is reality and its replication. This is again addressed and expressed here, by juxtaposing actuality and its reflection in the mirror. For example, in ‘A Mirror Lies Vacant’, views of walls from inside of a room are constructed as outer layer of a cube within that space. In another work ‘I don’t Always Feel Immaterial’, visitors see their image reflected on the wall but it is delayed, and they’re only able to register or recognise it by staying longer in the room.
Likewise in another work “My Sight Stands in the Way of Your Memory”, the idea of mirror and reproduction is explored. But probably the most significant work in this collection is the one that physically links Venice to Lahore — the city of residence of Rashid Rana.
In this piece titled ‘Viewing, Viewer and Viewed’, a room from Plazzo Benzon, Venice is reproduced and constructed in scale at Lahore’s Liberty Market. From a distance what you see is a large white space but once you enter you encounter a room from another time and place, filled with European paintings on the wall, a fireplace and a lamp. Yet all of these are printed (in a pixelated format) so you come inside an image. On one wall, the opposite side — like in a mirror — is projected. But suddenly one realises it’s not the reflection of the wall at the back, but is live transmitted footage of another identical room in Venice. In this, one does identify the same objects but the people are from another city. Likewise in Venice, the viewer to that location sees a wall being a reflection of the space only with visitors from Lahore in it.
This two way traffic, a magic of technology, is a miracle of artistic imagination. It connects the two spaces in real time, raising a number of questions about art and the social, political and geographical divide. First and foremost, it deconstructs the notion of an original location and its replication, because in this way both spaces are dependent upon each other; hence there is no authenticity or superiority attached to one or the other. At the same instance, it joins viewers from two continents in one room, without either of them leaving their city.
More than the real and the reproduction, two important aspects make this single channel projection a remarkable project. The mere fact that people in a space will look at their reflections (against identical background) but their reflection is not made of them, it is of others (from Venice or Lahore, depending upon one’s geographical position). This physical mixture alludes to how we see others in our image, and fail to observe a distant reality in an objective way.
Along with this, the fact of bringing a room from Venice, constructing it in Lahore and connecting the two in real time signifies how in our present world travelling from one place to other has become easy (with reduced duration of journey) and difficult (due to restrictions imposed by the developed countries) simultaneously.
It precludes the need to travel to Venice in order to view the Biennale, because a part of Biennale is brought to Lahore. This shows how the hegemony of the Western world is being reduced now with other regions (from periphery) becoming part of mainstream art.
Almost two decade ago a painter from Lahore was selected for an artist residency in Cleveland, Ohio. During the long walks from his hotel to his studio space, he used to think what if he dug a straight tunnel under his feet that lands him into his house in Lahore on the other side. Through his work, Rashid Rana has made that tunnel, which connects locations and dislodges the concepts of a single narrative, truth or territory.