Relationship between art and reality is perhaps the most important aspect of creativity; it suggests how man in his creative endeavour can conquer and compete with various manifestations of nature. Since art is about changing the order of things, man’s landing on the Moon can be interpreted as an unforgettable work of art as do the two jumbos hitting the Twin Towers in New York.
Not only the artist but everyone else is perpetually transforming his environment, his own self or history. Man is not content with what he receives till he alters it according to his wishes; even if it at the cost of his own resources, lives and future.
This change occurs in many manifestations: matter or different attributes of nature have been treated like tiny toys or huge tasks in the history of mankind; from wheel to World Wide Web, almost every invention of human beings was an attempt to capture and control nature.
Compared to scientists, explorers, magicians and shamans, artists approach the idea of transformation in a different way: they negotiate two realities. Like a man balancing between two wives or lovers, artists try to maintain a link between the existing substance and the illusion created about it. Often, this takes place on formal level as a painter is struggling with his pigment, canvas and oils. The interaction or tension between the two poles — the reality of the matter which is being used or consumed and the illusion of an intended visual — has been the history of art.
Since the last century, artists instead of merely ‘utilising’ materials have become more interested in substance as content. Especially the Italian artists of Arte Povera movement and of a generation earlier (such as Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana) explored and extended the limits of material by drawing our attentions towards the aesthetics of a mound of clay, a bundle of twigs or a collections of rough stones. In fact, their works operate in two directions — along with making us ‘see’ the actuality of material, they lead us to purity of concepts.
This two-folded approach towards the basic process of art making is seen in the show Four and Other Elements. Curated by Amna Hussain, the exhibition at the Canvas Gallery, Karachi includes works by Sehr Jalil, Kiran Saleem, Julius John, Suleman Aqeel Khilji and Ghulam Mohammad. All these artists are known for their different styles and particular techniques but, for this particular exhibition, they have tried to address the theme in a tone that both justifies the concept of the curator as well as bears their individual mark. Besides conveying the idea of experimenting with four basic elements, the works also remind of the issues of our times.
In the work of Julius John, one is aware of the presence of water yet the water ceases to remain white and pure and assumes a real presence in the form of polluted liquid of drainage pipes and sewerages. John has constructed a kind of water passage inside the gallery, with views of buildings on one side and paper boats floating on this ‘virtual’ stream.
The works of Sehr Jalil can also be compared to John’s in terms of their unexpected handling of elements and unconventionality in pictorial scheme. A large assemblage, composed with wooden frames, old paintings, printed pictures and layers of paint, in an uncanny way, is connected to one basic element — earth. Despite the inclusion of mountain-like forms at the top of the picture frame, the artist’s interpretation appears as free, personal and poetic as her treatment of techniques and mediums.
Another example of employing an unusual object to create an extraordinary image is the painting in which rosary beads in various colours are arranged to communicate a message through words. In fact, the choice of rosaries which are normally used for repeating sacred content and holy names to write a simple and mundane text is a means of infusing a new meaning and function into an item connected to the concept of piousness and piety.
The painterly quality found in Jalil is seen in the canvases of Suleman Aqeel Khilji too, with his circular pieces titled Bubble, in which the artist has drawn figures of an ideal man and woman against imaginary backdrops. Bubble may refer to air, another element, but it also indicates the bubble of desires for a normal citizen.
These existential issues take another turn in the work of Kiran Saleem who has attached two life-like ears to a white cube, of the same size and dimensions as a human face. This sculpture alludes to the reduction of human beings as a silent majority, muted and glued to their tv sets waiting for breaking news or other such sensational stuff.
Saleem’s other work from the exhibition is in continuation of her earlier pieces where she has been trying to reduce the distinction between reality and its reproduction.
Perhaps the most exciting work is by Ghulam Mohammad, constructed by joining small letters in mixed media. These identifiable letters form a barbed wire across the paper as well as the page of some sacred content. In both works, the letters are put in an arbitrary order in all directions. His art extends the notion of basic elements and includes language as one of these; hence the title Four and Other Elements. Along with expanding the concept of elements, Ghulam Mohammad examines language as a mode of communication and a tool of confinement as well. Language as an apparatus of exclusion in his mixed media work is experienced every day while reading newspaper or watching tv news channels. Yet we are fascinated with the use of language without realising its oppressive and deceptive role.
Watching all these diverse interpretations of a theme, one realises the artists not only explore the possibilities of one material or an element in nature but, in many cases, this search becomes the prime subject, cause and goal for art making. Thus they blur the boundary or barrier between form and content.