Whether it’s a wedding, formal dinner, official meeting, political demonstration, art exhibition or funeral, all that people seek is group photos or selfies these days. The desire to be photographed cuts across age, gender and class barriers, it seems.
Instead of the conventional notion of images imitating reality, reality follows the world of visual. Hence the appearance of a camera stops all movement in the subjects except perhaps breathing.
In a way, the link between camera and everyday life can be compared to the relationship of two art forms: flat and static images like painting and photography, and time-based images like performance and video. Historically, a painter would spend weeks and months to gaze and render a person on his canvas. Life was subservient to pictorial art which transformed every living being into an unmoving picture. Till the time video art and performance art made us realise that life and art can coexist in the same mode; one does not need to serve or subjugate the other.
Performance art particularly projects this concept unlike video which records reality and presents it in another medium. In performance art, elements of actual life are employed without changing them a great deal. So if a man having tea at a café starts talking to you or a girl pushes you on the road, you may consider these acts as civil or hostile respectively. But these can be part of a performance artist’s work carried out in public space. If a person is aware of this genre of art, he must act carefully because either he would be obstructing or participating in an art form, without being conscious of it or without having his consent.
This brings to the basic question: what distinguishes a work of performance art from a normal occurrence. A fight between two car drivers, a lovers’ discourse in a public park, a mad person’s solitary utterance on a roadside or a disciple dancing at the mausoleum of his spiritual guide can be stretched to the category of performance art but it is not. Despite the surface similarities, there is huge difference between art and life where the issue of performance is concerned: the difference of meaning, intention and utility. The performance artists, like photographers and actors on stage, may be performing tasks that are not too far from daily chores, but their content, concept and context turn these actions into works of art.
This can be observed in a recent exhibition ‘We Are All Mad Here’ being held from May 5 to June 14, 2015 at the National Art Gallery, Islamabad. Curated by Natasha Jozi, the exhibition includes works of nine artists in addition to collective works by students from Rawalpindi and Islamabad currently enrolled at Fatima Jinnah Women University, Comsats, School of Arts, Design and Architecture NUST, and National College of Arts, along with two projects: Truck art and Rickshaw as performance space.
Works of artists such as Natasha Jozi, Aleem Daad, Nida Ramzan and Ghufrana Naqvi signify how the established and conventional notions of art-making can be revised by reinterpreting the roles of maker, spectator and material. In many cases, the distance between the artist and audience diminishes as the public also participates in completing, contacting and controlling the work of art. Similarly the distinction between idea, object and location is subject to change in their art works.
For instance, in the performance piece of Ramzan and Naqvi spectators also take part in noting the measurements of both artists, a banal act that is experienced at a tailor’s shop but imbibes the practice of setting up standards of beauty in a society, and judging the females on its basis.
The relation of body and the way it is perceived in a culture (in reference to sexuality or colour) is experienced in the work of Jeremy G Bell too (Building America) in which the artist paints a surface in dark colour, using his body as the tool to apply paint. The act of transforming a white area with black — through one’s body — suggests discrimination in a ‘civilised’ Western society. Bell’s performance documented in the form of video alludes to these relationships of power and illusion of a welfare state that operates on the notion of inclusion and exclusion.
Among the group projects, Rang-e-Khaak by Taimoor Hassan and Maria Qiblah from Comsats investigates ideas about art, craft and other concerns. A male paints a female with diluted clay, and she responds the same way. The work, a continuous cycle of live performance, signifies how we depict the Other according to our preconceived notions.
Natasha Jozi explores ideas related to religion, territory and other demarcations. In her one channel video with sound ‘Audio Chat with Allah’ the artist talks to God, and with her intimate tone and script it seems that she is expressing herself in a private situation; invoking the idea of personal religion, gender issues or the crisis of survival in a society that confuses the demarcation of public and private.
Her other performance ‘I peel Myself, My self I Peel’ executed with the help of two participants, Jozi extrapolates on the concept of banal and bloody. Two individuals are peeling beetroots and the descriptions on plastic sheets suggest issues of identity, violence and the distance of art from life. However, that distance is diminishing because the colour of spilled blood and vegetable used for constant peeling correspond. The artist suggests that the life of an ordinary individual can be an ensemble of diverse streams, which merge and make a narrative that reveals the current readings of a culture from an outsider’s perspective.
The most impressive aspect of this exhibition is what happens to a visitor on entering the show. Through the interplay of mirrors, he loses all sense of space, time or art — an experience that is enhanced once inside the hall. All that is displayed fabricates a dream that becomes a reality both inside an artist’s mind, in his immediate space and at a public gallery, like the National Art Gallery. A feat that is not ordinary, in any sense of the word.