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Two sides of the two coins

Two recent exhibitions in Lahore bring out the dilemma faced by artists exploring new genres that are not saleable

Two sides of the two coins
‘Specimen Drone’ by Zaineb Siddiqui.

Every week I receive invitation of exhibitions, both hard and soft, from various galleries. It is impossible to attend them all, especially the ones in other cities, but these cards keep me updated on the current art scene of Pakistan. In a way, these preserve the history of our present art.

Normally these cards vary as much as the art and artist they set out to publicise. One can actually categorise them into certain groups. Some of the shows include paintings of modern miniaturists who have been exploring new (in most cases repetitive) aspects of the genre. Others announce exhibitions of landscapes, calligraphies, figures and abstract surfaces. Some works are made and purchased for a specific purpose — it is considered fashionable to do so. Others are comfortable with works that appeal to a particular sentimentality and are easy to comprehend.

Another category of more popular exhibitions these days is of works which can be described (in the absence of an appropriate term) as ‘experimental’. These are created in new media-like digital prints and video installations, or installations and site-specific sculptures: Art that is hardly sold — not at least normally. Artists spend their material and other resources to make something which they are certain will fail to generate commercial success or recognition. Galleries too are clear about this situation, yet they invest in holding these shows.

Commendable as these efforts are, one wonders how long will this state of affairs continue. A time may come when private galleries would decline to showcase works that are not saleable. Likewise, artists may drift towards other, more lucrative, genres that can be marketed comfortably.

Actually, this happens every year as graduating students in their degree shows display works which are distinct and daring in terms of their concepts, imagery, methods and materials (and can not be stored in private houses or purchased by common collectors). Their large scale digital prints, huge installations, video projections and site-specific pieces entice the viewers but they end up buying conventional art pieces only.

 Do the artists need to revise their mode of expressions and subjects, or to find new venues outside Pakistan where this type of work is accepted and appreciated?

Two recent exhibitions in Lahore opened in the same week bring out this split more clearly. In Other Spaces (April 7, 2014 at the Taseer Art Gallery) three artists displayed their works which comprised installation (Uzair Amjad), video (Ahmed Faizan Naveed) and resin sculptures (Zaineb Siddiqui). Although there was a disparity in terms of formal solutions and aesthetic sophistication, one observed how far removed these are from the usual art shown at our galleries, purchased by art enthusiasts and reviewed in newspapers and magazines.

In a private conversation with the three artists, the issue of this divide was discussed leading to the question of how long can one keep making works which are exclusive in terms of their viewership and acquisition. Is there a way out? Do the artists need to revise their mode of expressions and subjects, or to find new venues outside Pakistan where this type of work is accepted and appreciated?

In fact there are no clear or quick answers to these questions. But there may be multiple reasons for the gap between this kind of work and a usual viewer. Perhaps if one reads the texts accompanying these exhibitions, especially the artists’ statements at the Other Spaces, one realises the distance is not caused due to formal elements, technique or material only, but because of concept too since the diction describing their ideas was as obscure as the objects on display.

‘Untitled’ by Ferwa Nadeem.

‘Untitled’ by Ferwa Nadeem.

However, this state of exclusiveness or elusiveness persists even if the artists are employing elements from public sphere. One example is of Re-Landing (Ferwa Ibrahim’s recent solo exhibition inaugurated on April 9, 2014 at Rohtas 2), in which the artist has displayed two audio/video installations (Fetal and Water is Coming), both made in urban spaces. In one, Ibrahim is lying flat on her back on the dried patch of Lahore Canal, while traffic is moving in both directions on the adjacent roads. She is breathing but appears still underneath a beautiful blue sky and green atmosphere. Looking at her video, one notices the absence of other human beings. So even if the artist is present at a busy part of the town, her sole presence seems haunting. It alludes to the incidence of mortality in our tranquil environments, in which any citizen can get killed in a bomb explosion, through a stray bullet or by petty criminals.

The exhibition included other pieces, like mixed media on photographs, which disclosed Ibrahim’s maturity of being an image-maker. By and large, the work remains exciting for an enlightened audience, while the general public may feel reluctant to enter that domain. For many artists, there is no problem in that position — why must an artist seek to communicate or conquer an imaginary public which does not exist.

Thus, for an artist there are no other choices than to pursue his course. Because the dilemma of making art for public consumption or for personal motives is resolved on another level — when art in its imagery and concept can connect to a vast public while each viewer picks a different interpretation of the work. Hence, general acceptance comes with the passage of time and a variety of audience. A number of artists are now internationally known even though their mode of making art is not conventional or traditional. For instance, one leading artist of our times who when he started working in digital prints wanted to have his solo exhibition at a gallery in Karachi but was refused by the gallery on the pretext that no one will admire or acquire his ‘photographs’ — a decision that is still regretted by the gallery.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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