A visit to Ali Kazim’s studio a few months ago was no less than a surprise because, contrary to artists’ cluttered working spaces, Kazim’s was clean, and spotless. Amidst everything neatly stacked and carefully stored, a small canvas caught my attention. Made on linen, the image of numerous broken segments of a clay pot was rendered in such masterly manner that the fragments of baked clay seemed alive.
Due to its link with abstract aesthetics, its connection with heritage, and its imbibed comment upon the value, usage and treatment of tradition, I was tempted to write a long and comprehensive text on just one painting. But I did not.
Now Ali Kazim has provided another opportunity to focus on one single work. His recently concluded solo show at Rohtas 2, Lahore (Untitled, held from Feb 19-March 3, 2015) comprised only one exhibit, an installation that covered most of the gallery space. A viewer got a chance to witness the continuity of tunnel-like objects woven with hair and spread out around the display area. These forms tilt, turn, move and intertwine at different angles, hence creating a complexity of views and visions.
The cylindrical structure is hollow since it is fabricated with hair, both human and artificial (although in the age of implants it is difficult to tell the difference between the two!). The intricately woven piece extends in various directions and depths, and resembles a blown-up intestine suspended in the air, as it is impossible to locate the mechanism through which the big installation is fixed in the middle of gallery space. Only through a minute inspection or after inquiring from the artist does one start to notice the almost invisible stripes of white tapes that join thin threads to hold the huge work to the ceiling, but all those merge with the background.
Actually it is not only the method of hanging; the entire construction offers a sense of illusion. The initial experience of looking at the work is seeing through layers and layers of hair joined together. In a way, the piece suggests delicacy and frailness despite its magnitude and scale. This contradiction creates an interest in the work, since what is presented as a huge installation in reality may have not weighed more than a few pounds.
A significant aspect of this web of illusions is the use of a particular substance because in Kazim’s work, much like his painted canvases, the material becomes the message. The choice of hair serves more than one purpose. The three-dimensional form fabricated with hair looks more like a drawing in space, since it is based upon a basic element, the line manipulated and manoeuvred in multiple direction and dimensions. The sensitivity of mark is easily transmitted through the installation because, not only the scale, the choice of various types of hair indicates a subtle shift in the hue of marks.
However, more than its link with the act of drawing, the work could be interpreted as an essay on body — on how the body is solid and ephemeral at the same time. Thus the installation signifies this blend of mass and delicacy through the accumulation of hair.
The relationship of hair with body is repeatedly explored in art, especially in the genre of sculpture, since it is not difficult to depict features realistically in a carved stone or cast bronze. But when it comes to rendering facial hair i.e. beard and moustaches or hair on scalp, artists have been forced to rely on a certain stylisation because it is impossible to convey the fluffiness and texture of hair in materials as hard as marble or metal.
In a sense, Ali Kazim’s work could be an elaboration on hair or concepts connected to it because in our culture hair hold a specific connotation and meaning. In a paradoxical manner, human hair is associated with beauty as well as with uncleanliness. Poets have praised the locks of pretty women at length; yet a human hair found in a dish or drink is enough reason to abandon it.
In Kazim’s latest work, both the awe and awfulness associated with human hair is expressed. The scale of the work, the craft of creating it, the scheme of installing it, and the visual pleasure in finding millions of tiny marks making the drawing in space impress a spectator. Yet the formal layout of these lines, which are never at rest, allude to an organ or the inside of human body. This reading, related to body, can have meanings of sexual or violent nature, but a visitor is unable to detach the experience of seeing an extraordinary structure constructed with a normal yet uncommon material.
Whether the context is sexual, formal or political, the work offers more than just one layer of interpretation. As Umberto Eco writes that some “books like the Metaphysics of Aristotle or the Critique of Pure Reason have more commentators than readers, more specialists than admirers. And there are, on the other hand, books that are extremely pleasant to read, but impossible to write about: because the minute you start expounding them or commenting upon them, you realize that they refuse to be translated into the proposition ‘This book says that’”
In a similar sense the Untitled by Ali Kazim defies all attempts to rationalise, categorise or simplify it in words, because its visual pleasure and pictorial presence surpasses the limitations of language.