My East Is Your West, a collateral event of the Venice Biennale to be held in Palazzo Benzon, is a coming together of two contemporary artists – Shilpa Gupta and Rashid Rana – from India and Pakistan respectively. The project, conceived and organised by Feroze Gujral, the Director and Founder of The Gujral Foundation, addresses the lack of a pavilion from India or Pakistan in the Venice Biennale (yet again). The title is also a provocation to the national pavilions in the Biennale that define a certain position depending upon where one is located. But with the rise of artists featuring in pavilions of countries other than their own, the questions of location, positions and viewpoints have become even more relevant.
My East Is Your West not only addresses India and Pakistan, but includes other countries of the subcontinent in its programmes. Natasha Ginwala, the curatorial adviser and international curator of public programming , has initiated an interdisciplinary travelling platform of events entitled Ancestors. Held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Jaffna, Sri Lanka, in March and April, it included seminars, workshops, performance and film screenings held in collaboration with art organisations. More public programmes are scheduled to take place in Venice during the biennale.
Charu Maithani [CM]: How did the idea of having a collaborative exhibition come about?
Rashid Rana [RR]: Feroze Gujral and I met at the last Venice Biennale and we mutually sulked over the fact that neither Pakistan nor India had a pavilion. I whimsically floated the rather idealistic idea of a joint pavilion, and Feroze, being a remarkable doer, has actually gone ahead and made it happen.
CM: What is the motivation behind this project?
RR: A joint pavilion from the subcontinent at an event like Venice, which is so heavily invested in the idea of nation-states, means that it is cleverly subversive of one-dimensional ideas of geography and belonging. Especially because of having both India and Pakistan onboard, just the fact of the pavilion becomes an automatic comment on the arbitrariness of geopolitical borders.
Shilpa Gupta [SG]: In the absence of any official pavilion from the region, in the specific context of the Venice Biennale, this project presents itself as an ‘unofficial’ presence carrying within itself an ‘unofficial dream’ where two artists from two places that are closer than many would like to believe will be shown together. The project proposes to delve into time, which is not immediate, not so entangled, and to look beyond tense definitions which are not as old as projected.
CM:In her Aar Paar project (2002–06) Shilpa collaborated with Huma Mulji and several other artists from India and Pakistan. Rashid was also part of the Aar Paar project, and had his first major solo exhibition in Delhi in 2004. Have the shared spaces, histories and networks made the exchange and collaboration between the two countries inevitable?
RR: I agree that we have a lot in common to build upon, but there are naturally very striking differences between the two countries as well, which make collaborations all the more meaningful. Having said that, collaboration is working out for Shilpa and myself, but I wouldn’t claim that it is inevitable for other practitioners.
SG: The public art project Aar Paar ran for three editions and was conceived after I met Huma Mulji at the Khoj International Artists’ Workshop in Delhi. This organisation has Pooja Sood at its helm, who had previously organised an exhibition of artists from India and Pakistan at Eicher Gallery in Delhi. One thing leads to another, and over the years, the Vasl [Artists’ Collective] in Pakistan and Britto [Arts Trust] in Bangladesh, amongst other initiatives, have kept networks alive in South Asia. Through these, several friendships have been forged, and today artists from Lahore and Karachi are a part of the art scenes in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. So yes, indeed there have been a few collaborations in the worlds of art [and] literature. Several nongovernmental cross-border initiatives have been at work, which are far more open than other tense spaces. One hopes several more will take place in the future.
CM:Both of you work in the digital medium – photographs, installations, video. The themes too are common, covering urbanisation, geography, boundaries, politics and violence. What can be expected in this project?
RR: My work in this project is a negotiation between the actual and the remote, where the former is all knowledge directly amassed through the body functioning as its site and the latter is constituted by all indirect sources of knowing; these may be as diverse as a sitcom on television and a painting from the Renaissance. I don’t distinguish between them and believe that an artist can lay claim to any. Using these ways of knowing, I am taking the viewer on an experiential tour that makes them question their preconceived ideas of location and chronology.
SG: The title of the project, My East Is Your West, based on an ongoing outdoor light installation, celebrates multiplicity where an individual can function within and beyond and even play with definitions. Through a series of objects, prints and moving images, my work will deal with the tension between the self, as a citizen, and the surrounding nation; their conflicting aspirations and desires for each other and themselves. Perception, time, location and construction of knowledge are overlapping interests that bring both the artists together, but we freely explore it from various tangents.
CM:What has the process of working together been like – sharing space and common problems? Is there an archiving of the conversations and exchanges between you?
SG: We started by discussing our overlapping interest and practice over the years and then decided to work on our own projects, which will be shown alongside each other rather than having any overarching theme.
RR: Shilpa and I are working independently on our separate projects in our respective studios, but we are regularly in touch, mostly over email. It has been very engaging to consider another artist while considering issues such as spatial division, curating, the framing of this joint pavilion and how our works fit into each other. The emails of course are saved, but the real conversation will manifest itself inside the pavilion.
CM:What role, if any, did Venice curator Okwui Enwezor have in this collaboration? At the same time, were there a lot of discussions between you both and the Gujral Foundation’s Natasha Ginwala?
RR: Since this is a collateral event, Okwui Enwezor is not so closely involved. Natasha has been an invaluable resource in facilitating this conversation. She is also curating a series of talks and events following the opening of the exhibition.
SG: More than a decade ago, Okwui had organised a memorable ‘Platform’ in Delhi as part of Documenta 11. Over the years, he has been constantly engaging with this region, and so we are glad that this project features as a collateral event of his Biennale project in Venice. Otherwise collateral events are independent projects – the curator of the main Biennale has knowledge of them but is not closely involved. Natasha is in the project as an adviser and has been someone with whom I have been in dialogue through the making of the project. As part of it she is curating seminars in Sri Lanka, Dhaka and Lahore, including artists and thinkers from within and beyond the region.
CM: The Venice Biennale is all about national pavilions. Given the history of relations, to have Indo-Pak collateral is quite a statement. What do you think of the Venice Biennale as a location for such a project, as opposed to India or Pakistan, given the reaction that it would draw if it were to take place in either of the two countries?
RR: I do not see it strictly as an Indo-Pak collateral but a pavilion from the subcontinent that features India and Pakistan. To imagine India and Pakistan as polarities reduces both to their supposedly insurmountable difference. I agree that it is quite a statement, but the statement is that of subversion and not subscription to the idea of their presumed dichotomy. Perhaps if the event were in India or Pakistan it would be more difficult to draw that distinction.
SG: I would say, why not? Given the projects that have happened elsewhere, one can imagine several interesting locations for it. However, this project rose out of a certain conversation in and around the Venice Biennale, and therefore it holds a very special meaning to be located here.
CM: The poor or lack of representation from the subcontinent in the Venice Biennale is much spoken about. But isn’t a national pavilion outdated in the contemporary world, where one is testament to one’s time more than one’s location?
RR: I agree that nation-state representation is outdated. One artist cannot claim to sum up the entirety of experience in a country, or perhaps nationality doesn’t feature as a concern in defining one’s identity or practice. It is a false burden. On the other hand, it is important at an event such as Venice, which draws a lot of worldwide attention, that voices from this region are heard. Given the exciting developments here and the very mature practice of artists from the subcontinent, I think it is a real shame that they are not adequately represented because their countries lack a pavilion. So how do we undo this automatic negative consequence of not having a country pavilion, even if one doesn’t believe in nation-state representation? I think The Gujral Foundation is showing us one way.
SG: Last year Dayanita Singh, an artist based in Delhi, was one of the four artists representing Germany in the 2013 Venice Biennale , so we are beginning to see a few reconsiderations of the nation-state paradigm in the Venice Biennale context. And one is glad such propositions come from the world of art, whereas most international assemblies and games continue to follow the structure they find themselves embedded in, both in terms of imagination and economics.
CM: India and Pakistan might have a shared history, but the political and economic course since independence has been very different. How do the nations compare in creative infrastructure?
RR: India relatively enjoys more state support than Pakistan. There is a lot of interest within India in roles other than the artist practitioner, such as curator, gallerist, art manager and others. So in that sense, creative infrastructure in India is more sharply defined. In Pakistan, these roles are often taken up by the artist practitioners themselves. Additionally, many artists are involved with teaching, so pedagogy has played a very central role in defining the direction of visual art in Pakistan.
SG: This is, in fact, what took me to Lahore for the first time – I was invited for a workshop at the art school. Several of the key contemporary art practitioners, like Rashid, Huma [Mulji], Quddus [Mirza], Bani [Abidi], Imran Qureshi [Qureshi], have or are currently teaching between the Beaconhouse National University (BNU) and the National College of Art, Lahore. This is something we could have more of here! In Mumbai, where I live, as in several other cities, there continues to be a large gap between the contemporary artworld and state institutions, be it art schools or even public galleries. Comparatively, here there are far more private/commercial galleries, independent spaces and artists’ initiatives, and in fact this year was the second edition of the artist-led Kochi[-Muziris] Biennale.
CM: Shilpa, your work is essentially ‘political of the everyday’ where regular activities are explicated in the ideological structures that they are played in. Rashid, your work is re-imaging everyday imagery and juxtaposing it in a larger context of global politics. Does having similar concerns make a cohesive curatorial thought?
RR: Absolutely. We are aware of common strands in our respective practices. We are both interested in borders, temporality, geography and authority. While Shilpa deals with these concerns using a sensitive affective vocabulary, I examine the same concerns from a broader perspective. The curating, however, doesn’t just stop at overlapping concerns. The conversation is carried forward and the viewer will see our works maintain their autonomy and yet correspond in subtle, surprising ways.
SG: We had several interesting conversations discussing overlapping concerns in our practices; we decided to work freely and not restrict ourselves with any overarching theme.
CM: The digital medium is very much about the user/audience response and interaction. Shilpa, your work is created with the user in mind – how they interact, feel and respond to the work is very important. How far is it possible to shift their perception?
Rashid, your works are like miniature forms, intricately drawn story pieces that are part of a larger narrative. Some work on dualities while others portray the connection with digital technology. How far is it possible to shift the viewer’s perception?
RR: Perhaps I am not looking as much to shift the perception of a viewer permanently as for them to recognise it is slipping and so ‘undoable’. Signals of a perception in flux would automatically make a viewer uncomfortable and also introspective as to their fixed place in the world in terms of spatial and temporal coordinates.
SG: There is no intention to shift the perception of the viewer: rather it is for the viewer to realise that perception can shift depending on the context, be it location, knowledge or access.
CM: You devise ways in which your work implicates the viewer, making them a participant and not a mere bystander. It’s like parts of our lives are exhibited, but just seen in a different way. There is a relationship between the artwork and viewer. Is this a deliberate practice?
RR: In previous works such as A Room from Tate Modern (2013–14) I am already exploring how immersion can play with perception and offer visitors a tour of fictional, impossible spaces in a very tangible, enveloped way. I am taking the idea further for this project, where a visitor goes through an experiential tour over a series of rooms. Interaction of a viewer with the work does become necessary, but it is not dictated. I allow myself to be surprised with the possibilities.
SG: I use everyday devices, as I am surrounded by them and there is a sense of familiarity that they can create. They become entry points into the work to then unfold our conscious or unconscious selves that are carried inside these daily objects or actions. It then seeks to dilute and complicate the spaces shared between different tangents to seek awareness of themselves and each other – something which even Rashid’s work does!
CM: Politics and art: when does it become important to mix the two, and what are the instances where it can be kept apart?
RR: One cannot deny that in an age of intensive visual stimulation, politics and art are irrevocably intertwined, in the many ways that art is produced, disseminated and received by the world. One cannot eschew politics completely. However, I am uncomfortable with the idea of sermonising through art and, in contrast, when global politics dictates a one-dimensional reading of works from a particular part of the world.
SG: I think there is no one way of looking at the world and one kind of practice: and different artists can engage or not, with different things at different levels.
CM: Both of you began expanding your art practice in the mid-1990s – a significant decade in politics, technology and economic aspects of not only the subcontinent but the entire world. Do you see that time as significant to the kind of aesthetics that you have?
RR: I wouldn’t pinpoint it particularly to the 1990s, but the ways in which the world is organised today in terms of information has been hugely impactful on my work. Sitting in Lahore, naturally the city informs my practice, but I can remotely access a huge repository of resources across time and space, and I don’t shy away from using that to my advantage.
SG: The 1990s was indeed significant, and it was a moment of several changes – on one hand changing liberalisation policies led to an opening up of the economy and on the other hand we saw rightwing politics on the rise. On one hand the world was brought closer over high-speed Internet cables, where you could be sitting on a desk and interact with an environment which would be different from your own surroundings; and on the other hand fear and aggression also grew. The time was dynamic and tense, and perhaps lent an impetus to experimentation and the grasping of doubt; however, in terms of formal aspects, my practice does not really belong to a single time.
CM: Both of you have exhibited widely all over the world while still raising pertinent local issues. How does one speak to the local and global audience at the same time?
RR: I do not necessarily preempt an imaginary audience while working, and I don’t believe that an audience is strictly divided between local and global. On the other hand, as I have said before, my practice is automatically informed by the city as well as the global ideas I am exposed to. This was particularly obvious in my photographic sculptures, like The Step (2010–11), where a roadside brick structure from Lahore was quoting the object language of Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt.
SG: Geography is hardly a way to split in between the global and local. We must realise that contemporary art as it functions today is in certain hubs, nested within urban environments, which have a lot to share with each other. Having said that, even within these urban spaces there are different kinds of artworlds, and then there are worlds that are rather remote to art though they might technically be close by.
This interview is published in Art Review Asia, Summer 2015.