(with)in/out, a null-hypothesis?
We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein. One could perhaps say that certain ideological conflicts animating present-day polemics oppose the pious descendents of time and the determined inhabitants of space. – Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces
An unresolved puzzle, spanning five rooms of Dhaka Art Center, the untitled art, architecture and moving image, a historical Without (the generation of the 1980s) poses as the dark space surrounding art's subjective Within, refracted a multiplicity of artworks. In spite of its experimental framework, Within-Without appeared to be a harried collateral show running parallel to the Dhaka Art Summit, on which a curatorial gesture of the artist-friends to three recently lost (and gravely mourned) creative exponents (Tareque Masud, Mishuk Munir and Raziul Ahsan) was superimposed. A disjointed trajectory, dispersed on two levels of quaint edifice of the Dhaka Art Center, Within-Without was perhaps ambitiously framed by poet Sajjad Sharif as The Clock of Time. Time in this jigsaw-flatland reads more like a newspaper archive than a clock: scraps from both history and the present elude circularity, or even the right angles of a cubist clock. The juncture of disjointure – different mediums and different artists on different planes of time placed tentatively together – evades tangible, distinct atmosphere and conveys a vaguely sensed question: Is there a connection perceptible and meaningful between artists of the same historical era? The juxtaposition of both new and old works of fourteen installation artists, photographers, painters, architects and cinematographers, excluding several key artists of the 1980s, already precludes the scope of such a query. Ra Kajol and GS Kabir, two of the most prolific artists from the '80s, among others, are curiously absent.
In a half-rhyme of meaning with A Tale of Two Cities, Sharif's preface to the exhibition brochure opens with the famous first line of Charles Dickens, 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,' and plays with the dramatic consonance of uncertain time-space: 'We had no way to know which hour it was… the night's beginning or its end?' The reference is to the moment of upheaval, the '80s, from where the future appeared shrouded. Apparently, here the two cities are Within and Without. Yet, if the single upheaval tying the two cities is the uprooting of traditional aestheticism and its concurrent world views associated with the 'genre-breaking' art of what has been called the 'third wave of Bangladeshi artists,' a tenuous tale is told. Art from this generation and particularly from the Shomoy group of artists has been the focus of an increasing number of collective exhibitions at home and abroad, and its imaginary, language, style and articulation has been referred to as 'objective' and at times dispassionate in relation to traditional styles or treatment of the subject.
Can we then say that the contemporary and older works of these 14 artists and architects and film makers sufficiently indicate any kind of Bangladeshi avant-garde? The avant-garde is oriented at least a few degrees east and north of the larger canvas of modernism. The artists of the European avant-garde yearned to decrease the distance between praxis and thought in a revolt against aestheticism and its reference to and negation of bourgeois means-end rationality, as well as the modernist thread of 'high-culture's self-exclusion from mass culture' (Andreas Huyssen cited in Art and Its Histories, 1999, Edwards, Steves). From the 'cartoonish' to semi-social paintings of Shishir Bhattacharjee, to the three dimensional installations of Dhali al Mamoon incorporating a diversity of media such as props and gauze-canvases on which he reassembles Picasso's masterpiece, Guernica, and the abstraction and seriality of imagery in Wakilur Rahman's photography interpreting reality in vague and intangible terms, the evolving work and media of these artists defy consistent 'styles', and, indicate gradations in sensibility rather than dispassion. No doubt the initiate into the '80s' art will glean the German Dada crossed with deshi pop in Shishir's black-and-white painting, facing architect Rashidul Hasan's aerosol installation, and the slightest glimpse of the interactive art in Chittagong-based artists Dilara Begum Jolly and Dhali al Mamoon, as well as a taste of modern architecture of the most conservative of all visual types, long been in vogue in Bangladesh. The sampling of architect-artists and the representative works of the mature artists narrow down the possibility of deriving any manifesto of the avant-garde and modern or the relationship between history and art, that is, just how one enters the amorphous domain of this group of fourteen.
Will the mere juxtaposition of image and thought, unrealized architectural models and text, moving image of contemporaries elicit the connections that art (or at least, the art-viewer) aims to forge? Wakilur Rahman recently spoke of an abstract art that still has atmosphere, describing his style in his shared show with Dhali al Maoon in Monocrhomatic Maze. Here, however, apart from the self-contained installations of Dhali al Mamoon (a new version of an earlier piece) and Dilara Begum Jolly (an installation featured earlier in the last Asian Biennale), the will to forge an aesthetic position is not tangible in the mixed-media, mixed-artist installations. A monumental steak to be cut into bite-size nations sits beside the world to be lost – a forkless, knifeless plate of roti capturing the midnight breakfast of partition, like a roadblock before the devilish sneers of blood-thirsty predators clawing at birds portrayed in a huge canvas by Nisar Hossain, reminds us of the scarred social body and polity, the inheritance of 1947. Dhali al Mamoon, on the other hand, draws us into a much subtler form of experience of the social trauma. His screen of gauze assembles Picasso's Guernica, silent agony of 'revelation', seemed to have resulted from a search for a means to heal social injury;
Tawfiqur Rahman's black masks sits on white columns, refusing connection with the 'props' on the wall, jet-black hair and white gloved hands touching what is not there, a part of Dhali's installation; a wooden scaffolding of trees and their negation symbolized in aerosol cans – with an interdictory sign before a book – juxtaposed and unimposing; the unravelling of an 'unhappy consciousness' – a bitter fruit of Partition – in obvious signs and clichéd caricature of Pakistan juntas and the religious symbolism framed by the so-called Islamists before and after 1971,in the form of a mad-eyed Jinnah plucking a star and a crescent in Shishir's panoramic canvas; Dilara Begum Jolly's sequined floating body, denatured and mirrored in stone-studded glass below, perpendicular to a tree that is but a shadow in suggested mud, surrounded by spare, branchless twigs on three walls; Wakilur Rahman's photographic series of the indistinguishable aquarium of neon nights and fish tank days, a double mirror of glass and the world of the postcutural crucible of objectified images and reality which the artist refers to as cultural fast food.
If we consider architect Raizul Ahsan, whose SOS Mirpur architectural plan is captured in a wall opposite the screen on which director Tarque Masud and cinematographer Mishuk Munier's Runway plays in intervals, here is a spatial imaginary likened to Le Corbusier and Andy Warhol in its unadorned elicitation of the 'monumental' and the 'ordinary.' The text accompanying the plan explains his interfacing of Greek styles with practical, unpretentious design. Modern architecture in Bangladesh has been influenced by Western modernism, it goes on to explain, a style which emphasizes the simplification of form and absence of ornamentation or reference to history and text (exemplified in Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier). In the first few minutes of Runway, shown opposite, an ordinary world is made extraordinary by the sound of the massive engine of a plane landing in Bangladesh, to be described in its rural hinterland, and the stop-and-start images of people walking, freezing, and walking again, in different directions.
In the room opposite, and the largest one among the five, an endless series of architectural plans flank Wakilur Rahman's photographic series. These are plans for buildings that blithely belong to the sub/urban landscape, a landscape both healed and scarred by the concrete-fleshed reality of skeletal-dreams.
If a question of tasting differentiation and influence in the light of a temporal scheme (the subjective world of a 'generation' in its objective manifestation), the exhibition suffers from mere conceptual flavour: one leaves hungry. Yet, as a question-exhibition, the curatorial intention may well be an invitation to hunger.
Sajjad Sharif eludes to the possibility of an easy connection between history and 'virtuoso' artists; in his language, the former is a field through which a 'nation marches through time', the latter a subjective field that constitutes the basis of a future art. The alternative hypothesis to art trudging through time as history marches is, of course, art surpassing the limits of time, finding the form and means of the future, creating the language and style of an invisible world, and not merely invoking, but enabling the future. Yet, here, the curatorial gesture towards friendship is a superimposition that refuses the test of correlation: the variables refuse relationship. The exhibition threw together mere pieces of 'the news of two cities'… and hardly told a tale. The avant-garde insistence on not disassociating art from mass culture is part of a story that remains to be unfolded in this exhibition; the groundbreaking wave recedes on such a shore. Or, the clock of time is an image-world (and concept) whose cinematic wholeness – its circular narrative – cannot be captured in a mere trailer.
Within-Without was held at Dhaka Art Center, April 11- April 22, 20012.