Neither form nor Narrative: Text as object of Reflection
Wakilur Rahman's recent work has the viewer transported onto a plane from where one may realize that his is a world which is neither about imagination nor reality – it occupies the space between. In the 1980s Wakil launched his career as an artist intent on addressing the political reality of the time. The tumultuous years of the army rule saw the emergence of some socially committed artists – among which the members of the Shamoi group made a point, a strong one at that, of challenging the licentiousness of the military regime with the zeal and prophecy of activists while they eyed an end to the misrule, and Wakil was an active part of such critical insurgency in the artistic domain.
Those speculative moments of history and the sense of urgency they aroused in some, have now taken a different turn as the same artist currently stands transformed, and in the recent past, has rarely shown any impulse to conjoin art with politics. The last ten to twelve years testify to this transformation.
Wakil has interiorized, to a degree, the linguistic art that thrived in the West since the 1960s, enforcing a search for the alternate route. The vehemence of political genre has given way to the conceptual retooling, which is expressed through a formal method of transmutation. We may call this method uncritical and appropriationistically glib, though in the context of much homogenized artistic practice in Bangladesh, one must feel the need for contextualizing what he does and how that bears down on the level of praxis as he presents language as visible markers of departure from the convention of painterly surfaces and it attendant processes of art-making, if not anything else.
The visual quality that he has now achieved in his print, painting and installation may be open to scrutiny as to their sources, but they deserve a special place in the art scene where art has often been interpreted as the results of good draughtsmanship. Conceptual or linguistic art, on the other hand, is linked with an alternative process, be that a physical process guided by some manipulation of linguistic or conceptual elements replacing the physical elements such as paint and/or design components that give a feel of physicality.
Further deep into the idea of such dialogic art, in the new millennium, we witness the concern for 'context', and find that today's art is neatly bound up with the politics of representation – which in fact had begun to change the face of the Western art since the 1960s. It is a leap from plain visuality to intertext and/or to the experiential world where the artistic expression occupies a space beyond meaning refusing to yield to processes of traditional decoding. In contrast, Wakil seems to position himself far away from such fraught sites and situations, which is because the politics of representation as well as techniques of multivocality or cross-referentiality affecting the traditional signifying system in art has been misconstrued as plain ideation or something which results from conveying a concept.
As we confront Glen Legion's text-laden pieces where 'social and historical determinants' are at play with the objects represented or experience evoked, the oeuvres that pave the way for Wakil, we discover contextuality in entextualized objects or objectified thoughts. We also detect a tendency which some refer to as polemical referentiality. In Glens work we see documents related to slave trade being juxtaposed against the artist's self-representation as a slave up for sale (fashioned after flyers from the trade); or a text related to homosexuality being presented as weathered-textured remnants of readable or unreadable thoughts.
Both the processes are related to the method of 'unselfing', to borrow a formulation of the English novelist Iris Murdoch, and are open to semiotic readings. In Wakil's case one discovers a separation of the visual effect from the context of such de-personalized method of art making; as a result, the phenomenological dimension is apparently lost.
The pictogramic pleasure that Wakil musters in many a piece showcased in his recent solo titled Reading Image, mounted at the newly-established Bengal Lounge, actually pushes intertextuality out of foci. It rather brings in an abstracted way of presenting text as an observable object which, no doubt, has a uniqueness of its own as no one in this clime dealt with textual matters in this manner before him. That the mise en scène of documents and objects are never to be encountered in Wakil's formulation is a given; however an alternate way of reaching objecthood rescues his oeuvre from falling into total banality. The restraint with which he manipulates his surfaces, colours and shapes, leading to the formation of the series of a benign visual text, after sometime, unreels a procesual tale, and in turn, bring to focus the transmutability of matters.
The most poignant test in letting physical properties take their own course is to be found in his Book Object series. By letting a vegetable-like plant grow on open books the artist frames object in relation to their afterlife. These eschatological propositions aside, the rest of the works are short on extratextual substances or metaphysical inquiries – through which one enters the territory of the 'beyond', where all matters enter a relationship with meaning.
The works that are of some unique visual quality are Song of Tide and Hajabarala, or gibberish, in translation. Both exemplify the attenuation of the genre to mere visual representation rather than contextualization of textual matters. They also are testimonies to the fact that Wakil is poised to turn every opportunity to overlay his work with textual impressions only to effectuate a vision that rarely goes beyond observed reality as he inhabits a synchronized area of vision untrammelled by concerns which lie external to it. After all, he has fashioned his language in the traditional modernist abstract idiom, one which never pursues the teleology of art and its beyond.
The exhibition was held at Bengal Art Lounge, 15-29, January, 2012.