The polemic of postmodernism in search for language and continuity
15th Asian Art Biennale, Dhaka
Art appears to have no other generality than to signify that meaning is possible. This revelation offers itself to Dieter Roelstraete in what he called the central conceit of Thierry de Duve's Kant after Duchamp: extraterrestrials attempting to classify those symbols that humans exchange in the name of art as 'objects' apart. Roelstraete apprehends the self-referentiality of modern art in the generality of art itself, a function Thierry de Duve insisted 'marked one of the thresholds where humans withdraw from their natural condition and where their universe sets itself to signifying.'1
The 15th Asian Art Biennale held in Shilpakala's National Chitrashala, in the final month of 2012, seems to have brought to the fore art that traverses the threshold of art as object, approaching the postmodern with ease, yet largely – with a few exceptions–lacking the playfulness of the avant-garde. A multiplication of references in Indian, Nepalese and
Bangladeshi artists' subdued or emphatic installations and collages, polemical referencing –superimposing texts–in misé-en-scene photography and video installations from the far East, disorientation and the use of the polemics of place from Palestine and the cross-referencing of different disciplines and art forms from Iran, as well as tradition accessed from new, sometimes fragmented vantage points by artists from Bhutan to Bahrain – all reflect present phenomena in the global art world. Nevertheless, one presupposes that the Biennale refracted rather than reflected the regional art scene, given the fact that in spite of a jury comprised of respected artists, curators and critics representing four countries including Bangladesh, presiding over the selection of 'winners' among participant artists, the method of selection entries itself can be criticized for not being selective for the non-Bangladeshi art. Apart from this unfiltered acceptance of work around the region, the Asian Art Biennale was exceptional in another quite visible way. Most other regional and national biennales are curated events these days. Strange then (or, fortuitous?) that the Asian Art Biennale in Dhaka lacks curators – those cosmopolitan globe-trotting connoisseurs of taste and the intuitive calculus of juxtaposition, imposition and superimposition, creating a sum greater than its parts consciously, teetering on the thin line between adding to and subtracting from each individual realm of signification within art work/event. Unlike Chobi Mela – one of the most sought after photography biennales in Asia– which invariably hosts curated shows, the Asian Art Biennale, an older establishment, has never been a curated event. This may well be an interesting, decentered position.
The decade ending the first millennium has been called the 'decade2 of biennials and implicitly, the decade of curating.' The trip that contains the thousand smaller trips of any art exhibition cannot really set boundaries and threshold of signification for all it encompasses. It is with this limitation that the art of curating has evolved. Curatorial practice rose to the level of complicity with art as it developed as an 'exhibition-making' profession. Yet, in the cosmopolitan centers of art in the capitalist economy, curating has moved from the role of 'generating metanarratives of exhibitions to a more marginal role,' according to Lynne Cooke.3 It has become a practice subverted by the institutions of modern art in the experience economy, where the 'spectacle of the encounter' is born through ancillary products such as high-profile sponsors, gift shops, twitter feeds, online catalogues, expansive dioramas, interactive guides. Chitrashala is largely free of this ancillary superfluity, but its absence may well leave too much to the viewer in their encounter with such variant forms, languages and juxtapositions of art. It does not help when translations of the text accompanying a given work creates a whole new life of its own, estranged from the meaning of the original text in Bangla, as with the sculptural piece Everybody doesn't Come Back that opens the Biennale with hooded faceless white forms huddled in three's and two's near the stairs, offset by the black figure marked to an almost leprosy-like beauty and wisdom etched, alone leading with his set gaze. Of course, in spite of the greatest efforts of a curator, the passing spectator's response to an artist's subjectivity can be banal and disconcertingly deaf to the language of the given art 'event' or object. We may, however, note that works of some of the Bangladeshi artists given to the dialogic modes of art have recognized that the very foundation of art and artistic consciousness is subjective and what passes for signification in the 'symbolic humans exchange as art' can be consequentially as arbitrary as extraterrestrial fireflies pretending to be stars in a reflected atmosphere in water. The artist shows art is instinctive, if crude; organic, even if refined.
Nonetheless, the venue, consisting of three floors and four galleries, where the Biennale has been hosted since 1982 and which was built for the purpose of hosting this unique regional event, self-avowedly wishes to reflect certain qualities in its sampling of art from the region: continuity, change, innovation and tradition. The unacceptable spatial intersection of sound/video installations in the same 'aural realm' as other works on the fourth floor aside, the Chitrashala gave much of the art work sufficient room to expand in the four galleries of its three floors, with exceptions of crammed and overlapping pieces, particularly the sculptural display of Indian art. With each Biennale, new countries have been added to the geographically inclusive Biennale. As the Academy says, 'The geographical parameter is important only in a generic sense and also for identification of sponsorship in this pioneering venture. It was inevitable that with time other regions that share, more or less, the same artistic impulses and face the same challenge of forging an identity of their own, would be included in the exhibition as has happened in recent years.'
Starting with the video installations A Simple Death and Crossing Paths by Bangladeshi artists on the second floor and extending to the time-space overlap of psychospace in Korean artist Nam Kyungmi, conceptual art had its place of punctum and suggestive spatiality in the Biennale. The objects of Nam Kyungmin's paintings have been characterized by their ability to transform normal inner landscape into complex spaces of allegory by a single and decisive absence of significance based on a context of duality. Meanwhile fellow Korean photographer and sculptor Yoo Hyun Mi 'repeatedly undergoes the process for the real/outside world to be created as image.' In a colour-rich painting-like photograph of turquoise stairs intercepted by and yet contiguous with a green snake Yoo Hyun Mi overlaps images, and the image is visualized 'in a seemingly familiar world as uncanny misé-en-scene.'4
More disorienting, less meditative and expansive spatially in their stillness were the works of photographer Bashar Al Hroub and director-actor-artist Meiro Koizumi. Palestinian photographer Bashar Al Hroub and Japanese master of the misé-en-scene create thresholds of discomfort. Al Hroub disorients through the use of the body as signifier in 12 blurred frames of different parts of the body exhibiting various emotions, frozen in the snowy 'windshield' of the frame, in the photographic series Out of the Frame referencing 'place' and the anxieties and solitudes of muffled identities through the body. Koizumi suggests a subtext of dream in this theatre of the real, as a certain telepathy is revealed between two solitary passengers in Theatre dreams again of a beautiful afternoon in the metro, using, like Al Hroub one space to reference another, heightening tension, discomfort and 'unfamiliar reactions to the ordinary'5 as the male passenger breaks down, asking emotively—desperately alone—What am I doing, day after day… where am I?
Interestingly, Alhroub's work is developed from concepts of paintings, graffiti and mixed media. While other pieces were also permeated with political or social urgency (i.e. The Fallen of Truth by Hussen Ali Manik, Maldives and Peace in this Troubled Land, East Timor), Alhroub's use of visual language effectively created a 'muffled disorientation' in the reader, surpassing the urgency of violence in color and text in the other (aforementioned) pieces bring to relief the starker deprivation of imprisonment, sensually taking over the eye and mind with the snow's o-gape sounds. The artist himself said he attempted to create a visual language portraying 'threatened self-identity through the process of scrutiny and experimentation.' Meanwhile Meiro Koizumi's process-based art work is characterized by performative experimentation, throwing characters into an urban script and filming towards the edge of discomfort by projecting the 'insecure, liminal and borderline.'6 One can sense that Koizumi has trespassed upon the radical elements of Fluxus art in his fascination with urban anxiety, pacing his aural and visual compositions Koizumi's videos have been called 'at once compelling, awkward, and visceral – subterfuge political correctness resulting in a strange mix of comedy and darkness.' The Fluxus movement played with the notion of 'multispatiality', treating art as a process that flows from its surroundings and refers to spaces beyond the present one through a series of signifiers. There are also elements of the trickster in his work, as per the trickster prophet of fluxus, Joseph Beuys. It has been said that his oeuvre reflects the creative manipulation of codes of conduct, navigating conventions of the moving image, to create mind-bending productions. Polemical referencing, where one superimposes one text with another, creating a condition that is perplexing, is the source of the dialogue in Koizumi's work. This artist from Yokohama has received global recognition for the immediacy of his audiovisual performances, 'constructing a complex politics of public intervention, performance documentation and the staging of a work in a space while drawing in endemic nationalisms.' Theatre Dreams Again of a Beautiful Afternoon is at once poetic, surreptitiously sheer in its unfolding of an urban and psychosocial moment, the dream of 'where we are', and how tenuous the connection to our own voice amidst all others.
The occasional variety in works from one country or region, judged against the generic pieces from other countries, strikingly resonate with the viewer. Three pieces from Oman ranged from the conceptual installation Thought by Essa Ahmed Al Mafarji, using the shape and reflective quality (convex, etc) of blue glass, with edges lit and unlit around blue glass faces, to Ali Nassar Al Hinai's almost classical black and white image of a man pulling a rope, simply fragmented into five canvass-frames in The Five Continents, as well as the evocative, dull dream photography of The March of the Desert by Anwar Sonia.
The art of the near and far East not only displayed the 'co existence of modernity and tradition' that the Academy so desires, but the co-existence of aesthetic and artistic individuality with collective consciousness. Jibeng Jung of Korea had the sole visual illusion reflecting pattern in a cross-section of a plaster-like white dreamscape of office and runway in We Run to the Pattern. The mixed media of Jeasung Hwang from South Korea reflected Buddhist overtones melting in layers of blue in From the Wind of Circulation, with the signs of feathers, coins and rose-petals dropping like leaves into the sea, reaching beyond ordinary consciousness into the threshold between known mythologies (Buddhist symbols) and sensual abstraction of meditative expansion.
Bangladeshi installations and sculptures, given a privileged place on the second floor open space exhibited the tendency for a multiplication of references and a certain polemic in language, yet, in spite of being part of a selection process – unlike the non-Bangladeshi pieces – these installations and sculpture refused to evoke the irony and discomfort of the 'trickster' or the radical Other through the use of found objects or playfulness in this viewer. Roller Taking Print by Abdus Salam and Lifestyle by Muhamad H Rahman with its hanging innumerable remote controls use emphatic and dramatic 'texts' to refer to the conceptual and psychological spaces of living, death, fate, and, lifestyle, respectively, but without the edge of humour or irony. In spite of an organic use of impoverished materials in much of the work of Bangladeshi sculpture-installation artists – from seasoned artist Begum Dilara Jolly's In and Out to the mere manipulation of image for the multiplication or distortion of signs in New Human Categories by Kaiser Kamal and Diary by Uttam Kumar Roy – the use of signs and references can be seen as experiments in the post-modern rather than a search–to use the words of Javed Jalil's deliciously lyrical and yet absurdly 'abstract' painting – for the breaking point of the age of thought. Jalil's painting, Age of Thought and The Breaking Point, takes the spectator on a nonlinear journey through a kind of disjointed ecstasy in time with the human body as signifier and the forms and lines that create both wave and disjuncture of the signified 'clocks' that connect the signifier to the ellipse and flow of movement, a time-space that warps and yet remains human.
Urban themes are not limited to the Japanese artists (ie, Koizumi and Moneten Ujino, in whose sound and live-puppet and rickshaw installation Dhaka is referred to through bright almost silk like clothing and the rickshaw and sound is used to signify the co-existence of technology and organic life).The extensive sampling of work on the second floor included that of the Grand Prize recipient for mixed media, Kazi Salahuddin Ahmed, a sprawling chakra-like expanding map made up of newspaper-cuttings in grey, black and white, imitating dizzying orbit of the city in his urban collage Sheer Chaos. The sheer scale of the work and its repetitions, motion and detail is greyly sensual and oddly familiar without being disturbing. Rather, Ujino's sound-puppet installation, Triade to Joy, straddling an entire showspace from wall to wall—the only piece to be given that space, had a disturbing surface with its bumper-car sound created by headlights and the 'people' suggested by clothes suspended from hangers, the rickshaw puppets initiated by a shift in sound. In spite of being given such space, not only did the sound system actually die and thus the piece falter altogether on a given day, the installation permeated the rest of the exhibition space. Like the Australian video by Todd Fuller, I Could be Your One and Only, a certain pacing and tableau quality emerges, as the pieces are seen as a static image, then sound brings segments of visual motion come together, and then, returns to the still original tableau.
Tradition and continuity merge with the flux of form and subject in the charcoal paintings of Thai artist Hosap, The Last Piece of Soil, the mixed media richness of the Iranian conceptual artist Sadeq Tirafkan who won honourable mention for his Human Tapestry, where he employs a combination of digital photography and hand-woven coarse carpet. And it is worth mentioning that the token individual artist's catalogue in the entire exhibition accompanied fellow Iranian artist, Kambriz Sabri, in his sculpture in fibre-glass, A Window to Light. An interior-designer by profession, it is reflective of the crossreferencing that is today's phenomenon. Honourable mention recipient in installation Rajan Kafle evokes the threat of the global Pandemic of consumerism with empty bottles of wine, beer cans, chips and cracker packets that make up the body of innumerable spiders moving in a splendid acuteness, in rows towards an archway, using alignment and suggested movement. Bangladeshi art has reached a point where the exponents are able to inflect their symbols with the uneasiness that hovers over world politics effecting the social climate of a peripheral economy such as that of Bangladesh.
The installation by Mahbubur Rahaman, Alternative Gestures, builds on the speciality on a terminal situation. A hospital bed and a basin animated with two separate video projections showing, in the former, a patient lying still, and in the latter, two hands busy washing away the last traces of blood. The act of washing refers to the earlier blood-letting signifying both the violence that afflicts the social body and the ailing self that is cowed down by fear. Palash Bhattacharjee, a younger exponent, by contrast, simply runs us through bog where a head falls, face down to an unsettling effect. The shock tactic, a disarmingly simple one, runs in a continuous loop evidencing the universal condition of decentred subjectivity.
It is not too hopeful to imagine that the next Biennale will showcase even more playful or radical departures from the evolving languages of the Asian postmodern and post-avant-garde. The Biennale conjures a departure from the familiar for the Dhaka public, even while it projects Asian art from its global-postmodern and traditional–cultural context to the national foreground of Shilpakala Academy. Object, process or performance, the Biennale portends ever newer encounters with that signifying threshold that humans reach through art.
- Dieter Roelstraete, Is Today's Art too Self-referential? http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/echo-chamber/
- Nicola Trezzi, Flash Art, The Art of Curating, n 271 March-April 2010. . http://www.flashartonline.com/interno.php?pagina=articolo_det&id_art=542&det=ok&title.
- Lynne Cooke, The Fine Art of Being a Curator. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/19/arts/design/as-the-art-world-grows-so-does-the-curators-field.html?_r=0 The Fine Art of Being a Curator
- Korean Artist Project, www.koreanartistproject.com 'Metarealism: Just What is Real Anyway?'
- Meiro Koizumi, Broken Heroes, Beautiful Afternoons http://www.artspace.org.au/gallery_project.php?i=144