Light, colour, form and the act of shahoj seeing
RANA BEGUM speaks to MUSTAFA ZAMAN on the basic elements of seeing reorganized through an individual frame of reference both to her antecedents and personal experience.
Mustsfa Zaman: Your art is premised on the effects you want to produce in the viewers. It is not only about visuality, it is also about how cognitively the viewers respond to them. I would like to know at the outset how your trajectory came about.
Rana Begum: I think I kind of have to begin from the beginning – as I was saying to you – at the beginning of my BA I relized that I was fascinated by certain things– elements that seem important to me: light, form and colour, and geometry. I felt I should start from the basics. I became interested in artists like Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and Anish Kapoor and Agnes Martin, Dan Flavin.
The minimalist lot…
These works they were making were so pure and simple, they kind of reminded me of being in a mosque, if you like. I remember as a child in Bangladesh, being in the mosque where I can hear the water fountain in the background. Sound of the Quran – you know, everything – the repetitive sound and the visual – the simple, gracious geometry.
The synaesthetic experience where the visual and the auditory come together…
I thought I am going to start from the beginning. So I spent three years just looking at form and light and repetition – trying to see how the natural light changes the work throughout the day. I would make works that were almost relief-like pieces where form is repeated – and throughout the day I was fascinated by how dramatically light changes – you know, the light in January and the light in, say, September to December – is very different. This was really, really exciting for me to understand to see how that kind of experienc excited me.
While I was making these works, I was also collecting a lot of adhesive tapes – buying those during my travels, basically. I became fascinated by these ready-made colours. One of the things I used to hate then is actually opening a paint and having to mix it. I thought in my mind – such a beautiful, kind of luscious colour…. To mix it is to make it something else. I thought I don't like doing that.
You would rather stick to the purity of the colour.
Yes, the purity of colour. I think that is when I started collecting these tapes. They are colours that are already ready to me. I didn't have to mix them and destroy the original component. So when I ended up with a huge collection – I sort of started making these works as a way to understand the relationship with each colour, and also to understand how one colour affects the other. I kind of left light and form and repetition to one side to focus on the surface. That is when I started doing these 'stripe paintings' on wood and metal, which is aluminum.
You never worked on canvas? Like the Op artists used to.
I was terrible with canvas.
The trammeling of the eye they used to produce is a far cry from what you do. Your works are in alignment with what the minimalists had done.
Yes. It is about colour – technology and also about discovering new materials.
With the effect they produce we can say you are connected to some kind of spiritual reckoning, is that it?
Yes. The works are monumental, yet at the same time quite contemplative. That is what I found amazing. You know – it is like my experience in being in that tiny little mosque of my childhood. I always had this at the back of my mind.
I really want to find a context against which we are to read your work. I think one finds a kinship with Alhambra and the aesthetic of repetition and multiplication – the way the 'mukarnas' are repeated and each is coloured with a primary hue which are vivid. Yet, together they produce such serenity conducive to the recitation of the Quran. If one looks at your work, and even Dan Flavin's work from that context, you can read into them spiritual content – though neither of you deal with content. The way you work – you sort of reside outside of content. Thus, process – the way you develop the materials – becomes important.
Yes, the process is important. The end goal is always about the experience of the work. And also how and what viewers take from the work. My work is saying – stand here and look at the work.
It is important where you situate the viewer…
Well it is not where I situate the viewer, but where the viewers choose to situate themselves and find their moments to be in sync with the work…
They can interact with the work on their own.
Yes, one of the things I hear about my work is that they are interactive. It is true that they are interactive without the work moving. It is the viewer who has to move in order to actually understand and find their moment while they are aligned with the work, when they can actually say that this is where it works for them. For instance, you talked about Alhambra, I remember walking through and around Alhambra – as I spent some time around Spain wanting to see a lot of Islamic architecture. I had seen it in books, but I had never experienced it in reality. This for me was really very important. I think it really made me realize that actually I wanted to hold on to this kind of experience – this kind of feeling when you walk through a space – it makes you feel calm and contemplative.
You know Dan Flavin, before he started doing what he is now famous for, was studying to become a priest.
Yes, I found that out last night. And also his first mature work was titled 'Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy', so ecstasy plays an important part. If collective ecstasy informs the Islamic art, for Dan Flavin, perhaps, it is centered on Individual ecstasy. As you yourself look at your work – how do you interpret them in the context of both collective and individual ecstasy?
I hadn't really thought about it. I think it is slightly closer to what Dan Flavin is trying to achieve in his work. It's probably more individual in its terms. Because it's the individual that finds their own view, it's the individual that takes their own understanding from the work.
You said in an interview that one of your influence was Agnes Martin; she once said – 'I paint with my back to the world'. What about you… do you follow similar strategy? Because if we gather together Islamic art, Dan Flavin and all the other minimalist and postminimalist works – they have to do with 'seeing' – how one perceives the world – how we organize our visual faculty, and also visual data. Though the works effect how we look at the world. It is related to the world of form and colour and the relationship with reality. There are other aspects to it – I was talking about synesthesia – when you look at something that makes you hear music.
In my recent strategy there is a combination of things that are incorporated in the work. To start off, there is Islamic art and architecture – then I have also these other elemets; you know, I travel a lot and I am fascinated by reality. Like for instance this one time I remember walking past a kind of an incredibly pink bin in front of an orange door. I thought in my mind that what an awful colour combination. And the form – the rectangular door and the particular shape of the bin – was also fascinating. Then I walked a bit further when, through the corner of my eye, I can just see it coming together. So I love this idea of opening your eyes to things you don't normally see, or appreciate. You know a city is normally quite chaotic – busy, mad. And it's like too many things going on. But just to get to find some kind of order, some kind of calm within that chaos was incredible.
So the experiential world is important to you.
When I was looking at your works on the net, in my mind I said: Are these above my head? I am an artist, I am able to relate to them in the context of history. But what about the genaral public, do they react to them? Now that you are citing real-life situations, I think it all sort of makes sense…
The general public will respond and can understand. I don't think they need much explanation.
Not even philosophy… they would be looking from their own position.
Which is why I don't impose any idea on my art, as I feel that they should have their own say about them…
Read form your own position… that's what they are supposed to do vis-a-vis your work.
Exactly. Yes, and I think it is really beautiful as I had once received emails saying that this was what we had taken after seeing your work. They sent me back photos of things that they had seen in the city, they thought they kind of related to my work. I think it is really exciting when that happens – when that connection takes place. When someone actually starts noticing that they have been experiencing them for years without paying much attention to them.
Your works make people notice things that they didn't take much interest in before.
I hope they kind of start to see things in a renewed way; you know, start discovering things that they had not.
I was personally trying to figure out a link between your work and the experiential world.
There are lot of things that come together, and actually and at this moment I feel that I am in a good place with my work. Because with all these research that I had done they are kind of coming together – to start off with form and line and then colour – combining those two things.
In your recent work, are you leaving visuality behind?
No, No! It is still there. It is very much there and much of what I see and experience figure in my work.
Lyotard once threw a concept that if you really want to do abstraction you need to sacrifice the visual. You are not following this direction…
So there is this connecting cord between the world we live in and the world you as an artist bring into view. There are abstractionists who set aside visual/experiential world to do art – even Agnes Martin.
Have you ever seen her work in reality? It is just incredibly, incredibly beautiful. I had seen bits and pieces here and there and I always loved her… and then I was lucky enough to go to New York one time and in Dia Foundation which houses the most amazing minimalist artists – you know Donald Judds, Sol Lewitt, Chris Martin, Dan Flavin, and there was this room that they had completely for Agnis Martin.
I would like to end this interview with how you represent the past – the issue of inheritance. Some artists use art as a vehicle of description – by pulling fragments from cultural heritage they lay claim to their perceived heritage. Inheritance is always translated into some kind of representation of fragments – either in visual or through story-telling. In your own way – you choose to be different. You hail from Sylhet – a city of ShahJalal, the famous Sufi saint. As you relate to Sufism and Islam – you do it in a very different way – we would like to know how it makes its inflection in your domain?
It just came quite naturally in the work – without really forcing it. In fact, I was trying to do the opposite. You know with regard to inheritance I did not want to be an artist who did works that are automatically linked to the background. I did not want my work to become that. I wanted a much more natural progression – a natural development. That is one of the things why I started looking at things from the beginning. Starting from the basic elements. I realize my history and my culture and my religion; they are very important and are part of who I am. And it's gonna be there in my work whatever I do. I did not want it to be forced – to address things in a way which I would say is pretentious, if you like. I was happy and excited that it came naturally in the work – you know, slowly to become part of my work. It felt really good.
In reference to your work if I say it has to do with 'mute ecstasy' – would I be right?
I have not heard that before. It actually is quite nice to call it that…
How would you explain them, if you really want to pinpoint their nature…
I don't know , to me…
It is a vast experience that your works produce. So you are uncomfortable if it is reduced to only a brace of words?
There are a lot of things that you discover in my work. And that is why I do not really think that I would like to reduce them to these two words. The experience of these works change from morning to the afternoon – I think by reducing it to a phrase you kind of lose the variation that they stand for.