The reflexive body at the centre of performativity
MAHBUBUR RAHMAN speaks to Depart's MUSTAFA ZAMAN and SHAHMAN MOISHAN
MAHBUBUR RAHMAN speaks to Depart's MUSTAFA ZAMAN and SHAHMAN MOISHAN about crucial moments of life, ideas and ethos that shaped his works of the last twenty or so years
Mustafa Zaman: Through this interview we would wish to know some of your thoughts on performance, because the performer Mahbubur Rahman evidently embodies an important component of the practice– self-reflexivity. A multiplicity of thoughts and processes are part of what we may refer to as performativity, and a lot of what you have done in the last 20 years – from painting to installation – involve the performative body. Our first query would be – what led you to doing performances?
Mahbubur Rahman: My first performance was in 1994. I was quite an introvert then. At that time in all my body-oriented works I used to place importance on the end product. From the very beginning there is this anti-establishment strain that informed my performances. In fact, there was this thing about distancing of the self from the establishment that I consciously embodied. I used to work in large volumes in different mediums, namely sculpture, oil painting. But in 1994, I did a performance basically, for myself. It was in Lama, Bandarban.
MZ: In those days there wasn’t any established group you were a part of. Was it mainly the aesthetic pleasure that led you to performing in different places?
MR: In fact, from my childhood, I have had a fascination for group activities. I used to practice group activities since my first year in the art institute. Without ever belonging to any political groups, we were greatly involved in social activism. Even when we were growing up we used to rely on our collective resources to buy a football, or a gear for cricket. The economic reality forced us to stick together at every step of our lives. So, with this attitude in place, when we started thinking of creating art, we thought of this advantage specific to group activity. Say, if I am presenting a solo exhibition, I have to handle a lot of legwork involved in the total arrangement of the event. But in a group that pressure is shared. Therefore, working in a group made me feel a sense of solidarity. Besides, a group exhibition leaves a much greater impact when, say, five artworks by five different artists are developed and presented all at the same time. So, this had been one appreciable aspect of working in a group. But our own group was formed much later.
MZ: Yes, Britto was formed much later.
MR: In 2002.
Shahman Moishan: You are a Dhaka-based artist. Why did you go to Lama for this performance?
MR: In fact, I strongly believe in local identity. Actually, I didn't have to strive hard for establishing an urban existence. I exist within a [Dhaka] social circle. Though someone coming from a different area may have to put up a struggle to make a place here as an alien to this community. So, I decided to take the opposite direction – to take my work to the periphery.
MZ: To have the feel of the locality based practice.
MR: Because I grew up in Dhaka, I lacked the opportunity of such practice. That was a cause of pain for me and that's why to de-locate myself became a goal. Because I thought that's the way I could have a deeper sense of belonging to this land. It's like making oneself de-centered. I'm saying this in a literal sense, but that is also the essence of my venture.
MZ: Starting from this politics of performance to the politics of new art, everything is explained through this idea of de-centeredness. Through a performance a given space is changed – made different. This Lama performance, who were the others associated with it?
MR: Well, Lipi (Tayaba Begum Lipi) was there, and another boy called Gorky was also there. In those days, we used to have a chat on the rooftop of the Department of Printmaking at the Institute of Fine Arts. We, at that stage, made the suggestion to everyone to take up performance art. In the end, we could only inspire a few, and Duke (Nasimul Khabir) too joined in.
MZ: Is this about any particular performance…
MR: That was just about locating a space. Actually, at that time I had started creating three dimensional works alongside works in two dimensional format. The idea of performance had developed from my two dimensional works. I used to incorporate two dimensional techniques in three dimensional works. For example, I deployed a particular text or texture on the surface, then may be paste an object onto it so that eventually it gave a sense of flatness. Despite that, my work is extremely voluminous, very, very 3D.
MZ: Are those the early works of yours, I mean the sculptures?
MR: Yes, those early works. Actually I used to create a sort of dialogue between 2D and 3D in those works.
MZ: One interesting feature of your early sculptures that I've noticed is – unlike the static sculptural scheme we have traditionally seen, by tradition I mean the linear language of the institute, one which eschewed story-telling – yours have gained a performative character.
MR: I always wanted to depict a situation…
MZ: Yes, situation/sequence/performance – whatever we label them as… were those performative sculptures your entry point to bodily performance?
MR: My starting point is the narrative that is connected to temporal reality. Take this very moment – a moment is what I really work with. To deconstruct time, deconstruct space and again moving towards reconstruction, or detaching an object to connect it with another – I always used to have this kind of an impetus which I would translate into practice. Actually, I don't see anything in isolation. And the other thing is – around 1995/1997, I used to base my themes on time. I used to work on the body and the situation it is in. The medicalized bodies that saw their entry into my art are due to the fact that I was very much attached to my family. My mother was sick and her physical condition had to be constantly kept under observation; and we were under tremendous financial crisis in those days. As a result of this- taking care of my mother, the workings of her conscious and unconscious mind under those emergency circumstances – all used to affect my thinking. That's how my entire oeuvre of that time ended up being body-oriented.
MZ: That means those references to the medicalized body that often appeared in your work, were reflections of this personal experience?
MR: Yes, related to that condition of my mother. But the subject of my first sculpture is the death of my father. He passed away in 1985 and I did that piece in 1991. Since his death, the sense of loss and pain stayed with me. Somehow, after nurturing that for a long time, it morphed into my actual artistic expression in 1991. So, the process of my work is a long one, like, after five years of nurturing the same thought I was able to manifest it into a narrative sculptural piece. The work that I'm doing now, its process might have begun almost ten years ago. At the same time, the works keep overlapping. As a result, I get deeply involved in the variation of the mediums. In reality, these narrations are body-oriented; in my consciousness, my body and my performance are the same. My performances are going through constant transformation, as I am not just interested in taking my performance to the viewer but also want to remain sincere to the process of which they are a part. Instead of any isolated performance, they issue forth from a processual framework. So my means includes gestures of the body, or conversion of those into drawing or video work.
MZ: There is something about being body-centered in all this. In this region, we have entered the stage of modernism by forgetting the body. We can realize that from most modernist paintings – starting from the paintings of Kibria to all the other modernists, however highly we celebrate them, we don't fail to detect this tendency of erasing out the body. This was evident in the poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore as well. Rabindranath broke away from this restraint after getting into art. But this is new to me, what you said – to reclaim the body through the context of personal life. Like, when in the west performances made their entry into art, when Allan Kaprow came up with his first 'happening' in the 6os, the west was so immersed in knowledge that body seemed to have stopped to exist. The obsession with intellect turned existence into nothing but a narrative to be read in print. The reclaiming of the suppressed body is what inspired many an exponent of art to resort to performance. This interest is mirrored in some performances in Bangladesh, especially in those of Kalidas. Maybe there exists some kind of religiosity or a bridging of that with secularism in his work. Apart from these performances, there were some others which didn't exactly enter the field of art. For example, Quamrul Hassan used to perform ‘raibashe’ dance to reclaim Bengali identity. These, along with other performative acts, of course, were there in our country from long before. Even the performances related to the Hajj, they too involve the body.
MR: Actually, those who do performance even in the west are influenced by eastern philosophy.
MZ: I was trying to come exactly to this point of reclaiming the body – like even in religiosity, when I'm supplicating to Allah, I'm submitting my body to Allah; if I'm approaching Bhagwan, I'm preparing my body for Him – all these concepts are pointing to reclaiming of the body. These were ingrained in us. But, I don't know why in case of art we arrived at such a modernism which simply negates the body.
MR: Since I'm trying to capture a sequence, let me tell you of an incident. It's a memory of my father in the hospice. There is an emotional charge to it – I was spending the night with him – my winter body covering had slipped off – he picked it up and wrapped it around me. In the morning I woke up and left for home – that was my last intimate moment with my father. Then my uncle came to visit him in the hospital before he was taken to the OT. Following my father's death on the operation table, when two of us, my uncle and I, took the BRTC bus to go to the hospital, I was contemplating on father's being taken to the OT. My uncle described that moment when my father was being wheeled away by people with their mouths covered – as if to suggest that my father was being escorted into another world…. This visualization remained etched in my memory to be later converted into my sculpture. I have done a number of drawings, paintings around this theme but never achieved what I desired. Finally, I managed to turn out two works inspired by that moment and that lugubrious sequence. I named them Rath-jatra (the chariot journey) because it is a journey – father left, never to return but that image of him through uncle's perspective lingered in me. The incident of 1985 crystallized into a tangible vision in 1991.
MZ: Well, something locked in the nerves had to be released through the hands.
SM: The body holding an apparently lost item in the form of memory later impacted the art. We may call this an expression of body-memory.
MR: In fact, the mind has to command the act, I mean must send out appropriate signals. I was waiting for the signal for a long time. This is how it works. I used to say then that I work like a farmer – the working process entails staying physically involved while trying to give shape to an idea or image.
SM: This way the muscle memory becomes active. Here, thought doesn't work on its own, rather thought becomes one with 'doing'.
MR: The body is actually creating its reflection.
MZ: Sure, mind is but an extension of body itself.
MR: The mind is a reflection of the body – a body-gesture. That work process was highly performative. I used to work with complete visceral absorption. At the end of the production, I myself didn't know whether the completed project would work out or not. It's because my space was limited compared to the size of the works. I'd make a figure, break it and then mould it again. There was a kind of anxiety over those works of mine. I would wait for the fulfillment that follows achievement. It's a total journey – a physical journey. My work happens through physical involvement.
MZ: It means that the work is the culmination of bodily engagement. We can say this about the works of your early career, especially those sculptures done in the 1990s.
MR: A development that began to take shape in 1994; the expression that resulted was akin to that of a performance.
MZ: So we can easily link this to the fact that the performative character of your sculpture has later turned into actual performance.
MR: As it is, I observe the overall approach of the artist more than the individual artistic product. For me these are not to be set apart.
SM: This shows a process – your work is more a processual action than a planned one. You've told us how personal experience finds its expression in your work. Then, how do you relate to society in your work? The final reach of art is society itself. So, as for your personal stance – does it have any politics?
MR: Well, with due respect to that idea, I would say I never work to serve any ideological purpose. What society expects from the artist and how the artist interacts with society – this question is first and foremost in my mind. Secondly, it also matters how I am involved with the society. Like when we went to Lama the four or five of us were almost like oddballs, in the sense that there was not much societal presence. But nowadays more and more people are becoming responsive to art and we feel that we can involve society through a piece of art or an art-event. Many often say that painting is moving towards a revolutionary end – in fact this is the kind of politics that I am attached to.
MZ: Society doesn't really change through art. The change happens in the sense that art plays a variety of roles often inflecting the process that lead to the change.
MR: When I went to the Vatican City, entered the Sistine Chapel, this world as we know it wasn't there, neither was there its people. I felt a respect for myself as an artist. Whoever enters the chapel, artist or not, and emotively perceives that huge masterpiece of Michelangelo, can't help but come out humbled. See how I get thrilled at the very thought of it! In fact, the Vatican City exists because of its art.
SM: That kind of art is able to create a spiritual union. Does this sort of spiritual aspect exist in your art as well? Since the body has a transcendental dimension and since your work is body-oriented – we would like to hear your views on this matter.
MZ: Mahbub has just re-emphasized the social aspect. What he means by that is the collective consciousness, which we desire to capture but fail to fathom. Often we try to interpret it through art. MR, you were talking about redefining the body and mind through art. This is how art also redefines the society. As an artist you couldn't stay confined within painting – you had to shift to multiple mediums. Then the diverse nature of what the artist wants to do – to show, to address, to interrogate – calls for diversity of medium. This is how one may also resort to performance. Your performances often display a tendency to critique the society. These certainly are different from the one performed on the sea shore. That one had something poetic about it – calm and spiritual.
MR: All this is a matter of age and understanding. Actually, all the major movements of performance have been extremely political, especially true about the majority of performances by the activists which have served a set of significant political purposes. 1999 for me was a time of a different understanding. I lived in a different hope and thought of a different world. With age, experiences set in. Now I'm concerned with the functioning of my nerves, watching my heart beats, how my body is slowly declining. Looking at myself in the mirror, noticing the changes that are taking place in my features – these are matters more intriguing for me than the changing society. The society changes the way a tree does. Take an extreme situation like pollution. We try to overcome that, we harm ourselves first and then try to recover from it – that is civilization – a process of destruction and reconstruction.
MZ: Actually, if we want to create a genealogy of your performances, within that continuity where do you think we can place your performance?
MR: I'm not much of a reader, but there was a time when I used to go to the libraries a lot and used to observe a lot. That's when the questions started forming. The turning point could be the year 2004, when I did an installation show. I created an olfactory atmosphere …
SM: Creating a sensorial experience.
MR: I did another work before that which I entitled 'End of the Social System'. A dead body is being carried away – the gesture was depicted with the use of cotton – so, the body was in a coffin infused with camphor, this use of camphor as part of an effort to elicit a wider sensory experience, is one of the marked tendencies involved in the works of this period.
SM: So we see you have entered the field of performance through exposure to new books in the library, working internationally and also through your socializing experiences. As you said, by using camphor you tried to explore the other possibilities of art through impacting not only the sight, but the sense of smell too. This way an interaction takes place between the artist's vital energy and the living spirit of the audience. This tendency of creating an atmosphere by using the olfactory sense can be seen in traditional performances, especially in many ritualistic ones. Are your works informed by such animistic rituals?
MR: The west has adopted these ideas actually from regions other than the west. Body-oriented art has entered west from Africa. It's us who get confused – not exactly confused –we are rather unaware of their origin, because of the marketing policy of art.
MZ: Over here, discussions and arguments over innovative art practices have never entered the social sphere or their entry has been restricted. Now, let's come back to performance. We observe a desire for metamorphosis in your work called 'Transformation'.
SM: I've read a statement of yours on this subject. You wanted to view the battle of Nuruldin against the British colonialism in a specific way. Nuruldin is the protagonist of a play called 'The Lifetime of Nuruldin' by Syed Shamsul Haque which has been staged in Dhaka. But then, did you purposely instill a sense of helplessness in your performance?
MR: I've taken it extremely personally. The sequence I have homed in on is a conversation between a father and a son, depicting the father-son relationship. They are to plough the field but they don't have the ox for the job. The father groans in agony almost sounding like the groaning ox. This has an extraordinary combination of human and animal elements. I've been contemplating over this plot for a long time. In fact, whatever I do, I ponder long over it. The moment I put on the head gear, made of the horns of a bullock not ox, I really felt surging within me the man's ox-like groans.
SM: Does that mean you wanted to characterize the animal?
MR: I was overcome with that sensation. It was an extremely intimate performance rather than one that banks on outwardly gestures.
MZ: The day that performance was presented in the Alliance Francaise, I had arrived a bit late. I heard one from the audience say it was kind of a mad performance.
MR: Actually, I was representing a state of the body. And the idea was gradually spreading out within me like a potent force. A kind of energy was being generated in my body. That plot, the idea, everything was drawn from within that sphere. That spiritual accent of the corporeal body caught in the throes of an emotion gets activated whenever I perform.
SM: This performance entitled 'Transformation' refers to a man crossing over to an animal, can this be seen as an interaction and not a transformation?
MR: This truly has been a performance of how the energy of one entity is related to another. There is a visual aspect to the work. Many layers of ideas are stashed into it. Whenever a discussion on my work is summoned, I invariably get engaged in an animated conversation. I keep ploughing on about my work. That is my work - that is me.
SM: So, the process of subjectivity of the artist becomes the meaning of his art.
MR: Usually I work on many projects remaining unfocused as to their outcome. There's always some confusion in reaching out for meaning.
SM: 'Bright Artist' is another example, where there is some confusion over or mockery on one's own existence.
MR: I did that when I was in China.
SM: Isn't that a satire? When you are labeling yourself as a bright artist, aren't you mocking the social category of an artist?
MR: I wasn't even sure then whether my art would end up in the museum or with the buyer or stay with me.
MZ: Then, what is art? Is it concerns like this that inspired you to frame your performances?
MR: At that time my mind was preoccupied with such thoughts.
SM: Your work is highly self-reflexive. Except for this work which seems to critique society as well.
MZ: Actually, what does the society expect from the artist?
MR: It could be a criticism of the art market, its policy, the consumers. To categorize art is much fun as it is. There is a discussion nowadays on whether art is an investment or not. Well, even prostitution is an investment.
MZ: How is your performance different from a theatrical performance?
MR: There are certain factors specific to the act of performing …
SM: Your work has a storyline. The same exists in theatrical performance too.
MR: I start off with some issues. I did a performance with the Mandi community in Modhupur. A number of people in a horse carriage move through the forest and melt away in the distance. Their voices fade away too. A strange withdrawal! Here the feelings of the viewers gain prime importance. There lies the power. So, a lot of things in my performance are not pre-planned. The plot/text works itself out as I go along.
SM: In many performances, especially of the traditional kind like minstrelsy (Kobigan), someone from the audience passes a spontaneous comment and the performer adds something new in response. This sort of improvisation also happens in theatre productions.
MR: Performance is a happening, a situation. I feel very much self-aware during a performance.
SM: Are you a self-obsessed performer?
MZ: Of course, self needs to be reclaimed for the sake of performance.
SM: An ego is necessary.
MR: Therefore, my performances are predominantly 'loud'.