Staging of the contemporary in Dhaka Art Summit : Summing up our own blockbuster show
While the fate of the 'new art' still remains in the throes of an endemic indecisiveness courtesy of the mainstream art circle leading mostly to misgivings about its origin, the current deposition and its future in Bangladesh, Dhaka Art Summit mounts its ambitious 2nd edition to afford a synergy of the newest samples of South Asian art that have literally gone global.
The new-found enthusiasm has apparently rubbed off on the young Bangladeshi artists, the breed of enthusiasts who are most likely to face the challenge of eking out a new path for careerhood in the changed climate characterized by the growing trends of monetization and mobility. Ten such emerging talents with their selected entries jostle for space in the somewhat constricted Samdani Art Award pavilion. Those who are privileged to have received solo and group treatments, and are similarly infected by the same spirit of 'global domination', forged their respective display with the word 'ambition' written all over their artistic productions. The steam generated by this one-of-a kind event will continue to feed the engine that has been rattling to defuse the ill-informed criticism directed towards the new development(s). The interdisciplinary, heterogeneous practice that is slowly but surely becoming a norm, the Summit, alongside the Asian Biennale, has become an important point of encounter with its current variety, though in the curated section of Bangladeshi art entitled Liberty, one wonders agape as to the reason of its absence.
Global art fairs are staged from within a certain parameter – where the objectives and ambitions of the organizers are by and large aligned with the pragmatic stratagem of linking the local market with the global financial as well as knowledge circuit. Since the last and the maiden staging of the Dhaka Art Summit was only a preamble to this elaborately laid out 2nd edition, it provides grounds for an assumption that this expansive platform will set the stage for a sustained intervention in Bangladesh courtesy of the Samdani Art Foundation, whose emergence in the Dhaka art scene few years ago has unreeled an unexpected new frontier.
The current Summit, a juggernaut of an event that saw an unprecedented flux of crowd coursing through the floors of Bangladesh Shilpkala Academy's 120,000 sq ft venue, will continue to be the source of hype and excitement for many and a point of contention for some till the next edition comes our way. But, most importantly, it will serve as mnemonics for impetus for the emerging artists struggling to find a foothold in the rapidly changing terrain of art. For its sheer scale and ambition in staging an entire gamut of South Asian art through the solo projects by the globally renowned South Asian 'art stars' alongside two curated assemblies of the multidisciplinary artists from Pakistan and India, this Summit will continue to serve as a yardstick to measure one's success by.
The Samdani Art Foundation puts on a successful 'blockbuster', starring world acclaimed curator Diane Campbell Betancourt, whose purported support of a burgeoning healthy patronage system has been extended to Dhaka from her South Asian base in Mumbai and Hyderabad. The producers of art who vie for attention consists of a constellation of high profile artists who have cemented their reputation as South Asian giants with their linguistic distinctiveness which arise through an interstice – a space between the global trends and their respective search for the most pertinent context to interpose the questions/issues vis-à-vis their habitats.
The plugged-in art will certainly be a catalyst for critical afterthought, thereby further enriching our discursive space(s). In its attempt to push the limits, some of the entries simply outwit the viewers with the technical mumbo-jumbo through the ritualistic observance of the hi-tech with elaborate virtual trappings alongside the industry-ready contraptions that mirror, successfully or unsuccessfully, the shine and glitter of the late capital era financial megalomania.
Yet, with the works that traverse unexplored ravines situated between what we have already accepted as art and what is yet to be recognized as such, one will be compelled to revise one's position vis-à-vis the ambitiously large projects. Shilpa Gupta, Rashid Rana and Bangladesh-born British artist Rana Begum manage to course us through distinct new conceptual outposts, with only Rashid Rana being the one given to extremes in terms of framing a concept through an outsized contrivance which is a replica of an exhibition space in Tate Modern – a direct allusion to the 'white cube' model and its role in contemporary art making and staging.
Of the three internationally reputed artists, Rashid seems by far the most technology savvy as he has ventured far into the realm of simulation – literally and conceptually – to interface his art with the digital experience. In his recreated faux-exhibition space plastered with hidden textual cues which only become visible to viewers using digital image capturing devices, the artist complicates the duality of art and the gallery space to show how art is being moulded by the mode of emplacement. One may draw an analogy of his search for the genesis of art in an empty room to Derrida's claim to archewriting – which is a semi-fixed structure that exists before any kind of writing and oration commences.
Writing on the method of Freudian psychoanalysis and on how it should not be an end but an instrument to decipher codes of human desire, Adam Philips points out that 'a technique is not supposed to have an unconscious.' In today's globalized climate, artistic practice shows all the visible signs of the exponents' unconscious appropriation of the virtual visual calisthenics offered by computer graphics. Shazhia Sikandar's Parallax is a case in point; it is a hypnotic surrender to her experimentations with radical shifts in scale from page-drawings to miniature painting and four-dimensional video-painting installations to this 3-channel HD animation.
The panoramic vision kickstarts with promise. Hard to underline by a trope or category, the encounter courtesy of the floating-flowing-mutating images slowly moving from left to right, precipitates a cosmic experience. The immersive crossreferential web, arbitrary and self-referential in its cast and composition, where the personal is meshed with the universal and the visual with the conceptual, at one point in its course collapses into an extreme ritualistic-animistic simulation of explosions to dematerialize into an 'overall' gesture. As is the case in many an extravagant animation piece, Parallax paradoxically simulates the simulation.
The Pakistani-American artist's fascination with translation and its original, or the interstice between, dates back to her unique formation as an artist who immerses herself in the Indo-Persian miniature painting tradition. It was her later experimentation with the form which catapulted her into the global mainstream.
Incursions of technology into the artistic space signals a logical transition towards a society that thrives on innovation, yet the age-old idea of the artist testing the limits of the medium always seems an aesthetic imperative. If questioning the medium is considered a necessary stratagem, it has been thoughtfully exploited by Rashid Rana to drive home a spatial-conceptual idea represented by a novel construction that aligns the actual with the virtual.
On the frontier of political art, the form/frame –through which a 'social fact' is revealed alongside the necessity to unveil the historical follies of the nationist projects -- has been made to travel many an uncharted terrain. Shilpa Gupta's political manifesto untitled reverberating as the poetry of fragments pegged on a unifying critical discourse employed to plumb the visual-social-political disturbances in a potent language makes elastic even the borders we take for granted in the artistic domain. Using installation composed of found and created images, including an entire set of work on paper showing phensedyl stains, Gupta's language is spare, with an almost minimalist evocation of pain and subdued sense of irony, forwarded through unpeopled snapshots of enclaves on the India-Bangladesh borders, copies of agreements between the two states, a blurry list of names for children falsified to access education and a slanted plank of wood held on mute shoulders. Assymetries of power are driven deep into the soil or water or sky where the people trapped in the enclaves are the objects of an 'arbitrary manifest,' deprived of their rights as citizens. Much has been said about symbiosis of viewer/participant and blurring boundaries in her work, but it is the ironic wedge she runs between the potency of boundary-making, which is the macro-imaginary of the state, and the communities' micro-experiential reality, which makes a strong case against our psychic dependency on metanarratives.
Lida Abdul, the 'Afghanistan-born global nomad', performs her politics by taking us back to the ruins that lie on the Silk Road such as that of Bamwam, where once stood the Bamiyan Buddhas.
The artist, in a hauntingly controlled (paced) lyricism, takes the landscape and architecture of the ruins as her point of entry into a world of reference, to that which is absent, if not nostalgic. Whereas, Sikandar focuses on the non-referential qualities of disembodied mythical and historical symbols, Abdul merges morbid sensuality and stoicism in a visual landscape that becomes surreal conjunctures of the symbolic and the non-referential. One who considers art to be simultaneously 'cathartic and active,' Abdul's collection of videos – four in all – is the creation of the 'void moments', through which to give voice to the othered. In Clapping with Stones (2005) the mise-en-scene courses one through silent voids that appear like human apparitions of the smashed Buddha to the sound of stones being clapped after meditation.
If a summit encompasses the lows, as well as the troughs, between the peaks, then the current edition of the Dhaka Art Summit indeed succeeded in sampling rather ill-devised performances, somewhat unsatisfying samples of the thriving new Bangladeshi scene. Of the three public art projects, the two simply played it out in the lowest of spirits. One who aced it is India's Raqs Media Collective, though their image-clocks did not simply measure up to their oversize profile. Dispersed across 12 locales the clock faces occupy the billboards in pairs or in triplets, with the avowed principle of 'lexical patterns' producing varied subjective experiences.
The Pakistani, Japanese, and Sri Lankan galleries stood out among the exceedingly large number of Indian based ones, indeed providing an array of contemporary art that is not easily accessed in Bangladesh. As such, the summit seemed more of a fair, parallel to the export fair and an opportunity for Bangladeshi artists and audiences to experience the breathlessness of a contemporary art feast, rather than a summit of South Asian art, since Bangladeshi art itself seemed to lack equal representation.
Diaspora artists were ubiquitous in the solo projects and in many a gallery booth. This perhaps mirrors the reality of contemporary art where global positioning seems to hinge on one's proximity to the knowledge centre, which still is the west, despite the fact that Asian giants such as China is leading the economic bandwagon for now.
How does the Bangladeshi contingent fair against all this? It is a question that will haunt the people of both sides of the fence – those whose reactions to the new praxis are unambiguously buoyant and those who still have their doubts. That the representation was uneven and lacked a unifying thread is an issue that has been raised by artists and experts alike, though, one must remember that, in absence of gallery representation, culling of works may have posed pragmatic/logistical difficulties.
Only half the iceberg has been visible of Bangladesh's mainstream and alternative art scene at the Summit. The country that is sitting on a potential art boom for the last ten years, and has so far made a lacklustre effort to freight their new art to the global arenas by creating the preconditions at home in equal stride with India and Pakistan, has seen a somewhat truncated staging of both established and emerging artists. The three young talents who have been given adequate space to manifest in their full characteristic aesthetic verve includes interdisciplinary artists Mahbubur Rahman, Tayeba Begum Lipi and photographer Shumon Ahmed. The former two were commissioned to do solo projects, while the latter was given a thorough treatment at Indian curator Deepak Ananth's enclosure of a site earmarked for negotiating Bangladesh with the 'extraterritorial elsewhere', that came under the rubric B/Desh.
The days of the unusually anemic reaction from the mainstream to any radical change in the aesthetic current is now behind us; yet, what still persists is the notion of art releasing codes only to consecrate the nationalist cultural ethos – as is evident in the site entitled Liberty, Bangladesh's uncut version of the gem, and also in media coverage bent on branding the country through figments of nationalist axioms achieved through granting space to works with references to the flag, river/water, soil/texture and, when narrativization is allowed, the liberation war.
If the 'analytical' still remains overshadowed by the 'emotional' in the seats of knowledge, the Summit enforces a rethinking of the state of our institutions and the so-called modernist knowledge bases that have exhausted their caches and are in obvious need of refill. Art under a conservative guardianship will only find itself in a catch twenty-two situation, chasing a set of goals that has lost its relevance outside the academia.
On the level of praxis, the context for new art is as overwhelming as that of the obvious presence of rabid commoditization, an economic reality which we collectively live by but mentally abhor, and in the process do little to curb the excesses of an erratically growing 'market' in need of lawful interventions to ensure consumers' rights.
If the spirit of 'excess' defines our highly monopolized market reality, with China and India vying for gaining ever greater leverage in its expanding horizon, in the artistic domain some feel that things need to be on a tight leash or, perhaps, steered judiciously with a clear direction in view. This Summit evidently suggests a shift in 'guardianship' by making visible the fact that the old forces of control are in repose vis-à-vis the emerging 'frame' represented by a spatial construction of an international fair where curators operate in the scope of trendsetters or at least as validating agents of trends and trendsetters. Perhaps, this is the point of departure for questioning the status quo ante and for laying the road to the future.