Dealing with spaces
Art intervention in architecture
Under the above title, an exhibition exploring the relationship between space and tangible and intangible architectural elements was given a definitive artistic form. An experiment in the structure and vocabulary of 'spatiality', the event was put together by architecture students of University of Asia Pacific, who, under the curatorship of artist Wakilur Rahman and architecture teacher Masrur Mamun, boldly turned the empty gallery space into a many-part installation. The object was to examine how creation of space calls for a heightened sensitivity of culture and context. It was the first ever attempt at translating studio exercises into a gallery situation where space comes with its own given dynamics yet full of possibilities of transformation. With all four senses activated through articulation of light, air and enclosure, space divider, surface texture and appearance as well as sound and memory, the exhibition occasioned the making of some 12 artworks that were interspersed in six rooms, two corridors and an open stairway of the Dhaka Art Center. The exhibition ran its course between November 23 and 29, 2024. Depart faced the curators, WAKILUR RAHMAN and MASRUR MAMUN, with five questions to throw some light on the convergences between art and architecture.
1. The dovetailing of the conceptual with the visual, the spatial with the experiential, seemed to have served as the basis for this show. What inspired you to have embarked on this project, and how did you arrive at the final compositions?
Wakilur Rahman: This was an elastic process that spanned three months; it was a journey. Instead of a normal studio exercise of architecture, the students were encouraged to see the potential inherent in the gallery space by transforming its elements into installation. It became a means for them to see architecture closest to art. For me, as an artist, working in a collective is something novel. Production as an artist is always solitary. So this exhibition provided a new platform for some specific collective goals to attain. Architects generally measure everything.They have precise models which they build only to scale it up when building the actual structure. Here students were encouraged to go beyond that and perceive the space as sensory domain. The projects of the students began as mere concepts–in executing the concepts, the projects went through changes and were turned into art through certain curatorial interventions. The final touch comprised the inclusion of the aesthetic elements.
Masrur Mamun: This experiment was a demonstration of the relationship between 'design' and 'art' and the fluid boundary in between. In architecture we make tangible plans, drawings, models, but actually we design according to imagination, riding on the 'reality' parameter of it. Architects are sensitive to the language and evocations of space, but at what stage an architectural space becomes an art statement is still unclear. It is common to think that theirs is a technical craft meant to solve problems of living through building habitable spaces. But they too are changing lives, as do artists. We wanted the students to experience this. In such an exhibition there is a lot of brainstorming behind each piece … and we wanted students to treat the objects and materials as if they were stories, not things; or, in another parlance, as real 'objects' in real contexts.
2. Considering the point of negotiation between art and architecture from within, an exhibition venue certainly has a ring of novelty to it, and it also has its limitations, as the gallery space comes with its own dimensions and dynamics. How do you think this exhibition has addressed this?
Wakilur Rahman: The dimensions and dynamics of the gallery, as you say, constituted by space, light, etc were pushing us to reorient our thoughts and actions in a certain way. This was part of the project, in fact, and not so much a limitation, rather catalysts to understand this point of convergence between the two fields. We were encouraged to attempt redefining spatiality. For example, with the visible boundary in the light installation, the degree and function of illumination made us integrate certain elements. One of the more difficult ideas was the space-frame of the stairways. A space-frame that has no apparent function was subjected to freewheeling playfulness by the students and thus became the integral part of the overall composition. The hanging clothes were a playful take on Dhaka's daily spectacle in middle-class residential areas. The history of the gallery building as a residence was thus integrated into the programme. In the 'divider-wall' installation, there is a wall-length canvas covered with throwaway models. This brings to salience the tactility of the constructed wall, but it also echoes the city we live in. The relatively high wall on the other side of the room is a reaction to the existing 'drop beam' that creates the possibility of dividing the room into sections. This possibility was already there – the wall as an intervention was just a result of how we reacted or acted in certain space. We were keen to define the character of that intervention, both aesthetically and by calculating the reactions it might elicit from spectators.
3. Installation art has become the lingua franca for most ambitious exponents of contemporary art who mostly belong to the new generation. What do you as curators and also a practising architect and an artist feel may strengthen the local praxis? As one feels there is no way one may become insulated against the influence of the contemporary global praxes, what are the fundamental ideas that may be needed for local artists to take head of their own context?
Masrur Mamun: There is no 'extraneous local'. There is just honest reaction and context. The Argentinean writer Jorges Borges once wrote that when he tried not to be intentionally Argentinean, his writing was considered more Argentinean. If an artist, like Borges, works with the context that surrounds him, there is no need for consideration of the 'extraneous' interventions. What may come out of the engagement with the context is something we often refer to as 'organic', 'local', as vernacular as it gets. The global praxes in contemporary art have been increasingly site-based and this insertion of the idea of spatiality is very relevant to architecture. However, though our interventions were aesthetic and we did not feel the need to insulate against the global, the participants were asked to respond organically to the spaces and our conceptual interventions.
Thus, in the final product, it is not relevant whether we may be considered universal as regards our position vis-à-vis space and its myriad ways of articulation. A lot of thought went into the process – there was this engagement with the materials. The materials lent to the installations the characters they assumed in the end.
4. Both art and architecture negotiate certain principles or fundamental ideals that are universal. Where do we insert the local, or do we at all think about inserting ideas with the aim of creating the vernacular? Is the vernacular in art and architecture an organic development? We may look at Bawa et al. Still we would want to hear it from you.
Masrur Mamun: One cannot think of vernacular as a mere symbolic identity to be inscribed from outside. Being 'local' simply means to be part of the 'local' in thinking, in practice as well as in reactions and actions. The insertion of the vernacular as symbol is just an honest result of such interactions. In fact, the word 'insert' may not be correct here. No identity is outside of the self. If someone needs to insert something to show something he or she is not, I think the meaning of that 'something' becomes lost, misplaced or even fetishized. It is not required to make it look vernacular, especially in case of architecture. The inherent character of the materials, the surrounding climate, the cultural atmosphere, the use of patterns, all these things inspire an architect to react in a certain way which is universal but, at the same time, very local as well. All one needs to do is keep one's eyes open and nurture the organic elements. That is what happened in this exhibition. The student exercises were launched with simple reactions, but the results started to inhabit many local characters. The space division exercise resulted in the segment 'Memory Space', where a mosquito net defines the space, and the exercise for the abstract turned into 'Enclosure', where Tabeez strings are the deciding element – they all bring back cultural memory.
Wakilur Rahman: The installation entitled 'Enclosure' involved not only the aesthetic concept of the gestalt but the strings used to define these minimalist lines were Tabeez strings, chosen for their impact on the white room; their reference to the 'locale' may not be obvious but the element was consciously chosen. In selecting the materials for each exhibit the possibility of multiple meanings were considered beforehand. Take again the example of the work 'Function' exhibited on the staircase. The participants were asked to bring their personal used clothes and consciously avoid extravagant or expensive materials. Each element of that work has a connection with the participants, but the work also resonates with the visitors, as they have a similar memory of hanging clothes in their households. Each object has its own story and instigates other stories.
5. Process today is prioritized over the end result. But here we have a long way to go to have a full understanding of that. What is your experience, especially in relation to this process-oriented exhibition?
Masrur Mamun: If we talk about this exhibition, there are two significant parts of it – one is a process-oriented exercise for students to understand the very theme of the exhibition and the other is the final work as a statement when it comes to an exhibition gallery. We would not like to call it 'exercise' when it is open to public scrutiny in a public gallery. Therefore, it does not exhibit its process, rather shows the end results. But surely the studio works of the students were process-oriented, thought provoking and experimental, irrespective of their final realization. There are also two parts of 'understanding process' in this exercise. The first belongs to the understanding of space. There are many physical attributes of the defined spaces in the galleries. Those attributes can be accentuated, negated, modified or even redefined. Students were asked to get involved in them. In that phase of the exercise, it was not the final result, but, rather, going through the process of analyzing physical space and studying the abstract notion of spatiality, the possibility of calculated reaction and the spontaneity of subjective sensuous responses were valued more and even encouraged. Whatever the reactions the spaces provoked in us, we worked through those sparks created at the primary stage.
There were many overambitious ideas, or should one say ideas which were later deemed unfeasible. Though we had to throw away many such ideas, yet all were considered to be of some value. Hence they were analyzed and consciously rejected or approved. That was the process set down by us for each student to follow. For example, exercises involving the use of water or evocation of smells to create a psychological space were not considered for installation, even though they were discussed at length.
The second part of the 'understanding process' for the students was active when the smaller-scale model exercises were installed in actual spaces. There were many ideas that looked good on paper but proved to be problematic in reality. They required impromptu improvisation, especially in the realm based on level-headed aesthetical judgments. This aspect of the work was akin to that of the master-apprentice duet while the two are working under a particular educational framework, where the students mainly observed the curators working and improvising and participated accordingly. Architecture education is very much process-oriented, just like any creation/project of architecture is. This exhibition was not different from that.
Wakilur Rahman: In the final product there are layers of meaning that are not visible. But the thoughts, the process, which give rise to the final products, are what in reality create connectivity. Thoughts are provoked, in fact, when the body is in contact with three-dimensional realities. One was encouraged to improvise and even 'destroy the design' to arrive at the final result. For example, the piece entitled 'Memory' with three blue mosquito nets – one which converges with the idea of the sculptural. The room itself pushed us towards the sculptural. Initially, three overlapping mosquito nets were used to create a space under which spectators would roam about what we thought would look like a cultural memory lane. In their attempt to use such a common household item, the students discovered that one worked better as the size of the space did not allow room for three. They also discovered that the casual undulation makes more impact than the designed orthogonal. The material in use often leads to the possibilities explored in a given space.