Reading a catastrophe set against causality/casualty by number
The disaster récits that appear from within the social body – when it has already endured multiple injuries in both political and industrial registers – serves as an obvious sign of trauma and loss. The site of disaster, especially in the industrial sector (the latest being the collapsed garment factory that was once Rana Plaza which made global headlines as a 'sign' of social-industrial failure), forwards a cutting narrative. Yet, as a sign and symptom its connotations are perplexing for each Bangladeshi as it makes obvious the simmering point of what has been a burning cauldron.
Ironically, if an analogy is drawn with the diseased body, which is a biological entity open to scientific probes, there cannot be community récits or narratives on any catastrophe which may be as cut and dry as a diagnosis scribed by a group of medical experts.
In case of industrial disasters which are as embroiled in the global capital circulation as they are an outcome of the decision of the Centre to export all labour-intensive jobs to the periphery – community's voice can at best be discerned as lamentations, as requiems for lost lives. Thus the body counts and the indices of the material loss seem absurd and impossible to reckon with for those who look back at it in anger and pain.
The exhibition at Pathshala entitled 1134 Lives not Numbers, curated by artist Mahbubur Rahman and photographer Munem Wasif, is perhaps an attempt at defining such an emotionally coloured, socially-politically loaded area of collective failure, besides being a commemoration of lives summarily cut short by the catastrophic collapse of Rana Plaza.
Looking at the works displayed in the collection of spaces across the rooms at Pathshala, the South Asian school of photography, which included the newly revamped front room and other schoolrooms next to it, one is compelled to revisit the age-old question – is loss measurable?
In fact, the immeasurability of loss coupled with the impossibility of the representation of the real seemed to have driven the artists and photographers in myriad different directions as they determined their own conceptual valance and organized the final expression in elaborate displays fit for any well-curated exhibition.
The language of trauma is always grated and indeterminate, as in our attempt at articulating the unarticulable the voices crack and codes break down into splinters. In Pathsala's striated exhibition space(s) the Rana Plaza collapse has motivated artists of various stripes in scavenging for references to both the disaster site and the dead – things, objects, images were accumulated that may make possible meaningful exchanges. And in this occasion, all exchanges had to conform to a voice pitched in dirge-like intensity.
If indeterminacy of voice or vocabulary is linked to the fact that the person affected is usually hard put to lucidly articulate the state of mind or to forward a reaction even in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, some of the works in the current crop of art comes packed with clarion calls of a readiness of the activists. In fact, photographer and political activist Taslima Akhter was one of the key components of 1134 Lives Not Numbers. Her involvement with the garment sector goes back more than a decade. In fact, she, along with Ayon Rahel, another activist and photographer, provided the most intimate objects and photographs as documents of the lost lives which, ultimately, set the tone of the exhibition. It helped the curators and other artists, who sought to frame their ideas through collaborations, to access the nether world of the Capitalist economy, about which the educated middle-class is aware but perpetually in denial of the final outcome.
Geared towards the interactive and cross-disciplinary stratagems that have come into vogue in the last 10 years or so, the exhibition drew a huge crowd in this exceptional venue. One must admit that the works and their display were not as unpredictable as human fate. If exceptions care to be sought, the unique piece entitled Melting by Masum Chisty and the Roses Album forged from family snapshots of the workers by Taslima Akhter and Yasmin Jahan Nupur were the two most divergent yet eloquent tributes to the lives lost to the post-Fordist industrial disbursal of tasks through outsourcing and the resultant pandemonium in absence of a standardized industrial code.
While some artists spoke to the trauma incurred in the event of the catastrophe, few framed an emotional response to the lives/deaths of workers involved in this big money-generating industry, while others sought to address synecdochically, symbolically, the vulnerability of human existence, and most of all the fragility of the flesh.
The show wrought a strong sense of morbidity and loss, alongside issuing a loud call for emergency response to rescue the economically othered, for whom the toll has been anything but forgettable.
To attempt a semiosis of a disaster of such scale and nature is self-defeating. The accumulating documents, narratives and accounts produced from words of mouth and even recorded interviews, performances and, last of all, installation projects – all this seems too overwhelming an experience for a level-headed recounting, let alone a reconnaissance of what has been lost forever.