Mapping signs and sites of new praxes and paradigms
Seventeen years into the new millennium, the art scene in Bangladesh is thriving with the incursion of a ubiquitous practice – new media. Artists across generations now produce new media art, though at the outset there were only a handful of enthusiasts who explored the possibilities of moving image and still photography. If the digital onslaught on our daily lives started some time ago, it emerged in the art scene around late1990s. Back then, however, the few seminal creations/innovations which set the stage for further explorations were not particularly of any pedagogical interest to students across art faculties and institutions. For a younger generation of artists adept at Photoshop and other software new media practice is more widespread now.
Yet to this day only a minority can reap a profit from technological engagement. Some of its pioneers have long been the cross-bearers of political and public art. At one point in their careers, they began to co-opt the digital alongside their practices of what can mostly be defined as morphed or semi-morphed figuration on two dimensional surfaces. On the other hand, the generation that emerged with the onset of the new millennium developed an altogether different mindset. Brought up with the internet and fed on an extreme influx of images and information and other forms of digital engagements, these artists are now working in relation to an ever-expanding techno-aesthetical field continually drawing artistic and intellectual nourishment from available data. They currently face the challenge of making art in an environment of overproduction. Furthermore, Bangladesh art scene has reached a juncture where each of its new ambitious practitioners risks reiterating the artistic stratagems and forms that are already in circulation on a global scale.
A good number of today's artists exploit new media as a way forward, as a means to skirt around overused academic genres. Allying with advancements in computer science and multimedia technology in a more globalised world, though not necessarily an inclusive environment, has so far proved constructive for most. Yet, for a few there still are many challenges that they must overcome to find their own voice in an art scene where mainstream validation of new forms of art is still somewhat elusive. An understanding of this new chapter would require an acknowledgement of historical trends from which it emerged, particularly the variegated practices of the 1990s. It is the new impulse that gradually rubbed off on the technology savvy new generation of artists towards the techno-aesthetic horizon, but they were not the only ones as some of the more established artists also integrated new media into their works.
Yet, use of video, photography and multimedia images remains a subject of contention in the academy here. Dominated by retrograde understanding of art, it is unlikely that academic curricula would include any of these fields in the near future. At the helm of these mainstream institutions are doubters and obscurantists who frequently express their shared fear that the new media would hasten the demise of what they believe to be the most enduring artistic virtue – 'the touch of the hand'. It is in this climate of dispute and misinterpretation that a growing number of young people are employing tools and technologies of new media to structure their artistic language.
At biennales and art fairs, the surge of digitally produced and manipulated images is now a global phenomenon from which new creeds and codes are being devised and disseminated. In these transient spaces emerging trends commingle with traditional forms, often stealing the limelight for their contemporaneity. These are the nodal points through which new art forms, technologised as well as other forms of experimental art, extend their spell over younger generations of artists and art connoisseurs.
One can attempt to briefly describe the relatively new tendency that now characterises the practice of a number of contemporary artists based in Dhaka and Chittagong – the two main cities of Bangladesh. They have developed a tactic of interactivity and a performative functionality of new media within our evolving art scene.
Cross-media: a way out of the'purity' of mediums and unilinearity
Even before the arrival of 'key forms of the new media' which are based on differences of 'numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability and cultural trans-coding,' Bangladesh art scene witnessed tectonic movements around the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Outlining the development of new media art, therefore, requires an extensive reading of its backdrop before the digital surfaced in its current form and technology transformed languages of art since the late 1990s.
The rise of new media in Bangladesh can be traced back to the contrarian as well as assimilative environment of the late 1980s, a time infused with new spirits and activities that survived into the next millennium, thereby exerting influence on a number of young artists. Many of them, though, eventually fizzled away as those artists either disappeared from the scene or subsequently acquiesced and worked within the parametres of accepted genres. The first group comprised of politically motivated artists from a collective named Shomoy (Lit. Time), alongside many mainstream artists that included Ra Kajol, Mahbubur Rahman and others. In another category innovators such as G S Kabir, Rhytendra Kumar Sharma (painter) and Rezauzzaman (sculptor) exploded into the scene only to soon veer into more predictable languages of expression, or to disappear altogether. This is what happened to Sharma and Rezauzzaman who occasionally dabbled in mixed media.
In 1987 Rezauzzaman and another painter friend staged a show on a poolside corner of Teacher Student Centre of Dhaka University where they agglomerated found materials and paper collages. One of the prominent pieces in this informal space was a discarded window repurposed with sloppily applied paper collage on the outside that opened onto another more organised collage inside.
Among other forms of convergences between mediums as well as between medium and space that slowly began to turn the tide in favour of new media, G S Kabir's mixed media pieces brought into play a new cross-media look. As a precursor to new media, Kabir combined industrial methods with slightly unconventional painted spaces to work wonders – at least its visual effect surpassed the techniques preferred by some of his contemporaries. His works in oil on rexine or artificial leather saw the decisive insertion of screen-printed photographs (of the Liberation War) into the picture plane. He created these works by applying a smooth dash of colour as a nod to his own graphic designs. Kabir was what we erroneously call a 'commercial artist', professionally designing catalogues and posters but producing painting proper at the same time. This was in the late 1980s when the second phase of the 'will-to- topple-the-typical' was underway (the first such instance undoubtedly was when painter Aminul Islam pre-emptively worked with mirror fragments and paper collage on his canvas in the early 1970s). Aminul Islam's collages impacted Kabir's works.
Kalidas Karmakar's etchings developed using viscosity and photo transfer around the early 1980s. The newness he achieved through analogue technology helped shift our gaze since his works saw an unpredictable marriage between disparate motifs and surfaces. His works are remembered for their distinct graphic quality and they stand at a remove from the mainstream prints and paintings of his time.
A new language of art emerged in the 1990s by translating the object (painted/ sculpted motif) into a 'thing' of becoming. The 'modern' notion of purity of the medium was displaced when G S Kabir began his experiments with screen-print while Ahmed Nazir found objects including human skeletons into galleries in the mid-1990s and recomposed his monotypes by painting over some of the printed surface. Prior to this Mustafa Zaman produced a series of photocopied collages that he treated to a layer of paint by way of printmaking press to subsequently propose them as ‘editioned prints.'
In three-dimensional art, as a pioneer of composite sculpture since the late 1980s, Mahbubur Rahman made use of industrial objects, such as alarm lights, to add another layer to his figure compositions. These works set the tone for mixed mediums that then became popular among other artists. In an intentionally unpleasant projection of the environmental degradation in a work entitled ‘Green House Effect’ (1997), Rahman outfitted three of the four life-size standing figures in glass vitrines with rubber mask, headphone, and exhaust pipe respectively.
Before the arrival of all such combines, Hamiduzzaman's installations of the late 1980s and early 1990s deployed a strategy that saw assemblage in its psycho-socially meaningful form. With his ceramic sculptures, Alok Roy concurrently toyed with the idea of a nationalist narrative using repeated motifs of skillfully produced human heads.
These artists bypassed traditional artistic expressions to generate new narratives, a terrain of struggle traversing different mediums, a struggle that was and still is primarily about dismantling discipline-centric boundaries and medium specificities.
Following a workshop in 1992 at the Chittagong Goethe Institut by German artist Christian Rothman, participants were introduced to installations and forms of art where the two-dimensional easily merged with the three-dimensional. The workshop popularised the use of analogue process in cross-media practices among the majority of participating local artists. Some of the local painters and sculptors were inspired to make ephemeral works for the first time in their lives.
To sum up, artists transformed the aesthetic as well as the social sphere by going beyond local colloquies, and integrating ideas already in global circulation and imports from the industrial world of technology.
Biennales as knowledge-nodes
From today's vantage point one can retrospectively declare that the Asian Art Biennale opened a Pandora's Box for the young and the restless. The traditional rampart gradually yielded more conceptual works such as installation and new media art. Shilpakala Academy launched what is now the longest-running biennale in the world, slowly acknowledging the rising tide of new experimentations in the then Dhaka art scene. But it showed no hesitation in showcasing new art from across Asia. The Biennale created conditions for future experiments by accommodating installations, especially large-scale pieces from Japan, which influenced few successive editions of the biennale from1981 onwards.
The Asian Art Biennale continues till date as a platform for local artists to familiarise themselves with imitable global techniques. At present, artists co-opt and fuse techniques prevalent at various Asian art exhibitions of global ambition, including those in India, Indonesia, Korea, and Japan. One can conclude that our artistic ties with these countries also fed the imagination of artists across generations here.
The Biennale awakened the local art scene to cross disciplinary methods and experiments, conscious practice of installation art, freeing an erstwhile field from the constraints of purity and scripting a 'new' from within vernacular praxes. It served not only as a window to the global contemporary art scene but also as an instigator for local artists to devise new methods, practice-related diversity in mediums and forms. This gradually led artists to delve outside a singular medium as they began to juxtapose an array of mediums opening themselves to the transience of certain mediums, and adapting afresh to notions of spatio-temporal relativity and interconnectivity. Paving the way for the adaptation and accommodation of global practices, the Biennale also played a pedagogic role in disseminating these practices.
In the new millennium Dhaka Art Summit appeared as a site keen on attracting emerging artists at home and practitioners of experimental new genres from across the globe. In the last three editions, globally known artists, art scholars, and gallerists found their way into this oversized and carefully segmented site making the event a centre of global attention. Since its launch in 2012, Summit has become the principal promoter of new media art lending institutional support to photo-installations and video art projects and other new forms of praxes. In all three editions, renowned artists from the South Asian diaspora and regional artists of global fame attracted a growing number of audiences to the event. Worth mentioning are the new media works of Rashid Rana and Sazia Sikander in the second edition, and Marium Ghani and Chitra Ganesh in the third edition whose use of technology enthralled the gallery goers.
Most modern art genres consider each art piece as a thing-in-itself, a self-sufficient entity bearing the sign of talent of an individual artist.
Art thus needs a mythical space like that of a gallery or museum, where the art and artist are delivered in one special promotional package removed from the hubbub of the daily life. What contemporary art asserts is something contrary to such a mythical dispatch – it seeks to re-inscribe the place/space in order to build on the given. Rather than paying tribute to the 'idealism' that is tied with 'aura', contemporary practices aim to create a 'post-auratic' threshold.
'It was the need to expose this false idealism of art that initially led these artists to its "mystical body," the modern museum, for it became clear that its supposedly supplemental role of "preservation, enclosure and refuge" (Buren) actually preconditioned art production, predisposed it to an ideology of transcendence and self-sufficiency.' Read in a European context, Hal Foster's above reflection clearly suggests what the shift was about. It was about a departure from mythic enclosures to place one's praxis close to the domain of the public or the everydayness of our experience. Since the 1990s onwards, the new art that appeared in the Bangladesh art scene signalled a movement towards the periphery. This new peripheralization was not merely a throwback to the alienation of the arts in the 1960s both in Dhaka and Kolkata that lent a mythic weight to individual talent. Rather it is a way out for that mythic figure working in an isolated enclosure. The phenomenon of the new, or even the new that appeared through new media innovations, are primarily about repositioning art and artist in relation to the social. Therefore, art-making is now a close kin to exhibition-making: artist wanting to make, or remake the place and open it up to a new audience who might respond to the new dictions where the high and low as well as the individual and social are made to collapse for the benefit of the process.