14th Asian Art Biennale
Coursing through identity and image
Fundamentalism, Religionism, Nationality, Nationalism – the different veins of identity politics progressively inflict the politics of representation. As ill-fate befalls us, we land on the shallow grave which, in turn, becomes increasingly hard to claw out of.
In countries like Bangladesh or Burma one can watch the resistance of communities, partly formed out of colonial degradations, leading to a protracted armed and cultural conflict with the imperial powers while attempting to rediscover various imaginary, untarnished pre-colonial essences. The result is – 'identity', Bengali identity or Burmese identity, trapped itself in what is primarily a defensive role, even though its accents are strident and its strategy aggressive.
Consequently, Bengali or Bangladeshi identity – not unlike the Indian identity of the pre-independence time, stays within the pre-set system of Eurocentric intellectual analysis of both man and his society as it is constantly being used to redefine the profile of Bangalees and their society in those externalized terms.
While it is impossible to avoid the combative, assertive early stages of the nativist identity as they have to occur at a certain stage of national development, as we are also aware that Tagore's poetry or Bankim's prose is not only about Bengal but about Bengaliness as well.
But, there is also the possibility of discovering a world not constructed out of warring essences. There is the possibility of a universalism that is not limited or coercive, that recognizes that a population in a given topography is composed of fragments and fractures – it doesn't have only one single identity. As such, Bengalees are not only Bengalees, Indians Indians, and so on ad nauseam. And moving beyond nativism does not mean abandoning nationality, but it does mean thinking of a localized identity as non-exhaustive, therefore, without the zeal to confine oneself to one's own sphere with its ceremonies in relation to belonging, its build-in chauvinism, and its limiting sense of security.
Art and culture – with embedded utopian actioning – proffers a post-nationalist possibility of a more generous and pluralistic vision of the world in which imperialism malfunctions and the relationship of domination discontinues. Art is society's reservoir of the best that has been known and thought and, palliates, if it does not altogether neutralize the ravages of a modern, aggressive, capital-induced nativity.
Though art comes to be associated, often aggressively, with the nation and the state and art differentiates "us" from "them" almost always with some degree of xenophobia, the opposite of it – especially in the pan-Asian sense – is true as well.
Art-culture – once only a source of identity generates a rather combative array of imaginings, as we see in recent "returns" to culture and tradition in the Asian countries, including amidst emerging superpowers like India and China. These returns accompany rigorous code of intellectual and moral behaviours that are opposed to the permissiveness associated with such relatively liberal philosophies as multiculturalism and hybridism.
In the former colonized world these "returns" produced varieties of religious and nationalist fundamentalism. Culture is a sort of theatre where various political and ideological elements engage one another and become a protective enclosure which the post-nationalist site like Asian Art Biennial attempts to negate by emphasizing and staging the common, fastening strength of the arts of the Asian countries.
The official history of Bangladeshi fine arts gives evidence that even though Bengali arts retain traces of different foreign and colonial elements, the major forces of arts, here, have always been "native". The rulers of Bengal – irrespective of their religious allegiances – had true representation of the people's culture in the state-endorsed projects. As in the Buddhist cities of Bengal – built during Pal time – one would see profusion of Hindu statuettes. Similarly, the spate of temple-building during the Muslim rule and the use of motifs from folk fable/myths on the temple walls instead of figures and metaphors of pan-Islamic narratives, or the emergence of stylized Pat Chitra in Calcutta (now, Kolkata) during the British rule, testifies to a tradition of sourcing main theme/style/essence and elements from local supply.
Even Bengali commercial theatre, music, photography or cinema, though borne out of a colonial desire, carried direct imprints of the societal and political of the contemporary time.
But surprisingly, Bengali official art-discourse, in a half-century-long bout of colonial hang-over, has rejected this live link. Bengali art-discourse is antiseptically quarantined from Bengali life and its affiliations. Bengali art-discourse predicated upon what is often considered as "purely" aesthetic – an understanding of aesthetics that is culled from the half-digested Euro-centric standards. As such, it is divorced from anything real, anything that is connected with the extraordinarily diversified field of art endeavours happening in the messy, unkempt reality of here and now.
On a similar register, one has seen time and again in Bengal, especially during the time of massive catastrophe or upheaval, an uneasy engagement between art and the societal. And since the site of the latest Asian Art Biennale is Bangladesh, one feels that these unresolved issues of the "political" and the vector of the emerging characteristics of the Biennale, and the success of the Biennial, are directly associated.
Even though officially the event commenced in 1981, the preparation for the Asian Art Biennale was set in motion in the 1976, the format being copied from the Delhi Triennial, an event devised to serve the purpose of creating an international market for Indian art, and which closed down after a number of new art fairs ruined its commercial importance.
Existing Biennale and Triennials, the ones that have already created considerable ripples in the international arena, from Sao Paolo to Havana Biennales, to maintain their relevance, equilibrate with the new art world's reality and have evolved and changed their format to have emerged as the platform of experimental art or stage art works that are not readily available in commercial venues.
Bangladesh is perhaps the only country in the world where there is an absence of not only any attempt at staging the political or the avant-garde, but, there are absolutely no traceable conceptual framework or curatorial direction, turning the event into a site where – bizarrely enough – the participating countries are allowed to send art works that have not been seeded or faced any curatorial sieve.
The selection of artist/art work from the host country is also grossly misrepresented in number and in quality. Consequently, Asian Art Biennale has lost all significance or failed to have any kind of real impact in the art world at large. This year, with 27 countries taking part in the Biennale, only Indonesia, Iran, Japan , Malaysia , Oman, Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka and UAE demonstrated any kind of value or élan while the other participating countries had only gone through the motion and their involvement was merely a formality.
Let us briefly focus on the pieces that won prizes and others that explored the élan vital:
Bangladesh's grand prize winner Wahiduzzaman is actually referencing a style made popular by Nalini Malini, and he does this in a series of painting under the rubric 'point of view'. This iconic representation of 'point of views' of ideological stances recalls languages of popular art forms as well as motifs from different consciousness and cultures.
Koea's Gilwoo Lee's work 'Dancer in Nature' invokes both Andy Warhol and the pointillist techniques utilized by the graphic artists of the 1950's, where the tradition is in dialogue with the aggressive new reality that is taking over the Korean society. The question remains, if this work is at all representative of the new trends rampant in the Korean art scene at this point of time, and if not, does it hold in its core the power of transcendence.
Kohei Nawa, the Japanese Grand prize winner, in 'Untitled' offers an alternative narrative to that of the technologically saavy world that Japan aspires to become, and with a palimpsestic mute antagonism, devalues modernization's absurd perspective.
'Return to Innocence', a video presentation by Mihir Matiur Rahman is beholden to the eponymous music video by Enigma – the electronic musical project that penetrated the global market for its seemingly exotic-sounding music. Both videos proposition antidote to capitalistic excesses and deal with the epochal problematics within an aesthetically-defined space. Pinning down the cause of social and environmental downgrading that industrialization have set forth, both works emphasize a return to the earlier stage of civilization, and Rahman's is nothing more than a Bangladeshi version of the reverse streams of images put together to posit importance to natural way of life. And both videos have a sentimental ring to them which appeals to the bourgeois middle-class and both translate the complex realities into a narrative akin to daydreaming. This certainly had an impact on the jurors who conferred Rahman's entry with an Honourable Mention award.
Nilofer Chaman tries to stick to her usual complex and crafty art-object-magic kind of matrix. Her installation that brings together photographs, mirror, glass and homeopathic ampoules and related paraphernalia is as trendy as a technologically manipulated presentation. This too has been conferred with an Honourable Mention.
Mahbubur Rahman's work – a grand presentation arrived at through multiple processes – bashes militarization, confuses materiality of art with the conceptual credential. In his own confrontational method – one that is firmly grounded in dichotomies between matter and mind, ruler and ruled, subject and predicate etc – he adds a video portal that shows body/self subjected to incarceration in a barbed-wired concoction used as police barricade. The huge face in the foreground, made out of leather army boots, the Buddha-like structure built out of rifles, and the strewn out sandals – all these together attempt to address domination of the other. This has snatched an Honourable Mention award.
Awarded works attracts attention, but not always for the right reasons. Some of the awarded works presented at the Biennale, though utterly fails to maintain any level of social engagement or aesthetic excellence, were given the nod by the jury. Works by Yousuf Ahmed Al Homaid from Qatar, Joaquin Gasonia Palencia from the Philippines and Tasadduk Hossain Dulu from Bangladesh do not measure up against some of the works by the younger generation artists. The decision of granting awards has not always been informed by the same evaluation benchmark.
The works that attempt to rupture the surface of today's financialized milieu, includes such middling entry 'Money is Important but It's not Everything', by Indonesian artist Deddy Paw, whose use of laughing Buddha holding up the huge fruit-like form made of coins, showing considerable might as a human being, is a tacky subject matter dealt with some cleverness. In contrast, the work by Iranian artist Aneh Mohammad Tarari with his 'Dialogue among Tradition' exteriorizes a pensive reflective mood and presents an array of iconic doll-like figures to dismiss their iconicity.
Omani artist Hasan Meer's 'Untitled' is a photograph that seems to want to give voice to the underdog, or the suppressed, South Korean artist Daeho Guk's St 'Germain, Paris', and Sri Lankan artist H A Anuradha's 'The Decayed Aircraft' is an interrogation of civilizational implications.
Among exponents who attempt at rehistoricizing the historical include two artists from United Arab Emirate – Ali Lootah and Shaikha Al Mazruo, represented respectively by 'Anonymous 5' and 'Turning Judd Horizontal', works that lock into a dialogue with Western art. The latter specifically gives a spin to Donald Judd, the American minimalist whose pioneering works consisted of squarish blocks.
Some of their Bangladeshi counterparts managed to bring forth a desire or impulse to arrive at a new awareness, or at least, to display a frame of mind ready to interiorize some aesthetic notions that are doing the rounds in today's world. Anusuzzaman Sohel, with a set of photoshop-manupulated image, offers a critical mediation on modern day existential reality, depicting the psycho-techno influences on the body/self as an exterior form of counter narratives, having gone through mutations following the impact with the fast-paced social changes.
The current psychographic reality often overwhelms Bangladeshi artists, dwarfs them as well as shocks their efforts with an anemia that is the result of premature entextualization of Western visual texts. When borrowing is involved, often the context is sloughed off. Imran Hossain Piplu's fetishization of food – a multimedia work, Shulekha Chowdhury's 'Life Behind Life' that uses implements of a garment technician – are installations that have more muscle than brain. If the former's attempt of punning the modern lifestyle falls flat on its face, the latter's seriousness fails to spot the axis mundi where the metreality of art aligns with the intertextual position, resolving the separation, though through aesthetic deliberation, between art and life.
Among these young and ambitious lot, Ashim Halder's 'Dhopa' – though a documentary turned into an installation which cleverly juxtaposes a stream of footage of dhopas washing clothes by hand against a backdrop made of white shirts hung close to one another. It Is a visually attractive piece but has little to offer as far as conceptualizing and adding value to the current stream of narrative is concerned.
Mohammad Rafiqul Islam Shuvo's 'Mind and Body Connected in the Mysterious Timing Space', views cosmopolitanism in an entirely new light – in a sarcastic mode he harps on how existence and experiences have so far been medicalized and politicized through knowledge, information and relevant practices. The topography of modern society is unreeled in his work, and he does this by plumbing images from the social media. The components that go to the entire presentation are made of canvases of different sizes and visual and textual references from the real world prone to scientific probing but are utterly in the throe of uncertainty. Due to the tendency to rely fully on the net – the work smacks of current trends and novelty-seeking representative techniques recalling works by pop artists of American origin apparently making his art devoid of all recognizable characteristics of the location.
Sarad Das, on the other hand, conjures his image entailed 'Urban Dream 26' to poke fun at modern-day Neanderthals who infest the corporate world. He unleashes his critique by way of two human subjects who are subjected to humiliation and are seen tugging at a tie clutched between their jaws in an animalistic fashion. Subrata Das, with his twin entry 'Voice 1' and 'Game of Voice', comes off as a commentator whose intent is to address the present-day digital society where the horizon is continuously being redefined through technological innovations. The artist interprets it as a device-obsessed civilization where gadgets of mass communication swarm the public as well as private space, and they almost behave like living beings imitating spermatozoa as if a multiplicity of these devices awaits regeneration. The society as conundrum has infiltrated the human habitation subjecting the social with the power of the technological advancement. Both works take the craft of making art too seriously.
The works that apparently thrust their propositions towards a dimension beyond the elements they utilize include, Tania Islam's 'Motion and Time', Ripon Saha's 'Calculation 1' and 'Calculation 2', Joynal Abedin Azad's series of three works 'Bear but Ubearable' and Md Atiqul Islam's 'Universal Continuity', the last being the most succinct take on universality of form. If the aesthetic scheme places the work in a particular well-recognized socially acceptable space, the manipulation on the part of the artist is an attempt to salvage the entire series that forms Atikul's display from the stasis that afflicts the Bangladeshi mainstream art.
An exhibition of this scale demands some interesting sessions of formal deliberations and symposia and, the meeting of minds among artists, academics and critiques. But, the sorry excuse of a seminar that Shilpakala Academy arranged as part of the Biennale, ably displays how far our academic culture and historicizing have deteriorated and entered a state of impasse, if it has not hit the rock bottom. The keynote paper itself signals the lowest ebb in discoursing. The theme had its naive charm, but the seminar lacked a conceptual framework or moments of intellectual rigour. The 14th Biennial was a let-down with regards to the fact that there was no culmination or closure and no institutional attempt and structure to process lessons and knowledge from the whole experience and exposure to international artists and works. Is there anything we have learnt from the 14th Asian Biennial at all? Where are we going from here? Aren't we doomed to repeat the same mistakes again? Let's pray, at least, few concerned individuals are taking notes.
- DEPART DESK