It is perhaps fitting that the first work the visitor encounters upon entering the ornate chandeliered chambers of the Palazzo Benzon, situated on Venice’s Grand Canal, is Rashid Rana’s pixelated version of Jacques-Louis David’s neo-classical painting Oath of the Horatii. The original painting depicted three members of the Roman Horatius family arming themselves for a duel with those of the Curiatti, despite intermarriage between them. This was to settle disputes between the Romans and the city of Alba Longa, from where the Curiatti hailed. The painting, done over a decade before the French Revolution, was meant to signal the spirit of the times. Louis XVI apparently had David work on the painting as an allegory about the need for loyalty to the state, read king, over family or church.
Rana’s re-imagining of the painting as part of “My East is your West,” a collateral event at the Venice Biennale, fits into the sentiment of critiquing the idea of the nation-state as embodied by the national pavilions at one of the world’s most important art events. In Rana’s fractured rendering War Within II, he flips fragments of the work horizontally on the computer and places them like mirror images, offering a comparison between both. This trope of mirroring is employed by him in all the rooms, where his work is exhibited.
This is not the first time that Rana has questioned the notion of national identity. In his All Eyes Skyward during the Annual Parade, the nationalistic fervour evident in the larger picture of spectators watching a flypast at the annual parade is subverted by the tiny stills of Bollywood films that make up this image of patriotic Pakistanis. It is this shared cultural cartography that is foregrounded in “My East is your West,” with the title of the program being taken from a light installation by Shilpa Gupta, the other artist in the show.
The idea of a regional pavilion, showing an artist each from the neighbouring countries of India and Pakistan, was conceived by Feroze Gujral, Director and Founder of the Gujral Foundation. At the last Biennale in 2013 she was dismayed to find India not represented, despite having an official presence in 2011. In Rashid Rana, she found a fellow kinsman, given that Pakistan had no pavilion either. It was Gujral’s tenacity and drive that saw the project through, despite the lack of assistance from the Indian government.
At the inception of the project Gupta and Rana met at the venue and exchanged notes on broad common concerns, which included ideas of location, perception (as the title also implied) and an individual’s transaction with authority. The curatorial framework was kept open and fluid and both artists worked independently on their projects, exchanging notes occasionally. The only conscious curatorial decision was to define a sequential path through the show, which allowed for a series of visual experiences spread over ten interconnected rooms.
The result is a truly immersive experience which responds to the site, at least in Rana’s wing, and to a lesser extent in the rooms occupied by Gupta. As the viewers move to Rana’s second room, I do not always feel immaterial, a surprise greets them as they find themselves mirrored on a screen, albeit with a lag of 15 seconds. Primed by this experience, viewers are conditioned to expect much of the same in the installation that follows in the third chamber, Shuhuud-o-shaahid-o-mashhuud (The viewing, the viewer and the viewed). The only difference here is a small camera lens embedded in the screen, giving them the impression that they are under surveillance.
Rana belies expectations yet again for viewers are confronted not with their own likeness but with Pakistanis living in Lahore. This seemingly magical act is accomplished by the artist creating a mock identical palazzo room in a parking lot in Lahore’s Liberty Market, accessible to the public for five months. The live stream set up between Lahore and Venice allows visitors in both spaces to interact in strange and surprising ways. The day I visited, I was astonished to find myself virtually transported to Lahore, where I could hold a conversation in Urdu with the visitors there while women covered from head to toe gawked at my more scantily clad German friend.
In embedding the lens in the screen, Rana sets the stage for a reversal of the gaze. For centuries merchants such as Marco Polo sailed out of Venice, a commercial and maritime power, to make their fortunes in Asia. Their accounts served to construct an image of these faraway lands for their fellow countrymen. Now Rana was giving ordinary citizens in South Asia a chance not just to see his works in this erstwhile maritime power but also to be active participants in them. As the title of the work implies, the artist is interested in the notion of who is being viewed and by whom, fully aware that the polarities between Lahore and Venice could possibly get accentuated by this encounter with the Other.
As visitors make their way to the fourth room they find themselves in My Sight Stands in the Way of your Memory, two-part installation that takes its point of departure from Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. In one part (Anatomy Lessons III) a nine-channel video work composed of CCTV footage, news and film clips serves to recreate Caravaggio’s painting. Here again Rana employs his signature trope of collapsing the macro with the micro, creating a sense of rupture between the larger picture and the images that make it up. Juxtaposed against it is Site-uations, a video recording of how people in various locations in Lahore interacted with the very same work, in a set simulating the space in Venice. Commenting on his works Rana says, “My work is a negotiation between the actual and the remote. The actual is close at hand-something one can experience directly with the body as the site of knowing. The remote, on the other hand is knowledge amassed indirectly, from diverse sources scattered across time and space such as the Internet, books, history of collective knowledge. The result is a meditation on location, both in a physical as well as temporal sense.”
Finally in A Mirror lies Vacant, a miniaturized, pixellated version of the palazzo room, mirroring its interior walls but reduced to half the size, invites the visitor to circumambulate. Besides the device of mirroring, Rana also plays with the notion of displacement of time and space. In the first room his interpretation of David’s painting fragments time and space, while in the second there is the notion of displaced time. While there is a real-time video live stream in the third room, there is a displacement of place, with Lahore and Venice being collapsed into the same frame. In the fourth room, the video recording of the situations in Lahore presents a notion of displacedtime.Finallyinthelastroom,visitors are confronted with a displacement of the very space they stand in.
In contrast to Rana’s harnessing of the opulent interiors, Gupta’s set of rooms offers a quieter, understated narrative, which at times borders on the clinical, with its set of vitrines, in which objects are enshrined. Save for her performative piece there is little that speaks to the site and she dwells instead on how borders are used in the construction of nation states and the complexities inherent in the process. Focussing in particular on the border dispute between India and its eastern neighbour, Bangladesh, she draws on her extensive research and trips to the borderlands using a range of mediums from video, photography and drawings to offer vignettes of life there. These cover the flow of people and goods ranging from precious materials, carried in the folds of clothes, to jamdani saris. At times the works border on the literal, with shards of bone china containing cattle bone ash pointing to the illegal trade in cattle. Elsewhere, a blinding floodlight is meant to recreate the situation at the border, with its guards and security arrangements, but it is somehow difficult to imagine the travails of people thousands of kilometres away while standing in a palace in Europe.
In her performance-based installation with the title 1:998.9, 3360 kms of Fenced Border, East Sunderbans to Teen Math, Data Update: March 31, 2014, an actor sits at a desk and traces carbon paper lines on the mounds of cloth handwoven in Phulia, an Indo-Bangladesh border town. The cloth is one thousandth of the length of the fenced border between India and Bangladesh and the markings by the man could be read as the outlines of territories, boundaries or even bodies. .
Some of the more poignant works on display are Gupta’s photographic works. These feature missing pieces in landscape scenes representing the Indian and Bangladeshi enclaves left behind in each other’s countries after the subcontinent’s independence from Britain. Gupta had travelled to these enclaves or chitmahals to get a first-hand experience of the lives of its inhabitants, who could not even step out of these parcels of land without fear of being apprehended by security forces. Little did Gupta realize when she was conceptualizing the works that she would be overtaken by history, with India and Bangladesh agreeing to swap these very enclaves on the 1st of August in a landmark agreement.
“My East is your West” is certainly not the only project, where artists from India and Pakistan have collaborated or shown together. Gupta herself has been part of an Indo-Pak collaboration “Aar Paar,” which took place in Mumbai and Karachi in 2002. Ten artists from each city produced works which were exchanged via e-mail to be printed locally and distributed in public spaces by either plastering them on walls or distributing them as handouts. However, sharing the stage at a site like Venice does indeed make a powerful statement. The project fortuitously fitted into Okwui Enwezor’s vision for the Biennale this year, entitled “All the World’s Futures,” which necessarily involves introspecting on the past. But it does run the gauntlet of having India and Pakistan posited as polar binaries, a reason why Rana is keen to position it as a regional South-Asian pavilion rather than an Indo-Pak one. Invariably questions will arise whether the choice of only two artists is adequate representation for a subcontinent and if this gesture is one of mere tokenism. Also, though the two countries do have a shared and often fraught history, this did not manifest itself in any real dialogue between the two artists and their art works at the site. For Gujral however, it was an endeavour to push the Indian Ministry of Culture into being more supportive of an Indian presence at Venice. Quizzed about her plans for the next Biennale, she was non-committal, revealing only that the Gujral Foundation needed to redefine its activities for the next five years, while taking a look at what India really required. As I left the Palazzo Benzon I encountered several Bangladeshi immigrants, persuading tourists to buy umbrellas and selfie sticks. They brought Gupta’s works unbidden to mind and with it the unorthodox ways in which national borders and official policies can be skilfully subverted and undermined.