History abounds with exquisite examples of the object as a work of art. But the relationship between contemporary art and material object is not one of utility or visual appeal. Nowadays, art is underscored with the challenge to invent new ways to understand an increasingly tumultuous and complex contemporary world. The most popular and widespread means, in practice internationally, is through manipulation and modification of a readymade object to articulate radically new meanings.
In our art milieu, object-based exhibitions are gradually gaining currency and the recent Objects we Behold show at the AAN Gandhara Art Space in Karachi is a fair sampling of this practice. Curated by Amra Ali, the exhibition featured artists Adeela Suleman, Tazeen Qayum, Ruby Chisti, Marium Agha and Affan Baghpati, whose works had multiple narratives all of which are object-based. In order to understand the artists’ varied positions, the curator rightly emphasises that the works be read beyond their surface appeal.
The object form comes easily to Suleman whose sculptural practice centres on reinventing existing steel fixtures and items into lethal or audacious new figurations to question gender issues, aggression and militancy. Her showcased spiky, tiered, ceiling-to-floor chandelier, ‘Slow Slicing’ crafted from a hundred overturned swords, furthers her ongoing discourse on violence and death. Rendered powerless, the inverted sword structure is a requiem to victims of senseless killings. Only seemingly sharp and menacing, the incapacitated creation is also a symbolic reminder of helplessness and vulnerability — the fate of victimised nations. This installation, however, pales in comparison to her other works of a similar nature.
A group show brings forth multiple object-based narratives which can be read beyond their surface appeal
Qayum’s miniature grounding gave a unique edge to her work. The apparent beauty of her complex and intricate, entomology-inspired patterns and precisely designed objects (the cockroach was her leitmotif) was underscored with critical commentary on political and social violations. Unlike the skill-dominated intensity evident in earlier works, her installation ‘Our Bodies Our Gardens’ is a soft take on gender sensitivities. Comprising several hot-water bottles suspended from the gallery’s ceiling, the works, adorned with striking hand-painted motifs, symbolise a gathering of female bodies. On extended engagement this attractive installation opens as an anthology of women’s stories centred on a range of emotions like comfort and healing, pain or pleasure, etc.
Chisti has the rare ability to invoke deep disturbing emotions through simple soft sculptures. This emotion-driven practice brings a peculiar originality to her object crafting skills and presentations which are primarily modelled from textile trivia of various kinds. Her huge sculpture, an eight-foot high male overcoat hung on the Gandhara wall, is a lament/ode to the father figure and feelings of stability and security associated with it. Most of Chisti’s strongest pieces are inspired by her personal trauma of being a neglected child. This male overcoat references her childhood deprivation and is also eerily reminiscent of the seedy, voluminous coat worn by Pigeon Lady in 1992’s popular film Home Alone 2. Technically, however, the creative additives, archival adhesive, textile scraps, thread, clay, paint and even the moss-covered pigeons, lack the crafting adroitness and poignancy one has come to expect from Chisti’s art.
Considerable thought and varied skill sets are required to remodel finely sculpted antiques into credible contemporary art pieces. Baghpati’s flair for reinvention is well-utilised on his collection of old surmedanis, paandaans, lotas and related brass/ silver artefacts, curios and trinkets. There is whimsy and humour in his deconstructed forms, some are downright abstruse and others lyrical and poetic.
Agha also reworks the old into new forms but her mixed media appropriations and disruptions are on found illustrations, canvas and tapestries. Using yarn and beads, she subverts and interjects novel forms into the existing picture planes to create new realities. Conceptually, this mix of the old and the new probes the status of hybridity — how valid or invalid it is.
When Marcel Duchamp re-presented ordinary objects as artworks in the early 20th century, the ready-made became an integral form of art and art production. Duchamp’s readymades asserted the principle that what is art is defined by the artist. Choosing the object is itself a creative act, cancelling out the useful function of the object makes it art and its presentation in the gallery gives it a new meaning. This move from artist-as-maker to artist-as-chooser is often seen as the beginning of the movement to conceptual art, as the status of the artist and the object are called into question. At the time, the ready-made was seen as an assault on the conventional understanding not only of the status of art but its very nature. Not so anymore: today objects are overloaded with meaning and significance. However, in art milieus where traditional art bases are still strong, the hybrid object often has other underpinnings as well — that of drawing energy from one’s own artistic traditions and cultural heritage.
“Objects we Behold” is being exhibited at the AAN Gandhara Art Space in Karachi from October 4 to November 7, 2018
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 21st, 2018