When Belgian surrealist René Magritte painted a pipe and wrote below it, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (This is not a pipe), he did more than create a witty, thought-provoking work. He gleefully overturned the bulk of art history. In a stroke, he dismissed Platonist ideas of artistic mimesis, of Classical symbolism and Expressionistic soul. Candidly titled The Treachery of Images, Magritte’s painting compresses within its frame the greatest paradox that visual art embodies—that, despite appearances, it is not real and is merely representation.
The painting’s single elegant line of text also addressed the semiotic concerns of the time, of the palpable Saussurean divide between the signifier and the signified—that a word and its meaning were unrelated, bound only by a loose, arbitrary connection. Apposite | Opposite, an exhibition of Rashid Rana’s work over the past three years, explores similar themes of reality and representation, of visual and textual language, and our contemporary experiences of living in a complex, coded world.
At ease with a wide variety of media, Lahore-based Rana has worked with painting, collage, photography, video and installation, and Apposite | Opposite provides a comprehensive look at the direction his artistic practice has taken. Sprawled across the space of two galleries—Chemould and Chatterjee & Lal—the show comprises pieces culled from multiple bulks of work, including What Lies Between Flesh and Blood (2009), Pure Beauty (2010-11) and Language Series (2011-12).
The first employs photo-montages—a technique Rana often uses to explore themes of sexuality, politics and human geography—and functions as a visual dissection of the body. These abstract works, poignantly titled Sites, are composed of an intricate mosaic of images of flesh and blood as well as sites of violence and bloodshed; visually and metaphorically, they link the personal with the political.
Pure Beauty comprises playful, sculptural pieces, which expand and challenge the scale and potential of two-dimensional photographs. For example, Rana recreates flower vases—a popular subject of still-life paintings—using solid cubical forms embossed with inkjet prints. Plastic Flowers in a Traditional Vase has pixellated blossoms while the ‘vase’ is of floral-patterned ceramic, conjuring issues of natural versus artificial and ideas of traditional and modern aesthetic values.
Books is an installation of aluminium blocks made to look like piles of texts, and demonstrates Rana’s interest in language, a theme that he explores in great depth and detail in the Language Series. Using photo-montage, Rana crafts works of startling visual complexity—in Language VII he creates a landscape using small composite images of Urdu and English text, with two pixellated blocks that cover our view of the horizon.
In Language V, we see the feet of a crowd of people (reminiscent of a Renaissance painting) while the upper half is a pixellated blur. Seemingly, for the artist, language—both visual and textual—can serve to obscure rather than illuminate. If images and words are treacherous, their meanings slippery and deceptive, how then do we interpret pictures composed of text?
Also pushing the viewer’s perception is Desperately Seeking Paradise II, a mighty silver-steel installation, which from a distance appears to depict a city’s skyline. On close examination, however, the image shatters into smaller pictures of Lahore, orchestrated to build a grand and sleek cityscape. The sculpture treats the theme of urban fragmentation and consolidation with a subtle eloquence.
It is a characteristic that runs through the bulk of Rana’s work—a certain multilayered, interconnected way of looking at the world that resonates strongly with a sense of history. We connect with their contradictions. They, like us, cradle within them a wonderful duality.
Apposite | Opposite is on at Chemould Gallery and Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai, till 26 May 2012