Rashid Rana‘s It Lies Beyond is definitely one of the most talked about art exhibitions in Dubai and we are glad to have had a chance to ask one of the most prominent artists in South Asia a few questions about his work and inspiration behind it.
As an artist, how do you balance the aesthetic appeal of your work with the underlying messages and symbolism you want to convey to your audience?
During the late 90s, I decided within my practice to make works that could be accessed by a wider audience, resulting in adopting visual strategies that have dramatic effects. In that regard, the formal and conceptual device of micro and macro has worked distinctively well for my intended purposes; what appears simple at first sight gradually unfolds into more deeper content . As an example, the polarity I presented between the whole and its parts in the Mosaic or Transliteration series allowed the audience to weave their own narrative in between.
How do you navigate the intersection between tradition and technological innovation in your work? As an artist and an educator, how do you envision the opportunities the new technology offers to the creators to express themselves in new ways and engage new audiences?
I oppose the binaries of tradition and modernity in favor of a very different approach – The Third Way. Usually, the artists from the global South either find refuge in the stylistic conventions of the past, especially in countries that have a rich heritage such as India and Pakistan, or they follow the footsteps of the West on the pretext of progressivity, unmindful that in following, one always stays behind. This third approach is an unrestricted nonlinear model of time to create new trajectories with all three – past, present, and future – at our disposal. So, to unburden oneself from the past is idea-led without a standard formula; if I need to use technology, more recently DNA-based technology, or any other medium for that matter, I will use it as required to realize the idea, and not just for the sake of it.
Let’s talk about your current exhibition at Volte Art Projects. What inspired the juxtaposition of an imposing proportion in “It Lies Beyond” and the intricate imagery that reveals environmental concerns? Was the work created specifically for COP28?
The imposing proportion of It Lies Beyond allows viewers to fully immerse themselves in the experience. The ominous, serene seascape on closer inspection reveals the heaps of garbage that it is composed of. It refers to the post-renaissance materialist inquiry, the explorations of and expansions to the other worlds, sea-trade, colonization, industrial revolution, consumerism and highlights tainted waters owing to human waste and pollution followed by global climate change resulting in various natural calamities like recent floods; all unfolding as various chapters of a saga that begins and ends with waters. The work has not been specifically created for the conference, it was previously shown at the last Karachi Biennale at the time of floods that affected approximately 15% of country’s population. The room with windows resembled a sea vessel, presenting a play of the inside and the outside, reality and fiction. The installation’s magnitude gave viewers an opportunity to understand the history of Water and actively become a part of the environment. It makes you believe in the binaries but also dismantles them at the same time, and the scale creates a visual narrative that evokes introspection.
Why have you decided to use AR technology in It Lies Beyond and how does it enhance the experience for viewers? What role does it play in conveying the exhibition’s themes?
The roots of It Lies Beyond are in the series Offshore Account, which is primarily all gallery pieces and, though large in scale, can be accessed via conventional gallery wall space. In comparison, It Lies Beyond is an immersive installation that engulfs the audience. In the process of making, I realized that the static images forming the seascape don’t do justice to the waste collectors working at the site, so the augmented reality creates an experience for the viewer that helps them connect and understand more fully. I plan to include technologies that can engage smell and other senses in future iterations of this installation.
In “Desperately Seeking Paradise,” how does the minimalist stainless steel sculpture transform into an imaginary city, and what role does the shift in the viewer’s perspective play in this transformation?
Duality, over the years, has developed into one of the major themes of my practice. Desperately Seeking Paradise features its many forms: the formal and conceptual concerns of space, the two vs three-dimensionality of forms, and the complexity between low-rise and high-rise. The geometry of this sculpture embodies this assortment of dualities, and the method of its construction plays a pivotal role in achieving the transformation of perspectives.
What motivated the inclusion of photographs of skyscrapers derived from tiny photographs of houses in Lahore, Pakistan, and how does this micro-to-macro approach engage viewers in a conversation about scale?
From the conception, I knew Desperately Seeking Paradise was going to be ambitious and daring due to its sheer scale, but I didn’t realize that it would become the meeting point for all the different threads in my Art. Among those, ‘two-dimensionality’ as a concern has always remained a core factor since the time of my ‘grid paintings’ from the early 1990s, though it’s ironic that the exploration of two-dimensionality becomes effectual in this three-dimensional work instead.This merger of two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality is a point where I tread between representation and abstraction, too. Desperately Seeking Paradise, in a way, is a deceptively abstract work, or at least it appears to be an abstract minimal structure from one view, but the view from the other side is inherently representational; the horizontal stacking of images of homes (from Lahore) forms a virtual skyline of an imaginary city with high-rise buildings representing the evolution of the human society and breaking away from the groundings we have concurrent to a house. The concept of home itself has an aspect of duality, where there is an objective criterion of home pertaining to the environment and a subjective one, a human’s vision of what he desires it to be like. The polarity of verticality vs. horizontality creates illusions and realities within one work; these illusions and realities, I feel, are what make each other exist, and like the form of a grid, separate and simultaneously make the multiple entities into one whole. These parallels in life and concepts are exactly what I try to elude, incorporate, and expound through my work, where every idea and truth has an opposite self.
How do you see your role as an artist in addressing societal and environmental issues, and what impact do you hope your artwork will have on the audience’s awareness? Has the response to the exhibition been positive since the opening?
The response has been phenomenal, and I am very pleased that the wider audience, as intended, engaged with the work through the employed strategies. As to the role of an artist in addressing societal and environmental issues, it is not as much about the responsibility as it is about the compelling subject, and this subject matter is not an end but a point of departure. For a creative practitioner, the form – how we express ourselves – is important. As an artist, the crux has always been how I say certain things– the language is the real meaning of the work.
What other projects are you working on now? Will we see more of your work in UAE in 2024?
Recently, I collaborated with neo biologist Dr. Faisal Khan to create a non-living DNA based installation for Chemould’s anniversary show in Mumbai. The work converted the digital remains of historical conversationsfrom gallery’s archives to a binary code, and then to nonliving DNA. This non living DNA was then sprayed onto the canvas and paper. Viewers could take papers from thestack, and in extension, a piece of the digital history with them, into the future. The installation acknowledged that by 2040, demand for silicon will outweigh the supply, and that DNA based digital storage will be the next step to accommodate this gap.