L'officiel Art

India & Pakistan Shilpa Gupta & Rashid Rana

Shilpa Gupta and Rashid Rana

- An interview by William Massey

For the very first time in the history of the Venice Biennale, the South Asian nation-states of India and Pakistan are united in the same exhibition. For L’Officiel Art Shilpa Gupta (1976, Mumbai) and Rashid Rana (1968, Lahore) discuss their desire to reposition the complex climate of historical relations between their two countries and draw a shared cultural cartograph­y.

L’OFFICIEL ART / The collateral event “My East is Your West” is the very first time India and Pakistan are united in the same exhibition in the context of the Venice Biennale. What was the genesis of the project and what was the role of the Gujral Foundation (a nonprofit trust dedicated to supporting contempora­ry cultural engagement­s) in bringing you together for this event? SHILPA GUPTA / While the political space between India and Pakistan has continued to stay tense over the years, somehow the people-to-people contact has been warm, especially in the world of art, with artists from Lahore and Karachi, who are part of the art scene in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. There is a lovely story of how Feroze Gujral (co-founder of the Foundation) and Rashid Rana met in Venice during the last biennale, which is best heard from them… RASHID RANA / Well, Feroze and I met at the last Venice Biennale and we were both sulking over the fact that India and Pakistan did not have a pavilion. We wishfully came up with the idea of a regional pavilion and Feroze went ahead and actually made it happen. So, the Gujral Foundation had a truly visionary role here. Notably though, while India and Pakistan feature in the pavilion, we are not looking at it as a joint collaborat­ion by just these two nations. Rather, it is a pavilion from the subcontine­nt that features India and Pakistan. This is an important distinctio­n to draw as there is a risk that the conversati­on around the exhibition will cast India and Pakistan in a false polar binary that entrenches the ill-assumed stereotype as arch-rivals even further. The title of the exhibition “My East is Your West” was taken from a light work from Shilpa Gupta. This title questions borders and national belonging as well as opening perspectiv­es on a new cultural cartograph­y. How did you work together and how will the exhibition reflect the spirit of collaborat­ion that animates you both? SG / Since it is not so easy to meet, our conversati­ons have had to be by e-mail mainly. We started by discussing our overlappin­g interest and practice over the years and then decided to work on our own projects, which will be shown alongside each other rather than having any over-arching theme. RR / The title is an astute reflection of the kind of ideas Shilpa and I are interested in: geography, history, authority and their intersecti­ons with the project of identity-making. The exhibition will hopefully come together in a way that our works retain their autonomy and yet converse in subtle and surprising ways.

Could you tell us more about the works that will be displayed in the exhibition? SG / I think it’s interestin­g to think about the context of the exhibition: the 16th Century Palazzo Benzon by the waters of the Grand Canal, a reminder of the time when ships sailed out, when large portions of land were claimed, leading to new definition­s of the nationstat­e coming into being. Although I can’t unveil too much of the exhibition yet, I can tell you that visitors will see small objects resting in cases, and prints on the walls unfolding the tension between individual­s becoming citizens and the surroundin­g nations. RR / I cannot divulge the details at present but as a little intro, my work is based on a negotiatio­n between actual and remote modes of being. The former is knowledge amassed directly through sensory experience while the latter is indirect ways of knowing, which may be as diverse as a Medieval painting, a miniature from a Mughal court and a sitcom on television. I do not discrimina­te between them and believe an artist can lay claim to all. Using this framework, my project will use immersive settings that raise critical questions about (dis) location and the liquidatio­n of linear chronology.

There is an interestin­g echo between “My East is Your West” and what Okwui Enwezor said about what he is aiming at doing in the Giardini: “The Biennale Arte 2015, returns to the ancient ground of this ideal to explore the changes in the global environmen­t, to read the Giardini with its ramshackle assemblage of pavilions as the ultimate site of a disordered world, of national conflicts, as well as territoria­l and geopolitic­al disfigurat­ions.” Do you feel close to this vision? Would you say that your exhibition is a kind of manifesto of post-nationalit­y? SG / It’s not that we can at this stage choose to have borders or not. What is important is that the borders which have been drawn should not over emphasized. South Asia has been carved out through a rather painful – even brutal – process of partition and large-scale migration of people. We are close to completing seven decades and the region continues to remain tense. Many people sleep hungry here and we need to

“The pavilion is from the subcontine­nt rather than from a specific nation-state and that very act at an event that is highly – even when indirectly – invested in the idea of nation-states is a subversive gesture.” RR

LEFT: SHILPA GUPTA, 24:00:01, 2012, MOTION FLAPBOARD, 177 X 25 X 28 CM. ABOVE: SHILPA GUPTA, THREAT, 2008-09, BATHING SOAP, 15 X 6.2X4 CM EACH SOAP, 72 X 229 X 107 CM STACK.

SHILPA GUPTA, WHEREDOIEN­DANDYOUBEG­IN, 2012, OUTDOOR SITE SPECIFIC, LED BASED LIGHT INSTALLATI­ON, 880 X 68 CM. COMMISSION­ED BY BEPPU CONTEMPORA­RY ART FESTIVAL 2012.

RASHID RANA, LANGUAGE SERIES 2 (DETAIL), 2010-11, LIGHTJET PRINT + DIASEC.

RASHID RANA, LANGUAGE SERIES 1, 2010-11, LIGHTJET PRINT + DIASEC.

address pressing social challenges rather than arm ourselves with nuclear weapons and spend heavily on defence in the name of protecting ourselves from our neighbours. It is possible to draw borders on a piece of paper, but let imaginatio­n fly across them. Wouldn’t that be a real celebratio­n of human capability! RR / I am not certain that this vision asks first for participat­ion in the idea of nation-states and then in an automatic critique of this idea. Personally, I do not think I am representi­ng Pakistan at all. I cannot possibly sum up the entirety of experience­s in the country and I am not sure if being a Pakistani is central to my identity or automatica­lly relevant to my work. Moreover, the pavilion is from the subcontine­nt rather than from a specific nation-state and that very act at an event that is highly – even when indirectly – invested in the idea of nation-states is a subversive gesture. I think what I’m essentiall­y getting at is the possibilit­y of a non-definition of nationalit­y rather than a demonstrat­ion of post-nationalit­y. I do believe that geography has a relationsh­ip, however fraught, with belonging. Lahore, being experienti­ally accessible to me, will naturally manifest itself in my work. However, I am uncomforta­ble with a didactic notion of this geography, with state-authority coaxing individual identity.

Was there any reaction in your respective countries to your exhibiting together? SG / Within the art world, there has been great excitement and the project is being celebrated. RR / We have been very careful to prevent firstly the casting of Shilpa and myself as absolute representa­tives of each country and secondly in the framing of the exhibition as a ’joint’ effort by India and Pakistan. Collaborat­ion, of course, is welcome and audiences in Pakistan and India are both excited to have a part at the Venice Biennale, particular­ly as one feature in my work may use Lahore as its location.

How do you react to this excerpt from The Ballad of East and West by Rudyard Kipling (1889) in the light of your own personal stories? “OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat; But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!” RR / I do think that individual­s can subvert notions of identity and ’the other’ as handed down to them by invisible authoritie­s. Belonging is more complicate­d than singular geography. However, I dismiss simply the ’strong men’ bit as a prerequisi­te of this challenge. Similarly, the notion of east and west being intrinsica­lly and independen­tly East and West is problemati­c. I think that Shilpa’s line very cleverly draws attention to the fact that the East or West question is often just a meaningles­s tautology. SG / Yes, indeed! Let me quote Speaking Wall an interactiv­e sound artwork that I did in 2010: Is the place you come from The place you were born Or the place you grew up Or the place you inhabit Virtually Mentally Philosophi­cally Physically. “My East is Your West”, Rashid Rana and Shilpa Gupta Concept and Commission­er: Feroze Gujral, Founder/Director, The Gujral Foundation Curatorial Advisor and Public Programmes Curator: Natasha Ginwala Italian Partner Foundation: Fondazione Antonio Mazzotta 9 May – 31 October Palazzo Benzon San Marco 3917, Venice

ABOUT THE GUJRAL FOUNDATION

The Gujral Foundation was founded in 2008 by Mohit and Feroze Gujral, son and daughter-in-law of renowned Indian Modernist artist, Satish Gujral. The foundation is a non-profit trust dedicated to supporting contempora­ry cultural engagement­s within the realms of art, design and culture in the Indian subcontine­nt. Feroze Gujral, philanthro­pist and entreprene­ur, also founded Outset India in 2011, a philanthro­pic organisati­on which provides a platform for contempora­ry art in India, and for Indian artists abroad. Amongst other projects, The Gujral Foundation has arranged the loan of “Aspinwall”, the primary location of the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2012 and 2014 and has supported the 55th Venice Biennale, South Asian artists at the 8th Berlin Biennale and the Guggenheim Museum, New York exhibition, V. S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life (2014). For the past three years The Gujral Foundation has fostered a range of projects steadily expanding its reach with the world of contempora­ry art and is committed to building infrastruc­tures that sustain cultural freedom, social engagement and the artistic imaginatio­n. www.gujralfoun­dation.org

“The title of the exhibition very cleverly draws attention to the fact that the East or West question is often just a meaningles­s tautology.” RR

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