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Art & Culture

January 31, 2021

Time tunnels

Sun, Jan 31, 2021
Ume Laila ‘Alienation’.

For today’s Western population, museums have replaced the places of worship. Ordinary citizens visit art museums on Saturdays and Sundays in their best attire, and with family, instead of going to a synagogue or church. The ritual resonates a religious atmosphere: high walls, silence, sermon on the works on display through headphone commentary, a guide’s explanation about the mysteries of pictures. ‘Communion’ food at the end is consumed in a cafeteria not different from a refectory.

To some extent, the COMO Museum of Art is providing this pleasure at home. Its latest exhibition is showcasing one-minute videos by 10 artists, playing one after the other on every Saturday and Sunday. Food is offered by a café at the museum’s premises. So, a visitor sits in the dark, in awe, and in front of a large wall on which videos are seamlessly projected. There is hardly a sound (except what comes from some videos), and then he/she can step into the backyard area to enjoy delicious dishes.

All this, while we are still suspended between the real and the virtual and between the physical and the intangible in the age of pandemic. Despite limitations of material exchange, art has survived the period of social distance and isolation. Art galleries, museums and artists’ organisations have found ways to engage with public, without offering something tactile. This restriction turned into a blessing, because now the horizon of viewers for an art exhibition/event is not limited to one location or visitors from one city, it is shared – equally – by audience across the globe.

This shift in accessing art has also changed the making of it. Remote is the new real; witnessed in the current exhibition, 1MIN/100 YRS, at the COMO Museum of Art, Lahore. Brief, brisk and basic, short videos address life in its complexity (usually reduced to a room, a city, a few human beings). The participating artists have illustrated the present situation through their works; all, of the same duration, but strangely seem varied due to what enfolds in each video projection. Some appear longer, a few delayed, others quick or instantaneous. However, each is strictly of one-minute length (a relieving attempt in relation to art videos that can go on for two to three hours and are seldom viewed in their entirety).

In the present exhibition, a video many visitors could identify with is Alienation by Ume Laila. A man and woman sitting in a room are in front of (an unseen) screen that emanates light. This reminds us of the lockdown days in which the only way to venture into the outside world was through TV, computer and mobile phone. Windows to escape – prophetically described by Mohsin Hamid (long before Covid-19) in his novel Exit West, in which both protagonists leave their surroundings by (an Alice in Wonderland act) passing through the screen of their cellular devices. An interesting element of Laila’s video is its fixed camera shot, not static since the ceiling fan is rotating; which alludes to the stillness of life. The ordinariness of the setting, unassumingness of the characters and selection of the view make the work, an unusual piece of art. A person perched on the bench at COMO Museum becomes the mirror image of two individuals on the screen. Hence a complex and convoluted link between the viewer and the viewed.

The participating artists have illustrated the present situation through their works. Despite similar time-frames, each video projection is different. Some appear longer, a few delayed and others quick or instantaneous.

Zahra Ehsan in her Perfect Isn’t it? creates a phantasmagorical scenario in which the scale shifts and roles are reversed. A girl, wearing bangles and nail polish, offers tea and sweets behind the small model of a house. The movement of hands and the subtitles suggest that it is a tea ceremony during a marriage proposal. The choice of colour, movement and the tone of text indicate something banal, yet crucial: pleasant but problematic. Larger than life images, add to the aggression of the activity, despite the bright shades introduced in the work (reminiscent of Zahra Ehsan’s painterly ability, shown during her BFA at the National College of Arts, Lahore, as well as her residency at Vermont Studio, New York).

Other works portray the mundaneness and repetitiveness of life. Rida Zainab for the ‘entire’ span of one minute has focused on a brick roof with a stick resting against the wall. Another work that represents the sensibility of the moment is Does Distance Really Matter? by Afreen Fatima. Against a backdrop of sunset (without the hint of a specific city), a conversation is constructed that like our normal messaging, partly English, partly Urdu in Roman letters. The human interaction is evident in exchange of crucial concerns such as: “if the world is one, why cannot time be the same everywhere?”, without disclosing their distant locations. One minute in Fatima’s video/conversation was both long and short, but certainly not 60 seconds.

The other videos such as Don’t Put Baby in the Registry by Aisha Raees, and Chaltey Raho by Mahnoor Khawaja also suggest a leap in time. Raees’s “video poem delves into the Muslim experience in an American landscape”. She documents – on an old TV set prejudices projected by the media (vis-à-vis government/state), with images rendered in a neutral and graphic tone. Yet the composite narrative illustrates the content of the artist. In Khawaja’s video, a ride on Karachi’s Seaview is recorded, so a viewer – is unintentionally transported inside the open vehicle moving on sands of Karachi beach, and passing folks enjoying their day off. Women in burqa, kids playing, couples riding on a bike, are part of a routine indulgence, away from their normal time and place.

Umberto Eco in his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (Charles Eliot Norten Lectures, 1992-93) talks about the disjunction between real time and the movie time. What takes place in 60 minutes of our life can be represented in 7 minutes, or in 7 hours, 7 months, 7 years in a film: all believable. Following Professor Eco’s observation, watching these one-minute videos, one feels unsure about their duration: Time has expanded in memory. A true success of works, which transcend one reality for another reality.


The writer is an art critic based in Lahore