As an idea that purports to take the high arts to the common people, Lahore Biennale is commendable. The only question is whether it manages to achieve that
The biennale as a concept is a heartwarming one. Any idea that purports to take the high arts to the common people is, particularly in a city like Lahore where art is divided sharply between the high and the low: gallery art by jetsetting artists who cater to a particular set, or the street art of cinema billboards and commercially sponsored walls. Biennales are an attempt at integrating these two binaries, and the Lahore Biennale-01 has to be lauded for the massive effort that has gone into making this possible. I do wish it was simpler to access, though.
All of the Lahore Biennale’s art is concentrated in the old city. While that makes sense in terms of bringing people to the great public architecture of the old city (Lahore Fort, Mubarik Haveli, Shahi Hammam), it doesn’t necessarily serve the purpose of taking art directly to a sprawling metropolis much of whose middle classes live an hour away from the old city and The Mall. Even there the art is concentrated inside buildings, whereas the spirit of the biennale could have been better served if truly public spaces like bazaars (Anarkali, Liberty, Model Town Link Road) had also been deployed as installation sites. In that regard, Lawrence Gardens is the most accessible of the LB01 sites. There is no extensive bag-checking at its gates, entry is free, and people wandering about the park can chance upon the art while they go about their leisure.
On Sunday afternoon, my friends and I strolled into Lawrence, imagining that what we had come to see was housed inside the Quaid-e-Azam Library, an impression I had received from the biennale’s Instagram live post a few hours earlier. But the library was locked and there was no sign of the biennale except an enormous cloth banner cascading down the library front. The Lahore Biennale’s website had no details of anything related to the event. The Facebook page listed the sites but nothing further. Walking over to the cafeteria for a bottle of water I saw a woman coming our way wearing western attire and a camera around her neck. These class signifiers made me think of asking her, and true to instinct, she gave me a detailed guide to the installations scattered around the park.
At Lawrence, Mehreen Murtaza’s installation on the hillock was my favourite one, probably because it was the most artistically accessible. It also invited direct interaction, ideal for an event that strives to take art to the masses. Set in and around an enormous Banyan tree, it engages with notions of environmental degradation and our role in it. A swing hangs from a strong tree branch while bird houses are scattered all around its top branches. The tree emits a hollow, unnerving sound that can be heard from afar, the reason for which, as you get nearer, turns out to be the hammers, knives, and screwdrivers puncturing the tree. This hollow sound creates an atmosphere of horror, a sense of imminent danger. However, if someone is bold enough to sit on the swing and take off, the eerie background sound slowly gets submerged in a pleasant tinkling of bells. The ‘message’ is straightforward: nature responds to the way we interact with it. A simple and effective idea made delightful with the help of technology. I loved it.
On the other side of the hill was Ali Kazim’s work -- small, brick-like structures piled upon each other, creating half-made walls. Upon closer inspection, those bricks turned out to be in the shape of biological hearts. Like Mehreen’s work, Ali’s did not have any inscription to explain it. In the absence of any clue about how to access the work, the layperson could just look on bemusedly.
That was the case for all the art at Lawrence. There were no inscriptions, no clue for the average person walking past, defeating the purpose of art for the public, a public that is already wary of ‘abstract art’ and tends to view it as a bit of a scam.
Next stop for me was The Lahore Museum. Here it was even more difficult to locate the art associated with the biennale. I asked a museum guard who helped me identify them, but Ayesha Jatoi’s work was so ‘artsy’ -- sketches of a house drawn with a ruler and pencil -- that it escaped me. I was drawn instead to the museum’s permanent collection of art -- vibrant portraits, landscapes, and abstracts by old Pakistani masters, including a restored panel of the Sadequain mural -- which in typical layperson fashion I enjoyed much more than the modern mixed media art that the biennale had chosen to display. If the idea is to engage everyday people, I am not sure how far the Lahore Biennale succeeded.
At the Lahore Fort, ‘Maktab’ had the ability to engage the passersby. Artists sat within arced recesses, painting miniatures and explaining what they were doing to anyone who chose to engage. I wish there had been more such engagement throughout the festival sites.
At the fort, again, I had a hard time locating the installations, a constant theme for me throughout. That same day I went up and down the canal, searching for the advertised art but could find none. A conversation with a friend revealed that it had been postponed till after the PSL. No official announcement was made of this change in plan, however. I was also told that there is an app called ‘Awaami’ that allows people to post selfies they take with the art and the chosen ones would be displayed on the electronic boards around the city. I have followed LB01’s Instagram religiously, but no post has ever made mention of this fact.
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The most concentrated and well-organised displays were at the Alhamra Art Centre, probably because the space is geared specifically towards the display of culture. Salman Toor, whose work touched upon ideas of identity and class-differences -- as it usually does -- was a treat. Snapshots of Brooklyn apartments juxtaposed with instantly recognisable Pakistani imagery drove home feelings of being alienated everywhere.
For me the most stunning bit of the whole biennale was Istanbul-based artist Halil Altindere’s hip-hop video, ‘Wonderland’, about a neighbourhood in Isyanbul called Sulukle which has been home to Roma communities for centuries. The video captured the raw anger of the neighbourhood’s youth in shots that follow them around, with camera angles that range from the ground to the sky. Watching that I wondered where are our artists that spring from oppressed communities, or those trying to escape poverty? Our art culture, for all of the biennale’s efforts, seems in the tight grasp of university graduates of art. Where are our stories with the raw anger and rebellion of these boys from Istanbul? In comparison our art seemed so safe, so comfortable.
I left the Alhamra pondering the same old problems of culture in Pakistan, be it writing, art or popular music. It seems to belong to a certain class, and no amount of effort seems to manage to change that.