The garden of forked paths

January 19, 2020

Aroosa Rana’s solo exhibition explores the richness of reality interwoven with fantasy

Still from video titled ‘Superman’.

Works of art belong to two periods: one, the year these are produced; and two, another era by association, depending on their imagery, style, and concept. Several works created in the twenty-first century look like they were made during the Renaissance, Middle Ages, or the Company School. Likewise, a sculpture or painting from ancient times may appear contemporary. For Picasso “The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.”

Only a few works respond to their milieu or foretell the future. The latest artworks of Aroosa Rana can be counted among such works. At her solo exhibition, View Within (January 7-16, 2020, Canvas Gallery Karachi), the artist chose to employ a language that is most contemporary and familiar. In all videos and projections, you see a TV screen; something present in every house, regardless of class or preferences of taste.

The language of Rana is common, yet it puts forth points to ponder upon— what we know as post-truth. Instead of illustrating a political or social reference, the artist alludes to the way reality is made invisible due to layers of lies, through the way she constructs visuals.

Lies that look true, or are true in some cases, are suspended in purgatory by the scheme of presenting facts. The public tends to believe what is offered as real, without realising that what they are looking at is the glowing screen of an electronic gadget. The rapidly diminishing difference between reality and its reflection seems to be the main motif — and motive — for Rana. Created with coats of images it investigates the perception and presence of known reality. Actually, reality in her works is executed in varying folds, reminiscent of fictions such as The Thousand and One Nights, in which stories overlap. Thus, the narrative is a collage of content. Innumerable writers use the same technique in their tales. Like inter-textuality for authors, inter-visualit’ for Rana becomes a major concern, as she provides a passage to approach or access the optical world through multiple mediums and media. These mediate between physical presence and its representation: two entities that in our times have blended to such an extent that it is difficult to distinguish the subject and the spectator.

In her single channel video ‘Superman (56 minutes on loop) two women in a room are turned towards the TV playing the movie Superman. Rana extends the field of the spectacle when a visitor in the gallery is looking at the work on display. However, in this chain of viewing, there are a few interruptions. The movie is moving but the characters in the work are still, while the viewers of the exhibition are in between static and active states. The work also suggests a relationship between the imaginary and the physical worlds. The women – domestic workers – are enjoying a fantasy. Although film is the most realistic genre since it is produced with a camera – the most reliable tool to capture reality – what the audience see is a work of art, a piece of fiction.

They communicate; That is how reality is manufactured. Being two, three and four dimensional at the same instance, these works challenge the notion of space, and dimensionality.

A similar approach is evident in Rana’s single channel video View Within (20 minutes on loop). “This piece on projection is being created with 4-layer shoot”; which includes an interior with four models posing as if immobile, next to a photographer pointing his camera at them, and detail of his recording being shown on a small TV monitor in the middle. Lights, depth of space and interconnecting gaze of the participants hint at a well-orchestrated segment from a long narrative. This fraction also exists between stillness and motion, because while people and props are fixed – except the TV screen that transmits changing pictures – you notice the foot of photographer lifting a bit, shadow of some object on the top left corner slightly shifting, like a fan. The figure of the artist on a chair, echoing a movie director, is frozen near another set of lights, and gazes at that part of the projection, which the viewer watches — as a complete composition, sitting on an actual chair in the gallery.

The artist has expressed her intention to create the work in the format of a classical painting. Hence the multiple layers/scales of pictures. Like Giotto’s Lamentation of Christ (1306) in which, according to art historian EH Gombrich, it was rare that a human body was depicted from the back in a European painting, here different parts/participants of the image are placed around the central object, the TV screen. In its structure, the work reminds of Spanish artist Diego Velasquez’s Las Meninas (1659) in which the canvas is split between diverging views: of little princess, her companions, dog, dwarf, reflections of a person leaving the room and of the royal couple in another mirror. The figure of the Velasquez is also part of the picture, busy behind his huge canvas, which Michel Foucault in his The Order of Things speculates is the painting Las Meninas!

This painting within painting — or painter within his painting — is what is experienced in View Within, as several projections are shown, particularly on the TV screen – the mirror of our times – along with the maker’s back being part of her creation.

It feels that the characters of this composition possess, in the words of Jorge Luis Borges: “the power of conversing among themselves instantaneously without words or signs”. What they communicate; that is how reality is manufactured. Being two, three and four dimensional at the same instance, these works challenge the notion of space, and dimensionality. The artist takes a step further and slices fantasy in the realm of tangibility.

In Split (120-minute double channel video, on two TVs), and Above/Below (93-minute single channel video on, one TV), you see segments of movies Inception and The Grand Budapest Hotel, either separated into two TV screens, or shown as a thin section above a bare wall, inside a TV monitor. These media-based works diffuse the defining line between a sculpture and everyday object; between a two-dimensional visual hung on a panel and a moving image.

This divide becomes more intriguing in two other works from the exhibition. Titled Black and White, these single-channel videos investigate the act of perception, or the power or possibility of discerning the real and reproduction. The first work includes image of a TV screen that is switched off; thus you trace the silhouette of the artist and her surroundings reflected on the dark rectangle – a response to Kazimir Malevich’s The Black Square (1915), added by the impressions of visitors and the gallery interior on top of the work displayed.

Correspondingly, White consists of a white wall documented and played on a TV, identical to the TV set used for this video channel. The power cables in the videos continue in the gallery space, thus cementing the link between the physical and virtual realms. Being in front of these Black and White video installations one feels, in the words of Borges: “… colours are like memories or premonitions of other colours….”

The author is an art critic based in Lahore

Aroosa Rana’s art exhibition: The garden of forked paths