Faisal probes the gap between reality and reproduction in the two-person exhibition, House without Walls, organised by Vasl Artists’ Association and curated by Haseeb Ullah Zafar
irst, I missed the fan: a dysfunctional article made out of pink plastic, hanging from the ceiling of the gallery T2F, Karachi. In its size, design, and placement, it reproduced the standard ceiling fan made out of metal and fixed in the gallery space to provide some relief in the stifling heat of Karachi. But seeing both, the work created by Suleman Faisal, and later, of some manufacturing company, a visitor starts locating differences and similarities. Speculating if the ‘art fan’ could serve the same function as the industrial product; additionally, realising that when static, the two appear to be each other’s kin despite having dissimilar skins.
Faisal probes this gap between reality and reproduction in the two-person exhibition, House without Walls, (organised by Vasl Artists’ Association, curated by Haseeb Ullah Zafar, and being held from June 17 to June 30). Here, a spectator virtually stumbles again and again, especially in front of Ahsan Memon’s work. Memon, masterfully presents pieces, which do not look like art, but merely the material. He fabricates a rusty metal sheet, segments of string, a bamboo stick, a pair of iron rods, a bar of toilet soap, and a chunk of concrete and plaster as if detached from a building site – in oil, resin and fibreglass.
The illusion – or deception - is so convincing that even after reading the caption details, a viewer still finds it hard to believe in the medium of the stuff. Then one takes another step and begins to wonder about the choices of these objects as art. Had Memon wanted merely to impress the audience with his skill in forging familiar items, he already achieved this in his NCA Degree Show, 2016, by replicating bread, coal, wooden lengths and a cardboard box in a perfect manner. This kind of practice later continued in different exhibitions, including the Karachi Biennale 01 (2017). Over the years, he improved his craft and the present exhibition affirms his ability.
However, there is a difference; because two works accompany drawings, depicting the same objects in graphite (a roll of string, a piece of bamboo) like keys and codes. Memon’s art reminds one of an earlier body of works created by Ayaz Jokhio (2009-10). A set of art materials, such as pencil, crayon, paper, charcoal stick, paint tube each drawn in a super realistic scheme, but in corresponding medium. Hence, a logical connection between image and material, between content and form – in fact, form became the content.
Unlike Jokhio, one can hardly detect a link between the appearance and substance of Memon’s pieces. Even for someone seeing his art for the first time, the mystery soon crumbles. So, all of his work, more than signifying his command in making, suggests a beauty hidden in these mundane items.
Beauty – a discredited term in art – holds different definitions/ manifestations for practical purposes and for artistic demands. For instance, a regular shopper finds a new pair of shoes attractive, but to an artist (like Vincent van Gogh), old and worn-out shoes are a suitable subject to render. Painters, normally like to live in fashionable, and newly constructed houses, but for their works they seek broken, depilated and historic structures. Even a picture of a fresh apple is not as powerful as of a decaying one. We have seen innumerable photographs of wrinkled old men, dilapidated buildings, barren trees as typical examples of art. In that context, Ahsan Memon’s preference is for things that we usually ignore, or throw away after use. Who looks at an ordinary roll of string, a section of bamboo, metal rods, debris from a construction site and a thinned bar of soap? They are as visible/ invisible as hundreds of other functional products and certainly do not qualify to be seen as having aesthetic value; but Ahsan Memon elevates them to art. Actually, it is not forgery, it is something else. The price of a short length of bamboo could be 110 rupees, but when it is executed in oil on fibreglass by Memon its value rises to 110,000 rupees.
What takes place in the domain of commerce can be extended to the world of art as a metaphor. Many big artists come from humble backgrounds, and even after they find success in financial terms, some of their distant relatives are still coping with poverty. Ironically, most artists can’t afford their own work. Memon’s work can be a comment on that situation. Each random piece of reality is a general and generic self-portrait. Basically, the stuff/ person is not worthy, but when it is metamorphosed into art/ artist, it is equated with a higher sum/ respect. The love, observation and intelligent way of installing these mundane things (the curator also contributed to this) is an ode to ordinary entities.
Memon’s magic, of transforming the ordinary into extraordinary is visible in Suleman Faisal’s work too. Faisal has been utilising coloured sheets of Plexiglas for some time, but it is in the latest show that he has fully explored the possibilities and poetics of the medium. He has translated a pair of police shoes, a gun in its holster, a police jacket, a sewing machine, a cooking stove, a dressing table with perfumes bottles, a comb and other make-up accessories into pink plastic sheets. Here’s a hard material, moved and moulded to become items of our daily use and experience. Fabric, leather, metal, wood and glass are converted into Plexiglas so convincingly that you are compelled to believe in the reality of these intimate fantasies. Intimate, because these seemingly random pieces are grouped into pairs (and placed likewise). A sewing machine with a gun, a stove with service boots, a dressing table with a uniform jacket, invoking the personages of his mother and father, especially when all of these single objects are encased in transparent boxes made of the same substance.
More than its context and personal touch, the art of Suleman Faisal, in its pictorial aspect reminds one of scanning machines installed at the airports. His former teacher at NCA (2013-2017), Nausheen Saeed, created a series of digital prints (Screen I, II, & III, 2006), consisting of a human body trapped in a suitcase viewed through the screen of these surveillance devices. Faisal, in a sense, solidifies these visions/ encounters, so what we see in his work, is like spotting souls of these artefacts. Unlike Memon, who selects things that recall human presence, Faisal’s work substitute them for human beings – his family.
If you are an anxious and inquisitive traveller, you spend a bit more than the normally required time while passing through departure lounge’s scanning machines. Each piece of baggage given its composition of private belongings becomes a portrait of the passenger. Suleman Faisal’s translucent sculptures also turn into portraits of specific people important to the artist.
When we come into contact with his work, more than noticing the contours, outlines and volumes of articles, we know these cannot serve any function other than representing two individuals. Umberto Eco, in his book On Beauty, mentions that Thomas Aquinas “would not have hesitated to define a crystal hammer as ugly because, despite the superficial Beauty of the material of which it is made, the thing would have appeared unsuited to its proper function”. More than seven centuries later, his words still ring true – one realises that a sewing machine, a gun, a dressing table, a stove, a pair of shoes and a dress in Plexiglas are amazing, enchanting and relevant because they extend our ideas of utility, beauty and reality.
The author is an art critic based in Lahore