The art of Rashid Rana, like all works of great significance, has diverse origins and manifests in multiple expressions. Works from his latest solo exhibition at Lisson Gallery, Milan affirm that an artist belongs to various worlds.
Talking about his work to Art Review (2013), Rana highlights this aspect: "My work is often a three-way negotiation between myself, my immediate physical surroundings and what I receive -- whether through the Internet, books, history or collective knowledge."
The digital prints at the exhibition deal with the duplicity of our existence -- disjointed on surface but in reality connected through many cords. Living in a world comprising components from East and West, and breathing both in past and present, we are heirs to all that took place in the long history of mankind. Thus it is not easy to differentiate between regions, religions, races and reasons involved in creating a range of cultural artifacts. Like several of his previous prints, here too Rana is making a connection with the history of art but more than that with the history of ideas.
In Milan, Rana is showing works based upon the recreation of European painters, like The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1618) by Peter Paul Rubens and the Oath of the Horatii (1786) by Jacques Louis-David, and a few other paintings by Milanese masters such as Andrea Solari and Cesare da Sesto.
One can find the element of violence rendered in all these paintings, whether they illustrate a sacred subject or depict a mythological theme -- for instance, father taking his son’s word to wage war against enemies (estranged relatives); beheading of a saint, and the abduction of women are all symbols of desire for destruction hidden in human beings.
The fascination for violence is evident in the way children are drawn towards the tales of death or in their preference for toys that are tools for cruel acts, such as guns, rifles, knives, tanks, gunship helicopters and fighter planes. The craving for killing can be observed at a completely kosher and legal activity of hunting, a game in which men participate and take pleasure in shooting animals and birds just for the sake of fun and without any real need.
Even in recent times, our television screens and pages of print media are filled with the scenes of mutilated bodies, fragmented limbs, blood soaked streets, burnt vehicles and smoke emanating from buildings, to the extent that these can be considered as components of a new popular pictorial language (if not the advertisement campaign for Taliban’s extreme power!).
On some level, the preoccupation with savagery links with the passion to possess, an instinct that attracts us to control the members of opposite sex. The erotic act in its essence contains a segment of brutality; therefore, in the colloquial slang of Urdu and Punjabi, the word used for describing ‘to fornicate’ is the same that implies to denote ‘to kill’. Thus, the urge to see destruction, death and explosions is in some way a part of bleak aesthetics.
Both the ritual of gazing at scenes of erotic pleasure on the Internet or the images of bomb blasts, torture and shooting turns a viewer into a voyeur. The people become so used to looking at these ‘arousing’ visuals in a passive position that, after a while, the most gruesome or most charming sites leave them unmoved. And yet, an element of finding ‘beauty’ in these visuals remains.
Rashid Rana discovers this association between love and death, or between beauty and ugliness. In his earlier work too, for example in the series ‘Between Flesh and Blood’, the connection of a tender wound to tempting skin is invoked in an indirect way. In his recreation of an old painting ‘To Find is to Search’, the element of motherly love and erotic pleasure (in a Freudian sense) are interfused in such a scheme that one is unable to separate the two (which is the case in actual life but one is reluctant to admit it). In his work, one becomes conscious of this hidden aspect; the art serves like a mirror that more than reflecting reminds the reality of one’s self.
In essence, his entire body of work operates on this premise; it conveys a sense of our reality which is painful yet unavoidable. So the basic and mundane characteristics of our existence acquire a contextual framework, mostly from the past; consequently, the immediate and familiar incidents from the present assume new meaning, justification and interpretation. The craft of digging up another side to the usual and the common and investigating its causes and connections in history is for many the real task of the artist. That is how one is able to form a comprehensive picture of the transient reality as well as locate one’s own role and position in the larger scheme of things.
Perhaps with this view in mind, if one looks at the work War Within, one is aware of its origin in the ‘Oath of the Horatii’ but discovers that the bigger image is also based upon a motorcycle explosion with flames from a news photograph in recent times. Thus, the artist brings together the aesthetics of the two periods.
Along with the common content, the terror or war, it is the ‘picturesque’ quality of both visuals that entices a spectator. Even if one recognises the sad picture, the pleasure of seeing colours and tones, distributed in an order that excites the eye, reaffirms the power of art. This is an important endeavour in a situation where power has become the sole language.
The technique of image-making for these works from Rana’s solo exhibition at Lisson Gallery is not just a formal device; the act of breaking large pictures into tiny pixels and then combining them to make another image is a comment upon our fragmented and deconstructed surroundings. We are condemned to survive in a fractioned and fractured world, not much different from the surfaces of Rashid Rana.
(The exhibition that started on January 23 will remain on till March 14, 2014)