on unintended consequences, naaem mohaiemen’s the young man was…

Excellent piece/interview on The Young Man Was…: Part 1, United Red Army, Naeem Mohaiemen’s film that was first shown at Sharjah Biennial X -and which I wrote about ‘live’ here. Naeem has a page on the film/project here.

Don’t miss the film whenever/wherever it screens. Interesting to see in some relation to Assayas’s surprisingly good biopic Carlos, which is still a very different project obviously [read Jonathan Romney here]. Continue reading “on unintended consequences, naaem mohaiemen’s the young man was…”

notes from a biennial – on a day of words [one]

Screenshot 2017-05-15 12.38.25

Screenshot 2017-05-15 12.38.52

(Links to the original SAF site and these thumbnails no longer exist. UPDATED 2017)

Notes from a Biennial – On a Day of Words [One]

Sharjah Biennial 10

18.03.2011, 14:06

by Guy Mannes-Abbott

It should not be a surprise to find a lot of words -in the form of writing and image- at this Biennial in particular. Then again, it is quite surprising to find quite so many high quality publications; from the hulking sanctuary of the ‘Plot for a Biennial’ catalogue [ed. Ghalya Saadawi], to the thumb prints of individual artist publications and on to the stack of books entitled Manual for Treason.

Words flourish here as text and speech as well as in many languages, signing the Biennial site and as translations of the variously published texts. ‘Manual for Treason’ itself [Ed. Murtaza Vali] for example contains English, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Kannada -at least. Manual for Conspiracy [Ed. Basak Ertur] is published in English and Turkish -and so on.

Throughout the Biennial works engage the world they were made to ‘breathe together’ with [to quote Ertur’s etymological elaboration on the word Conspiracy], to notable effect. It is to the credit of all involved that what these things mean has been taken seriously especially as it takes place at a time of real and systemic change in the region. In many places there is a radical revisiting of archives of revolution, from the large scale and actual [Harun Farocki & Andrei Ujlica Videograms of a Revolution 1993] through comic projection [Ahmad Ghossein My Father is Still a Communist 2011].

One morning artists and I breakfast on a headline reporting that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sent military and police reinforcements to support the ruler of Bahrain. It’s clear that something must be said; next morning artists make a gesture of saying it. [For something of an elaboration on the wider context of this, see Notes from a Biennial – On Reflection] In the early hours of the next day, avid attention is paid to Blackberries for a New York Times report about a large group of distinguished artist friends, many of whom are present here, who have been working with Human Rights Watch to ensure or enable the coming Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi to pay all those who will build and service it properly. (A small cut of this last sentence, made live -by me, for an unnerved curator friend then involved both with SB and GAD- March 2011 is now restored. NYT link here PDF below. UPDATED 2017)

Words. CAMP are showing their 65 minute film; The Neighbour Before The House [2009]. I’ve seen a version of this before -in a show curated by Samar Martha at the Liverpool Biennial- and settle to watch it all here. It is a fascinatingly subversive use made of surveillance cameras to explore the view of the Occupied in Jerusalem/al Quds. As the security cameras are turned against the Occupation, zooming in and out on details in otherwise prohibited places, voices describe what I’m watching in Arabic, their words flashing up in English below.

In one section a family whose home has been stolen and who are forbidden to go close to it, narrate what is being shown close up from a significance distance away; “61 days they haven’t once cleaned the stairs” to the street. One notable thing is that the building has been extended, a right denied Palestinians in Jerusalem and elsewhere. All of a sudden the family’s children appear before the house, insistently ignoring the ban and pointedly refusing to leave. Then there’s another child’s gasp as the mother of the family appears in frame, pressed up against security infrastructure attempting to peer inside her own, confiscated home.

Another section focuses on security cameras mounted on a building, but also a series of signature holes in the wall where they’ve been removed, on one occasion by a Palestinian seeking reparation -an anecdote that provides a bitterly comical moment. The words tell a familiar story to anyone who has noticed the daily demolitions, expulsions, detentions and killings that define the Occupation. But they remain peculiarly raw when, as Amitava Kumar’s contribution to the ‘Manual’ observes, “the world watches cowardly and indifferent.” [See Appendix i – Camp & I for an interview and more details.]

Words as aural and visual elemental are central to Naeem Mohaiemen’s brilliant and widely admired 70 minute film piece; The Young Man Was… [Part 1: United Red Army] which is about the hijacking of a plane to Dhaka by the Japanese Red Army in 1977. Tense negotiations ended with the release of hostages and the escape of the hijackers and prisoners they’d sought to free -during which time a military coup takes place. The end of the film lists the fates of many of the ‘cast’ and it’s notable that a number of Interpol warrants remain open for some of the revolutionaries involved.

NM found and used the actual records of negotiations between the control tower and the plane and those cryptic and repeated words make up a significant amount of what I’m watching, the sound track clear despite faltering English and Bengali background chatter. Viewers hear both sides from the control tower, which reveals the panic, duplicity and episodic fury that is anticipatable but unnerving to actually witness. It also reveals the robotic iterations of the hijacker’s simple and unswerving demands.

It’s a poem of a piece, beautiful executed, difficult to describe, not least because, as Naeem says himself, to do so and to sketch the mountain of which the film is a very small ‘tip’, takes longer than the film and inevitably undoes it as a work with real potency. The piece revisits a time when hijackers said things like “we hurt bourgeois people” or “it is duty of revolutionary soldiers” but the approach is pointed in its sophistication.

That point is well sketched by a phrase in the piece about how histories repeat in unpredictable ways and at unpredictable times. It’s a point that reminds me of Mourid Barghouti’s response to the Tunisian uprising which ended; “When it happens, it will not have happened suddenly.” NM’s remark is a direct reference to revolutionary events in Bangladesh itself, as well as more of that ‘breath’ I referred to earlier.

These are just two of the films that any visitor to the Biennial should ring fence enough time to see. The fact that you can is, despite my need to mark the larger context of the day/s here and I think important to acknowledge too, a credit to all the curators and freedoms -granted by funders of the Foundation at a National level- that they have made such productive use of.

To be continued…

 


 

A pdf of the NYT article linked above, in case the link does into work:

Guggenheim Threatened With Boycott Over Abu Dhabi Project – The New York Times

 

on my way to sharjah biennial 10, 16.03-16.05 2011

I’m abandoning the Fruit Store for the [warmer] Biennial, where I’m invited to be art critic in residence during a genuinely exciting opening week. Check the contents of it on the Biennial’s webpage.

My project is to restage Notes from a Fruit Store for the opening week and you’ll find the button -Notes from a Biennial-  on Sharjah’s header very soon. For highlights and much more check here from about the 12th March through the 20th. For my part, I can’t wait…

10.09. from gupta & harsha to london, now that’s what i call music

During the last year London finally began to notice the breadth and depth of subcontinental visual art. A form of catching up across loosely defined generations has been going on, symbolised in October 09 by Nasreen Mohamedi‘s ongoing retrospective at MKG, Subodh Gupta getting a showcase at Hauser & Wirth, NS Harsha with an installation at inIVA and a solo show at Victoria Miro, as well as another intriguing group show at Green Cardamom. As crude a notion as ‘catching up’ in this way is, it seems that London’s tokenistic effort to do this with the Serpentine Gallery’s Indian Highway in December 08 just might also be the last of its kind.

Veil [detail] 2005 Aisha Khalid

In contrast to the Now That’s What I Call Music approach of group surveys, Tommaso Corvi-Mora has shown Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi, two of the best artists from an established generation in Lahore, Pakistan, since 2001. A similarly smart curator could yet put together a show of Bhupen Khakhar’s pop art from the 1970s for example. Another could put together a retrospective of the influential late Lahori Ustad Zahoor ul Akhlaq. Perhaps ‘West End’ gallerists ought to be showcasing artists from the next wave, like Naeem Mohaiemen, Khadim Ali, or Mohammed Ali Talpur for example. That is; as well as rewinding and catching-up why not just press play?

I don’t mean to exaggerate London’s importance -it probably needs the subcontinent more than the subcontinent needs it- but it reveals an approach predicated on the take-out or the M&S spicey snack; diluted convenience over actual cuisine or anything else. The same is true in the world of books, where the UK prizes writing prepared in English at the same time as translating very nearly nothing.

Gupta and Harsha are Indian artists with global reputations, about whom London had very little to say, at least critically. I came across the former in Delhi in 2002 and had too much to say about the recent work to post my notes here, but in summary:

Subodh Gupta Common Man Hauser & Wirth 1-31 October 09

The proportions of Gupta’s first major exhibition in London were peculiar. Its occasion was part introduction, part retrospective, its character declarative and incantatory. It spilled across two sites in Mayfair, imploding with a self-consciously wide range of forms, tongues and bases with pointless talismans [Wall] and point-scoring appropriations [Et Tu, Duchamp?]. The solid core were subtle variations on now familiar stainless steel sculptures [Everyday, I Believe You, A Penny for Belief II] here on marble plinths; offerings and monuments both quotidian and sincere. The most interesting work [Spooning, Black and White] showed a further refining and abstracting of his own sculptural language  which augurs well. Gupta is an artist unafraid of thinking big in the best sense, making art that is powerfully symbolic of everyday life experience. Art from nothing and everything, for the ‘common man’ of lore and life itself.

Here are my abridged notes on Harsha’s show at Victoria Miro 10th October-14th November 09.

NS Harsha Picking Through the Rubble

by Guy Mannes-Abbott

NS Harsha has been here on his way around the world before now but this exhibition at Victoria Miro is his formal introduction in the UK. Harsha is primarily an artist of paint. A painter who uses various vernacular mediums of Indian life and art to adorn almost anything, anywhere. His works have been miniatures ‘quoting’ from Company paintings to comment on colonial legacies with great wit. They’ve been murals painted on to walls, deriving from the village arts and crafts found across India, and bringing the everyday to life in site specific works across the world. Victoria Miro is showing large mural-inspired paintings of his delicate kind which are, incidentally, his most saleable work yet.

The ground floor gallery shows off a set of five large canvases with thinly applied acrylic in soft hues. All are 5 feet high and 12 feet long; the Imperial measurements somehow appropriate and one of few unselfconscious markers present. Harsha has lifted his art off the walls to join in on an art market that requires it to hang independently. As his international reputation has grown, his site specific works have magnified too. The upstairs gallery here contains one such pointlessly scaled installation; a made-for-Museum piece called Either Side of the Path of Enlightenment. Hidden away nearby is Eclips; a modestly sized canvas of Harsha at his best; elliptical, mysterious, warmly human, wittily questioning.

Harsha’s large scale murals share qualities of pattern and looseness from the wall-mural tradition, overlaid with his trademark specificity of person, face, moment. Spot an innocent civilian and Thought pickers especially, but also In musth, could pass as wall paper with their repeated motifs. Harsha wants us to look more closely at things we think we know or recognise. At his best this process is a witty but also sharp political commentary, veering on the philosophical. This is the quality that distinguishes Thought pickers, an Untitled canvas as well as Eclips but it’s precisely this that amplification for the market’s sake threatens.

Harsha’s ‘innocent civilians’ are rendered with a halo like effect around individuated heads. To the right of the canvas and in its midst is an exploding suicide bomber taking out those nearest her in an acrobatic display of painterly gesture. Her halo is less crisply rendered but I think it’s still there; Harsha is no reducer of sense. A decade ago he painted a series of miniature sized pictures which played with the same ambiguities of language to similar effect. One of those, Native Intrigue, also took a phrase from the dominant ideological lexicon and inverted it to reveal and softly ridicule its limits.

In the War On Terror we’re all innocent civilians as well as all-knowing and complicit. Harsha is reminding us that if we perceived ourselves as global citizens, we could no longer stand by while crimes against humanity, war crimes, murderous sieges and mass murder in the guise of democracy are perpetrated in the ‘defence’ of our ‘values’. So we’re the opposite of innocent. Perhaps the least invested in our shared guilt is the suicide bomber in this mural who is at least protesting. Whose guilt is confined to small-scale, handmade outrages.

Untitled 2009 [detail] N.S. Harsha

Untitled is Harsha at his best; a broad philosophical insistence rendered as gently as possible and more characteristic of his body of work. This huge mural on canvas divides in half; on the left are a mass of painterly gestures, scraps of colourful fabric, unordered or unformed, individual, intensely vibrant. On the right they’ve been woven together into something strong, useful, evidence of human presence. Rendered at many angles in the muddied middle are busy human beings turning the scraps into thread. Collecting, gathering, weaving, moulding, working up the disparate into something with collective strength. Something formed. This is enough; there’s no manifesto delimiting what that collectivity, strength, humanity or purpose ought to be but no baulking at the absolute necessity for it.

A couple of canvases –In musth and Absurd blossoms– feel forced to me in exactly the way that Harsha’s best work is not. Thought pickers makes the point; being typical of this set of new works but as natural and easy as the witty precision of layered intent it contains. Again we have repeated motifs; individual bent backed figures regularly placed on the canvas. Each has a collection of brightly coloured rags, paint strokes, petals on their backs. The colours are the thoughts, the figures are pickers, collectors, bringers-in of the thoughts used to sustain life.

Harsha’s figures are modelled on urban rag pickers and rural twig and stick pickers; gracers of subcontinental back streets and rural tracks, gatherers of subsistence. This should give us thought, not least about the way this apparently impoverished existence is also sustainable. Thought pickers renders a kind of inhuman abjection and yet it comments on our thoughtless acquisitive purgatory in ways that are unique in their lightness of touch and softness of voice.

Upstairs, Eclips is more of this; a beautiful puzzle of an image, easily missed in the corner and set apart from the rather cumbersome ‘Path’ installation. Eclips is a divine droplet of Indian thought, containing a press of distinct human beings, falling through time and space, going nowhere, but underpinned with a mystifying carrot. Mysterious but not pointless; the carrot here might as well stand for the rewards of focusing on our shared humanity; those vulnerably massed group of people who share a single fate as they come in to splash down and begin life on earth. It’s a carrot in a world of sticks.

Harsha is an interesting artist who works political wit and philosophical incisiveness into a highly refined practice that is also essentially vernacular. As his reputation has grown, as London has finally realised the health and vigorous breadths of subcontinental art, his work has expanded in scale to meet the curatorial market. Thus size becomes a key demand, alongside concern about portentousness.

Harsha’s best work is the obverse of this; an irritant of the portentous, able to stimulate large and productive thoughts in us with the slightest of means and on the smallest of scales. These modesties are bound up tightly with the source, inspirations and languages of his art practice. The global artworld -certainly as manifest in London- struggles to understand or even recognise the modest scale of these subtleties and so forces even an artist of the wit and precision of NS Harsha into its mould.

Picking through the rubble here, there’s enough left to remind us of the real value in Harsha’s work. It’s also a happy day when someone of his particular set of skills breaks through to International recognition. The moment must be celebrated even if attended with sadness and regret when it reduces the singularity of the work in question. Hasten along to Victoria Miro and catch NS Harsha while he is still making his own work and while that work is still Harsha’s to make.