My East is Your West: Rashid Rana and Shilpa Gupta in Venice – interview

Internationally acclaimed artists Rashid Rana and Shilpa Gupta talk about their collaboration at the 56th Venice Biennale.

Within the framework of the official collateral programme of events at this year’s Venice Biennale, Rashid Rana and Shilpa Gupta are bringing Pakistan and India together on the international art stage, opening up a dialogue on the notion of borders and nationhood. Art Radar invites the artists to reflect on the making of this historic project. 

Artists Rashid Rana and Shilpa Gupta. Photo: Mark Blower.

Artists Rashid Rana and Shilpa Gupta. Photo: Mark Blower.

In the elegant setting of the 18th-century architecture of Palazzo Benzon on the Grand Canal, the exhibition “My East is Your West”, running through 1 October 2015, stands out from the crowded agenda of official collateral events, temporary exhibitions and one-day happenings, as among the best offerings of the 56th Venice Biennale. The project was conceived by Feroze Gujral, Director and Founder of The Gujral Foundation, and is co-curated by Martina Mazzotta, an Italian art historian and Chief Curator at Fondazione Antonio Mazzotta, and Indian independent curator and researcher Natasha Ginwala. It is the result of a partnership between the Gujral Foundation, Lisson Gallery, Galleria Continua and a number of prestigious private and institutional patrons.

The exhibition brings together two artistic forces from South Asia. Often defined as activism-oriented and politically engaged, the research of Pakistan’s Rashid Rana and that of India’s Shilpa Gupta share an interest in the mechanics of contemporaneity, explored in the light of the language of mass media and the absurdity of today’s political behaviours and social paradigms. Art Radar speaks to the artists about their working partnership for this project that has united – artistically – their two countries.

Shilpa Gupta, from the series "Untitled", 2014-15, installation, in "My East is Your West" (2015) at Palazzo Benzon, Venice. Photo: Mark Blower.

Shilpa Gupta, from the series “Untitled”, 2014-15, installation, in “My East is Your West” (2015) at Palazzo Benzon, Venice. Photo: Mark Blower.

“My East is Your West” questions issues of nationhood, identity and borders. Can you explain how the exhibition was initially conceived and what brought you to the final selection of works? How much did you collaborate while reflecting on these themes?

Rashid Rana (RR)The seed was sown at the last Venice Biennale where I met Feroze Gujral. Both of us were bemoaning the fact that neither Pakistan nor India had a pavilion. At the same time, I was also aware of the problematic nature of nation-state representation. The idea of a regional pavilion provided an answer. Feroze has gone ahead and actually realised the idealistic notion we shared whimsically that day.

The works were mostly conceived specifically for this project. Shilpa and I met at the beginning at Palazzo Benzon. Our conversation at that time helped identify common concerns in our practices, such as the ideas of location and dislocation, visual perception, transnational belonging and an individual’s transaction with authority. Since then, we worked independently on separate projects but have continued to exchange notes, specifically on how our works may overlap.

Shilpa Gupta (SG): Rashid and I are interested in perception, therefore the cartography of knowledge and construction and formation of any being. We started our conversations for the project by discussing our overlapping interest over the years. However, we decided to work on our own projects, which are shown alongside each other rather than having any overarching theme, allowing the viewer to discover how our practice is different and also similar in surprising and subtle ways.

Shilpa, the animated light installation My East is Your West (2014) is the title work of the exhibition at Palazzo Benzon in Venice. Can you tell us more about the origin of this work?

SG: My East is your West is a ten-metre long outdoor light installation. Incorporating ‘light’ – a very primal element associated with vision – the artwork deals with perception and ways of looking from different sites of being, be it physiological or geographical. In a world where distances and contexts can generate non homogeneous selves, the work celebrates multiplicity while also suggesting an ever present possible deception in any permanent/singular kind of positing.

Rashid Rana, 'War Within II', 2013-14, from the series "Transpositions", 2013-15, c print + DIASEC, 600 x 240 cm (in two parts), in "My East is Your West", at Palazzo Benzon, Venice. Photo: Mark Blower.

Rashid Rana, ‘War Within II’, 2013-14, from the series “Transpositions”, 2013-15, C-print + DIASEC, 600 x 240 cm (in two parts), in “My East is Your West” (2015) at Palazzo Benzon, Venice. Photo: Mark Blower.

Rashid, your training as a painter at the National College of Arts in Lahore and at the Massachusetts College of Fine Arts in Boston pushed you closer to the study of the great masters of Western painting. How does your fascination with Caravaggio’s and Jacques-Louis David’s masterpieces address the themes investigated by the exhibition “My East is Your West”?

RRI believe that, because of the many ways in which information is organised and disseminated today, the seeming canon of Western art history is open to plunder by artists anywhere. It has become a kind of shared knowledge and I personally do not shy away from using that to my advantage. In War Within II, I fragmented and reassembled the neoclassical painting Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David in a way that the sum of its parts is both oddly faithful and deviant from the original image. Through this act, the import of history of the image is subverted as is its evocation of a nationalistic pride.

Similarly, in My Sight Stands in the Way of Your Memory, a two-part installation is premised upon Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. In one part (Anatomy Lessons III), a nine-channel video is composed of thousands of pixel-like clips from films, daily life, CCTV footage and other sources where a quick action is taking place. Seen together, however, this action amounts to a still image of Caravaggio’s painting where Judith stands stiff with mild distaste. In the second part of the installation (Site-uations), a video plays on the opposite wall, which seemingly mirrors the first work in a constructed set in another location, thereby extending its existence beyond its material position.

Rashid Rana, 'My Sight Stands in the Way of Your Memory', 2013-2015, from the series "Transpositions", 2013-15, video installation, single channel projection and 9 channel video on 9 monitors, in "My East is Your West", at Palazzo Benzon, Venice. Photo: Mark Blower.

Rashid Rana, ‘My Sight Stands in the Way of Your Memory’, 2013-2015, from the series “Transpositions”, 2013-15, video installation, single channel projection and 9 channel video on 9 monitors, in “My East is Your West” (2015) at Palazzo Benzon, Venice. Photo: Mark Blower.

You both have been working and living quite extensively outside the borders of your own motherlands. To what extent has your professional and personal experience in foreign cultural contexts helped you with your understanding of “the other” and the construction and affirmation of your identity as individuals and artists?

SG: I have grown up in Mumbai, which is a dense city where walking on the streets or travelling in the trains, you are always almost face-to-face with someone who comes from a place different from yours. When I joined the art school in the 1990s and the decade after, the city and the nation witnessed sectarian riots and polarising debates on origin and claim. So yes, different contexts – be they physiological or geographical – inform one in the practice, which becomes a space where internal dilemmas are worked/played out.

Extract from Speaking Wall, interactive sound installation,

Is the place you come from
The place you were born
Or the place you grew up
Or the place you inhabit
Virtually
Mentally
Philosophically
Physically

RR: I am very lucky to have gotten support outside of my hometown as well. Even apart from the West, being based in Lahore, it was a show in India in 2004 that became my launch pad and a gallery in India still represents me. Similarly, as an educator at the Beaconhouse National University, I teach students from all over South Asia. I think my experiences have helped me shape the view that the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ are not caught in a strict dichotomy and that defining these as polarities reduces them to seemingly insurmountable differences.

A lot of my work has subsequently addressed the negation of these didactic identities. Particularly, within this project Shuhuud-o-shaahid—mashhuud creates a virtual connection between Venice and a mirrored room in Lahore. Visitors to both spaces view and interact with each other blurring the boundary between the viewer and the viewed, and drawing a reflection of the ‘self’ in an image of the ‘other’.

Rashid Rana, 'Asl-e-Shuhuud-o-shaahid-mashhhuud (The viewing, the viewer and the viewed)', 2015, from the series "Transpositions", 2013-15, interactive video installation, single channel projection, in "My East is Your West", at Palazzo Benzon, Venice. Photo: Mark Blower.

Rashid Rana, ‘Asl-e-Shuhuud-o-shaahid-mashhhuud (The viewing, the viewer and the viewed)’, 2015, from the series “Transpositions”, 2013-15, interactive video installation, single channel projection, in “My East is Your West” (2015) at Palazzo Benzon, Venice. Photo: Mark Blower.

Shilpa Gupta, from the series "Untitled", 2014-15, drawing and performance, in "My East is Your West", at Palazzo Benzon, Venice. Photo: Mark Blower.

Shilpa Gupta, from the series “Untitled”, 2014-15, drawing and performance, in “My East is Your West” (2015) at Palazzo Benzon, Venice. Photo: Mark Blower.

Language and the impossibility of fully grasping its meaning seem to be at stake in both of your research, for example with works like Gupta’s Untitled (2008-09) and 24:00:01 (2012), and Rana’s A Mirror Lies Vacant (2015) or Newspapers (2010-11). What are your thoughts on the media’s production of meaning and how do you both stand on the daily visual information we are fed upon?

SG: I think we all are increasingly aware that while some may wrestle with it, some shy away, some manipulate, some play along with it, knowing well that we will always live in a sense of doubt in this hyper mediated world. 

RR: I think I am interested in the contesting claims to reality as made by the actual and the remote. The former would be direct sensory experience with the body functioning as the site of knowledge, while the latter is made of all indirect knowledge amassed through sources scattered across time and space, such as the Internet, collective knowledge or history.

I believe that between the two, reality lies evasive, almost sparse. In that sense, perhaps my interest in the absurdity of language is a symptomatic one, since it lies so ambiguously between the actual and the remote, particularly today when the availability and generation of text seems to have increased exponentially.

Rashid RanaRashid Rana, 'A Mirror Lies Vacant', 2015, from the series "Transpositions", 2013-15, site-responsive installation and latex print on wallpaper, in "My East is Your West", at Palazzo Benzon, Venice. Photo: Mark Blower. 'A mirror lies vacant', 2015, from the series "Transpositions", 2013-15, site-responsive installation and latex print on wallpaper. Photo: Mark Blower.

Rashid Rana, ‘A Mirror Lies Vacant’, 2015, from the series “Transpositions”, 2013-15, site-responsive installation and latex print on wallpaper, in “My East is Your West” (2015) at Palazzo Benzon, Venice. Photo: Mark Blower.

Shilpa Gupta, from the series "Untitled", 2014-15, installation,  in "My East is Your West", at Palazzo Benzon, Venice. Photo: Mark Blower.

Shilpa Gupta, from the series “Untitled”, 2014-15, installation, in “My East is Your West” (2015) at Palazzo Benzon, Venice. Photo: Mark Blower.

Finally, in light of your experience in this exhibition, what does the word “border” now mean to you?

SG: That it was created only upon the creation of a state. 

RRI would like it to mean something abstract, permeable, non-permanent and surmountable.

Carmen Stolfi

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