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In Review

New perspectives, newer possibilities

Published 17 Mar, 2015 07:19pm

Vasl – Third International Artists’ Workshop Showing


March 9 – 11

Flags over Sea View; whistles at Karachi’s Khadda Market; voices in the peepul tree; and bodily revulsions projected onto the walls of eating places. The culmination of Vasl’s third International Artists’ Workshop 2012 took place around Karachi, with performances and sound works arranged across streets, and video installations installed in galleries and public spaces around the city.

Focusing on performance, sound and moving images, the Vasl Artists’ Collective invited 10 artists to attend this year’s international workshop through an open call. Taking place between February 23 and March 11, the workshop ended in an ‘open weekend’ that gave the artists an opportunity to display the output of their interactions withKarachiand with one another.

Unlike typical residency programmes, the Vasl workshop engenders a particular intensity by involving an almost unmanageable number of artists working together over a limited period of time. The resulting environment inspires a flurry of exchange, research and collaborative activity.

The coordinators of Vasl felt that unlike the two earlier workshops – held in Gadani in 2001 (Vasl’s first ever project), and then in 2006 – this year’s workshop could become more of a contribution to the local art scene and the people of Karachi as it was to take place in the urban territory. Exploring uncommon and unexposed forms of artistic practice, artists participating in the workshop did not make paintings or sculptures, but worked on films, audio pieces, performances and installations.

Unfortunately, of the 10 artists selected only eight were able to attend. Increased visa restrictions between Pakistan and Egypt over recent months stopped Egyptian artist Ahmed Al Saed at the airport and Indian artist Aastha Chauhan didn’t travel because of other reasons although she did manage to obtain a visa. International participants who did attend were Chinese performance artist Zhou Bin, German performance and video artist Elisabeth Rosenthal and Polish video and situation-based artist Magda Fabianczyk. FromPakistan, Sarah Ahmed Mumtaz travelled fromLahore, and recent National College of Arts (NCA) graduates, Zeeshan Younas, Narjis Mirza and Amna Saeed came from Islamabad/Rawalpindi. Karachi-based Muzzumil Ruheel attended as a local participant, rooting the rest of the group in their new environment through his local knowledge and artistic activity.

Drawing on a previous body of calligraphy-based works that amass Urdu text into amalgamated visuals, Ruheel shifted the content of his 2D works into audio-visual form for the occasion of the workshop. The texts that Ruheel laces onto his calligraphy-filled pages are derived from the babble of current affairs that arrives into our ears through television, radio and everyday talk. In the installation Yak Yak Yak at Gandhara Gallery over Friday and Saturday evening at the close of the project, 21 television sets were simultaneously tuned in to live news channels. Collectively assembled, the flashing televisions and their traffic-like sounds were chaotic and jarring. On the final evening of the workshop, Ruheel showed a corresponding work in the peepul tree at the entrance to Port Grand’s food street. The blurry yakking sound of his installation emanated from a speaker hidden in the tree, the ancient plant no longer resonating with the voices of disgruntled spirits but of gossipy political affairs.

Port Grand also hosted a number of other works on the final evening of the workshop. Though the site attracts a relatively affluent clientele, it also offered Vasl a captive audience, who filtered into the gallery space, past the video projections and installations arranged around the entrance and in front of The Galleria. Mumtaz’s double film projection, (which was also shown throughout the last weekend of the workshop at Koel Gallery), evoked some of the most reactionary responses here. Her work examines the pejorative view that society can cast upon an irregular body. In the video work titled The Opposite of Beauty is Not Ugliness, It’s Indifference, she filmed her mouth as she vigorously brushes her teeth, rubbing red lipstick onto her teeth and gums. Eventually rinsing her face, she ends with a humorous though uneasy smile that emulates the toothpaste advert’s demonstration of apparent perfection. Her associated performance, Sarah Learns to Walk, undertaken at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, further summed up in moving form the narrative of her life. Born with cerebral palsy, she learned to walk late, and for this performance she was seen in a white fairy-like dress stumbling towards a standing posture, before dancing with excitement at the new possibilities of her movement. Eventually she positioned herself in the pond, standing over the fish and shouting “Ab mein chal sakti hoon, (I can now walk),” creating an ambivalent response in which the viewer was torn between acknowledgement of her jubilation and her evident pain.

Similarly visceral, Chinese artist Zhou Bin executed a performance that questioned the blanket accusation of ‘terrorist’ faced by Pakistani citizens from the rest of the world. Standing in the sea, just off Sea View, with a flag printed with the words “Who is….?”, Zhou Bin watched the horizon before turning and walking slowly towards the crowd of art attendees, puzzled visitors and chai-wallahs, declaring “I am a terrorist.” Repeating this phrase, Zhou Bin did not close his mouth once and, as his jaw ached around the words, he visibly retched and struggled before laying down his flag and walking off the beach, slowly and dejectedly.

Immediately following Zhou Bin’s performance, Rosenthal stationed herself at Khadda Market. Approaching a waiting crowd in a white Clockwork Orange-like outfit on a rickshaw, she stood isolated and spotlighted under the scrutiny of her various observers. Whistling small bird-like harmonies into a microphone attached to her collar, her petite tunes reverberated around the space, prompting others to whistle towards her and participate in a surreal language-less dialogue.

On the same day, Fabianczyk – who also put up two video installations at Port Grand on the last Sunday of the workshop – monitored a roving truck that travelled around Karachi, blaring from speakers the Urdu script of a female voice reciting a text that Fabianczyk produced in the workshop. This text, like her video installations, examined issues of class, privilege and communication and, like much of her work, was based on an attempt to establish dialogues and convivial relationships between disparate groups of people, thereby examining issues of illusion, intervention, privilege, and understanding.

Saeed and Mirza conceived a performance at Port Grand that replaced the consumption of food with the consumption of art. A table set for four was positioned close to the entrance of the street, though there were sets of headphones and small video screens on plates instead of food. When we take in an image, a scene, a sound or even a piece of art, as if during the process of eating, we are consuming that thing into our bodies and our memories. In this work, Mirza and Saeed replaced foodstuff with artworks that the viewer could ingest into their minds. In the gallery, Saeed displayed a video that animated mechanical urban images and self-portraits into a bizarre and humorous narrative. Taking advantage of Vasl’s media partnership with FM107, Mirza also ‘exhibited’ sections of her developing audio novel on the radio. Her novel is amassed entirely through tightly edited non-linguistic sounds, and as part of a special radio interview Mirza discussed this ongoing work and its conceptual developments.

Like Mirza and Saeed, Younas hails from the NCA Rawalpindi. For the workshop’s open week he installed two works at Port Grand. The artwork A Sound Box was literally a painted cupboard decorated with felt camouflage markings that he positioned at the top of the gallery’s stairs. From this box emanated an edited mix of sounds that drew on Younas’ observations of Karachi throughout the workshop. While this work possessed an ominous darkness, his animated projection on a wall at the entrance of the food street was more humorous. This work showed the artist comically, though nervously, glancing left and right, apparently observing his spectators amble past. In this position, his face seemed somewhat nervous, his animated expressions hiding within the moving image while also appearing exposed and awkward, nervous of judgement from the observing public.

As more institutions, galleries, publications and artist platforms develop within Pakistan, artists are finding increasing opportunities to create artworks that aren’t necessarily available for fiscal exchange alone. The Vasl workshop deliberately brought together a collection of artists from Pakistan and the international art scene to develop new perspectives on the production and display of such practices. The practices explored are not strictly uncommon within the art scene here, but they are often unexposed. This project provided an opportunity to develop a situation in which a mass of performance, auditory and video works could be displayed not just to a collection of knowing observers, but to audiences who may never have considered a projection on a wall or a man standing in the sea to be art, and who now know a little bit more about the scope of artistic possibility in the culture that they live in.