The most exciting part of an art exhibition is the setting up of the display. The hours before the frames are hung, while the bubble wrap flies around the floor as the gallery managers bite their nails waiting for the space to transform for yet another artist’s vision, are crucial. Recently, in Karachi, two exhibitions took big steps towards redefining ‘exhibiting’ art through calculated display and manipulation of the gallery space, highlighting how young Pakistani artists are moving away from commodifying their hard work.
24.8615°N 067.0099°E – the title of the show – are the coordinates of a site in Karachi, DHA, which is portrayed in the art exhibition. Held at Canvas Gallery, it was the result of artist duo Omer Wasim and Saira Sheikh’s year-long research project around urban residences in Karachi. Wasim and Sheikh transport the viewers from a contemporary art gallery to a science laboratory by arranging labeled items on light tables, blocking off all natural light and hanging a series of extensively described photographs.
The artists welcome their viewers’ to develop an individual relationship with pieces, addressing that each object has its own identity.
The curation of the work is such that it lures the viewers to closely inspect details step by step into the gallery. After reading the text alongside the photographs on the walls, one starts to slowly understand that the artists have discussed the extreme disparities of living in the urban city of Karachi. Elements are picked up from empty plots, rickety tents and abandoned containers which showcase the extent of poverty that people live with, highlighting their nomadic routine as they do not have a roof over their heads; a torn piece of a kurta, seeds of a tree, broken bits of a material are from the sites that Wasim and Sheikh have photographed and brought to the examining table. This is contrasted with documentation of the Dubai Mahal on Khayabaan-e-Badar (24.8615°N 067.0099°E), which is – literally – the height of all luxury towering above all in the residential area.
The artist duo treated their process and display like an anthropological case study which in a way blurs the lines between contemporary art and research methodology. The other art exhibition held this month which made an interesting use of display and material is Linear (Im) Possibilities which is the third exhibition in the Drawing Documents series. The series will be compiled into a publication currently being created by the Indus Valley School’s Gallery (IVS Gallery) and the Department of Fine Art.
When curator Seher Naveed approached sculptor Yasser Vayani to participate in the Drawing Documents project – which looks at four artists – and collaborating writers’ responses and interpretation of ‘drawing’, Vayani was hesitant. Pencil and paper were never his true form of artistic expression. Instead, he proposed to discuss his collection of materials accumulated from his daily findings in Karachi for the exhibition and showcase how his recycled treasures could become sculptures and drawings on the gallery floor. “I like reusing and recycling with my work because number one, it doesn’t sell, secondly, every time you adjust the object – even placing it in a different position – it changes its meaning.” The artist discussed how he enjoys deriving theoretical inspiration from the ‘ready-made’ phenomena in conceptual art spearheaded by Marcel Duchamp.
Although in 24.8615°N 067.0099°E there are charcoal drawings on stretched canvas, they are seen as ‘navigational tools’ for the artists themselves, rather than an item a viewer can place a red ‘sold’ sticker on after the show is over. By drawing and writing on these sites, the artists explain that it helped their discussion over the absurdity of palaces versus broken storage containers, which are both a couple of meters away from each other and yet both places of residence. Both exhibitions take a retrospective look at their research and findings across the city with different personal inclinations but similar approaches.
Vayani’s pieces are extremely conversational in their display as the positioning of the found objects causes their appearance to change and personify into living entities with odd voices, crooked limbs and eccentric personalities. A plethora of stationary, thumb pins, empty bottles and stolen knick-knacks line up in rows and blocks, almost like an army ready for battle on the gallery floor. Towards the corner of the room, the battlefield ensues with an explosion of bricks, blocks of stone and shards of marble tiles. Viewers must walk over and around these pieces, maneuvering their way about the exhibition; Vayani expresses that his collected objects have “an energy and a presence of life to them” which he wanted to introduce to prospective gallery visitors.
Wasim and Sheikh on the other hand talk about their own families’ migratory history to Karachi and use the drawings and objects displayed to encapsulate their search for trying to understand this city and how it’s dichotomy of classes continuously makes them feel uncomfortable. It is interesting to see how the artists bring their process of finding and keeping objects from all over Karachi to a formal exhibition space and how they amass together. “I feel like the objects I used have more humanity than people themselves and have the capacity to be seen in so many different ways.” Vayani elaborates. Similarly, Wasim and Sheikh explain that their scientific and clinical is not ‘a mere display device’ as the archival language pulls at the viewer to critique the system. The artist duo chuckle as they speak about how every time they would venture to take photographs near the Dubai Mahal they were mugged.
The artists welcome their viewers to develop individual relationships with pieces, addressing that each object has its own identity. Whether they are pipes and packaging swiped off from a landlady’s rooftop or a bit of cloth with some history to it, these two exhibitions create an awareness about what it takes for the artists to bring all these objects together to create dialogue rather than aesthetic admiration. Although the work may not be intrinsically site-specific for both exhibitions, the gallery spaces appear to have been occupied by artists who understand the need to display work which may never look great in one’s home, would never be acquired by a museum and perhaps never taught in an art history class.
The writer is currently a researcher and coordinator for Vasl Artists' Collective.