When art aficionado, businesswoman, and philanthropist Feroze Gujral – who is of Indian, Arab, and British origins – visited the Venice Biennale in 2013, she noticed there was neither an Indian nor a Pakistani pavilion. With great experience sustaining large-scale arts projects via the Gujral Art Foundation, she decided to change that, and selected internationally recognised artists, Shilpa Gupta (India) and Rashid Rana (Pakistan), to collaborate on ‘My East is Your West.’ The project is an official Collateral Event of the 56th Venice Biennale, and unites at the Biennale for the first time the historically conflicting nations of India and Pakistan. Rana and Gupta have previously collaborated on the cross-border project ‘Aar Paar’, in which artists from Mumbai and Karachi each created public works in the other’s territories.
On view in Venice, Shilpa Gupta’s work, characteristically both poetic and direct in its delivery, reflects on her own experience visiting the borders of Mumbai, Bangladesh and Kashmir, which are partly controlled by India and partly by Pakistan. As a central focus of the work, she stages a performance wherein an actor diligently works away at a crafts table in a dramatically lit red room. Without acknowledging the presence of visitors, the actor traces a shape on carbon paper that rests on a pile of cloth. The cloth itself is significant, measuring the width of a sari and one-thousandth the length of the 3,400km security barrier, the longest in the world, that India is currently building along its’ perimeter with neighbouring Bangladesh. Although open-ended, the piece seemingly alludes to the vast and somewhat arbitrary effort of retaining distance through the gesture of drawing borders.
On the Pakistani side of the exhibition, Rashid Rana’s work similarly prompts visitors to rethink the function, value and meaning of borders. A projected screen reflects the room in which spectators stand and then plays footage of what goes on in this room with a slight time delay. This forces viewers to unwittingly become prominent players in Rana’s work as they suddenly come face-to-face with their own selves on the screen. In this way, one literally watches oneself cross a threshold, and so one is rallied to join the uncomfortable dialogue surrounding India-Pakistan that the art has provoked.
Another room bears a screen yet again showcasing an exact replica of the room viewers are standing in. However, here, rather than viewers themselves being filmed, there is instead an unknown person sitting in the projected identical room. One quickly comes to find out that this person is an artist, in Pakistan, in real time, who is there to answer any questions and I presume, ideally, strike up a meaningful conversation. In shifting the role of the viewer from passive to active, the environment is reconfigured and re-functioned. This act requires us to rethink our ideas of political action in a way that hearkens to both Butler and Brecht.
By allowing viewers to cross into virtual spaces that are unbound by the architecture of bordering yet clashing nations, Rana’s scenarios reimagine and animate political space in a way that contests distinctions between the public and private, as well as the political and personal.
Moving across the greater pavilion, viewers experience an intensely visual, playful and provocative revolutionary zone where justice and irony intersect and diverge.
– Lauren Xandra
Biennale Arte 2015 is on view throughout Venice until 22nd, November 2015.