|Sunday, April 4, 2004|
I find it very agreeable when I sense a charge of new energy in museums. Not necessarily the energy that belongs naturally to them, the kind that comes from mounting a new exhibition, or reorganising a gallery, for example: but that which comes from brushing against fresh ideas, venturing into new territories. At the San Diego Museum of Art where I currently am, I found myself greatly drawn last year to all those exquisite arrangements of fresh flowers which, ‘inspired’ as they were by some of the art works on display in the galleries, were placed in front of them, as if inviting the two to hold a conversation between themselves. I am drawn again to the idea of the museum establishing a programme like Contemporary Links, in which it invites contemporary artists to respond to an art work in its permanent collection. Once again, a dialogue between artists, or works of art, is intended: across time and across space. The past frequently comes in, because it will always be there (someone– perhaps William Faulkner– said that "the past is not dead; it is not even past") and the present is invited to speak to it.
Display of decay
As part of this programme, last year, Betty Sue Hertz, curator of contemporary art at the museum, invited the celebrated German artist, Regina Frank, to be here and create something in response to a 17th century work that the museum owns: a fine still life titled Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber by the Spanish artist, Cotan. Regina Frank startles with her work, and provokes. I did not see it, for I had left by that time, but I heard about her response to the work in the form of Whiteness in Decay – part performance, part installation – in which she dressed her own body in a vast canvas dress covered with white plaster from which she emerged slowly, breaking the plaster bit by bit, and then proceeded to break open and squeeze on to herself fruits and vegetables – references to the old still life – that she had also covered initially with white plaster. I do not know what I would have made of it, but here was Regina’s personal response to a quiet, ruminative work, that many found stimulating, and full of challenge.
This year, the invited artist is young Shahzia Sikandar: Pakistan-born, New York-based painter, celebrated for the work she does, basing herself upon but also taking off from the miniature paintings from the Indian subcontinent. Even before I came to San Diego this time, I had heard that she was going to be there, and I was looking forward to seeing her. I am very familiar with the paintings she was being asked to respond to, for they belong to another fine group, mostly Deccani, that Caron Smith, the ’ curator at the museum, had selected from the museum’s collection, and mounted with great flair under the title: Sultans and Sufis. I knew the paintings, as I said, but I did not know Shahzia, nor how she was going to respond to them. And I must say that I was surprised by what I saw. Shahzia is slight of frame, has a calm exterior, and speaks Urdu with a slight accent: her work, on the other hand, is both small and vast, does not share the calmness of her own persona, and has a very marked accent.
Shahzia is into many things: installations, video works, computer graphics and so on: she has exhibited extensively; and, deservedly, her work has been written about by many. Not only because there is great intrinsic charm in it – the lyrical line, the sensuous colouring, the playfulness, the assemblage of references – but writers in the West also constantly read into it messages and issues: ‘spaces of hybridity’, ‘the rhetoric of postcolonial studies’, gender matters, ‘the visual power of stylistic ruptures’, and the like. Of all this another time, perhaps. But to get back to her sources, and her inspiration. It is clear that Shahzia knows miniature paintings well: Mughal, Rajput, Deccani, perhaps even some Persian. And she loves them, not only for the extraordinary skill with which they are painted – this she must have come instinctively to respect while she was going herself through the rigour of training in technique at the National College of Art in Lahore - but for their colour, their inventiveness, their sheer daring in the leap they take past mere observation. In her work, with the intent of building upon them, and bending their language to her own use, she sees them essentially as surfaces, however. We spoke about this. She responds to their formal qualities, and seems to be constantly amazed at how much has gone into the making of their seemingly simple structures.
The old in new skin
In her work, Shahzia often zeroes in on an image from the past, takes it apart in her mind, and then reassembles it in her own fashion, importing other forms, other shapes, into the design, thus transforming the original, giving it a new skin, as it were. For the present show at the San Diego Museum–I should add, for even as I write, the second part of her work, a large installation of paintings on dense layers of tissue paper, is being mounted – she has produced her own ‘variants’ of the Deccani paintings already on view. To take just one example: the elegantly dressed young prince from a 17th century Deccani drawing – seen in the artless context of family warmth, with a little girl drawing his attention to herself, clinging, holding on to his arm, while he turns tenderly to gaze at her – retains, in Shahzia’s rendering, the outline of his form: the athletic figure, the elegant dress, the aigrette, the dainty scallops of his jama. But he turns faceless; other shapes appear by his side and surround him, clinging, clambering, drawing his attention to themselves: a horned demon, a snarling lion, a duck. This is the way it proceeds in her work: things change, the eye glides along new surfaces, colours keep appearing and disappearing, the graphic game seems to go on and on. There is great fascination in this, I hasten to add. I enjoy seeing Shahzia’s work: the play is inviting, and the smoothness seductive. But how one longs for some warmth, and for the embedding of work in those layers of thought that make the paintings of the past what they are.
Abu’l Fazl, that great observer and chronicler of Emperor Akbar’s times, speaks in his work of something called dakhl poetry: simply put, when a poet would take another, respected poet’s work, pick from it a line, and then ‘enter’ the old verse, by adding a line of his own, in the process altering the meaning, but also somehow enhancing it.
Nothing, it seems, is ever completely new.