Although this exhibition, titled ‘Everything is Happening at Once’, was Rashid Rana’s first major solo show in the UK, the Lahore-born artist’s work has for many years been the subject of enthusiastic market speculation. (In 2008, his Red Carpet-1, 2007, was sold by Sotheby’s for US $623,000, making Rana’s work the most expensive by any Pakistani artist in history.) This mounted chromogenic print, which at first glance resembles a large-scale Persian carpet, consists of a dense assemblage of miniature digital photographs of animals at a slaughterhouse. It is easy to understand its popularity: the work combines an apparently Orientalist form with the documentary-based critical stance that’s come to be expected from artists operating within a post-colonial context. While Red Carpet-1 certainly lacks nuance, Rana’s method of appropriation claims a certain degree of relevance in the context of recent digital representations from and of the Middle East, most notably witnessed in the wake of the Arab uprisings.
The process of aggregating, juxtaposing and re-imagining imagery is one of the primary strategies in Rana’s latest body of work. Although trained as a traditional painter, the artist’s practice resembles that of a re-mixer. Transposing digital photography into sculptures, Rana’s exhibition at the New Art Exchange (which toured from the Cornerhouse in Manchester) included works with indicative titles, such as Newspapers (2010) and Plastic Flowers in a Traditional Vase (2007), which again consist of re-composed digital images that adopt the sculptural forms of their namesakes. Removed from their original context, each of the appropriated images is translated from the two-dimensional into the three-dimensional sphere and back again. With each refraction, Rana’s work changes in shape – a trope that the artist sees a reflection of his inner self, and manifests formally through sculptures that are constructed on symmetrical grids and mirror images.
The connection between the documentary image and its reality in the world, as Rana has stated, is a plural one. To emphasize this, he utilizes the very same processes of digital manipulation and re-presentation as those found in user-authored digital memes on the likes of YouTube and Flickr – a technique often appropriated by political activists who contort mass media images of conflict. This is a method of versioning that is currently familiar from the works of Oliver Laric, and other media artists such as Eva and Franco Mattes, as well as Wafaa Bilal.
Rana boasts a pragmatic preoccupation with the documentation of his native Pakistan, as well as everyday objects, and envisions them through his personal lenses. To some this could appear like Rana is attempting to appear moralistic with his concerns of exploitation in relation to global capital, but rather, his exhibition interpretation informs us that Rana’s works are merely the artist’s appropriations of the ‘truth’. The process of mediation, as it were, is thus paramount to our understanding of the artist’s recent oeuvre; Rana fixates on dissonances and how they manifest formally in works that reflect on notions of time, space and abstraction. This is most clearly evident in his large-scale multi-layered sculptures, and strongly encapsulated in the Desperately Seeking Paradise II (2009–11). Here, a stainless steel construction with steeped wedges sat at the centre of the gallery like a relic of an industrial era. The sweeping monument discombobulates the eyes, as they scramble to piece together a multitude of images. As we follow our image around the contours of the reflective work, it appears that our visual manifestation has soon dissipated. Before us is a landscape comprising photographs of skyscrapers outstretched across a contemporary cityscape. Before long, this omnipresent image begins to divide into pixels, as it is revealed that the landscape photograph has been formed out of hundreds of miniature pictures of village houses in Lahore. Rana’s works are instinctively interactive and consuming for the spectator. Both jarring and easily intoxicating for visitors, ‘Everything is Happening at Once’ introduced the reasons why Rashid Rana has been so popular in South Asia, and invites UK audiences to share in that enthusiasm.