Murtaza Vali: Between Structure and Matter – Other Minimal Futures
June 30, 2016
Transcribed by Aleena Malik and edited by Hilary Chassé and Jane DeBevoise
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Thank you very much for coming. I’m Jane DeBevoise, and as you all probably know, the Chair of Asia Art Archive in New York and Hong Kong. Today I’m delighted to introduce Murtaza Vali, who is a curator, critic and writer, and someone we have worked with before. Murtaza will soon be heading off to West Asia for a year, so we are very excited that he’s here now to walk us through his exhibition. I also want to thank Aicon Gallery, who is hosting this show. As an independent curator, Murtaza curated this show for Aicon.
Murtaza Vali (MV): Thank you very much Jane for that lovely introduction. But first I must say that I did not curate the exhibition by myself. One of my partners during this process, who is unfortunately not here with us today, was Prajit Dutta. He is my co-curator. The exhibition is titled “Between Structure and Matter: Other Minimal Futures” and a lot of my curatorial practice in recent years has been trying to push against the historical limits that are placed around abstraction. This show in particular is an attempt to expand the boundaries of Minimalism, by representing other minimal possibilities and by exploring minimalism outside the Western canon. One of the origins of this idea is the work of Rasheed Araeen, a Pakistani British artist who was born and raised in Karachi and moved to England in the 1960s. Trained as an engineer, although he had wanted to be an architect (there was no possibility to study architecture in Pakistan at that point in time) Araeen was also very interested in art. He was painting watercolors, portraits, landscapes, but he was also gradually moving towards abstraction. And then in the 1960s he moves to England, a very prickly post World War II England where there is very strong prejudice again races coming from outside England. But it is also a time when a lot of people from the outside are entering into Britain from former colonies, including artists from around the world, although there’s opposition and resistance to their presence as well. So it was during this time that Araeen arrives in England and encounters the work of Anthony Caro which he is struck by, although he also has certain issues with it. He finds Caro’s work to be interesting, but still very invested in ideas of form and composition. Araeen then develops his own ideas about contemporary sculpture, and starts working towards something he calls non-compositional or non-hierarchical sculpture. And he specifically uses these wood structures for his first two or three pieces, which were realized in the mid to late 60s.
In terms of chronology, Araeen is a contemporary of American minimalist artists Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. In fact, Araeen’s structures have a very strong relationship to Sol LeWitt’s work; they’re basically an open cube. But he’s not aware of Judd or LeWitt’s work at this time. He develops his ideas autonomously. His first structure is basically a very large version of the cube. The difference is between his and Sol LeWitt’s work is the diagonal that he draws across each of the faces.
In these structures, Araeen uses iron beams, again something that was used by minimal sculptors in the West. But what Araeen does is use 12 of them: with three set up like this and three set up that, with the layers constructing cubes, of which he proceeds to make variations. And soon he is starting to attract quite a bit of attention in England.
The other major piece by Araeen in this exhibition is on the back wall. It takes his basic form and adapts it, by turning it into long columns and then establishing a relationship with painting, by placing the sculptural form on the wall as a relief onto a painted background. A couple of works along those lines win a prize at what is now the Liverpool Biennial, then called the John Moore Biennial, in the late 1960s. But what happens to him by the late 1960s, early 1970s is that he basically hits his head up against the wall of a racist art establishment that does not acknowledge his work, does not acknowledge his avant-garde ideas, and basically refuses any access to institutions, the canon, or to history. At that point his work takes on a lot of radical shifts. By the late 1970s he is producing explicitly political work that is dealing with Britain as a racist society, his position as a black artist who has been pushed out of the mainstream, and ways in which he can resist. He also then goes on to form a very important journal called “Third Text” that for any post-colonial artist or art historian is crucial. For this journal alone, he is a very important figure.
Araeen is one of the two main actors of this exhibition. While having come up with these structures on his own, he has a relationship with minimalism, and by playing with these structures, I think he opens them up in really interesting and useful ways. For example, the diagonal. As you can see in the work on the back wall, his use of the diagonal opens up this very basic geometric structure to the potential of pattern and ornament, which is something he is very interested in.
Before Araeen left for England he was doing these minimal drawings of squiggly lines. They’re in part derived from jalis. Jalis are wooden net type structures that are used across the Middle East and South Asia on windows to block light but simultaneously let air in. So early on this idea of a crisscrossing diagonals was visible Araeen’s work. But what is interesting is that while retaining the structural purity of minimalism, they also open up to the potential of pattern and ornament. He also doesn’t shy away from color, which is clearly visible here in both of the sculptural works in the show. Again his use of color is a very strong difference between him and American minimalists.
Araeen also very early on starts thinking about sculptural objects not as autonomous objects to be admired from afar, but as objects that can be engaged physically by the audience. From this point of view there aren’t many comparable examples within American minimalists, but there are artists who are part of the Neo-concretist movement in Latin America who were experimenting with similar ideas. For example, the three by three by three cube in this exhibition is meant to be manipulated by the audience. The structures are made up by simple, light strips of wood, and they can be rearranged by the audience, as much and as often as need be.
Rasheed’s work has recently been rediscovered, so it’s belatedly entering the canon. In fact there is now a re-hang at the Art Institute of Chicago that places one of his wall reliefs right up against, or in juxtaposition with one of Donald Judd’s stacks. The recent re-hang at the Tate has a larger historical version of this one. Lots of people have been posting photographs on social media of visitors playing with it. He also experimented with these cubes, presenting them in a park setting, where a few of them dangled off trees. He also worked with round disks cut out of wood. These he threw into the canal. There is always this very strong interest in form, but also in ways the form can be activated through the viewers’ body or through the artists’ performance. This idea of minimalism or minimalist form and its relationship with the performative body is one of the many sub-themes of this exhibition.
Somnath Hore, UNTITLED (WOUND SERIES 5), 1972.
Rasheed Araeen’s work stands on the “structure” side of our curatorial premise: “Between Structure and Matter”. On the other side are these works by a Bengali printmaker named Somnath Hore. Again Hore’s work is historical. I wanted to ground the exhibition in these two examples that are historical and roughly contemporary to mainstream minimalism, but also raise many different potentialities or possibilities. Somnath Hore was a painter and printmaker, who worked in Calcutta. This series of works was started in 1970 and called “Wounds”. He was a very passionate humanist, and much of his work portrays victims of famine, of trauma, of war, of conflict, and often deals with the idea of how to represent the crisis of the body in pain. How to represent the mortified body was part of his long term goal. He also tried to come up with an abstract approach that actually sublimates the images into the materiality of the surface itself. The works we are looking at are all unique paper block prints. What he would do is take a block of clay or cement and mark it with knives and other instruments, leaving marks equivalent to injuries or bruises or wounds. Then he would use this marked surface to make a single paper print.
For me, if Rasheed Araeen is structure opening up on ornament and pattern, Somnath Hore is matter opening up on to the body, the materiality of the body, and themes of violence, trauma, and conflict. Hore’s works are very simple. There’s no color, nothing, just literally an impression. But they strongly convey an idea of violence; they express the same kind of simple violence as the works of Yousaf Abdal. For me, Araeen and Hore are two actors, set up at the two ends of a spectrum, between which a lot of the other work resides.
The other works in this exhibition are mostly created with the last 5 years and by much younger artists. And this where the idea of the other minimal futures comes in. If we rethink minimalism at its very origins, then there is the potential for minimalism to take on many different guises in many different parts of the world.
Next are two sets of work by the Indian artist Shilpa Gupta. One is called A0 – A5 and other is called Tree Drawings.
One of the sub-themes running through this exhibition is my interest in artists who deal with very explicit political, social, and historical subject matter, but who, in an attempt to kind of avoid being categorized as “culturally other”, use minimalism as a strategy to confuse or disarm the viewer. Shilpa is one of the exemplars of that strategy. Both of these works look very minimal, not unlike the minimalism of Somnath Hore, but both of these works deal with borders, and conflicted borders in particular.
This work, A0-A5, uses cloth and paper as support, something else that connects a lot of the work in this exhibition. Western European artists working in minimalism were so invested in sculpture on one hand and oil and easel painting on the other, that I was very interested in these artists who use materials that are very common in Middle East, South Asia, Far East, but have a peripheral role to canon in the West.
Working with contested borders throughout her career, Gupta is very interested in the ways that categories like nation states, borders, measurements often define and delineate our lives, but simultaneously are not as impermeable as they may seem at any point in time. In other words, although these categories help structure our lives, they are simultaneously open to deconstruction.
This body of Gupta’s work comes from an ongoing project that focuses on these tiny little parcels of land, tiny little parcels of India that lie within Bangladesh and little parcels of Bangladesh that lie within India, along the India-Bangladesh border. These tiny little parcels are called chips and are literally islands of the other country that located and isolated within India and vice-versa. Shilpa is fascinated by how people live there, literally at the threshold of a national border — how people, goods, and all sort of other things move across these borders. The fabric used in this work actually comes from one of these towns. Interested on the one hand in measurements and on the other hand in borders, Gupta had a single line, representing the border, embroidered as an index of sorts that corresponds to a standardized measure of paper that is used pretty much globally. You’ll notice that on each work, written at the bottom, is a ratio. This ration corresponds to the length of this line in relationship to the actual border, the actual fenced border between India and Bangladesh.
The other body of work by Gupta is called Tree Drawings, and it is similar in some ways. Again it deals with conflicted borders around the world. Here she uses white thread, the length of which is a ratio of the actual fenced border between those two countries or territories. With this thread she draws the outline of a tree that is shared by the two countries separated by that particular border. For example, one of these is a mango tree which is a reference to India and Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan boast their own specialty of mangoes. Another drawing is of a pecan tree which references the American and Mexican border. There is also a drawing of a mangrove tree, representing the border between India and Bangladesh, and another of an olive tree that grows on either side of the border between Israel and Palestine. The idea is that maps draw arbitrary borders, but nature transcends them. Human beings also transcend borders through language, culture, family — all these lovely, everyday things that transcend the large attempts to divide us. I was interested in including these works because they also look kind wounds, in a way that compares to Somnath Hore, although maybe not as material.
Audience Question: I have a question about Somnath Hore. Would this reflect the Indo-Pakistan-Bangladesh war of 1971?
MV: Somnath Hore has done work on the 1943 famine and the 1947 Partition. The idea of the mortified body has always been an interest of his. Both the India-Pakistan War of the late 1960s and then the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 are undoubtedly backdrops for this work.
The next work and another in the vestibule are by a Pakistani artist based in Australia named Abdullah Syed. We were interested in including this body of work because when I was talking to him, he told me that this project had a relationship to Carl Andre. Although we have installed piece on the wall, it could be displayed on the floor, much like Carl Andre’s famous floor pieces. Please note that in this work there are very subtle variations in color. Two of the works are midnight blue and two of them are black. To achieve this, Syed very carefully and laboriously prepared the paper. A lot of Pakistani artists have an intimate relationship with histories of miniature paintings. A lot of them know how to prepare their own handmade paper. In this work Syed prepared his own paper, and then he very carefully covered them with ink, and then he cried over them. Each of these little marks is a tear drop. The tear causes a disturbance within the inked surface.
I was struck by how this simple gesture introduced a performative body in a way that complicated the hermetic separation of Carl Andre’s work. Of course this separation wasn’t always the case, because previously you were allowed to walk all over Carl Andre’s work. Now, however, nobody will ever let you walk over them. But in Syed’s work the teardrops introduces the body in a way that literally tarnishes the minimalist surface.
This next group of works is part of a series by an Indian artist named Jitish Kallat. Kallat was the curator at the last Kochi Biennale and is known as a largely figurative painter, so these works are a departure for him. In this work Kallat drew a network of patterns consisting of circles and lines, which do not have any real reference; they’re abstractions. Then he carefully marked some of the lines and circles with a flammable adhesive. Then, taking the surfaces into the garden outside his studio, he lit them. The larger marks are entirely dependent on the wind currents that are floating around at any given point in time. What I like about the works is that on the one hand they are very minimal, structural and geometric, but on the other hand they introduce into a rigid, minimalist geometric abstraction elements of nature, process, and chance. They also have burns, which reassemble wounds, which bring us back to Somnath Hore’s intimation of a body of pain, of a body that has undergone some sort of experience of violence. Like I said, that is one of the themes that comes through again and again in the exhibition.
Next are some drawings by a Lahore based artist named Waqas Khan, who works in ink on paper. Waqas Khan, like Abdullah Syed, has a relationship with miniature painting school in Lahore, but he too has developed his own version. The drawings are made up of accretions of a lot of very small single lines, and then the painted surface is burnished with some sort of shell, so it looks smooth. This is technique is called pardakht. The brushes that are used that are also used to produce miniatures and this work are often very, very small. In fact the ideal brush has only a single hair at the end. Kahn has adopted this technique, and in addition, uses an architect’s tool to paint this work.
As many of you know, the work of Nasreen Mohamedi is now on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There is a relationship between Mohamedi’s work and Waqas Khan’s practice, although he takes things in a different direction. Khan’s work is intuitive; he repeatedly makes lines or small marks, building up geometric forms with repeating strokes. In discussing his method, he says that he takes one breath and makes a number of strokes in a kind of meditative state. Then once he is done with that breath, he’ll take a break, and then he’ll do it again. For me what’s really interesting about that is that repetition and seriality are key tenants of American minimalism. But the sources of those strategies are industrial and not dissimilar to assembly lines. However, in the work of Waqas Khan, and I think in the work of Mohammed Kazem whose work is also represented in this show, repetition as ritual emerges as a zeitgeist, and it is a zeitgeist that seems to be shared across the Middle East, South Asia, the Far East and possibly Africa. Repetition becomes a way of transcending the corporeal body and entering some kind of meditative transcendence. In the case of Waqas Khan the origins are Sufi Islam, but there are sources in a lot of other religious traditions as well. There is also a sufiana part to it, at least the way he talks about it. They are also just magnificent works.
In this next work, Mohammed Kazem takes a piece of paper and makes very superficial marks using one blade of a pair of scissors. From afar, you can’t see anything but when you get up close you see that these are scratches. Again there is a relationship to a wound, to violence. The everyday is inherently the route of the repeater. What we do everyday is what we reap everyday. But repetition also imports certain ways of making, certain ways of living. This idea of muscle memory is, I think, very important for both these bodies of work. While the form might seem rational, composed and thought out, it is not. A lot of it is automatic. It comes from having done the same mark over and over again, to the point where it literally becomes unconscious.
The next work is by the young Indian artist Hemali Bhuta and it is basically just a series of horizontal lines, although she has done a couple of subtle things that introduce elements of irregularity. Over here she has extended one the lines across the frame, which suggests that the frame is not impermeable. And there she has created a sense of an undulation, by using two different grades of pencils, and letting the material reality of the 6B pencil, which has a harder graphite finer point than the 12B pencil, which is softer and hence produces as broader point, speak for itself, but not in a way that is declared; rather in a way that is there. It is only when you get up-close that you realize there are two different thicknesses of lines, but the different lines are not the result of different amounts of pressure or consciousness; they are literally due to the capacity of the material itself. Again, this is where the matter side of the minimalism spectrum comes in.
The other work is interesting. If you come close, you will see it is a block of graphite, and on it you’ll notice something like an architectural plan, which it probably is — an architectural plan of her house. There are also a lot of lines and grids. The funny thing is that the marks on the graphite are made with graphite. It is the equivalence or matching of figure and marks. Bhuta uses graphite to make marks on graphite, similar to Kazem’s work where the mark and the surface are made of the same material. This is a strategy that I see working in many parts of the world, but not so much in the West. In respect to two-dimensional work, in the West artists seem more invested in applying something onto something else: oil onto canvas or acrylic onto canvas.
Going around the room again, you can see Rasheed Araeen’s interest in color that I talked about earlier, and if you go up close to it, you’ll also notice how the sculpture looks very different depending on the color of the background surface. It is these subtle plays, subtle decisions, that open these forms up to a variety of different meanings and references.
Next we return to a small work by Waqas Khan which is included because it establishes an interesting relationship with Rasheed Araeen. Part of the idea for this show is to establish sets of perhaps unconscious, or subconscious genealogies between artists who weren’t familiar with each other’s practice, but are coming from the same kind of spiritual, philosophical background.
Next are works by Tunisian-born Nadia Kaabi-Linke whose “Flying Carpet” sculpture is presently on view at the Guggenheim Museum. The “Flying Carpet” piece is a chandelier-like structure based on the patterns that formed the little pieces of cloth or little pieces of carpet on which hawkers place the wares that they sell on the bridges of Venice. She turned the patterns that these carpets form into a geometric abstract sculpture. Like Gupta, Kaabi-Linke is an artist who is interested in presenting social, political, historical subject matter through methods that hold something back, that withhold something. The series of works we are looking at now is called “Bangballs”, and if you get close, you’ll notice that they are made from bubble wrap. What she has done is laboriously gone in and inserted powders, three different types of powders of three different colors. From afar it looks like a set of minimalistic works, just a series of circles with very subtle shifts in color tone variations. But close up you realize that each substance is different. This first work contains a substance called Lycopodium, the next one cement and the third sand. Lycopodium is a natural substance that is flammable or even explosive. Cement and sand are self-explanatory, and together they suggest the material metaphors for forces that are shaping humanity and human existence in our contemporary world. Lycopodium on the one hand can be thought of as a reference to violence, cement a reference to our desire to constantly build, expand and move into urban spaces, and sand could refer to migrants — people who must transcend large expanses to escape persecution.
Minam Apang is an Indian artist who produces large works on paper, but here we are looking at a radical departure from her previous practice. For example, the works included in the 2012 New Museum Triennial [called The Ungovernables] that Eugene Joo curated were huge, fantastical, imaginative landscapes with lots of activity and marks. However, for this show I was interested in establishing a relationship between her work and Shilpa Gupta’s work, and how the two artists suggest geography and a landscape through abstraction, but in different ways with different approaches. Minam Apang’s work is extremely subtle; it looks like simple geometric abstraction, but it is drawn from references to mountains and moons. There’s another work of her works in the front of the gallery that is more representational, that suggests mountains and the moons more clearly. These works are mostly done in graphite or charcoal on cloth.
Next is another work by Kaabi-Linke. Another sub theme in this show explores how artists represent landscapes by withholding reality or precise location, in order to confound viewers or resist critics, who might otherwise dismiss their art as merely political or culturally specific, rather than allowing it to participate in a variety of different discourses. In this work called “Perspectives” the artist set up a window and traced what she could see through the window onto a piece of transparent or translucent material. So if you look very carefully, you will see an image, a ghostly image of London, of an intersection in London, I think. Again what we see here is an interest in representing place as a shadow or a ghost, as kind of a diffused memory. I am interested in artists who use this strategy of withholding, and one of the ways of withholding is to communicate through ghosts. In my mind these works suggest the feeling one might have if one encountered a ghost. There is simultaneously a sense of absence and presence. The work either functions as an absent presence or a present absence, however you define it. There is also the sense that there is something there but you don’t quite know what it is. I think with these artists, this is a conscious strategy. It’s very hard to execute, and to me it is very much related to minimalism. It requires a minimal amount of information to be represented, but it also requires a body that is phenomenologically primed, which is one of the major achievements of American minimalist sculptures. It was so blank that it turned all of the attention back on the person who was viewing such that they become conscious of themselves as viewing bodies.
Finally, last but not least I’ll introduce Joël Andrianomearisoa who is an artist from Madagascar, now based in Paris. As I said, one of the sub-themes of the exhibition is this interest in cloth and cloth specifically as a material that is not only traditionally considered to be feminine, but also not commonly encountered within the Western canon of minimalism. On the contrary, Western minimalism is so invested in industrial materials and industrial fabrication technologies that cloth may be the opposite. This is why when you get to post-minimalist artists or even minimalist artists like Robert Morris who start moving away from minimalism proper, they begin to introduce fabric-like elements into their work.
Andrianomearisoa is an artist who uses a lot of fabric and black fabric specifically. I was also interested in introducing black into the exhibition, a color missing from a lot of the other works. These works are made of strips of cloth that the artist and hangs off a single nail. The one in the back is meant to represent the minimalist form and is called “Skinny Boy”. In both cases they are strips of denim. In “Skinny Boy” he uses raw denim and makes single neat strips.
The other two works by Andrianomearisoa use different types of fabric to create small or large fields — a play on minimalist monochrome paintings by introducing material and texture, although not texture through paint, but rather texture through fabric material. Here the relationship is with Piero Manzoni’s work that were similarly textured monochromes developed in the 1960s. But Manzoni’s works were almost entirely devoid of color. Andrianomearisoa, however, is interested in using whites and tans and taupes and off-white colors. He also introduces blackness back into the equation with a great deal of vehemence.
Murtaza Vali is a Brooklyn-based writer, art historian, and curator. An independent critic since 2005, his reviews, essays, profiles, and interviews have appeared regularly in Artforum.com, ArtReview, Art India, Bidoun Magazine, and ArtAsiaPacific, where he is contributing editor and was co-editor of their 2007 and 2008 Almanac, a year-end review of contemporary art across Asia. He has written essays for nonprofits and galleries around the world, most notably for monographs on Emily Jacir, Reena Saini Kallat, and Laleh Khorramian. He has been a visiting critic at Yale’s School of Art and Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning. As winner of the Winter 2010 Lori Ledis Curatorial Fellowship, Vali curated Accented at Brooklyn’s BRIC Rotunda Gallery (2010) and recently edited Manual for Treason, a multilingual publication commissioned by Sharjah Biennial X (2011). He holds an MA in art history and archaeology from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.
Image credit: All images courtesy of Aicon Gallery.