Rashid Rana encourages a re-reading of the meaning of time, location and art itself

Many of the classical European paintings from the 17th to 19th centuries have become instantly recognisable by contemporary viewers. In the hands of leading Pakistani artist Rashid Rana, though, these historical paintings become “an act of visual transliteration,” as seen in his recent exhibition Scatter in Time at the Leila Heller Gallery in Dubai. Photographed, spliced into digital fragments and then reassembled, these erstwhile paintings become puzzle-like images; in so doing, they may still evoke their original depiction yet simultaneously they awaken the sensibility of another time and another place.

“I think in this present time we are too big on context specificity,” Rana says. “You know everything has to be so context-specific because we think that is the ultimate absolute truth. And I’m sure that reading will change in few decades time.”

A desire to provoke thoughts on context can be seen in Rana’s Room From TATE Modern (2013-2014), a replica of a room from the actual TATE Modern museum in London recreated in other locations, including at the inaugural exhibition at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. Housed in a grid-like giant cube structure, on the inside the room was recreated using digitally printed wallpaper, appearing exactly as its namesake but using a trompe l’oeil effect. Two years ago, The viewing, the viewer and the viewed sought to virtually connect its location at the Venice Biennale with Rana’s home city of Lahore; by using mirrors and screens, visitors to both spaces found themselves reflecting on the self and the other, as the boundary between viewer and viewed became blurred.

“They were expecting to see an art object, not realising that they had become an art object for the remote audience and vice versa,” says Rana. “So there is an absence of any art object and the viewers on the two sides become the work themselves. But the entire project is about questioning the border lines that exist in our minds, not the physical borders per se, but their understanding of time and location is sort of challenged.”

The inaugural Lahore Biennale, Pakistan’s first, is currently on Rana’s mind, and he has cleared his schedule to focus on it ahead of its November opening this year. His naming as its artistic director last year is yet another credit to his title that extends beyond artist to academic and curator. He sees all of these activities as offering different means to express ideas.

“I am open to any kinds of things that interest me,” he says, and elaborates on what he will bring to his position as artistic director. “Since I am interested in dismantling the idea of linearity of time, I’m doing that for the curatorial project in a different way… encouraging artists to think of real life actions, transactions or functions — it can be a financial function, social function, political function, or things that we do in life. And what if we don’t do those things in life? It can even be a business but using that as a medium to express your ideas,” he says. Ultimately, he aspires for the Lahore Biennale to be a forum for “pushing the idea of what expression is, and whether it should even be called art, as art is a condition of history as we know it.”

interview by Anastasia Nysten