Rashid Rana is a visual artist from Pakistan. At MIF21, Rana presents EART: A Manifesto of Possibilities. Hannah Clugston meets him to find out more.
The work of Rashid Rana usually generates a double take. A beautiful Persian rug is actually a collage of violent and bloody images. A giant, well-stocked bookshelf is a kaleidoscope of tiny paintings. We think we see two planes flying towards one another, but they will never meet. We go to pick up a newspaper and find the stack is an aluminium sculpture. Our sense of perspective is flipped on its head; the world doesn’t look quite the same anymore.
Widely considered to be the foremost Pakistani artist of his generation, Rana has been confounding folk for over 20 years with his wide-reaching creative practice that includes painting, installation, video works, photography and sculpture. An artist with international exhibitions and works in the collections of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rana is also a curator and educator and is a founding faculty member and Dean of the School of Visual Arts and Design at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.
Over the phone from his home in Lahore, Rana makes a rather startling announcement about his new work for MIF: ‘About seven to 10 years back, I started to think of ideas that I felt I couldn’t express through my art practice. I felt that it will be more effective if I carry those ideas out in some other form.’ Unusual for an artist to declare at any point, but even more so when discussing his latest art exhibition. ‘I am not calling it an exhibition’, he adds. ‘It’s a presentation.’ And then he mentions something called ‘Eart’.
'The Sistine Chapel was not created with the intention of making art. The pyramids and cave paintings were not created with the intention of making art'
According to Alnoor Mitha’s curatorial note at the opening of Rana’s MIF show, Eart is ‘an ancient term used to identify international acts of self-expression.’ Despite the fact this sounds quite similar to ‘art’, Rana is firm on the nuance between the two. ‘The first key difference is that of the audience. Art requires an audience. We assume there is an audience for which we are producing. If you are a musician, you have a concert, if you are an artist, you have an exhibition – all these creations are made with an audience in mind.’
Whereas Eart’s end goal is not to delight a concert goer or impress an art fanatic wandering through a quiet gallery but simply to fulfil a primary function of life. ‘The Sistine Chapel was not created with the intention of making art. The pyramids and cave paintings were not created with the intention of making art,’ Rana observes. Only time has seen the position of these buildings shift from functional objects to admired masterpieces. Rana’s concern is that we are limiting ourselves by channelling self-expression into what we perceive as art, rather than embracing a much broader array of activities, events, interactions, interventions, mediations and transactions.
‘The second key difference,’ Rana continues, ‘is that art – broadly speaking – can be seen as imitation of life, whereas Eart is the life itself. Whether it is dance, music, film, storytelling, drawing, photography, video, sculpture or installation – in some ways [art] imitates life. Whereas – I am arguing – why can’t self-expression manifest in life itself and not in its manifestation? Eart is not about image and object production it is about real-life actions.’
Through the lens of Eart, Rana’s previous statement about generating ideas that he felt unable to ‘express through [his] art’ makes a lot of sense. In Rana’s true perception-altering style, EART: A Manifesto of Possibilities at MIF21 is not then an art exhibition but an Eart presentation that includes three possible enactments of Eart. Rana admits that there are elements of the show that ‘could be considered as my art’ but the purpose of the still life photography, graphics and video work is simply to expand on his three Eart concepts.
'Art can be seen as imitation of life, whereas Eart is the life itself'
Minus Glocal is a proposed planet-wide chain of grocery stores, 1001 Minds Glocal is a social media platform and Exit Glocal is a housing development concept. ‘What is common in all three is they are all businesses,’ explains Rana. ‘They are all “glocal” ideas, they all have a utopian aspiration, they are all practical and there is a realistic possibility of them happening, and they all have mass appeal.’
The term ‘glocal’ embraces globalisation and locality, acknowledging for Rana that ‘Lahore and Manchester both have things in common – they share universality – that is what the whole world has become, but then there are things that are locally specific.’ A believer in non-prescriptive ideas of geography and identity, Rana’s reference to locality is not about ‘ethnicity, culture or heritage, but the choices of people. There will always be a different set of choices by a group of people in a certain location or a region and those sets of choices are to be respected.’
While 1001 Minds Glocal and Exit Glocal appear as proposed projects, Minus Glocal is a real shop for real consumers in the centre of Manchester. ‘I don’t want to publicise it though because then it becomes art of spectacle,’ insists Rana. ‘I only want those people to go there who are coming in to contact with that business as a business, as a shop.’ The store includes 99 grocery items with minimalist branding and a simple name, product number and logo. It fulfils the criteria of Eart because the primary purpose is not to imitate life but to live life through the consumption of groceries. Additionally, the decisions Rana made when developing it were ‘just like the way one makes choices when art making.’
Eart might not be made with an audience in mind in the same way art is, but Rana’s Minus Glocal store still interacts with people. We know how to interact with art; we consider whether we like it, wonder how it was made, discuss the aesthetics, ask whether it makes us feel anything. But, how do we respond to Eart? How will we know if Rana has succeeded in his Eart-making? ‘To be a successful act of self-expression,’ Rana says, ‘it has to be successful business, which is the primary function.’ We’d better start making our shopping lists then.
Hannah Clugston is a freelance art critic and journalist based in Sheffield.