VM Gallery celebrates 25 years of art presentation in Karachi this year. In order to mark the occasion, gallery director Ms Alvi asked six individuals to curate shows which would be hosted by VM through the year. The first in this series is titled “Rupture|Rapture”, a provocative, politically inspired exhibition brought together under the rigorous gaze of Ms Sumbul Khan.
Ordered within two adjacent spaces, the exhibition showcases four free-standing works. A video installation by Nameera Ahmed titled “Bloody Birds”, and a projection of NM Rashid’s poem, “Zindagi se Dartai Ho”, can be viewed in the first gallery space. It is followed by artist Moeen Faruqi’s abstract painting “5 by 5”, and a sound piece on tabla composed by Yousuf Kerai.
With “Rupture|Rapture”, Khan moves away from her signature curatorial practice. Earlier shows, such as “Framing the Local Context” and “Representation is Not a Dirty Word,” were guided by specific contextual, art historic concerns. In this interdisciplinary show, her emphasis has shifted to the world of realpolitiks and audience receptivity. Inspired by the tumultuous events of the so-named Arab Spring, Khan began examining the nature of democratic citizenship alongside forces of prolonged dictatorship in the Middle East and South Asia. Six months later, in the manner of a large installation, or even a literary work, Khan presents a show with a defined narrative arc.
Intentionally, the audience is asked to engage within a dialogic visual space, marked by violent affront and irony. This, whilst the show leads in and of itself outside the pictorial realm, to something more elemental, that is, to music. Khan’s curatorial note highlights the dynamic flux of political processes and seems to frame the show as a magnified moment within it, here, “from the ground up”, as it were.
The distilled nature of the exhibition feels true, powerful, exonerating in its passage. But audiences have a way of drawing in their own psychic paraphernalia. And art works themselves have a way of exerting untoward, unseemly gazes. In the slow-phased, low-lit gallery space at VM, other stories seem to come together or come apart. To the exhibition’s credit, an alternative visceral experience begins, perhaps, with “Bloody Birds”. Perhaps because of its inaugural location, or because of its graphic nature, the brief video piece seems to saturate the atmosphere of the show. Alternatively, it begs the question: What makes violence so absorbing, as subject and as spectacle?
On loop, for two minutes and 18 seconds successively, “Bloody Birds” depicts an everyday occurrence — the manual slaughter of chickens by a butcher. Shot in close frame, from the slitting of its strained throat, to the bird’s tremulous death throes, a very specific, near repulsive agony is captured by this video artist. Shorn of its skin, in an image of exposed and bloodied flesh, the creature quivers without feature, for even the facial form is ripped. As a kind of denouement, or as introduction, we are made privy to the pale still life of feathers and bone. And a second image, soaked in blood, is barely discernable, for the screen is a thick, black-red, clawing wash. Excerpted from a local cooking show, a woman’s voice-over sounds out with recognisable enthusiasm about the feast that is being prepared.
The visible brutality of this piece certainly exceeds its vegan impulse. The viewer is at once a voyeur and is, at the same time, stripped to bare life. The stripping of personal piety occurs simultaneously. Through Ahmed’s counterpoise of image and sound in the work, other forms of normative violence come to mind. Most significantly, one may consider the fabrication of reality within dictatorial regimes — “reality-making”, that is, through the cultural elaboration of fear, humiliation and participatory subjection.
The visceral power of this quotidian piece seems to touch the other three works in an unnerving way. Their own agency appears diminished, or is rendered ironic, at least for this scribe. Violence too is elemental. That we are in a gallery space further complicates the matter. Beyond aesthetic presentation, financial exchange, and pedagogic value, the gallery is coded to provide some degree of visual pleasure. Indeed, in this quietly seismic moment lies the show’s most provocative exploration.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th, 2012.