France’s national museum of Asian art is being transformed by the integration of contemporary work by Pakistani artist Rashid Rana into its collection.
By Gareth Harris
Inviting closer inspection: A detail from Rashid Rana's Red Carpet
A quiet revolution took place in the French museum world this week. Over 20 works by leading Pakistani artist Rashid Rana went on show at the venerable Musée Guimet, France’s national museum of Asian art (‘Perpetual Paradoxes’, until 15 November).
For the first time, contemporary works have been integrated into the museum’s permanent collections with Rana’s striking digital photomontages and sculptures, dating from 1992 to today, placed alongside ancient Buddha statuettes and effigies of revered deities over two floors.
Guest curators Arianne Levene and Eglantine de Ganay of A&E Projects have managed to maintain the delicate art ecosystem of the Guimet, with Rana’s intriguing, rather than imposing, interventions inviting closer inspection (always a sign of intelligent art).
The most in-your-face piece is ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’ (2007-8), a Kaba-esque stainless steel cube sliced through with pixelated images of Lahore. The work throws up a plethora of issues about the interplay between 2D and 3D perspectives (the city photography springs to life in the mirrored reflection of the cube’s grid structure), a technical and thematic transmutation deftly developed by Rana.
“I have always been interested in the ‘idea of two-dimensionality’; it has manifested [itself] in the form of a grid which has inadvertently, and more often advertently, always been present in my work, from my deceptively abstract grid paintings of the early 1990s to recent pixel-based photo works of recent years,” explains Rana.
‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’, a conglomeration of numerous minuscule details, sets the tone for the show. Looking beyond the basic form of the work is key to assimilating the art. ‘Red Carpet-1’ (C print, 2007), resembles a traditional Persian rug but look closely, and you’ll find that the garish red detail derives from the blood of slaughtered animals (this 21st-century mosaic is actually an assemblage of images taken in the abattoirs of Lahore). Meanwhile, an early digital print, ‘I Love Miniatures’ (2002), turns out to be a historic Mughal portrait composed from a multitude of small-scale billboard advert imagery (Rana, it appears, enjoys making mischief).
Subsequently, most of the imagery blurs into abstraction and nothing remains concrete. Even the carnal acts of a pornographic image (‘Sites-1’, 2009) are indecipherable, a mass of pixelated cubes melded together through a palette of pinks and purples (these component parts are taken from fashion and science magazines; once again, Rana builds an entity from the most disparate of sources).
But what’s the motivation? “To puzzle the audience is not the main objective; it’s more to do with taking fragments to create something very familiar. But when one looks at both the bigger and smaller picture together, it is then that preconceived notions about certain phenomena are challenged. Then they (the audience) make new connections and a meaning through very familiar imagery.
The aim is to make the viewer challenge stereotypes,” comments the artist. There is tension between what the eye sees and misses (the view of the whole and its accumulated parts) as well as tension between artifice and reality (ornate carpets vs. animal butchery).
And crucially, how has the museum reacted? Jacques Giès, president of the Musée Guimet, realises that a modern institution must reflect the link between heritage and contemporary life:
“The museum is much more than a safety-deposit box for antiques. In view of the value of the Asian dynamic in our modern-day world – where Asian cultures are for the first time in Western history making a place for themselves that grows larger every day- the time has come, we believe, to reflect on and reconsider our notion of the museum.”