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What does 'tradition' mean to contemporary art today? Can a new and alternative history of art be conceived by transforming our visions of the 'present'? Is the West finally 'seeing' the East through indigenous eyes? Did Émile Guimet  (1836-1918) ever envisage displaying art from Pakistan that boldly violates our expectations - confusing primal notions of representation, shape, size, colour, texture, and design?
While televisions continuously report the hell and high water in Pakistan, reinforcing our perceptions of "the world's most dangerous place"  , an entire civilization - ancient and contemporary – awaits at France's national museum of Asian art for those who dare to venture - physically or conceptually - beyond their established cultural comfort zones. Rashid Rana, the most celebrated contemporary artist from Pakistan, is showing for the first time in Paris and the Musée Guimet (inaugurated in 1889) is for the first time hosting contemporary artworks.
Juxtaposing Asian antiquities with a survey of Rana's cutting edge photography and sculpture demonstrates a definitive paradigm shift from a typically detached and compartmentalised approach to a more integrative, interdisciplinary, and collaborative curatorial practice. Excitingly, this invites new audiences into the space, revives debate on what defines cultural memory, nationalism in art, the influences of colonisation, modernisation, and globalisation, and puts a contemporary face on the past. Jacques Giès, President of the Guimet, proudly explains: "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." Along with its permanent collection, the backdrop also included the Guimet's recent display of Pakistan's Gandharan treasures – over 200 pieces of Greco-Buddhist art.
Rana is the first to point out that "In this age of uncertainty we have lost the privilege of having one world view. Now every image, idea and truth encompasses its opposite within itself." His purpose is to refocus attention and arouse fresh thinking on such complexity. His visual devices encompass the tensions of error and truth simultaneously; sometimes with startling contradictions, other times through subtle and repeated qualifications of ordinary assumptions.
Many artists from different regions are embarking on historical adventures – exploring how the narrative – recent and remote – is constructed and projecting their own time and concerns. Inevitably, Asia is re-depicting itself and the world, as the West re-defines Asia and itself in the light of geopolitical evolution. Paradoxically, it appears that the 'seen' is ever more obscure and the 'unseen' is increasingly open to discovery.
Rana's works are indeed 'deceptively abstract', expressing that perceptual divide between what is stylised and what is spontaneous. His 'illusions' are actual representations of the subject at hand and our propensity to apply one idea, advocate one opinion – being utterly dependant on context for meaning - is deliberately challenged by this artist. We see how manipulation can extrapolate and even manufacture 'truth'. From a distance we see one thing, up close we understand another, and so our belief system must necessarily expand - like Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome model  . The mirror as mirage, the twin as reflection, the micro as macro, are all aspects of Rana's 'accented' anamorphosis. We are all primed by experience, including the artist himself. Perhaps the ultimate irony lies in our constant amazement at the continuum of possibilities.
Desperately Seeking Paradise  (2007-08) sits majestically both in and out of context in the centre of the museum's main entrance hall. This piece was part of the Pakistan Pavilion at Art Dubai in 2008. The final visual surprise – inside this Kaaba-like structure – lies in the realisation that the verticality of its 'ideal' skyline reflected in the mirrored grid is actually a stacking of minute images of the horizontally expanding 'urban centre' of Lahore, Rana's native city. This seminal work encompasses his main formal concerns and epitomises his unique artistic approach – examining, deconstructing, and reconfiguring our visual and cultural speculations – this time from within the citadel of a renowned historical institution, modelled on traditional objets d'art.
Rana's 27 pieces spanning from 1992 to the present are interspersed in five thematic sections: 'The Idea of Abstract', 'Transcending Tradition', 'Real Time, Other Spaces', 'Between Flesh and Blood', and 'Self in Other'. The conceptual framing of his subjects not only informs his aesthetics, but its interchangeability in terms of dimension, time, and space - using popular imagery and actual events - draws us away from conventional interpretations of heritage, portraiture, symbolism, and ornamentation. Works like I Love Miniatures (2002) and Red Carpet 1 (2007) question how the past sits beside heterogeneous identity and ambidextrous political realities. His frozen facts – colonial architecture, plastic flowers, books, stoves, and televisions – assimilate movement and stasis; highlighting the essential artifice of representation. Magnified references to skin, sex, violence, and death reconnect us to what is tangible, as if to remind us that our thoughts, feelings and actions directly translate into someone's (if not our own) flesh and blood. His recomposition of Courbet's famous painting The Origin of the World (1866) amplifies the politics of creation and destruction - private and public - personal and collective – and reasserts the 'realism' of a world that is both divided and homogenised. The kind of disparity reflected in works like A Day in the Life of a Landscape (2004) and Offshore Accounts 1 (2006) demonstrates the artist's creative consistency in freely expressing multiple truths.
Rashid Rana is one of those rare artists, who have developed a unique synthesis between Western rationality and an Eastern world view; having been trained, and living and working in both realities. He communicates in what Quddus Mirza calls "a global language … with a particular accent". His focused exploration of the duality of existence and the prismatic nature of culture, marries well with the Guimet's groundbreaking move to collapse time and space, and conjugate context and meaning, in order to reveal new associations and lead us to deeper understandings. Of course, liberation from ignorance and illusion – in both the internal and external realms - as well as a true recognition of self – including the artist's own identity – involves paradox. Rana's works create and are created by perceptual dissonance, and continue to hold cognitive and affective power over their audience.
Rosa Maria Falvo
Independent writer and curator, with a focus on Asian contemporary art. She is the Asia-Pacific Publications and Projects Consultant for Skira International Publishing in Milan.
7 July - 15 Nov. 2010
6, place d'Iéna
Jacques Giès, President of the Musée Guimet, and Caroline Arhuero, Documentary Researcher
Arianne Levene and Églantine de Ganay
Rashid Rana's show was opened concurrently with the exhibition "Pakistan. Where Civilizations Meet. 1st - 6th Centuries AD. Gandharan Arts", 21 April -16 Aug. 2010