Mehreen Murtaza

Satirical and disturbing reflections on Pakistani society in digital collages and installations.
By Virginia Whiles | Oct 2011

Mehreen Murtaza’s work claims attention through the professional quality of her graphic technique. Gracefully articulated computer modelling reveals her ease with Photoshop, "the challenging realm of digital media became my paint brush and canvas". Her practice, developed under the tuition of Rashid Rana at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, is based on the techniques of collage and photomontage. Diverse media of video, text, animation and installation have enriched this technique but her early collages already had a density of data which demanded intensive looking. In works such as The new Age of Reason (digital C print), content unpacks itself in reflections on Pakistani society which are both satirical and disturbing. Hieratically posed in romantic landscapes, robotic soldiers are attached by umbilical cords from theirs visors to floating space stations. A futurist narrative informs the cyberspeak. Whispers are heard, hints are deciphered and meanings decoded. The facade may glitter but the subtext glowers, echoing the deception of Pakistani politics and the disenchantment of the Pakistani people.

Her homages to the stars of photomontage are overt. Agit-prop activists such as Rodchenko, Stepanova and Klutsis, Dada deconstructivists such as Heartfield, Hausmann and Höch have left their marks through later interpreters of the genre such as Richard Hamilton, Martha Rosler and Terry Gilliam. From this eclectic array, Murtaza makes a carefully considered ‘pick’n’mix’. Her literary and cinematic appropriations share a wide range of sources from sci-fi fiction through ‘film noir’ to postmodern kitsch and cyber-punk movies. Since such fusions are familiar fodder for contemporary graphics, the risks of ‘déjà vu’ are inevitable.

Militants are mocked, politicians are parodied and buildings blown up in her psychedelic compositions which recall the fantasy of Delirious New York (1978) designed by Madelon Vriesendorp for Rem Koolhaas’s visionary architecture. (Curiously one of Murtaza’s pieces was titled And here I dreamt I was an Architect). Such scenarios of impending doom need to be sustained by a sense of history. Murtaza’s work may do this through her intervening ‘factions’: a mix of fact and fiction. In spite of their baroque vocabulary, these narratives ground the imagery in her indigenous context, a patriarchal postcolonial society in a state of flux and oppression. Her ‘factions’ suggest a form of magical realism where text and imagery confuse the narrative and push the spectator to search out the plot.

Despite the ominous message of ‘mechanisation takes command’, the underlying theme is faintly nostalgic. One example is her use of circular wooden embroidery frames to contain digital images of militant scenes. This mix of high and low tech sets up an effectively fragile tension. Another example lies in her use of everyday objects. These are not the latest groovy gadgets but retro-vintage machinery such as the 70’s typewriter and the 60’s calculator placed on an old wooden table in her Gasworks piece, romantically titled: The Future was our First Love, it will be our Last (2010). A host of collected memorabilia evoke the Cabinet de Curiosites syndrome as well as the archival impulse, both present in Murtaza’s work.

Sometimes the instant visual fix of the digital allows little space for the spectator’s participation. Since time is needed more than ever in this age of fast-food consumption, Murtaza’s recent work Tastes Like Futurism serves as an ideal model for a closer look at her practice.

The mood of this installation recalls the Surrealist use of the absurd. Uncanny juxtapositions make the familiar seem strange in contrast to the anthropologist who tries to "make the unfamiliar comprehensible" [1]. Murtaza combines an ethnographic approach with her art practice through a fictitious classification of exotic foodstuffs. Such a manoeuvre recycles the western construction of the exotic ‘other’, either as a work of art offering aesthetic gratification or as an object of knowledge bringing cultural capital. In both cases the aim is to control through nomination.
Murtaza’s five fictitious recipes on mythical foods have witty texts aligned with photographs. Hyper-tech terminology blinds the consumer with pseudo-science. She plays on the media jargon around the commodification of foodstuffs using metaphors of spiritual and political salvation. Neuro Yolk is described as: "A 3d printed egg reconstituted with protobiotic bacteria ... has spiritual cleansing qualities". Its cryptic symbols "relieve the consumer of guilt". Two photographs show an elegant medieval egg-holder and a chart of esoteric signs.

Alphabet Soup is "a readymade snack for the erudite"... concocted for the "irrepressible bookworm who feeds off biographies" of admired famous people. The books are printed with squid ink that, in the image, splatters all over the chubby schoolboy snacking at his table of books.

Nensha offers an "orgiastic taste-bud experience" (echoes of Hector Blumenthal’s exotic cuisine). Fuva Fuva is "a delicious dessert to curb the curious syndrome of bashfulness", whereby eyelash collisions are recorded by electrolytes to produce a Schubert-like sound that extends their growth to 3 meters per day. The image has a Japanese model weighed down by gigantic eyelashes curling over a luminous jelly. The Hoverphonic is a "machine devised to observe an endless endoscopic gaze and draw in the stimulating aroma of an aesthetic freedom from terror ..thus placating emotions of paranoia"...(shades of Dali’s ‘paranoid critical method’). The image shows a woman using the apparatus to gaze at objects displayed in an ethnographic vitrine. These works are difficult to absorb in a wall setting and will function better in her projected book form.

Murtaza’s inventions incline towards ‘bricolage’: "the inventive combination of old or used fragments into a new tool", as defined by Lévi-Strauss [2] when describing mythical thought. He also related this to Surrealist collage. Certainly Murtaza’s narrative seems embedded in a fascination with the paranormal; spiritual undertones resonate through references to ‘radionic’ ideas which empower creativity through subtle forms of energy. All this tastes of New Age yet Murtaza’s vision is post-apocalyptic. She writes that she no longer believes in the fantasies of the 70’s such as white space suits, planetary travel and global peace. Hers is a post 9/11 era: a reality-check where phallic towers are castrated and utopian dreams image are doused by scepticism. Anxiety breeds nostalgia for pre-digital vintage machinery and appropriation of the absurdist vocabulary used in the ‘Goon’ shows of the 60’s, the Fluxus games of the 70’s, the Monty Python wit of the 70’s and 80’s: a visual/verbal humour with its roots in Dada and Surrealism.

Today’s vital proof of the digital potential for social transformation was seen in the "Arab Spring" revolutions. The crucial importance of context may be sensed in Murtaza’s work when she kindles her use of appropriation with a spark of subversion.

 

<line>Notes:</line>

  1. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, London 1988, p.121
  2. Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Savage Mind. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1966, p.13.


Virginia Whiles

Associate Lecturer at Chelsea College of Art, University of the Arts, London. Author of the book "Art and Polemic in Pakistan", 2010.

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