Friday, July 2, 2010

Phantoms of Power

(Hong Kong Gallery Guide October 2009)

From September 3 to 30
Para/Site Art Space

In the black box screening gallery where power stirs like phantasms, internationally acclaimed artist Shahzia Sikander astounds with her first solo presentation in China, Authority As Approximation. In a retrospective of five time-based videos, the Pakistani talent fuses oppression and illusion in an unsettling mix of history and present reality.

The focal point of the show is Bending The Barrels (2008), which portrays the formation of the Pakistani Army military brass band as a political device. Sikander’s messages are clear in the superimposed text on the visual: ironic statements clash with close-ups of band members’ faces, whose celebration of music only mocks the country’s aggression. The artist takes a long and deliberate look on the band, allowing their sentiments to come to life on their own. The humanity of the musicians is what drives the audience to see into the conflict—there is a strong sense of guilelessness in the procession, and it prompts the question of whether the Pakistanis know what sacrifice they are making for their country.

The substance of Bending The Barrels cuts through with Sikander’s wonderful execution.
As the camera alternates between human emotions and distant authority, Sikander’s colors seep on the screen, while retaining a passivity that hints at the nation’s bygone glory. The compositional effects of the film are rooted in the tradition of Indo-Islamic miniature paintings, in which the artist is schooled and which she transforms for the contemporary audience. The recall of history again runs deep in the film’s accompanying soundtrack. The brass resounds with depth, a low whirling sadness. The music reinforces but also smoothens the edges of Sikander’s sometimes blatant text: ‘The armed forces have made every effort not to be harsh.’

The other videos are digital animation on small screens. In the same vein as her miniature paintings, the video works build upon religious motifs, and explore the tension between Islam and modern day sexuality. Nemesis (2003) is a quick reflection on identity, where human is a hybrid monster of mythic creatures. SpiNN (2003) carry similar images from Islamic mythology, in which kings and demons are two of a kind before the promise of power. The video stands out for its blend of traditional icons with surrealistic flushness. Pursuit Curve (2004) and Dissonance to Detour (2006) wear a deceptive innocence at the first glance. The landscapes of green trees and blue sky morph into death and decay; spirits rage and prevail.

The menace of Authority As Approximation grows on its audience—the soundtracks for the digital animation videos ring like visions of a private hell. Disturbing as it is for some, the show is one that demands a real intellectual response from its viewers. Para/Site does a fine job in introducing Sikander to the Hong Kong audience, who will definitely look forward to seeing more of the artist’s works in the future.

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