x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

For Rashid Rana's art, clever is in the details

The Pakistani contemporary artist is attracting much-deserved attention with his thoughtful, well-crafted pieces.

Rashid Rana’s Desperately Seeking Paradise II, 2010 – 11, UV print on aluminium and stainless steel, installation view at Lisson Gallery, London.
Rashid Rana’s Desperately Seeking Paradise II, 2010 – 11, UV print on aluminium and stainless steel, installation view at Lisson Gallery, London.

The assembled crowd lines up to peer into the grid of stainless steel cubes that make up Desperately Seeking Paradise, the highlight of the Pakistani contemporary artist Rashid Rana's major current exhibition in Manchester. Meanwhile, in London, his abstract piece Dead Bird Flying Series II is, as The National reported on Friday, the "runaway success" of a charity auction at Bonhams.

Rana's work features in public and private collections from Australia to Japan and India - and regularly sells at three times its expected price at auction. Without question, Rana is Pakistan's most famous and successful contemporary visual artist. And yet he's rather bemused by all the attention.

"At my first solo show in India, I was putting everything on the line to produce All Eyes Skywards," he says. "Back then, someone said to me 'I hope you know nobody buys photography in India'. My response was that I taught to make a living, and didn't really expect this work to sell. And the fact of the matter was, my works did not sell initially, it was only after the critical acclaim that commercial success followed. It's undeniably been a very pleasant surprise."

Walking around his exhibition Everything Happens at Once, the centrepiece of the Asia Triennial Manchester, it's easy to see why his work has become so popular. In Gallery 2, What Lies Between Flesh and Blood (2009) features the kind of Rothko-aping panels of colour hung on the walls of many a cool apartment. But look closer, and the concerns of its 43-year-old creator tally less with the abstract expressionism of the 20th century and more with the buzzwords of our times: urbanisation and tradition, faith and pop culture. The work is actually a digital photomontage on a huge scale, made up of hundreds of tiny pictures of skin and gore taken from fashion photography and print media. It's a shocking but intelligent comment on the excesses of the 21st century.

And asking the viewer to look closer is a theme Rana returns to again and again. Desperately Seeking Paradise depicts, from one angle, a skyscraper-laden cityscape that could almost be the view down Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai. In fact, he made a special version of the work for the Pakistan Pavilion at Art Dubai 2008. But these totems to capitalism are actually made up of thousands of tiny pictures of small houses in Lahore. With its revealing title, too, is Desperately Seeking Paradise a political work?

"Well, I think my interest in these structures comes from my fascination with the thought that workers recruited from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and so on build these mega structures. Does that make my work political? I'm not sure, but I am interested in politics, so often the work is inspired by those concerns. It becomes a catalyst rather than the end product. Desperately Seeking Paradise, really, just depicts the sheer polarity and unevenness of the world we live in."

Whatever Rana's politics, there's a deft, almost magical sleight of hand present in most of his work, which lends it a kind of theatre. Rana calls this technique - where every image contains within it an opposite - duality, but I wonder whether it's something more simple: he just likes the element of surprise.

"Actually, it's not about that," he disagrees. "In the mid 1990s I gradually became more interested in reaching a wider audience, and confronting the viewer with familiar imagery or easily readable visuals seemed to me to be a way to make my work more engaging and accessible. I just want people to relate to the work and enjoy it."

No wonder, then, that he's so admired. In that sense, his collection of works under the Language Series umbrella - which will be shown at the Abu Dhabi Art Fair next month - initially seems like something of a step change. From a distance, the works certainly appear to draw heavily on the more haphazard work of Jackson Pollock. "It's part admiration, part telling my own story," he admits.

But once again, that's only from a distance. Rana's input is on a macro-scale; the initial abstract image is actually thousands of signs in Lahore, many written in Urdu. An excess of competing information ends up meaning nothing. It's a clever point. It'll probably make him a fortune.

"When I make work I don't think about the commercial value," he says. "But I do benefit from the fact that it has monetary value - because it means I have more opportunities to make more ambitious works."

Everything Is Happening at Once is at Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK, until December 18 (www.cornerhouse.org); Asia Triennial Manchester runs until November 27 (www.asiatriennialmanchester.com); Rashid Rana's work will be displayed by the Lisson Gallery at the Abu Dhabi Art Fair, November 16-19 (www.abudhabiartfair.ae)