On a white sheet torn from a notepad a box has been roughly sketched. Next to it is an untidy scrawl: “I’m sending you a great gift. When you open the box you’ll find in it whatever you want to find in it. Isn’t it remarkable?”
In a way, this little page is what Saira Ansari’s solo show at the Experimenter gallery seems to be about. For it suggests the enigmatic ellipsis between one person’s perception and another’s, with no real reality for their experiences to converge upon. Like Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, who was happy with the sketch of a box in which he’d keep his illusory sheep, reality is posited as whatever is perceived as real. The “great gift” of the giver is what a recipient wants to find in it and make of it, because there isn’t a tangible object that’s real to both, only a perception of it. And since perception is usurped by the individual’s private history, memory, susceptibility, a common reality becomes suspect. So that, as in Act X Sc X— a kind of excerpted conversation on a wall — even a fly doesn’t seem to have an undisputed existence outside of perception.
The visitor to this show, on till May 31, doesn’t so much view the work of an artist as breach her besieged, confessional consciousness. He does not encounter objects of art — though the scribbled sheets, digital prints, booklets and neon light assemblages on display are indeed objects — but her troubled musings and the hallucinatory or nightmare images that weave a fluid personal reality, as elusive as cyberspace though it is. Thus, the vault-like gallery with one black wall takes the place of individual works, concretizing Ansari’s mental state.
This young Pakistani artist, who was born in Sao Paulo and is currently based in Rio de Janeiro, is spunky in her aggressive defiance of convention. Not only about the demure persona women must don in a traditionalist society like Pakistan, even if they be artists; but also about art markets which, in South Asia, cannot be ignored for obvious economic reasons. Combining text and doodling on torn sheets invariably speak of exploratory monologues in a diary, or perhaps dialogues with one’s “many me’s” as Ansari puts it, intimate, provisional, unabashed, with no need to abide by polite form. Offensive, unguarded language uttered to one’s diary throws up the individual’s uneasy interface with society, and that turns the artist’s comments into both a critique of social mores and a mirror of secret rebellions that brew and perish daily in helpless people.
The vinyl sticker texts on one wall spill forth dreams or nightmares that are as insistent as they are unsettling. But Ansari’s deadpan, conversational language depletes them of drama to turn them, curiously, probingly menacing. Like the horror of the tsunami, from which she can swim out but only because she’s on the top floor. Two of the three digital printed booklets kept neatly for the viewer lend image to words, and are called the Book of REM (that is, Rapid Eye Movement stage, when dreams are dreamt) and of Narratives, while the third is bleakly empty, waiting to be filled. For surely, more follows.... Another wall testifies to her nightmare of rollercoaster rides from which she gets thrown off and plunges down, to be awakened, breathless and perspiring, by a pounding heart that tries to “wake up the neighbours”.
Her angst and anger can lead to extravagant gestures, as in a performance video where she’s seen laying a table carefully and then setting it ablaze. Another work, with neon lights, outlines a “magical” animal seen in her dreams, a llama whose stomach, says the accompanying text, has a hole with maggots “eating him inside out”. But the surreal excess of the description is, in fact, less effective than the tacit ache in the other neon work, Take Me Home With You. Distributing the words in an inverted triangle, with cables linking them, it echoes the far-flung distances that separate a person from his home and rings with a quiet urgency.
All the while, her voice is heard in scraps of a one-sided conversation. Is she on the phone? Or on the couch before a shrink, whose invisibility is emphasized by answers to unheard questions? Or is she talking to one of her many selves which possess a hyper-real existence? The emotional extremes she verges on lead to a chilling finality in a quotable assertion: “I will burn brightly on my way out like a moth singed golden by the flame.”