A Roof Top Marvel

DATED: 26 MAY 2013

Its time for the Deutsche Banks Artist of the Year to add the next feather in his cap. On May 14, the Roof Garden Installation by Imran Qureshi opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is the first South Asian artist to have been commissioned to work in the roof garden space and has received rave reviews for this site-specific work called “And how many rains must fall, before the stains are washed clean” (a line borrowed from Faiz).

The invite reads, “Qureshi is the first artist to create a work that will be painted directly onto the Roofs surface, and visitors will be encouraged to walk on it as they view it.”

The work, where Qureshi has used the nearly 8,000- square-foot open-air space as his canvas, understandably, raises some pertinent questions. What, for instance, will be the understanding of the audience in the United States about this work? What will be the relation of his imagery with the physical as well as the cultural and contextual space? How will the images of blood and violence that resonate so well in a country like Pakistan and in the Middle East be seen in the US?

Mets own decision to have a show of contemporary miniature, and that took a site- specific work which by definition is temporary, is interesting. This particular show is going to remain open till November, 2013.

The curator of the show, Ian Alteveer, says it has been an absolutely thrilling experience to work with Qureshi, “As an artist he is incredibly skilled, and his work carries a deep sense of history and tradition at the same time that it pushes the boundaries of painting and engages our contemporary world in such a thoughtful and poignant way”.

Alteveer addresses some of the questions raised above by saying, “As an artist who is trained in the centuries-old tradition of miniature painting (a medium, it should be stated, that itself engaged with political and ideological representations in the service of the imperial court), we felt that Qureshi was an excellent selection for this commission,” Referring to Mets decision to have contemporary miniature of this kind alongside the historical works in its collection, he says, “He is able to build off of our rich holdings of historical work in the building below, while also engaging with the roofs specific site as a garden within the larger urban garden of Central Park,”

The work was physically executed between April 26 and May 3 but Qureshi was busy contextualising the project for a long time. “When I first went on the roof top, I was surprised to see the foliage of Central Park from this angle; it reminded me of depiction of landscape in traditional historical miniature painting – the perspective, eye-level, placement of trees, and different species of trees. This was the first thing that moved me and I decided to paint my own foliage,” says a tired but satisfied Qureshi.

Alteveer talks about the relevance of his work in general and for the audience in the US. “His beautiful foliate motif echoes the verdant leaves of the parks trees, while also signalling regrowth and hope for peace in a violent and chaotic world. Especially in the wake of the recent tragedy in Boston, I think this commission will be especially powerful and meaningful for an American audience.”

The Met, says Alteveer, is also a repository of works from all over the planet and “we are visited by people from many, many countries. Qureshis installation is perhaps also a reminder that we all might share a hope for something better”.

Everyone, it seems, has referred to the tragedy in Boston as providing an apt backdrop of this work. Yet, the sense of disconnect with the audience is more pronounced than the sense of connection. The New York Times review talks about how some audience had a very insensitive reaction. The reviewer Ken Johnson explains this is because the US sees far less terrorist acts than the Middle East or Pakistan, and hence the desensitisation to the “sufferings of usually distant others”.

This weakness of Qureshis work, in the words of Johnson, that “it isnt adjusted to the complicated social and cultural context of the United States, which is vastly different from that of the Middle East and Pakistan” is paradoxically its strength.

Qureshi almost echoes these thoughts when he says that, from a certain angle, it looks like a blood red carpet being brought from somewhere else and placed over here that can be peeled off easily. “This is unlike my previous site-specific installations as I usually try to weave in my imagery very strongly in that architectural space. Here it looks very different; like something being staged or placed in that space. This way of painting the imagery as an artificial unreal act makes my imagery more real and well-fitted to that space.”

New York City became a victim of violence on 9/11 and then the violence spread all over the world. And just a few weeks before the project, the tragedy of Boston happened. “When I was watching news channels after the Boston blasts, they were repeatedly using the word Finishing line (of the Marathon), where the incident happened.”

This finishing line remained stuck to his mind and pushed him to create a line (slightly off) at the end of the installation, something he had never tried in his site-specific project. “Thus when the viewers are entering the space, first they hesitate to walk on the work, and slowly they get comfortable walking on that surface. This is how its happening with all of us, especially in Pakistan. Now people feel odd when some violent incident does not take place for a while.”

This installation plays with the psyche of its audiences “as when they reach a certain point, where the imagery of blood and violence ends, they feel uncomfortable”.

This is just the beginning; there are more rewards in store for Imran Qureshi. From July through November, his work on paper will be exhibited in the contemporary art gallery space at Met. When he was asked to select a space, he was elated to find it beside Rothko, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Lucian Freud and others. Alteveer shares that while the work on the roof is a temporary one, they “have also added a number of Qureshis miniature paintings to the collection where they will remain as part of the permanent collection”.

Way to go Qureshi!

The curator lan Alteveer says it has been an absolutely thrilling experience to work with Qureshi. “He is incredibly skilled, and his work carries a deep sense of history and engages our contemporary world in a poignant way.”