Orientation trips
The Mondriaan Fund organises orientation trips for visual artists and mediators to Asia, Latin America and Africa since 2004. The trips are aimed at exchange and cooperation between visual art professionals.

After the official opening last night, it was time to visit the different exhibition locations of the biennale. The biennale has seven locations, which is five less than the previous edition, yet without a guide (in our case we even had a police escort) it may not be an easy task to visit them all.

The bus ride was accompanied by loud Pakistani music that provided a nice spirit. The first stop is NED university, a heritage site where during the week the students gather for education. On Sunday though they are nowhere to be seen.

A side effect of their absence is that the electricity is switched off as the university wants to save up on the electricity bill. Such an economic approach is befitting as the theme of this edition of the biennale is the ecological consequences of dense urbanisation. Alas it also clashes with the opening hours of the Karachi Biennale and as a result the videos of Larissa Sansour, James Alec Hardy and Omer Wasim can’t be viewed.

Abdul Halik Azeez’s work consisting of Instagram posts can be studied as he has printed them off beforehand and has attached them to the wall. The posts are produced by Instagram users that somehow present an image of Shri Lanka, the country where the artist is born. They are gathered based on the hashtags referring to Shri Lanka and often reflect a touristic origin. The artist questions the decadence of his nation as a background for show off selfies but is hindered by the censors in Pakistan. Since nudity and intimacy are not allowed his wonder wall of Instagram images is obscured by a variety of black blocks and other ways of avoiding unwelcome imagery. As a result, the work is somewhat tainted in its message, although the artist himself says he welcomes the extra layer the work has gained.

For a second stop we head on to the Zoo where the contemporary artworks greet the general audience which has come to see wild lions and tigers. The local tiger is hardly interested and keeps walking in circles but close to its cage the local family or designated art lover is confronted with a sculpture group depicting a group of playful white goats.

The signage has difficulty surviving outside of the aircondioned white cube, but it also does not inform the non-Pakistani audience of the specific context. As we are told later the general audience will recognise the setting as typical for less fortunate families for who a picnic in the park is a common outing.

There are other works that are aided by a bit of local insight. A performance with clowns refers to an old tradition where criticism towards the powers that be is possible if presented in comical form. And a somewhat clumsy acrobatic performance is based on a old public act of a man performing tricks called the monkey dance. The humanoid monkey’s in this case revolt at the end, which may not be the case in the original setup.

There are other works which in one way or the other refer to a relationship between animal and human interference or which otherwise add to the zoological experience. Some presentations have been designed with the white cube in mind and have sometimes difficulty with the circumstances in the zoo.

Those who make an effort may recognise extinct birds on the monitors of Ranu Mukherjee, but for others the sun may be too bright to make out what is going on.

Before leaving the Zoo we are being reacquainted with a work we had come across the evening before during the opening of the biennale. Again, Victorine Müller can be seen inside a life size plastic elephant. Like the work of Abdul Halik Azeez this piece is also altered by the local circumstances. While the evening before the work was fairy-like lit creating a magical atmosphere, today the elephant was lit by the burning sun, causing the work to be more about endurance than anything else, as the artist obviously is not in great circumstances in her plastic confinement, yet has to persevere for the time period.
After the tour in the zoo the next stop was the VM Art Gallery, where we started with a short lunch break consisting of a box of sandwiches. VM Art Gallery is a nonprofit art gallery opened in 1987, funded by the Rangoonwala Trust, that was founded by the important Pakistan industrialist and philanthropist Mr. Mohammad Aly Rangoonwala. The gallery has a focus on the Sub-continent and is supported and overseen by a committee comprising artists, art critics and scholars.

First artwork was by the two Dutch artists Robbie Cornelissen and Karin van Dam who started working together two years ago, and whose individual practices have now fused together in a total installation Tipping Point 2 where large scale projections of black and white animated grid drawings by Cornelissen met hanging featherlike sculptures in soft material and organic forms by Karin van Dam. An aesthetically fine combination of the two artist’s practices, whose black and white environment was emphasized by an illuminated rhombus-shaped figure in bright orange.

The biennial's focus on ecology and climate change was directly reflected in the work of the Canadian artist Libby Hague, who has created a wall-long collage of woodcuts on paper. The work's title On This Wondrous Sea is based on a poem by Emily Dickinson and Hague begins her story in a colourful paradise garden with picnics, flowers, birds and people being together. The strong-blue ocean currents of the drawings lead us toward a black-and-white dystopia, depicted in a nuclear power plant located on the edge of the rising sea, seems to predict our human downfall. Books in stacks act as a ditch to protect from the coming disaster, and we understand that only those who stick together and save each other will have the chance to overcome the threat. A carefully executed work in a fine craft, however maybe a little trite in its enunciation.

The exhibition also featured a two-channel video installation from Indian artist Navjot Altaf portraying indigenous communities struggling for justice against powerful forces – i.e. where land has been taken from them and fighting against the exploitation of their natural resources.

The late afternoon continued with a talks program at IBA Auditorium at the City Campus. First keynote speaker was by Asma Arshad, an artist, curator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada. Her presentation “Miligwetch” was on how contemporary art connects with the ancient ecological wisdom of the first nations of Canada. The talk touched upon the indigenous people’s history of colonial suppression, and how eco-friendly traditions of the indigenous population now inspires contemporary artists – coinciding also with a more general recognition of these people from the government in Canada.

Second keynote was addressed by Sacha Kagan, author and researcher based in Berlin, Germany. By focusing on Wetlands his presentation was an extensive and a very interesting introduction to how contemporary artist have responded to unsustainability in the past decades. Large cities all around the world are built on wetlands which are historically very important for i.e. biodiversity, food and fresh water. With climate changes socio-ecological themes have come into focus and artists are now approaching the collapsing body of the cities. Going back to the practice of Joseph Beuys’ “Eine Aktion im Moor” (1971), Hans Haake’s “Rheinwasser-aufbereitungsanlage” (1972), a purification plant inside the museum, Kagan gave an array of examples on artists who have worked with aesthetic form, functional infrastructure and cultural content as means to restore habitat.

The day ended with lovely food, music and dance at a party at the Goethe Institut.

Jannie Haagemann and Eelco van der Lingen