January 24, 2012

At the Johnson, Political Divides Are Viewed Between the Lines

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When one reads about a political conflict in the newspaper or a history book, it is often unclear how such an event affects the individuals living through them. What is the lasting impact on men, women and children generations after? Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space, the current exhibition covering two floors of the Johnson Museum, explores that very issue. Lines of Control features over 40 pieces: photographs, drawings, sculptures, installations and videos. All of these mediums explore the historical trend of creating borders between conflicted regions of the world.

Green Cardamom, a nonprofit arts organization based in London, originally conceived the idea for Lines of Control as an exploration of the borders created between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1947. Works by Indian artists Zarina Hashmi, Rashid Rana and others from the region were showed in galleries in London and Karachi, but this is the first time that Lines of Control has come to the United States.

Ellen Avril, chief curator and curator of Asian art at the Johnson, explained that along with the new location for the show, the staff wanted Lines of Control to focus on other contested sites to further explore the theme of man-made borders. With that in mind, the Johnson has invited artists from many regions to create pieces and installations. The subjects of these pieces include many of the highly politicized and often war torn borders of both past and present history. The borders between Israel and Palestine, Ireland and Northern Ireland, North and South Korea and even the newly founded North and South Sudan are depicted.

Not only do the works raise questions about border disputes in far away places, but also one of the pieces, entitled “Fight for the Line,” was created by one of Cornell’s own professors, Jolene Rickard. “Fight for the Line” focuses on the sovereignty of indigenous people in the Ithaca area, a subject under-represented in the past. However, Rickard’s piece is just one example of how Lines of Control brought various members of the Cornell community together. Students from the College of Art, Architecture and Planning were called upon to put together installations and build models. Moreover, members of the Cornell Avant Garde Ensemble will perform an improvised show based on the works in the exhibition for later in the week.

In general, the tone of Lines of Control is solemn. Many of the pieces are extremely poignant and speak to the violence and upheaval caused by the creation of borders. One particularly effective example is a piece entitled, “The Red Castle and the Lawless Line,” by Palestinian artists Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal, Eyal Weizman, and Nicola Perugini. “The Red Castle and the Lawless Line” raises the question of the utility of the border line, which itself can become a third territory. Focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian border under the 1993 Oslo Treaty, the artists show the demarcation’s inconvenient nature. Drawn through the middle of buildings, towns and gardens, the border has caused more disturbances than it has solutions in the eyes of the artist.

There are a couple of pieces that use humor to their advantage, keeping Lines of Control from becoming overly depressing. The Young Hae Chang Heavy Industries work, “Cunnilingus in North Korea,” uses text from an imaginary speech by Kim Jong-il. Further, Iftikhar Dadi’s piece, “Muslims are meat-eaters, they prefer food containing salt. Hindus on the other hand prefer a sweet taste,” counteracts the impending morbid mood.  Likewise, Emily Jacir’s “Sexy Semite” has a similar effect.

The main featured work in the show also causes viewers to chuckle. Rashid Rana’s “All Eyes Skyward During the Annual Parade” is one large photograph of the National Day Parade in Pakistan. The single work is a patchwork of smaller images from Bollywood movies, which are banned in Pakistan but extremely popular.

Not only are the pieces in Lines of Control thought-provoking, but also many of them are extremely beautiful. Several of them feature Urdu text and other calligraphic elements. Another, “Bloodlines,” by Nalini Malani and Iftikhar Dadi, is made entirely from sequins hand-sewn onto cloth. Both Malani and Dadi’s lives were shaped by the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, and their work reflects their struggles of their families.

One of the wonderful things about Lines of Control is that each work features a description of the piece and biography of the artist, spanning single to several paragraphs. One can wander through the many spaces in the gallery, getting explanations of the works. Many of the works revolve around a specific historical figure or event, without context, the overall impact and meaning of the pieces would have been lost.

Most of the show is inspired by geography, history, architecture and individual stories, which means that there is something for everyone in Lines of Control. This exhibit is truly an interdisciplinary synthesis, using art of every kind to explore a universal theme. The expansion of the show to include works from locations outside of Southeast Asia brings home the idea that these are not isolated events. Similarly, the spotlight on the border conflicts in our much beloved town of Ithaca creates a lasting impact. In fact, the entire exhibit brings together all peoples of the world to unite around common experiences.

Original Author: Julia Moser