Technology or Art.
The work of the internationally known Pakistani artist Rashid Rana was displayed for one year at the Mohatta Palace Museum in Karachi. All those I know who visited the display came back very impressed and excited. They thought that the work was brilliant and socially significant. Above all they were amazed by the effort involved in piecing together such large images with very small photographic tiles.
When I visited the exhibition I too was struck by the originality and imagination of the oeuvres. The technique of blending small images to create a large image resulted in a serious wow" factor. The large size of many of the works contributed towards creating this excitement of finding that what appeared as a single large image consisted of many small ones of a particular theme.
One of the more dramatic works was the photograph of a large red carpet in traditional motifs. On closer inspection it turned out to be composed entirely out of small photographs of slaughtered cattle flesh and blood. Rana has a whole carpet series and some have sold for very high prices at prestigious auction house like Christies. The picture below is of a work in the Red Carpet series.
On returning from the exhibition I wanted to further explore the mosaic technique used by Rashid Rana (note that I am only addressing the two dimensional works in this essay). What I discovered in about two minutes of Google search was that there is a large number of software many free available for creating images from videos or photographs. I downloaded a free program and was able to create the image below in about a minute.
The process of making a mosaic picture is very simple. Choose any image that you want to turn into a mosaic and then select a set of photographs from which you want to build the image.
In the image above I chose a portrait of a girl as the primary image. I then pointed the software to a directory on my computer that had a random set of CD album covers. Last I specified the image size and the grid size (finer the grid the better the details of the image would be.) I pressed a button and the software figured out how to combine the set of the CD covers to form the image I had specified.
Thus the actual process of producing for example Rashid Rana's carpet image is very simple. Just choose the image of a carpet get a lot of photos from a slaughterhouse and randomly turn some to lighter shades of red some to grey and some to a hue of blue. This step can be carried out very quickly in any commercial post processing photography application like Lightroom Aperture or Photoshop. The mosaic software will do its magic and voila it is a million dollar picture! The only significant time involved is the time taken by the computer to figure out the arrangement of the tiles.
Clearly the technical side producing the Rashid Rana images is very elementary. The question then remains on the value of communicating certain ideas using this process.
In my opinion with nearly unlimited digitized images at our disposal one can create any message through the mosaic medium. I can for example take an image of the Taj Mahal and build it from the photographs of the Dharavi slum of Mumbai thus contrasting the grandeur of the structure and the squalid lives of those who built it.
Yes one can say that Rashid Rana got there first in exploiting the potential of digital technology to convey socially significant messages. But is getting there first sufficient to make someone a significant artist whose works would have a long-term
A second point is that a conventional painter is dependent on just his skills and tools - like paint brushes and knives that have been around for thousands of years but an artist like Rana is using the technology that is the result of the collective effort of millions over many years. Should he get the credit for the effort of the others simply because he saw the potential of technology and used it to quickly create images on subjects that are popular in the current art market