Rashid Rana's piece in the inaugural exhibition at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery is not abstract, exactly. Rather, the Pakistani artist explains, it's about abstraction.
The installation is called A Room From TATE Modern, and at first glance it is just that — an open white space exactly the width, depth, and height of a certain chamber in London's celebrated Tate.
But then you look again. The simplicity both veils and accentuates Rana's "negotiations" with art history, and the cross-cultural nature of his work.
The white cubic space is cloaked in a neat open-work grid of wooden beams encasing the room's exterior; this framework will evoke, for some viewers at least, the scaffolding at Saadiyat Island's numerous construction sites.
To return to London, you wander around the structure and find a doorway into a bare, plain space with plain grey flooring; the walls and ceiling carry 1-to-1 photo images of the interior of the corresponding room at the Tate.
But keep looking: as you get closer you see that photo details—the image of a door, for example—have been pixillated in big blurry squares, echoing the grid effect outside.
Rana says the whole piece has roots in one of his earlier works, A Plinth From a Gallery in Lahore, an inkjet photo on aluminum showing a tall square white stand, on which an object can be displayed.
When used in Pakistan the stark plinth, itself an icon of Western art and museums, carries a subtle message. "The Tate room, like the plinth, looks at how an art concept that was invented in one place travels to other parts of the world," Rana says. "Both are connected to the white-cube aesthetic in western art in particular. They look at the idea of abstraction."
Rana lives in Lahore, where he was born, but earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in the US, at the Massachusetts College of Art, in Boston. And his work has been exhibited around the world, which has led him deeper into internal negotiations — the word recurs as he speaks — about culture and identity.
Asked about the cultural interface of Muslim and Western identities, however, Rana cautions against over-simplification. "I believe in multiple identities. Being Muslim is one, and being Lahori is one, but I may also have more in common with someone from another metropolis far away than with someone from another part of Pakistan. Mughal miniatures from the 16th century are part of my identity as an artist, but so are the works of 1960s minimalists from the US.
"Notions of east and west can divide us," he went on, "but I have become more relaxed about it; there is a back-and-forth of influences in the present time. It's the same with the virtual and the real, as in the Tate room piece. I don't subscribe to one reality, but to two. There's the immediate, what's actually around you and what you experience physically, and the remote, which comes to you from the internet, TV, news, books, even oral traditions, all from other times and places. An artist always is negotiating between the two" — and the Tate room piece brings them together.
These dual realities, he said, help explain why A Room From TATE Modern had a different impact when it was first exhibited, in Dhaka, Bangladesh last February, than it has in Abu Dhabi, a city considerably closer to the meeting of east and west.
Perhaps the ultimate completion of this particular negotiation of contrasts, an interviewer suggests, would be to install the piece at the Tate Modern itself. This is not a new thought to Rana, and it could happen, he speculated. "I have friends at the Tate. There are no talks yet. First I'm thinking of tweaking the piece a little, of messing up the sense of time and place."