Issue #198
Power Play October 12, 2012

Shahzia Sikander
The Last Post (still)
2010
Courtesy of the Artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., NY

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Shahzia Sikander

Linda Pace Foundation, San Antonio

June 1, 2013
by Wendy Atwell

Soundtracks may play second fiddle to film and video images, but not in The Last Post, (2010) a ten minute animated video collaboration between Pakistani American artist Shahzia Sikander and Chinese American musician and composer Du Yun. During the screening at the Linda Pace Foundation, Yun, who received her PhD from Harvard, performed her original composition that accompanies Sikander’s animated paintings and drawings.

Sikander is trained in the traditional art of Indo-Persian miniature painting, which she puts to fascinating and subversive use. For example, miniature style painting is included in The Last Post, but this video appears to perform an exorcism of exploitation, embodied by a featureless East India company man who, at the climax, explodes into hundreds of pieces.

The soundtrack is as fluid and varied as the constantly evolving layers and animations of Sikander’s paintings. Their confluence provided a bizarre and unsettling experience. Every jump and change of notes corresponded with the video’s movements and moods and enhanced its visual and emotional complexity.

As the lights dimmed, Yun appeared wearing a spiky bleached wig and a metallic dress, her face painted with black twiggy lines. Standing behind sound equipment stage left of the large wall projection, Yun picked up an instrument made from a tree limb partially shaved to allow for strings. Yun used this instrument like a slide guitar and also plucked and played it with a bow. The instrument’s electrical component made difficult, grating sounds, which were a central component of her performance. Yun cried disturbed sounds into a microphone. The sound scratched along like the open-mouthed, exhausted cry of a torture victim. These almost unbearable noises, along with her tragic and demented singing, accompany some of Sikander’s most mesmerizing imagery.

Yun’s muse-like performance channeled sound and drew forth an energy equal to the constantly morphing film. Like the Hindu concept of Maya, Sikander’s changing drawings perform a lifting of veils. At least five layers of drawings and paintings recede and project throughout the video’s space. In some scenes, a watery painted background conjures up a cosmic galaxy that also could be an image of rotting, molding destruction.

Scenes progress through a redcoat standing on the balcony of a Mughal palace to a river landscape to deep space where the redcoat appears and is obliterated. A fat deity perches atop a huge jumbled ball of goods, then tumbles off. This starts a wheel of karma, made from female silhouettes turning. The jumbled ball turns black—in it are eagles, houses, men, cycles; perhaps all of the stuff that makes up the East India experience. Both in subject matter and style, this ball appears as an homage to Kara Walker. It drops from the screen and the redcoat appears again on the balcony—synchronized drums beat like bullets firing, sirens wail and monks chant as the wheel turns.

Sikander’s drawings and paintings are mournful and apocalyptic, steeped in the recognition of horror. The cries and noises of Yun’s composition reinforce this sensibility. The video’s revelatory nature stems from the continuously changing and shifting spaces. Dismembered arms float first in the distance, but gradually towards the viewer, spinning around as they move closer. Gory details seem to emerge through the painted red and blue colors, causing the viewer to consider how one’s perspective alters what one sees. Sikander’s fractured images float through the narrative space like unbidden memories of trauma. It is like trying to put the many pieces of the past together: one may have the vantage of hindsight, but the terrible damage is already done.

Wendy Atwell received her M.A. in Art History and Criticism from The University of Texas at San Antonio. She is the author of The River Spectacular: Light, Color, Sound and Craft on the San Antonio River.

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