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Violence and Creation: Imran Qureshi in the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle


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Violence and Creation:
Imran Qureshi in the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

He is one of the most important contemporary Pakistani artists, having radically renewed miniature painting in his home country. In Europe, however, Qureshi is an insider’s tip. Now that will change. As the "Artist of the Year" 2013, Qureshi opened the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle with an impressive exhibition for which he created large-scale paintings. A tour of the show.

It seems as though the huge golden ovals hanging in the central room of the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle have absorbed the blood-red paint on them. In the interior of the egg shapes, blossoms sprout from red splashes. As though through delicate veins, the red pulsates over the canvases, drips, sprays, flows. Imran Qureshi’s paintings are at once cold and warm. Covered with gold leaf, they emanate an almost sacred stringency. They hang in the room like icons. But inside the works, everything is full of movement, organic, dirty, human. Qureshi’s paintings convey both a kind of viral anarchic energy and extreme control. This tension runs through all of his current work, reflecting a very fundamental real conflict. Order can create clarity and tranquility, but it can also restrict and suppress. We are afraid of change, unrest, and destruction, which can culminate in violence and bloodshed. At the same time, they form the basis of the creative process, for the genesis of something new.

Imran Qureshi, Deutsche Bank’s "Artist of the Year" 2013, comes from a country that is the embodiment of upheaval and unrest. Pakistan is torn by political and religious conflicts, by everyday violence and corruption. But it’s also a country in transition, drawing on a rich cultural tradition, a land where many people believe in a process of rethinking and the prospect of a new, more tolerant society. Among them is Quershi; he is a beacon of hope. Trained in traditional miniature painting, he has developed completely new expressive possibilities from this old art form. In his works, which can have the format of a notebook or incorporate entire building complexes, he has continually addressed the political situation in Pakistan. But it would wrong to view him as a political commentator or a chronicler. Qureshi’s extremely delicate miniature paintings adorned with gold and blossoms, some of which are on view in the KunstHalle, are profoundly spiritual and existential. They stem from a very distinct culture and the artist’s biography, but they are not bound to them. These works are directed to every viewer. They show people, blossoms, colors, rain, leaves; abstract forms in a cosmos in which everything appears to be interrelated, inspirited, lively, natural.

At the beginning of the exhibition, there is a small almost innocent work. Enclosed in an oval medallion suspended on a gold background, we see the artist himself. He is holding a blossom in his hand, around which a host of tiny dragonflies are swarming, spinning through the air like pollen. This subtle work includes all of the formal aspects that Qureshi plays through in the further course of the exhibition: the gold, the egg shape, the blossoms, and the chaos, which in this work still spawns beauty and joy. At the same time, it contains the past. And in the very next room death rears its ugly head, suddenly and mercilessly.     

For this exhibition, Qureshi created a series of large paintings for the first time in his career. They were executed in Berlin. In terms of their motifs and their concepts, they relate to one his most important works of recent years, Blessing Upon the Land of My Love, a prizewinning installation he realized for the 10th Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates. Viewed from above, the white-paved courtyard of the former Bait Al Serkal hospital looked like a suicide bomber had just blown himself up there: an unimaginable explosion of dark red sprays the walls of the building, dripping from ventilation shafts, collecting in thick pools, running into the drain in the middle of the yard. But a closer look reveals that thousands of filigree blossoms materialize on the pavement, forming paths and islands in various ornaments, rising up next to the building. The installation was inspired by a bomb attack on a lively square in the artist’s neighborhood in his home city of Lahore.

In the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle’s opening exhibition, he transfers the conflict between beauty and terror to the inside of the museum. This very special red, which is extremely close to the color of human blood, is found again on the large ovals. Here, too, blossoms rise  from the abstract jumble of splashes, streaks, and painterly gestures. The paintings look like material samples. Indeed, the ornamental spiraling blossoms have roughly the same proportions as in his installations in public spaces – as though he has cut out a piece of reality and implanted it in the protected space of the museum. This impression is heightened in the paintings themselves, in which the explosions of red are sharply broached by monochrome gold surfaces. But this formal stringency is coupled with vulnerability. The oval panels are reminiscent of giant eggs, of germs of new life or protective shells in which fragile memories, thoughts or feelings are harbored and hatched.

In the next room, a mountain of discarded blood-smeared bandages awaits visitors. Only when you take a closer do you realize that they are actually crumpled-up pieces of paper. And on every sheet Qureshi shows the same motive: an aerial photograph of his installation for the Sharjah Biennial. While people can be made out walking over blossoms in the white courtyard, due to the reduced size only red spots remain, conjuring up violence and injuries. Qureshi’s site-specific installation And They Still Seek The Traces of Blood quotes a poem by the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose lyrics the artist (who was born in 1972) heard on the radio as a child. The poem is about people who are buried without being honored or the circumstances of their death investigated. In the light of the hall this work looks hard, almost brutal.

The exhibition continues in darkness. The last part of the show consists of labyrinthine architecture connected by stairs through which you move as though you are walking through the low chambers of an old fortress. In small enclosed spaces, miniature paintings by Qureshi are presented on only a few walls, which are painted a greyish green. The works are spotlighted like precious devotional objects or artifacts in an ethnological museum. Qureshi took the color of the rooms from the nocturnal landscapes of Venetian painting. Many works show landscapes and interior courtyards in which every leaf, every wall stone is meticulously arranged. But these delicate paintings are "stained" by red drippings that infringe on the idylls, mercilessly destroying the fragility and symmetry. Qureshi creates a space of beauty and violence. You virtually have to grope your way through these somber rooms, carefully taking one step at a time. With this mode of presentation, the artist also alludes to colonial architectures and palaces in which servants were housed in cell-like rooms. In the darkness paintings flare up that prompt you to reflect on the conditions and to try to find a way out of the existing situation – to pause at least for a moment and step out of the eternal cycle of violence and creation.

Imran Qureshi – "Artist of the Year" 2013
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin
April 18 – August 4, 2013

After Berlin, the exhibition will be shown in the Museo d’arte contemporanea (MACRO) in Rome. Starting May 14, Qureshi’s project for the roof garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will be on view. And from June 1 to November 24, 2013, he will be represented at the 55th Venice Biennale in the Italian Pavilion.

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"A Great Start" The Press on the First Exhibition at the KunstHalle
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