Naeem Mohaiemen, Shokol Choritro Kalponik, 2014. Commissioned and produced by the Samdani Art Foundation for the Dhaka Art Summit 2014. Courtesy of the artist, theDhaka Art Summit and the Samdani Art Foundation.
Since 2006, the London born, New York and Dhaka based Bangladeshi artist and writer Naaem Mohaiemen has worked on a series called The Young Man Was, a long-form project in multiple chapters that traces the history of the “ultra left,” and its complicated legacy of disappointment and failure in Bangladesh. Using a mixture of whimsy and actual events, he has also linked these histories to that of the radical left in other countries, especially Germany and Japan. Each chapter has been in a different medium, and published in heterogeneous platforms. Some of the chapters are Guerillas in the Mist [Maoist underground in Dhaka], Sartre comes to Stammheim [Andreas Baader meets Jean Paul Sartre], Live True Life or Die Trying [dueling leftist-Islamism rallies], and War of 666 against six million [kidnapping of Hanns Martinn Schleyer]. The two latest chapters are the films United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1) [hijack of Japan Airlines], which was recently acquired by the Tate Modern, and Afsan’s Long Day (The Young Man Was Part 2), which is scheduled to premiere in MoMA’s New Directors New Films series in the Spring of 2014.
The language of these projects are somewhere between research, whimsy, and humour. Because of the ironic tone, the projects have sometimes been read in Bangladesh as “overly critical” of the left, including people Mohaiemen considers allies in the search for left alternatives. In discussions about the projects, Mohaiemen has stressed that he makes work as a believer in left futures, but with the understanding that tracing where things went wrong in the part of the process of building such futures. As he writes in the text for Live True Life or Die Trying: “A lover tries again, flower in hand.” Yet he also acknowledges that irony and distance are complicated devices to use in the context of Bangla- desh, where history is never past and things continue to matter. The pressure for creating what Naaem has elsewhere called “shothik itihash (correct history)” is immense, and he considers the visual arts a space where ambiguous, open- ended conversations have more space.
Parallel to his interest in conducting research, Naaem has been investigating a minimal aesthetic that often veers towards the non-image. Thus United Red Army is a film where a majority of the story takes place in darkness, forcing the audience to replace the expected image with their own imaginary about what may be there. Sinking Polaroids into resin until they explode from heat, running VHS tapes through a VCR until on-screen snow appears, enlarging flip phone photos until the grain is the whole image (a project done before the advent of smart phone cameras)– all these techniques have produced works where the image refuses to give visual pleasure to the audience.
Since (or even before) the time of Duchamp's intervention, the idea of the "everyday” inside the gallery has blended with other ideas of arte útil. Many decades later, so much sediment has gathered over the original provocation, that bringing an everyday object into a gallery or a museum would have no transformative valence. The commoditization of this gesture can be seen in recent museum projects where the "R. Mutt" signature was attached to an actual museum urinal (instead of bringing it into the white box. Mohaiemen writes that “at a time when art education, international interest, and media linkages, are commodifying, commercializing, and flattening art practices in Bangla- desh, there is a useful space for the idea that "everyone is an artist," most importantly the audience in their reading (or rejection) of the object on the floor, wall, or atrium.”
The artist continues, stating, “The ultimate everyday object is the daily vernacular newspaper (not the English edition, within which my own writing has been trapped for many years), distributed, sold, shared, pasted, and finally recycled.” At the Dhaka Art Summit, Mohaeimen has married his writing and recent minimalist artistic leanings into a single- issue newspaper with the full title of "Shokol Choritro Kalponik,”– "Jodi shone polao khai, tobe ghee diyei khabi" (If I eat pulau in my dreams, I may as well eat it with ghee). This 8-page issue includes imagery reminiscent of the style of newsprint in the 1970s.
The newspaper presents fictional news items, along the lines of news that many people would wish to see: the news that would have been the everyday if the ultra left had come to power in the 1970s and built a different utopia. These stories are so far outside the realm of the possible that they fall into the category of "I wish, but I know this is not possible in this world." A Sample Headline includes: Indians Protest Smuggling of Cows from Bangladesh.