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Website: Chestnuts Design

Rana Begum | The Space Between

Parasol unit, London. 30 June – 18 Sept 2016

Review by Paul Carey-Kent

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Anglo-Bangladeshi artist Rana Begum became known a dozen years ago for fetish-finished wall-based works in what one might term two-and-a-half dimensions, that indeterminate space between two-dimensional painting and three-dimensional sculpture.  They’re legible from front-on but dynamised by the viewer so that physical movement activates colour movement, evoking such street features as railings, billboards, bridges and traffic, while still bearing the mark of her childhood in Bangladesh. The patterns of Islamic architecture and the repetition of daily prayer feed in, as she has explained: “I remember reading the Quran at a local mosque, in a tiny room dappled with morning light. The light, the sound of the water fountain and the repetition of recitation, all familiar elements, suddenly came together in a feeling of calm and exhilaration”.

No. 531, 2014. Paint on powder-coated aluminium, 200 x 295 x 5cm (30 sections)/ 78¾ x 116¼ x 2 in. Courtesy of the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary. Photography by Philip White

Begum’s substantial retrospective across the whole of the Parasol Unit includes two fine examples of these parallel arrangements of powder-coated aluminium rods. You might say they combine effects made famous by South Americans, and filter them through Donald Judd: the changes in colour as you walk past due to differing colours on either side of the rods recall Carlos Cruz-Diez’s ‘Physicromies’; the efflorescence of an unseen colour reflecting onto a white surface was favoured by Luis Tomasello. The conjunction generates a separately distinctive phenomenology, and in No. 531, 2014, the pink between rods transcends the geometry with an illusion which has everyone checking to see that she really hasn’t painted the wall. No. 480, 2013, plays darkness and glitter into the equation to quite different ends.

No. 480, 2013. Paint on powder-coated aluminium. 200 x 155 x 8cm (20 sections)/ 78¾ x 61 x 3¼ in. Courtesy of the artist. Photography by Philip White

What’s impressive in ‘The Space Between’ is how Begum has kicked on from that signature approach to produce new, yet linked, streams of work. All play differently with the ability of geometry, colour and light to generate change, somewhat paradoxically, through repetition. The key to that is the movement of the viewer in completing the work, which builds on how, as Begum says, ‘in life we are in constant motion, seeing things shift and change around us. I feel the need to reflect these transitions and changes within my work, and consequently the viewer must play their part’.

Begum’s newer works tend to emphasise one of two aspects which are present in less emphatic form in No. 480 and No. 531: first, the objecthood of the would-be painting; second, the softening of the expected rigidities of geometry.  

No. 449, 2013. Paint on powder-coated aluminium. 208 x 75 x 5 cm/82 x 29½ x 2 in. Courtesy of the artist. Photography by Philip White

No. 161, 2008. Paint on powder-coated aluminium. Each of 16 pieces: 250 cm (98½ in) high. Photography by Philip White

The rods take centre stage as objects in No. 161, 2008, in which sixteen are propped casually against the wall; and in No. 449, 2013, which joins them end-to-end to form a zig-zag. No. 563 uses veneer to hint at furniture, but an other-worldly glow of colour gives the game away. No. 207, 2010, emphasises objecthood through contrasting lightness: in a predominantly metallic practice, substance is stripped back to plastic drinking straws glowing in the dark by means of UV lighting, some swaying in the air conditioning. No. 563, W Fold, 2014 uses shapes which emerge from folding processes, and that’s Begum’s primary new form. Aluminium sheets are flattened against and creased away from the wall so that the varying areas and shapes of the edges are folded out towards the viewer at assorted angles.  The selection here, from 2013 to 2015, has black or white centres with coloured wings. We seem to have moved indoors from the street, with a resemblance to origami. These take the colour and light effects from the parallel rods in quieter directions. The colour seems hidden from some angles, fluorescent from others.  There can be marked variations in the glow made by the same colour, depending on its positioning relative to the light sources and to the angle of the fold on which the colour sits. And there’s a meditative aspect to the folds which encourages a different type of reflection. Deleuze posited the fold as the primary constituent of a seamless reality. Thus “the outside is not a fixed limit but a moving matter animated by peristaltic movements, folds and foldings that together make up an inside: they are not something other than the outside, but precisely the inside of the outside”. Without buying into a whole ontology, Begum’s folds could be demonstrations of how the ‘inside’ space is topologically in contact with the ‘outside’ space; and, given the streetlife origins of her rectilinear work, it’s logical to read this as folding together the private and the public.

No. 563, W Fold, 2014. Veneer and paint on birch ply. 198 x 125 x 80cm/ 78 x 49¼ x 31½ in. Courtesy of the artist and The Third Line. Photography by Philip White

Two new streams of work speak a language of softening and provisionality, even though they use steel.   Three large pieces on the canal-side outside Parasol unit (No. 626, L Drawing, 2015, No. 674, L Drawing, 2016, No. 675, L Drawing, 2016) and a related group of smaller wall- and floor-based works all combine a monochrome-coloured shape with a wire frame. That jumps out like a cartoon animation of a shadow thrown by a well-angled sun. Outside, the drawn frame is big enough to tremble marginally in wind; indoors, the smaller works are more rigid, but a sense of movement is still generated, as different vantage points alter the relationship between originating form and possible shadow. Like the folds, these are open forms which seem to welcome the viewer in to their effects.

No. 674, L Drawing, 2016. Powder-coated stainless steel, painted concrete. 135 x 165 x 75 cm (53¼ x 65 x 29½ in). Photography by Philip White

Begum’s newest tack, and her most radical softening of geometry, is the use of steel mesh designed for fencing. While Begum – like Albers and Judd – never mixes her colours physically, colour mixing does occur here through layering. This simple effect generates a meditative presence in the three overlapping diamonds of No. 647 L Mesh, 2015, yet when a whole room is taken over by the multiple mesh colours of No. 670 L Mesh Installation, 2016, the effect is far busier as we glimpse people disappearing in networks of colour.  This turn to the environment makes explicit the potential of repetition to stand in for what might have proved an infinite process. These mesh works are geometric, but with a softening which suggests contingency and perhaps human uncertainty, even as it adopts the eternally unchangeable nature of geometric shapes. In fact, all of Begum’s work has an additional contingency, in that the decisions behind it are intuitive, where they could (as one might at first assume) be the result of applying a mathematical approach. That gentling of form, then, sits well with an unconstrained method, and with the mutability of colours in shifting light, and put me in mind of James Turrell’s ungraspably immersive installations.

No. 670, L Mesh Installation, 2016. Powder-coated galvanised steel. Dimensions vary. Courtesy of the artist. Photography by Philip White

No. 647 L Mesh, 2015. Paint on stainless steel. 213 x 136 x 2 cm/83 x 53½ x ¾. Courtesy of the artist. Photography by Jack Hems

‘The Space Between’ has proved very well visited. In part, that’s down to the ‘Kusama effect’ of people dropping in from the selfie-inspired queues for the Japanese’s artist’s mirror rooms at neighbouring Victoria Miro. I’d be surprised if a high proportion of those somewhat accidental visitors aren’t lured into Begum’s exhilaratingly poised world.

Installation shot. Courtesy of the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary. Photography by Philip White

Paul Carey-Kent is a writer and curator based in Southampton. His current show ‘Secret European Studio’ runs to July 30 at ARTHOUSE1, Bermondsey. See or   for details.