On 4 January 2010 a freak landslide hit the northern banks of the Hunza River in the Hindu Kush region of Pakistan. With uncanny precision, the falling debris dammed the river, creating a lake that submerged one whole village and partly flooded two others. By some strange trick of light, the lake turned a vivid shade of turquoise under the sun, and has since become a favourite with snap-happy tourists. Pakistani artist Iqra Tanveer’s exhibition ‘Letters from the Seventh Cave’ begins with an image of this lake, but she has stripped it off its bold colours, turning it black and white. Fall (2016) is a thin inkjet transfer directly onto a gallery wall – so thin it looks like skin. A purple-white cathode light splits the image in two. The light reflects off the photograph’s slippery surface, turning the water ghostlike, rippling sinisterly over what it hides.
A furtive anxiety hangs over the show: about the future, perhaps, with a dark, apocalyptic tinge. But Tanveer does not set up propositions for us to resolve them; she would rather leave us turning in circles. In Infinite Community of Light (2019) a white reading light points its peering head toward a lithography stone. The light casts its glare on the stone and the stone responds, bearing on its surface the image of a powder blue sky bleached out by a blazing sun. The two light sources mirror one another. It’s an uncomplicated but effective juxtaposition: there are no dreamy mythologies here, just a relentless formalism made up of little actions.
Tanveer is like a physicist – a theoretical physicist: her method is speculative, her propositions are many. She likes to leave things open, and she likes to play with light. Highest Form of Reason Borders to Unreason (2016) is a simple arrangement of water, a projector, a spot light and a Plexiglas box. The light, in an optical sleight of hand, seems to jump off the water and onto a nearby wall – shimmering but still. Tanveer introduces the illusion not so much as a trick, but as a conceptual premise. Illusion as medium: nothing is real here. Her objects, like the atoms they are comprised of, behave in special ways when they come into contact with one another. Hotel Cosmos (2019) is an assembly of laser jet transparent films, an A4 drawing and an alarm clock on a wooden shelf. It’s a generative collage: hand drawn rain splatters over the shelf and a bright-red image – maybe of the surface of Mars or a red-hot pool of water – shines brightly as a projector beams over the slanted scene.
Lithography stones reappear in what could be seen as the show’s central work: seven so-called letters that reference the seven caves of the title. ‘Do not try to read from left to right or right to left,’ Tanveer writes in a small note accompanying the works, ‘read the blank spaces, the corners, the folded crease and its imaginary lines.’ Each stone carries an image, which together form a series: a candy-red apple is Letter 1: About the Apples (2019), a towering stadium light is Letter 4: Sun and the Score Board (2019), a receding wave is Letter 5: By the Grey Sea (2017), and a dazzling cloudscape is Letter 6: Cloud (2017). The lithography stones bear a special charge: they stand almost like ruins, carrying the trace of time and memory. Viewing Tanveer’s work is like reading poetry: there are insightful tricks of language and a gentle and careful attention to form. The show is, full of small puzzles and meditations, not always concerned with the big narratives.
Iqra Tanveer, 'Letters from the seventh cave' runs at Grey Noise, Dubai, until 9 January 2020.
Main image: Iqra Tanveer, Letter 3: from the fiery sky (detail), 2019, laser jet print transfer, lithography stone, 28 × 38 × 7 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai