David Chalmers Alesworth

Karachi Pop

Art, Contemporary Art, Environment

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Hammad Nasar’s piece for the Guggenheim site.http://blogs.guggenheim.org/2013/02/11/karachi-pop-vernacular-visualities-in-…

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“Desi Unday” Bilal Gunj


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I went back to “Bilal Gunj” Lahore’s massive used car part market for a second sound sampling, a few days ago. This time with Huma’s 4 channel Zoom recorder.

In over an hour of walking the lanes I got reasonably varied ambient sound from the breakers, welders, paint-sprayers and a great many gas and kerosene burners heating food and tea. On this trip I realized there was a tremendous culture of food going on here.

Fish, tea, sweet-potatoes, chena, monpelli, carrot juice, egg-fried rice, subzi and dal, roti’s of every description and finally hot, boiled desi-unday. I’d almost given up on the eggs. I kept asking where the sellers were, because it was their presence selling these beautiful subtle-hued, small precious des-unday (local-eggs/free-range eggs) in the context of these ancient and smashed oily wrecks of cars and trucks that had given rise to the egg and engine photographs.

Suddenly they were there running through the lanes, two sellers I’d never seen before. They both carried padded bags to keep the boiled eggs warm, their cry was garam-desi-unday and I realized this would give a somewhat different spin on the photographs. They’d be read as engine heated eggs, not what I’d intended.

I’d intended the teeming living eggs as nature amongst the toxic waste of the man-made, the guts of the engines.

I produced a 12 minute mixed edit of the garam-unday criers and the ambient sounds on my stroll through the richly varied soundscape in the lanes of this market. Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh‘s shrine minarets can be heard throughout the work, a constant accompaniment at Bilal Gunj. This shrine to the patron saint of Lahore, lies right in front of the car market.

“966th URS Shareef is on 3 Feb 2010 Inshallah”
966 Urs Mubarak Of Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh Ali Hajveri Will Held On 19 Safar al Muzaffar And 4 February 2010 (Approx) At Data Darbar , Near Bhatti Gate, Lahore. Pakistan
Days Remaining In URS Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh

His birthday is being celebrated today which a holiday in most of Punjab.

(….haven’t been able to upload this clip as yet)

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“Roti Home” (Work)


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How to make work from incidental encounters such as this?
Old roti’s being stored in a disused bird-cage on top of a broken dolls push-chair.
I’m going to set it up on a plinth under studio lights and see what happens.
Maybe track around it with a video camera. recently got a Nikon 35mm adapter for the XL-1.

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Transart Submission: 15th June 2009


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Artists statement, June 2009

The finished project consists of a number of interrelated works, spanning a variety of media produced throughout the year. There are thirty seven large, monochrome metal framed digital prints of images derived from the Record Room, shoots I undertook in Karachi’s vehicle record archives over the last year. One large digital print “The Garden of Babel” which references scientific accession labels for plants from horticultural gardens in Austria and Pakistan. A large scale rectangular stack of 180 steel cubes, each 14” x 14” x 28” in matt lacquered passivated mild steel (11’6”h x 14’ x 9’4” rectangle) a mutable installation/intervention at 11’6” high. This refers to both the Kaaba, modernist sculpture and early nuclear technologies. Over this past year I have produced a series of works in Lahore, Pakistan, that explore the interlinking of the autobiographical with the public. This takes the form of aspects of my personal history woven into outward issues, such as that of post-coloniality in the “Garden of Babel”, or nuclear power and nuclearization, weaponisation in “12.2.42”. The latter work was also conceived to be used for public interventions in the city of Lahore and surrounding countryside. The prevailing security situation in Pakistan made this impossible. Instead the work was brought into my home, where it displaced the living spaces of the house. This became a broader metaphor for invasion and imposition, right into the home itself. This imposition in question may be read as the fall-out of technologies, be they nuclear poisons or otherwise, or even the mental poison of the always present threat of nuclear war, in this, the worlds number one hotspot for a potential nuclear conflict. The imposition on the living space of my home may also be considered as ideological, and it is no accident that the structures produced are essentially Kaaba like. Pakistan is currently in a state of low intensity civil war, it’s nuclear assets are the whole worlds concern which we hear of daily in the international media. This war is a supposedly religious war, certainly ideological and I find myself particularly visible in the midst of a divided nation that is not my original home. Yet in Pakistan there is no public awareness, debate, protest or education on the complex issues of nuclearization. Karachi is in the process of ordering four more domestic nuclear power stations this year. This period globally has been dubbed “the beginning of the second nuclear age”. The other thread of my work has been the more intimate and directly autobiographical in the form of video.

Research Synopsis 2009

I have read widely in the diverse genre of autobiography, it’s associated theory and criticism. I have also read a selection of autobiographical works from St Augustine’s “Confessions” to Damien Hirst’s “On my way to Work”. I have considered the autobiographical in art history and contemporary art practice. I have retrospectively considered some of my own work over the past thirty years in the light of an autobiographical reading. In conclusion I have proposed that all creative work is essentially autobiographical in nature.

Draft Proposals for 2009-2010:
Research Proposal 1.

As “A survey of autobiographical tendencies in contemporary art practice in Pakistan” I would be researching attitudes to the autobiographical in contemporary Pakistani art, across the board from contemporary miniature to teaching approaches in various art schools in the country and video and installation based practices. Thorough interviews and photographs, possibly video documentation too. Perhaps producing some Podcasts in the process. I have worked on art and autobiography in my research of the past 12 months. (History, interviews, conclusions. Post-coloniality, censorship, narrative, contemporary miniature, feminist and gay perspectives, gender specificity. The role of galleries, institutions and collectors in shaping art criterion. Art education and the international audience.)

Studio Practice: The Autobiographical and the public.

In relation to the above enquiry and as an extension of my practice in 2008-2009 I would continue to make autobiographical work. I see the task in hand now to be a full integration of my life, as outsider and “other” in Pakistan with broader societal and global concerns. The thread of this may be taken up from the “Domestic Displacements” work I undertook in Lahore in May and June of 2009.

Draft Proposals for 2009-2010:
Research-Proposal 2.

Alternatively under the banner of “A Taxonomy of Eden” I will be researching gardens and parks in contemporary Pakistan. This will include varying attitudes to the idea of nature, wilderness and the paradise garden. Also the legacy of aging colonial park spaces. Interviewing a cross section of contemporary society from career gardeners in Lahore’s parks, agricultural workers, religious scholars (and lay practitioners from various religions and sects) the educated and the less educated in the city and countryside of Lahore and Karachi (possibly further afield also). From nursery owners, the head of the Punjab Horticultural Authority to jobbing residential gardeners in the Defence housing authorities of Karachi and Lahore. This will also follow the format of recordings, translations, transcriptions and analysis. Also photography and some video. I work as a freelance horticultural consultant in Pakistan and have done so for the past 21 years. My clients currently include Agha Khan Cultural Services Pakistan, with whom I am working on several projects, including the uplift of the North Circular Park belt around Lahore’s old city. (Sacred Texts. Garden Design. Garden History. Landscape. Popular Culture. Decorated Transport. Trees on the edge between nature and culture. Motifs. Carpets. Ageing colonial public parks in Lahore. The culture of the Mali.)

Studio Practice: A Taxonomy of Eden.
Building upon “The Garden of Babel” 2009 as a format I would initially work towards examining various sacred texts in translation. Those of the Abrahamic religions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam and possibly others in the broad grouping in relation to notions of the garden of Eden. In this respect I would be particularly focusing on plants mentioned there. Using this with allied horticultural enquiry, and in consultati0n with various scholars I would build a taxonomy of Eden. The works may be grided digital prints of botanical and zoological accession labels, as are to be found in Zoos and botanical gardens. I would have to create reasonable approximations of specifically mentioned plants of Eden, I would aim for around 180-300 plants per work. I would then make the labels in etched plastic laminates, as authentic labels. Photograph them in particular settings, as I have learnt from the making of “The Garden of Babel”. These would then be composed as grids and printed as large C-prints. How the work may play out in other forms such as texts, woven carpets or illuminated manuscripts or their digital equivalents would remain to be seen.

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The Autobiographical


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New Work
David Alesworth | Huma Mulji
Zahoor ul Akhlaq Gallery
National College of Arts | Lahore | Pakistan

February 16-March 4, 2009


My work has long addressed issues of environmental degradation, cultural attitudes to the notion of nature and nuclearization/weaponisation of the sub‐continent. Growing up one of my earliest memories was of the Cuban missile crisis and the tension in the family home as the world inched ever closer to nuclear conflict. CND marches were a constant feature of the UK in the 1960’s . We now live in an age where nuclear power begins to look like a cleaner solution to our energy needs and nuclear weapons are considered for tactical use. It’s as though the world has forgotten what was unleashed on Japan in 1945. People are calling it the Beginning of the second Nuclear Age.


180 Passivated MS boxes, installation variable.

A tribute to Fermi’s first experimental nuclear pile built under the squash courts of Chicago University in 1942. Here on the second of December the first sustaining chain reaction was initiated amidst a stack of graphite blocks and uranium metal. The pile at that time cost around one million dollars to make.

The idea that CP‐1 was built in a university squash court has always appealed to

This sculptural installation has other resonances, the formality of artists such as (late period) David Smith, Donald Judd and Karl Andre. This is slightly tongue in cheek reference to such minimalist concerns, through the lens of time and place. This is another prayer for sanity and peace, the way my “Two Bombs Kiss” was in the early ‘90’s. It was within the unshielded CP-1 reactor that plutonium production became a practical proposition.

“Seaborg, (the discoverer of Plutonium) was asked to suggest a name for the element he had discovered. He decided to respect the tradition begun with uranium, named for the planet Uranus, then neptunium — the 93rd element, found in 1940 — for Neptune. As the next planet in the solar system was Pluto, he suggested the new element be called plutonium. No one thought to point out that the deity after which the planet Pluto was named was the Greek god of hell, the Roman god of death.”

All the Plutonium on the planet now (a completely man‐made element) is around 50 tons; enough, if judiciously employed, to entirely destroy life on the earth. It is undoubtedly the most toxic substance in existence. I see “12.2.42” as part tribute (to scientific endeavor) and part warning (of the imperfect nature of mankind’s knowledge). The smallness of mankind’s achievements set against the vastness of creation. The ultimate failure of all technologies and civilization itself. It is a Vanitas sculpture. It critiques the arrogance of scientific knowledge. I half suspect this world will be sucked through the eye of an atom sized black‐hole, produced in the new Cern accelerator experiements. What a suitable ending it would be for this planet, wrecked as it is, by mankind’s insatiable greed. The units are identical but also quite distorted from the heat of their welding. The proportions of 14 x 14 x 28 inches directly address the scale of one’s body. I investigated other sizes and ratios to arrive at this. It is to do with one’s span. I realize these are very much the concerns of the early minimalists, like Caro, who was once Henry Moore’s protégé. The idea of span and of being body‐scaled are terms that could be right out of Moore’s own vocabulary. Though such concerns are readily discernible in ancient Egyptian sculpture (all of the canonical works.) My undergraduate dissertation was on the cannon of proportion in ancient Egyptian sculpture. I welcome the “wobble” that sign or life. It’s the imperfection that makes energy flow in the work, something I’ve long used in my practice. A tension between stillness and movement.

There’s a correlation between the persistence of an official record and that of radioactive waste.

I’m thinking of Half-Life as the link between the forest of files (The Record Room Series), undying, unending and uncountable, and the beginning of the nuclear age. Taking Fermi’s first pile CP‐1 as the beginning of this as it was here that Plutonium was first produced, albeit in tiny quantities.

On that day that CP-1 first went critical for only 28 minutes and Plutonium was produced in its nuclear flux. Leo Szilard lingered on the balcony until most people had left, then turned to Fermi, shook his hand, and said that he thought the day would go down as a “black day in the history of mankind.”

This cube of steel boxes is as much a play with the proportions of the room and scale of the body as it is a reference to nuclear power. Waste from Chicago Pile­1 was buried in nearby woodland, this was not a fortuitous beginning to the nuclear age.

“Doomsday Clock Will Move Closer to Midnight.

WASHINGTON, DC, January 12, 2007 (ENS) ‐ The minute hand of the Doomsday Clock will be moved closer to midnight on January 17, the first such change to the clock since February 2002. The Doomsday Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to nuclear weapons and other threats.” The move was announced today by the Board of Directors of the magazine “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.” It reflects growing concerns
about what the board calls a “Second Nuclear Age” marked by grave threats. The board also cited “escalating terrorism, and new pressure from climate change for expanded civilian nuclear power that could increase proliferation risks.” The Doomsday Clock is now set at seven minutes to midnight. The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic clock face that the Bulletin has maintained since 1947 at its headquarters on the campus of the University of Chicago. It uses the analogy of
the human race being at a time that is a “few minutes to midnight” where
midnight represents destruction by nuclear war. The decision to move the minute hand is made by the Bulletin’s Board of Directors in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates. The “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” was founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project and were deeply concerned about the use of nuclear weapons and nuclear war.




“The Garden of Babel”

A grid of botanical accession labels from Linz (Austria) and Lahore. I believe all work is essentially autobiographical. My grandfather was the horticulturalist, F.W. Alesworth, a rose is named after him. He taught me my first name in horticultural Latin, something I still had yet to study at school. These names in all their authority and scientific exactitude are threaded through and through with tales of conquest and aspirations of immortality. They speak of the earliest attempts to order the natural world. Beginning with Theophrastus in 300 AD, and for me ending with John Ray (he wrote it, Wray), not the upstart Linnaeus. Perhaps the names of Neem and Bachain say it all. Azadarachta Indica and Melia Azadarachta respectively. An Ash like leaf (Bachain) and both the Free-Tree’s-of-India), this co‐opting of language is typical of botanical Latin. It is a specialist, insider’s secret language and as equally imperfect an attempt at creating logical order as the Record Room itself.

Botanical accession labels are often grey or black and the whole assemblage feels like a mausoleum to me. A graveyard for nature, epitomized as “the garden”. This also serves as a pointer to environmental issues, as so many plant names may actually survive the species (in the wild) in many cases. Many of these names are embedded with tales of Empire, the names of Victorian naturalists, indigenous names Latinized and other slight problems in the overall scheme of things. To say nothing of the need for constant revision as new discoveries lead to new classifications of relatedness. The books “All the Names” (Jose Samarago) and “The Naming of Names” (Anna Parvord) were inspirations for this work.



“The Record Room” series 2009.
Monochrome archival, digital C-Prints. Galvanized and passivated
steel-frames, 2009.

These myriad vehicle papers are more akin to a living entity than an official archive. They represent the dreams of countless families for progress, modernity and the transformation of their lives. This is failed order, individually and collectively; as a species our attempts to control and order the world are doomed to fail, for we forget that we are also nature. The images of this record-room are for me beautiful and tragic. They are 18 million files, 18 million dreams, a poignant metaphor for the populace of Karachi. My own records were found here in a matter of minutes. I was invited to view this record-room after commenting on the speedy delivery of my own file. I fell in love with it instantly and have been begging my way back with an assortment of cameras ever since. It is a dying (physical) archive the files are being scanned and destroyed currently and should cease to exist entirely in a few years. I’ve seen the facility shrink like the loss of forestation, the demise of a coral‐reef or the melting of glaciers, for this is something like nature itself. Somehow in all it’s dog‐eared, rubbed till soft existence (so handled these records become almost living); the archive actually works. It functions daily at huge volumes and serves the inhabitants well for without their cooperation nothing will ever be found. One can read the staff’s valiant attempts to manage the deluge of incoming paper, abandoning the expensive (but rapidly collapsing steel shelving) in favor of old fruit crates. The failure to create order in the record­ room for me becomes a Vanitas subject, a gentle reminder of our ultimate individual decay and demise as a part of nature itself.

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‘Half-Life” Video Documentation


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A video survey of my part of the show. Everything is in monochrome except for the “Garden of Babel” which is composed of horticultural accession labels, in polychromed plastic units. Repetitive units are everywhere, the surrounding Record Room images, the steel cubes and the horticultural tags.

The installation of “12.2.42”, it took six hours to build and then to adjust and rebuild again.

This is an autobiography through formalism. This is minimalism gone bad. Minimalism having no resonance in Pakistan. The disintegration of an idea,the loss of an ideal. Also the idea of cheap clean nuclear energy, once discredited and now again being entertained as a lesser evil in this carbon obsessed age. Karachi has commissioned four new nuclear plants this year.

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Other autobiographical works April 2009


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Autobiographical Bean Can with Tarogil Landscape Plan

“Damaged Donkey Pump, Liberty Market, Lahore, 2009”

“Wild Grasses, Tarogil, April 2009”

The background rumble is the sound of tractors and bull-dozers working the grade on site.
I work at Tarogil, both as a teacher, on occassion and weekly as the landcape consultant to the new 40 acre campus that is coming up there. It’s a troubled project for me. I would love to see it return to some kind of wilderness, but 40 acres is hardly much amongst all the built structures of the university. I’m lobbying for the “Formal Gardens” to become a mud-pond and wild-life reserve cum arboretum. It a questiom of world views, mine has support but amongst a few. The problems of education and maintenance of such a space in a place that has no positive concept of “wilderness” would mean that I would have to perpetually fight for it’s existence, and for it to be understood. All of these are concerns that I wish my future work to address and to muse upon.

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