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Riding the Elephant | Pakistani-born artist has lattice cubes display at London's Tate Modern

By John Elliott

It can’t often happen that an artist watches with pleasure while his work is dismantled by hordes of children who then form their own versions of what he or she has carefully designed as an ordered and meaningful display.

That is what happened to Rasheed Araeen, a controversial veteran British artist of Pakistani origin, in the vast Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern last weekend. Age 88, Araeen told me he had never seen anything like it before, even though the minimalist display, Zero to Infinity, has been through many incarnations since he first created it in 1968.

We were watching from a gallery above the Turbine Hall floor. Araeen was visibly happy that the display of 400 brightly coloured lattice-construction cubes were giving so much constructive pleasure to more than 100 children and a few adults – with more queuing to get access to the floor.

“I’ve done my job and now people can come and make their own work,” he had said at the launch a day earlier. So far more than 1,000 children have played with the display every day.

On a broader front, the display is especially significant because it brings focus to one of the most under-valued – and oldest – living artists from a South Asian background. Born in Karachi, Araeen has been politically controversial for most of his artistic life, which has not endeared him to many private collectors.

His works have tended to finish up more in public collections that realise his significance and feel they need to support ethnic minority artists, rather than on the walls of image-sensitive private buyers – his first private exhibition did not take place till he was 76 when it was staged at a London gallery run by New York-based Aicon that continues to handle his work.

Amazingly, only one of Araeen’s works has ever been auctioned, seemingly because there are not sufficient private owners to generate a secondary market. Small Blue, a 60×25.5×25.5cmpainted steel double cube fetched £18,900 as a charity item at Christie’s in London last October.

It’s a long overdue tribute to Araeen that his display is in the iconic Turbine Hall. Tate Modern doesn’t often provide a major space for South Asian origin artists, though it seems to be becoming aware that it should do more for a region of some two million people with many internationally recognised figures. The last big event was a dramatic retrospective of a prominent gay Indian painter, Bhupen Khakhar, in 2016.

An installation by India’s Vivan Sundaram is currently on show in one of its remote lower ground floor “tanks. Earlier there have been much smaller Araeen displays, including one in the tanks in 2016, though for many years the Tate resisted his approaches.

But even the Turbine Hall event is more serendipity than planned targeting. On a train to Hastings before the pandemic, Catherine Wood, Tate Modern’s director of programmes, met Janet Hodgson whose husband, Peter Fillingham, has been making Araeen’s sculptures in Hastings for over ten years. They started chatting and Wood remembered that she had admired Araeen’s work at Aicon’s London gallery in 2011. That chance meeting gradually led to what is now in the Turbine Hall.

Araeen is a sculptor, painter, and an installation and video artist. He has also been a political activist and editor. He initially trained as a civil engineer in Pakistan, a background that feeds into his structural displays. In 1964 he moved to London and, discovering the work of the British sculptor Anthony Caro, decided to devote himself full-time to similar work but with symmetrical configurations.

Prajit Dutta of the Aicon gallery says his “pioneering role in minimalist sculpture, represented (in the late 1960s) what was arguably then the only minimalism in Britain.”