In a city renowned for the splendour of its gardens and architecture, Lahore’s Pakistan International Airlines Planetarium is a lesser known cultural attraction. Built on the orders of the dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the mid 1980s, it is rarely visited by the city’s more affluent inhabitants, for whom air travel is a mundane fact of contemporary life. Its popularity is greatest among lower-income aviation enthusiasts, who, alongside disgruntled PIA employees, were first to complain when public access to the site was disrupted by the previous provincial government’s controversial bid—under the chief ministership of Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif, brother to Nawaz Sharif, the prime minster until 2017—to construct a rapid-transit system in the area. For most visitors, the main attraction is a retired Boeing 720 passenger jet. To watch entire families queue to purchase 50-rupee tickets and snap selfies as they climb aboard this dinosaur of the skies is strangely poignant. It is the closest many will ever come to the stars.
Before the Sharif brothers’ drive to bulldoze into existence the Orange Line of the Lahore metro, members of the public could watch a short documentary about the solar system on the planetarium’s audiovisual system, which runs on technology imported from the erstwhile German Democratic Republic. Like the gloriously kitsch documentary about Pakistan’s civilisational history looping on a monitor in the Boeing 720, it fulfils Zia’s directive of introducing people “to the experience of travel through space and time,” albeit in a direction opposite to his modernist fantasies of scientific progress, through an evocative voyage into the recent past of aviation and cosmology.
Shortly before the coronavirus pandemic and the abrupt disappearance of life as we knew it, the second edition of the Lahore Biennale added a generative layer of complexity to this enchanted gateway to other worlds. Ulugh Beg: Intrinsic Futurism Machine of Central Asia, a multi-channel video installation by Almagul Menlibayeva and her collaborators, German Popov and Inna Artemova, was the most technically ambitious new commission at the biennale. In terms of scale, Pakistan’s brief history of contemporary art exhibitions has seen nothing like this work of staggering philosophical and aesthetic complexity.