Interview: Reena Saini Kallat with Veeranganakumari Solanki

Of Aesthetics and Identities

Veeranganakumari Solanki: Borders, territories, migration, religion and politics are some of the issues that you seem to be engaged with in your works. For instance, Silt of Season, your first video installation is focused on a disputed territory between two countries – India and Pakistan. This map of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (P.O.K.) appears in many of your later works, including Crease / Crevice / Contour, in which you also voice your concerns about the LOC (Line of Control) between India and Pakistan. Could you talk about your concerns with these issues in relation to your art practice?

Reena Kallat: I think many of us grew up with a sense of self-gratifying pride embedded in our collective consciousness about being part of the most religiously diverse country. A kind of national belief in a pluralist, assimilative culture is handed down to every child through the education system. It was the emergence of extremist voices and the more recent political and social events that seem to have put our beliefs into question. The events leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the aftermath of communal carnage clearly exposed the divide created between Hindus and Muslims by communal forces. My father was born in Lahore, Pakistan and moved to Punjab before Partition, so as a young girl I grew up listening to stories about his ancestral home. The relationship between India and Pakistan as we know today is fraught with tensions and the chasm of deep-rooted prejudices continues to grow despite a fragile peace process.

The work titled Silt of Seasons-I is a video projection on sand, shaped in the form of the disputed territory that lies between India and Pakistan. Commonly called Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, this patch of land has been the nucleus of the conflict between India and Pakistan since 1947. Its territorial form within my work began to function as a metaphor of this strained relationship between the two countries at one level but also symbolic of human inanity. The names that appear spelt out in letters formed with sand are of those who’ve signed the peace petition in 2004, addressed to General Pervez Musharraf and to the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. Each name is made visible only momentarily and it slowly gets blown away or effaced, much like the repeated attempts at peace that often get sabotaged by extremist forces or political opportunism. And yet each erased name is replaced by another one countering the disillusionment with hope for renewal.

VS: These works are also reminiscent of your early works in which you drew geographical references to rivers, in works such as Woven Veins and 2 Degrees. Could you talk about your concerns and issues related to politics and boundaries – geographic and manmade.

RK: I often think of the psychological barrier that exists between people more than the physical borders themselves. Having said that, rivers have played an important role in human history; not only have they been the cradle of great civilizations, a link between cultures but served as boundaries of empires. There are particular works where my preoccupation with the body and its projection on landscape is seen, in pieces such as Crease/Crevice/Contour or the recurrent analogies between the body and earth, the nervous system and the flow of rivers in works such as Woven Veins and 2 Degrees. Although in Crease/Crevice/Contour, the body is almost treated like a document stamped with names using rubber-stamps and the collective cluster forms the shifting territory that appears like a residual scar of the unending dispute.

VS:  The use of rubber stamps as a medium to create your works, voice several concerns and issues you address. From the first use of rubber stamps in Kiosk, to your most recent work Untitled Cobweb (knots and crossings); this medium is so significant, decisive, small but strong creating a labyrinth of questions. Could you talk about your use of this medium?

RK: My interest in using rubberstamps as a medium grew out of its use within official purpose, as a bureaucratic apparatus which both confirms and obscures identities. I think of each name on the rubberstamp as being representative of an individual amidst hundreds of faceless people. The sources of reference for the names often provide meaning or give context to the different bodies of work. I have worked with officially recorded or registered names of people, objects, and monuments that are lost or have disappeared without a trace, only to get listed as anonymous and forgotten statistics.

RK: You have also brought to the forefront through your works on portraiture, the question of identity and identification like in your Synonym series. Could you describe the process through which you decipher this detailed information to re-identify the known and unknown and re-look at the past and present through private and public information?

VS: In case of Synonyms, the list of names were taken from official police records of those gone missing in India. From a distance they come together as portraits, but up-close they almost seem like a circuit board of rubberstamps. It must be said that it’s not always possible to access official information in cases where it is meant to be confidential. For the sculptural barricades formed with rubberstamps carrying names of people who’ve been denied visas to other countries, I tried approaching various consulates but they weren’t willing to give out official information; the grounds of rejection of entry permit being related with perceptions and privileges often based on class, culture, nationality, religion, politics etc.

VS: With reference to monuments and pilferage, there are several references to the reports of the Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I) in Closet Quarries and your Falling Fables series. Could you outline your relationship with architecture and monuments with reference to your art practice and works?

RK: A few years ago I was intrigued by the long list of archaeological and historical monuments in India that had gone missing due to haphazard urbanization and inefficient protection laws. The Archaeological Survey of India had listed around 200 sites/objects being lost all over the country. Among these missing monuments, 35 were listed as protected; of which 12 are in Delhi. While I began making visits to these sites on the one hand, on the other I got interested in19th Century miniature paintings of some of the very same monuments (with a lot of the details in these paintings carrying interesting inaccuracies). The pulls and pressures of encroachment, development and conservation have created these strong juxtapositions of old and new/past and present, which I find fascinating in both a physical/architectural sense as well as a social/cultural sense. The sculpture titled Falling Fables was referenced from architectural ruins and fragments, that are disintegrating and in a state of collapse. The surface consists of nearly thirty thousand rubberstamps bearing addresses of missing monuments listed as protected sites under the Archaeological Survey of India, dispersed amidst others that carry fragments of poems/ phrases on architecture and loss. As creations of active historical forces and natural processes, ruins seem more than just passive or static forms with their sense of incompleteness alluding to the broader themes of time, loss and memory.

VS: There is also a sort of recycling of information that you process through your works, thereby changing the outlook of existing facts and re-looking at history/ past issues with a renewed (recycled) interest.

RK: That’s indeed true. In ‘Closet Quarries’ for instance, I overlay patterns of the Taj Mahal in Agra with an invisible or forgotten history; each unit of rubber stamp has text and symbols that represent the mason/stone-carver families that helped build the Taj. Another piece I could think of is my work at the Goteborg International Biennale of Contemporary Art 2011. This quasi-cartographic drawing was made with electric wires by tracing movement-patterns of migrants globally. In changing my drawing tool from a pencil line to wire, I was interested in evoking the world as a dynamic, flow of data, energy and people with the linear formations often evoking barbed wires, barriers, fencing.

VS: Another very intriguing aspect of your work is your engagement with text and its legibility. From references to the constitution of India, to alphabets in Woven Veins and the use of Braille in Preface and Walls of the Womb, there is a constant search for meaning in language not just literal, but also aesthetic. Could you talk about your affiliation with text?

RK: The work titled Walls of the Womb, unlike most of my other works, was autobiographical in nature and perhaps took me the longest period of time to articulate into form. I lost my mother during my early childhood. The 12 scrolls cut in the length of sarees were dyed in shades of red, through the process of tie and dye, where the un-dyed dotted areas remain white, as the untreated virgin fabric formed a text in Braille. The text was translations of recipes from my mother’s hand written recipe books evoking associations of nurturing and nourishing with motherhood. However, the dotted patterns forming the script in Braille remained illegible, disallowing easy access to the content of the text, much like my own relationship with my mother, built on fragments of inscrutable memory.

The relation between language and aesthetics is interesting since there is something underlying aesthetics that is indefinable, incomprehensible and impossible to conceptualise through the mind.  So even though meaning is inherent in a work of art and that a sensation is produced; that sensation is not independent of the work itself.

Reena Saini Kallat (b. 1973, Delhi, India) graduated from Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai in 1996 with a B.F.A. in painting. Her practice – spanning painting, photography, video, sculpture and installation, often incorporates multiple mediums into a single work. Her work has been widely exhibited across the world in venues such as Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; Kennedy Centre, Washington; Saatchi Gallery, London; SESC Pompeia and SESC Belenzino in Sao Paulo; Goteborgs Konsthall, Sweden; Helsinki City Art Museum, Finland; National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts; Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel; National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul; Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo; Casa Asia, Madrid and Barcelona; ZKM Karlsruhe in Germany; Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney; Hangar Bicocca, Milan; Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai; IVAM Museum, Spain; Busan MOMA; Kulturhuset, Stockholm; Chicago Cultural Centre amongst many others and she has participated in a number of workshops and residencies. She lives and works in Mumbai

Veeranganakumari Solanki based in Mumbai, India; is an independent curator and art-writer. She studied English Literature (B.A) and holds post-graduate diplomas in Indian Aesthetics (2007) and Art Criticism and Theory (2009) as well as a Masters in History (2009). Her curatorial experience has involved research on Emerging Asian and international artists and art practices, as well as Indian Modern and Contemporary Art. She was the recipient of the first IllySustainArt Curator’s prize (2011) and is a nominee for the Emerging Curator 1st ALICE (Artistic Landmark in Contemporary Experience) Award 2012.