A Conversation with Reena Kallat, Cecilia Canziani, Simone Menegoi and Andrea Zegna
Cecilia Canziani: Is this the first time you’ve engaged with public space? How has your approach been different from working in a white cube?
Reena Kallat Usually in a white cube, artworks get shown against a neutral backdrop where light, sound, and every other stimulus, including the flow of people who engage with the work, are controlled in favour of enhancing the reception of the work. In public space, a work must bear in mind all that already exists, sensitive to the circumstances offered or the given conditions, and in fact derive its vital force from the context. As an artist, one usually conceives something that potentially uncovers meaning for oneself and then seeks to provide an environment conducive to others receiving the work effectively. But in case of a site-specific work, you begin with what you think you know of a site or space, however saturated or contested its history. Working through this often – unpredictable and volatile nature makes it a lot more challenging. You later try and find channels to establish communication, keeping your viewers in mind by bringing them into the conversation.
There is an energy that art receives through exposure to a larger public, not unlike a plant placed in natural surroundings with ample sunlight to nurture it, as opposed to a potted plant that grows indoors. I say this is because, besides a cluster of private galleries in the city that have provided a platform for contemporary art and fostered its growth, we haven’t had adequate institutional spaces that are actively programmed, keeping the general public in mind. Opportunities for public interface that go beyond the defined parameters of the art world interest me. I think a good way to bring art into the public domain can be through temporary exhibitions that stimulate people to think, question, and respond, so that instead of public art being a permanent imposition on space, it engages people more meaningfully and helps build community. In Mumbai I’ve participated in the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival a few times, the Celebrate Bandra Festival and in the more recent years been part of the series of public interventions called “[en]counters” with Art Oxygen. The sculpture Podium/Cube comprising of 20 parts travelled to several areas in the center and suburbs of Mumbai which viewers were welcome to disassemble and reconfigure. While Cycles of Eternal Recurrence was exhibited at the Seongbo Museum during the Haein Art Project in Korea, I carried the imprint on the ground using salt at various different sites, that seemed to appear and disappear. Human societies tend to be governed and structured by apparatuses, yet are at the mercy of uncontrollable and overpowering forces. I have been making text based works using salt at the beach that have an element of surrender, with time playing a crucial role in the production of the work, keeping in mind tidal calendars and sunset timings. Audiences that visit art galleries and institutions come in with certain expectations, whereas in case of art in public spaces, there is the enriching possibility of chance encounters.
Andrea Zegna: As a member of the jury, one of the reason I voted for you is because the subject of your work intertwines with the nature of the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad as a museum of the city, engaging with its history and geography. Could you explain your decision to focus on the changing of names of the city and streets of Mumbai, its public and political meaning?
Reena Kallat In the general absence of parks and open spaces, the street is the nucleus of communal life in India. While thinking of the history of the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum and its mutating relationship to the city of Mumbai, what occupied my mind about the transforming city are the changing street names the manner in which streets define a city’s imagination and how their names speak to us about the people who occupy them. The museum underwent a change of name from the Victoria & Albert Museum to the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum a century after its inception. Conceived during British rule, the museum and its collection narrate some of the earliest moments in the city’s history through its industrial and artisanal past, through the changing life patterns of its people, across maps and historical photographs.
In the early 1990s, as part of the decolonization spree, we saw the change of street names in Mumbai from colonial names to indigenous ones. Renaming is either geographic, commem orative, or linked to language; in case of Mumbai it has been more political than cultural and never without controversy. It’s been a real struggle between the cosmopolitan identities over local or regional claims.
Untitled (Cobweb/Crossings) is an oversize web formed of hundreds of rubber stamps that weaves the history of the city onto the façade of the museum. Each stamp bears the colonial name of a city street that has now been replaced by an indigenous one. The rubber stamps, part of the bureaucratic apparatus, metaphorically either seem to endorse or stamp histories out of existence; with name changes, certain histories gradually get wiped out. Unknowingly, unconsciously, constantly, histories are being reinterpreted and altered. While the changes can bring feelings of loss, confusion, perhaps even anxiety, for me what’s perhaps most interesting is the comfort and ease with which people shift between the old and new names, often referring to a place with numerous names at the same time. It reflects diversity and multiplicity when they flexibly move between various identities
Simone Menegoi: Why did you choose the form of a cobweb?
Reena Kallat The Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum is situated in Jijamata Udyaan, formerly known as the Victoria Gardens. Since it is located in the natural environment of the zoo, I wanted the sculpture to have an organic form, one that has a relationship to its surroundings. While a web is a home, protecting the physical self, at the same time it can also be a restricting trap. It is linear, fragile. Structurally, the crisscrossed markings of streets and roads on a map somewhat resemble a mazelike, cobweb-like drawing, symbolizing fragments of history yearning to come together. A cobweb is evocative of time and appears to hold dust from the past. I began using the rubberstamp as a medium in my work more than a decade ago; a symbol of official authority, it both legitimises and obliterates. The source of reference of the names has defined each body of work I’ve made using the rubberstamps. It has allowed me to combine image and text, to inscribe names or addresses, out of official records, embedding another layer of meaning into the work. With the shift in perspective between the macro and micro, whereby zooming in and out of image fragments, a new form coalesces, interests me. From the push and pull of anonymity and declaration, the cobwebs of our colonial past seem inescapable. We can change names, but histories remain intact and archived for all to remember.
Cecilia Canziani: What is your relationship with the history of Indian art? Do you feel continuity with past forms, attitudes, approaches? And what contemporary discourses do you feel your work is inscribed in?
Reena Kallat I don’t feel like I fit in line with a linear progression from one generation to another within a specific geographic context-to approach art history purely as a classification from past to present. Various strands of art from the West as well as from the subcontinent have informed my work, ranging from the conceptual, the performative, folk and mythic to the minimalist.
My processes are experimental, seeking to find meaningful modes of reflection into the forces that shape our lives. I would like my work to engage the viewer such that it can be experienced both sensually and intellectually.
There are several artists whose work has impacted my sensibilities at different stages; who shift perceptions and expand our understanding of the world. Inspirations come from a wide range of sources: local crafts, film, print and television media, literature, poetry and architecture, as well as real – life experiences that go well beyond the art historical, bringing together the world I know, I want to explore, with all its complexities and contradictions.