Reena Kallat: Trapped in Hyphens

Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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Reena Kallat is continuously re-imagining existing bodies of work to unravel their many possible permutations and combinations

WHEN I FIRST encountered Reena Saini Kallat in her studio in 2015, the impression she left me with was not that of Victor Frankenstein, the inventor whose wild experimentation led to the creation of a monster, but of both their makers, Mary Shelley, who dreamt up the scientist one night, and eventually fleshed him and his invention out through the pages of her epic 1818 novel, Frankenstein. Back then, Kallat’s studio was in Chimbai, nestled in the fishing village along the Bandra coast, its lanes dotted with “old little quaint houses”, as she recounts in retrospect. The sea formed a backdrop and perhaps the context, even, for her ongoing Saline Notation series, begun in 2014, for which she stencils fragments of sourced or constructed verse onto the shores of a beach using salt and photographs the textual stretch as the waves erase each trace.

Kallat offered me privileged glimpses into her notebooks, diaries, and research archive. I recognised the anatomical references to flora and fauna, and the occasional cartographic citation, alongside excerpts from newspaper headlines and encyclopaedic accounts of the genesis of the creatures she was studying. There was something of the meticulous suturing spirit of the taxidermist combined with the precision of both a botanist and zoologist coupled with the optimism of a utopian. Later, it would remind me of this line from Shelly’s seminal book: ‘The world to me was a secret, which I desired to discover; to her it was a vacancy, which she sought to people with imaginations of her own.’

Kallat had been genetically engineering, through her emerging art, a whole eco-system peopled by a sub-species of national symbols, subtly critiquing the hegemony of nation states and the representational nature of such depictions. She would eventually exhibit this series through her solo show Hyphenated Lives at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, and later at New Delhi’s Nature Morte, in the form of Porous Passages. “Hyphens are like glue, one that binds together, serving here as more than a linguistic device,” she told me then. She traced the lineage of this series to her 2010 work, 2 Degrees, which was shown at Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, and consisted of red earthenware, henna, and a nine-minute single-channel audio loop, a commentary on the Indus River Basin shared between India and Pakistan, spanning 1,800 miles, making up one of the largest irrigation networks in the world. This work, the result of her longstanding interest in the relationship between countries politically partitioned but historically related, also involved the furthering of her attention to natural resources which she believes are often the root cause of conflict and contestation between divided countries. Since then, she found herself reading about and researching countries that may have been partitioned but continue to share their natural world and thus various natural resources, such as India-Pakistan, Ireland-UK, Israel-Palestine, North and South Korea, Macedonia and Serbia, Austria and Hungary, US and Mexico or US and Cuba. “What usually begins with sharing of the common waters of rivers that run between borders finally leads to the partitioning of the rivers.” The ensuing ‘third’ species that Kallat would conceive by combining the symbols of two conflicting nations were meant “as a defiance of nature by acknowledging man-made divisions on the ground; as poetic provocations from the past or a proposition for an imagined future when indeed they may re-unite.”

Sometime last year, Kallat gave up her seaside rental and has been temporarily occupying what I’d come to know as her husband Jitish Kallat’s studio in Union Park, at least until their shared workspace in Byculla is ready. One often finds her occupying the ground-floor area, and when she isn’t working outside, she is seated in the nook that is her office, thinking, ideating, orchestrating their son’s school pick-ups, and extending the boundaries of her practice through continual research.

When I met her there in the first week of October, she had just returned from Manchester. Not even 24 hours had passed, and despite the phenomenal success that was her show at the Manchester Museum, housed at The University of Manchester, for which she delved into the natural science and human culture collections, she was already back at work, fully prepared to de- humidify her iMac screen. Over lunch, a home-cooked spread including steamed rice and Thai red curry with generous portions of fresh vegetables, served in ceramic plates with a hypnotic spiral pattern she bought in Sri Lanka, she animatedly recounts a “crazy day” she had in London, just before her return, when she had gone to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum: “I came out for lunch, and then the police came and locked up our restaurant.” Kallat was unfazed, an acknowledgment of how, as a resident of Mumbai, a city that has had more than its unfair share of terror attacks, such incidents have become normalised. “And then there was the sound of a gun, and we all ran. I was wondering why we were running. There was so much fear. It was crazy!” After all, the incident, which took place on October 8th and involved a black Toyota Prius hitting people outside the Natural History Museum on Exhibition Road, South Kensington, wasn’t deemed a terror attack. More a road traffic collision, and the reckless driver, a man in his forties, was arrested.

For me, when it comes into the domain of art, why does something have to live as only an idea? It’s also about the material choices

As we continued eating, Kallat walked me through the display of her show at the Manchester Museum through her photographs of it, pausing in between to speak about a new piece, The Tigon, a replica of the original taxidermy of Maude the Tigon, an animal with a tiger for a father and a lion for a mother that was housed in Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoo from 1936-1949, which she had encountered during an earlier visit that had led her to introspect on how identity can be formed and reformed. “It drew people down to the temporary gallery space,” she says, describing the piece as an intervention and the show itself as a ‘museum within the museum—a menagerie of imaginary beasts, birds and plants created by fusing together the national symbols of hostile states around the world.’ The display included ti-khoris, the fusion of tiger and markhor, the national animals of India and Pakistan and cy-oakis, a hybrid derived from Montezuma bald Cyprus and oak, the national trees of Mexico and the US respectively, among a slew of others, including faux fossils of certain hybrids, taking the work further into the realm of probability. In two seminal works, Cleft, commissioned by the Manchester Museum, and Garden of Forking Paths, both dated 2017, the eco-system of hybrids come together as if inhabiting the same landscape. The latter is an ode to a 1941 short story of the same name by Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, ‘that proposes an alternative view of time, picturing it not as a linear procession but as a dizzying network—a maze composed of infinite futures and pasts all existing as parallel worlds, where each point in life offers multiple possibilities, all of which unravel simultaneously.’ The work offers a panoramic view of a landscape populated by Kallat’s hybrids, with human presence marked through maps, cranes, and construction towers, and barbed wires woven from electrical cables snaking across like boundary lines. This wide array of drawings, sculptures and postcards spread across walls and a vitrine in the style of a natural history display was meant to evoke a serene, mythic narrative of convergence, ‘subtly subverting the appropriation of nature to serve nationalist ideologies.’ Adding an aural dimension to this universe was another new work, Chorus, modelled on World War acoustic surveillance devices meant to track enemy aircrafts, except, Kallat had infused it with the effusiveness of birdsong. “I’m very happy with this piece,” she says. “I had thought about it for a public park in Florence and had proposed something very architectural, but we didn’t get building permissions.” She had wanted to create a bunker that seemed hidden on the landscape but could be viewed only from the other side. “And, when you go inside, you could see all the birds,” she says. The ‘we’ referred to a collector, who was excited by Kallat’s proposition. “He took me to these acoustic specialists who make instruments. His plan was to build a birdhouse, and I wanted to open the conversation between the birdhouse and the bunker.” Kallat still has the blueprints of the idea, and Chorus, it seems, is one manifestation. “For me, when it comes into the domain of art, why does something have to live as only an idea? It’s also about the material choices,” she says.

AT THE MANCHESTER Museum was also an exhibition called Memories of Partition, a group show which featured some of Kallat’s work, including Saline Notations with text that was part of Amrita Pritam’s song to Waris Shah, a diptych, and a few works from her 2015 series titled Ruled Paper, a take on the red and blue-lined notebooks that serve as primers for children learning the alphabet. Kallat constructs her parallel lines out of barbed wire, occasionally punctuating the otherwise straight lines into twisted knots suggestive of boundaries that should not be trespassed. “All in all, I was very happy because I got to meet a number of people, so many who were related to the Partition of India, many of whom had moved to the UK and Kenya.” The exhibition had included recordings of oral narratives by many of these Partition refugees, which interested and enthused Kallat. “I might be working now with some of these people,” she says. “For years I thought about how I could get in touch with people outside India, as I’m trying to build a work for the TATE exchange about non-verbal communication.” Kallat is drawn to the epistolary format. “When I was young, I used to write a letter to my father and keep it under his pillow. There was so much silence in my family, I asked my dad’s elder brother, and thought of how I could relive that moment, and so I was thinking about writing, asking these women if they were willing to write a letter… So let’s see, interesting beginnings,” she says. I smile at her obvious excitement. “You see, for any artist, what’s interesting is what you’re doing next,” she adds.

Even as she looks forward, Kallat is also continuously re-imagining existing bodies of work to unravel their many possible permutations and combinations. This is what she seems to be doing with her Verso-Recto-Recto-Verso, currently on display as part of India Re-Worlded, curated by Arshiya Lokhandwala, a two-part hand-dyed bandhini scroll upon which the opening paragraphs of the constitutions of India and Pakistan are imprinted in part-Braille, part Roman script. This new piece relates to a 2011 video work, Synapse, featuring patients having their eyesight tested by unwittingly reciting, letter by letter, the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. Kallat has extended the metaphor of blindness through her use of the Braille text that seems to translate to an illegible scrawl. ‘The inscrutability of the two renderings is a reminder of the collective amnesia of the two sets of citizenry, resulting in a failure to understand and fight for the values upon which the two nations were constituted,’ Kallat wrote in her wall text. She describes Verso-Recto-Recto-Verso as a piece she has wanted to do for the longest time. “I wanted to revisit the Constitution of India and look at all the common founding principles such as equality, justice, etcetera, that we aspire for,” she adds. “It’s about how you read things, what falls in the gaps and what is not understood. It’s primarily about perception.” She hopes to make another edition that’ll further explore some of the powerful ideas that are packed in the existing piece, including her combining of brail and stencil, a first for her. “Some of these works are just sitting, you don’t know where they are going,” she adds, articulating precisely why spending time with her and her creations is so oddly fulfilling for a non- practitioner. There is both the joy of bearing witness and the pleasure of conceptually collaborating because of the premium she places on one’s critical intervention and insights, however mundane they may seem. To return to the Frankenstein metaphor, you are encoded into the Adam of her labours.