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Contemporary Artists Series: A Conversation With Reena Saini Kallat
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Contemporary Artists Series: A Conversation With Reena Saini Kallat

Picture of Farah Siddiqui
Updated: 13 November 2015
Exploring concepts of unison, estrangement, and conflict, Reena Saini Kallat’s latest works were on display at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, until October 10, 2015. Hyphenated Lives, Kallat’s solo exhibition, centers around the artist’s recurring theme of the role of memory in our lives. Art consultant Farah Siddiqui interviewed Kallat at her charming studio in Mumbai.

You are one of the most acclaimed artists from India and are constantly experimenting and challenging yourself in your work. Before we get into that, please tell us a little about your childhood, and what inspired you to make art into a career.

My approach has always been focused on developing my art rather than working towards a career. All through my childhood years I enjoyed spending my time making things with papier-mâché, stitching, embroidering, drawing, and painting but never saw these interests as culminating into taking up art as a professional career. It was my father who recognized I had many other interests related to the arts. I think getting introduced to the lives of other artists and their ways of thinking inspired and left an impression on my brother Rajiv (Architect Rajiv Saini) and me.

You work across media – painting, photography, video, sculpture, and installation – and often incorporate multiple media into a single work. How do you select the medium? Is it pre-planned, or does it come spontaneously as your work progresses?

For me personally the process seems to shuttle between the content or conceived ideas giving shape to form, which is largely a more conceptually driven process – and sometimes the reverse, where the potential possibilities of the medium inspire metaphors and ideas.The medium is a channel that comes with its own probabilities and limitations. The final decision is usually a well considered one but mostly intuitive, depending on the needs of the work – its relationship not just with the viewer but other works with which it might share space.

Critical interpretation of history is inherent in many of your previous works. Please give us an insight into your research process.

I think it is much more a self-reflective critical journey rather than a moralizing process of trying to enunciate what is right or wrong. Through my work I am often questioning some of our own beliefs through years of conditioning. For instance, the current exhibition makes inquiries into our ideas of independence and interdependence and the means we adopt to attain them, which are often self-destructive and can come at the cost of our own needs, while it is possible to have a healthy, independent co-existence.

For this exhibition, I have been reading and researching on countries that may have been partitioned but continue to share their natural world and thus various natural resources: India and Pakistan, Ireland/UK, Israel/Palestine, North and South Korea, Macedonia/Yugoslavia, Croatia/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. Whether it is the case with the river Indus between India and Pakistan, the Rio Grande that flows between the US and Mexico, the GBM (Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna) basin between Bangladesh and India, or the Jordan River between Palestine and Israel. It is interesting to reflect on how national symbols were meant to unite people from a particular region, and we start claiming ownership to natural forms that are native to a particular land when we cannot look beyond narrow nationalism.

As you have exhibited at some of most prestigious venues and museums around the world, what do you consider your landmark exhibition?

The outdoor public project that I am currently exhibiting at the Vancouver Art Gallery has been very well received. The work was conceived with electric wires to form a drawing that will trace migration patterns globally where multitudes of actors interact without knowledge of the overall situation. By changing the instrument of this quasi-cartographic drawing from a pencil line to a wire, I’m interested in the notion of the map as dynamic, ever-changing, streaming and transferring data with the global flows of energies and people, as the courses of these travelers intersect. The audio component resonates with high-voltage electric current sounds drowned within deep-sea ambient sounds, slow electric pulses, the hum of engaged tones from telecommunications, mechanical-sounding drone, factory sirens, sand hip horns intermingle with migratory bird sounds.

Your recent exhibition Hyphenated Lives is extremely relevant in contemporary politics and nationalism, and you have considered the histories of many regions. Please walk us through the key pieces from this exhibition

Hyphenated Lives dwells on the co-existence of varied and sometimes conflicting ideas, not just within the self, but between two people, neighbors, and possibly two countries with gaps in transmission – the in-between spaces left for interpretation. Hyphens are like glue, one that binds things together, serving here more than as a linguistic device. I felt the need to turn to species other than the human race to tell us how to share the planet, where the existence of one species depends on the other or the disappearance of one affects the other adversely. These can be seen as a defiance of nature in acknowledging the 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.

There is an ingenious use of salt in a lot of your work – ‘Cycles of Eternal Recurrence,’ ‘Wash your guilt build a memorial,’ and ‘Saline Notations,’ among others). Please explain the significance each time.

Salt, an essential ingredient of sustenance and of life itself, is intimately linked with its capacity to preserve. In my work, it perhaps serves as a reminder of our fragile relationship with the natural environment. I first began working with salt in 2013, when I was invited to conceive of a sculpture for the Hein Art Project in Korea, where I had wanted to carry the imprint of the sculpture of a rubber stamp in salt outdoors at various sites between the temple and the museum… these would appear and disappear as people would walk over the texts as I recreated them.

‘Saline Notations’ has an element of surrender; the notations’ submission to the variables of nature incorporates time as a crucial element in their making. On the beach, I work with tidal calendars, sunset timings that become my collaborators. I often think of our relationship to the sea and the salinity levels of the body, having evolved from the Precambrian seas. The conditions under which these works are made are constantly changing, where momentarily an idea is made manifest, shared – after which it is lost (the photograph being an evidence of these salt texts before they dissipate or dissolve back into the sea). ‘Saline Notations (Echoes)’ is a 6 part photo-piece realized on the beach. In my work, the text inscribed using salt unfolds a soliloquy that submerges with a rising tide.

Do you consider your nationality and gender to be relevant in your art practice?

Our ideas and understanding of the world are definitely shaped by who we are, and where we may be located on the planet, so I am certainly aware of how my experience of being a woman contributes and informs the work I make – even though through the work I try and explore ideas that look beyond nationality and other stereotypes.

How would you measure success as an artist?

I have always believed that the yardsticks used to measure success change with the passage of time and perhaps history will be re-written several times to make relevant or redundant certain artists and works. As an artist, if I have been able to bring form and content together imaginatively and meaningfully, I would consider myself to be a good catalyst in achieving this successfully.

By Farah Siddiqui

Farah Siddiqui is a Mumbai-based art consultant.