At the Norrtalje Konsthall, Sweden, two concurrent solo exhibitions are taking place—of artists Reena Saini Kallat and Jitish Kallat. With works spanning more than a decade, the shows—their first institutional solos in Sweden—offer retro views of their practice. They provide an intimate glimpse of Jitish’s engagement with time and space, infinity and transience, and Reena’s with man-made boundaries and free-flowing ecological forces.
“The contemporary art scene in India has been thriving with a remarkable generation of artists producing rigorous work of deep art-historical, political and philosophical significance. Norrtälje Konsthall participates in this vital scene by presenting simultaneous solo exhibitions by two of India’s most successful and interesting artists,” writes Helén Hedensjö, director, Norrtälje Konsthall in the exhibition note. The two exhibitions, Deep Rivers Run Quiet and Epicycles 19/6-26/9, have been hosted on two separate floors, creating interesting juxtapositions of their wide-ranging practices.
Epicycles starts with a single-channel video by Jitish, titled Forensic Trail of the Grand Banquet from 2009, wherein galactic clusters and nebulae are replaced by hundreds of x-ray scans of food. “In the video titled The Eternal Gradient (2015), 365 rotis morph with the waxing and waning images of the moon as if aeons of time were passing through an ever-changing annual lunar almanac,” states the exhibition note. “The rotis transform slowly and as each one completes its life cycle, the entire lunar year will also have transformed.”
It begins as a parenthesis of time—a year or 365 moons—but if you spend any more than three minutes in that space, you will see an eternity of time move by. “Every passing second feels like you are looking at a still image. It’s only when you shut your eyes and open again, you will see that the gradient has moved. The moon phases in every moment corresponds to lunar configurations in the distant past or future,” says Jitish.
Then there is The Infinite Episode, which shows various animal species—a rhinoceros, a swan, a cow, a chimpanzee—cast in dental plaster, curled up in sleep. Sleep is evoked here as a state that negates conventional ideas of time—a ‘brief’ interlude of eternity into which we recede every night.
Though created over the past decade, Jitish’s works continue to be relevant. There has been no other time in recent history when the transient nature of life and time has become more apparent. When viewed in the current context of the pandemic, Jitish’s engagement with time and space touches a new chord.
“As artists and observers of life, we tend to think of time consciously. But everyone, irrespective of their inclinations, has observed shifting temporalities during these recent times. Normally we think of time as nothing but durations. That’s a kind of domesticated version of time,” says Jitish. “In reality, time is this mysterious medium through which life transitions. Through the medium of space and time we progress and transform.”
It’s interesting that the show begins with Forensic Trails, which was a starting point in Jitish’s career for many ideas that came later. In the video, you could be looking inside the human body or into the vast intergalactic space. “Given the kind of situations that the world has encountered now, we are all asking deeper questions of our mortality, habits and habitats. Without giving direct pointers, these subtle questions are imbued in the works,” adds Jitish.
The artist has, in his practice, developed a “vocabulary of studio rituals”, which explore aesthetic questions mediated by nature and self-imposed artistic constraints. The pandemic, in the past one year, has added another layer of constraints. One wonders whether Jitish has started looking at his studio space differently in the past year. “I moved back to India on 14 March 2020 from the US and moved into self-imposed quarantine in the studio close to home in Bandra. My other studio—the main one—is in Byculla. An entire body of works, perhaps the most complex photo works I have ever done, have emerged from this isolation in one studio,” he says. These might be shown by the end of the year or early next year.
Reena’s show too focuses on her long-standing engagement with the ideas of the border, territory and maps. The title, Deep Rivers Run Quiet, has been derived from Haruki Murakami’s book Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. “I’ve been interested in the ways in which people continue to remain linked across geographies through language, culture, trade and technology... and that these long civilizational histories run far deeper than the political divisions,” she says. The exhibition includes a new site-specific wall drawing, which uses electrical cables, a recurring motif in her work that is seen as a conduit for energy and ideas.
“The exhibition also includes the 8-channel video Blind Spots that deploys the preambles of the constitutions of warring nations from around the world as Snellen eye charts used by optometrists to measure vision,” mentions the curatorial note. One of the most interesting works on display is Vortex, formed by the borders of countries in conflict over the sharing of the river waters. These come together as a thumb print, showing the human imprint on the landscape—how countries and states try to ascribe identities to a river and make it their own; and the manners in which governments don’t look at sharing but dividing heritage. This new work, perhaps, encapsulates Reena’s continual questioning of human interventions on a natural landscape. “Like the anthropogenic memory of past human activities that have altered landscape forms, processes in a manner that continue to affect the landscape…” she says.
Reena has always drawn analogies between the body and the land, rivers and veins, and how dependence on a natural resource often leads to its partitioning. But rivers don’t recognize political demarcations, whether it’s the Rhine, the Danube, the Nile, the Imjin between North and South Korea, the Rio Grande between the US and Mexico, the Shatt-Al-Arab between Iran and Iraq, or the Indus between India and Pakistan. ”Look at the ways in which we manipulate the course of the river through dams and hydroelectric projects. We are constantly making interventions in the landscape. These lines, while unseen in many ways, are very prevalent and have an impact on citizens on either side. In River Drawing, electrical cables come together, unify and then get rearranged in lines of separation to transform and create a new topography,” elaborates Reena.
In Leaking Lines, the artist dwells on the violence and fragility of national borders. In 10 diptychs the artist intentionally conflates the ‘line’—a primary artistic tool—with the language of epic territorial delineations. Her attempt is to look beyond the divisive histories and social barriers that these innocuous looking lines create. “The show is about drawing deep connections between the various works, which are not always apparent. For instance, Blind Spots is about how we seem to have lost sight of our shared values and common aspirations as nations. Even as we tighten national borders amid fears of the pandemic, at no other moment have we been more acutely aware of our interdependence, and our relationship to the natural world,” she says.
The exhibitions are on view at Norrtalje Konsthall in Sweden till 26 September 2021.