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Drawing the line

  • The line runs as a leitmotif in ‘Blind Spot’, artist Reena Saini Kallat’s new show in Mumbai
  • This is the artist’s solo exhibition in Mumbai after a gap of four years

Reena Saini Kallat with her work ‘Chorus II’ (2018-19). Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Reena Saini Kallat with her work ‘Chorus II’ (2018-19). Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

A set of 10 diptychs is being installed at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. One half features archival images of sites which have long been fragmented by man-made borders. Each image is accompanied by text, embedded with iron nails, evoking the violent and contested histories of these sites. The other half of the diptych features electric wires, fashioned to resemble barbed-wire fences, with laser-cut lines running through each of them. The work goes beyond the physical nature of these dividing lines to focus on the many wounds and emotional scars that these have caused.

Titled Leaking Lines, the work exemplifies artist Reena Saini Kallat’s preoccupation with polarization, antagonism, conflict and our failure to look beyond these divides in order to seek unifying factors amidst the differences. It forms part of her show, Blind Spots—incidentally, her first solo exhibition in Mumbai in four years.

For years, she has wondered what it is about borders that fascinates her. “In the 1990s and 2000s, with rising communal tensions, our experience of living in cities changed enormously, and this resulted in a shift in my practice." While growing up, Kallat had felt immense pride in the fact that every religion coexisted in the country. Over time, however, she watched the world become more exclusionary—and this began to find reflection in her works.

“These issues of plurality and of exclusion came to prominence when I started working with the rubber stamp (in works such as Color Curtain, 2009)," she explains. Symbolic of bureaucratic procedures, the stamp was a tool used to confirm or obscure identities—those who got legitimized by the state and others who got stamped out of existence. Her engagement with borders also has its roots in her personal history—her family had to move to Delhi during the Partition.

For Leaking Lines, Kallat decided to go back to the form of the line, which is a primary part of an artist’s toolkit. “A line drawn across a territory has such an impact on the fate of citizens living on either side. I wanted to retrieve the line back on to paper," she says.

Leaking Lines features a set of 10 boundaries such as the McMahon Line and Radcliffe Line. Not all of them are borders between countries; some like the Maginot Line were wartime fortifications—military constructions. “Some of the names bring to mind the triviality of the moments of their creation. The ‘green line’ which forms the bleeding boundary between Israel and Palestine is so named because it was etched on to an older map with a green pencil," explains the artist’s note.

The line, which runs like a leitmotif through the show, highlights the dualities underlying these boundaries—a sense of continuity coexisting with a sense of tension. “The other leitmotif is the electric cable, which symbolizes exchange of commerce and communication. At a time when we are much more connected than before through trade, technology and commerce, these national borders, instead of being blurred, have become even more prominent," says Kallat.

The exhibition features five key works, one of them Blind Spots, which lends the show its title. In this six-channel video installation, Kallat recreates the preambles of the constitutions of seven warring nations as Snellen eye charts used by optometrists to measure vision.

Kallat says the work is inspired by the blind spot in our vision and our cognitive understanding. “There is always a gap in the way we see as the optic nerve is unable to process a part of the visual. And yet, the brain completes that gap. I have always been interested in that space of seeing as well as imagining things. How do we interpret that gap?" she explains.

‘Chorus I’ (2015-19). Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
‘Chorus I’ (2015-19). Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

She first explored the theme in the early 2000s, when she had just started working with the Preamble to the Indian Constitution, the promise of democracy and how we, the people, have strayed from it. “In 2009-10, I did Synapse, a video in which 14 people were getting their eyes tested and were hesitantly reciting the Preamble. It was a fragmented recital, indicative of the fact that we are all holding on to our half-truths and fractured understanding of the whole," says Kallat. For Blind Spots, she has extended the concept, pairing nations such as North and South Korea, South and North Sudan, the US and Cuba, Serbia and Croatia, and India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Each pairing looks at certain values, such as equality, justice and liberty, which we seem to have lost sight of, even though they are common to Preambles.

Kallat is also showing two sculptures modelled on pre-radar acoustic devices built during World War II to pick up aircraft engine sounds. “(However, in the audio sculpture), the artist replaces the sounds of martial machinery with birdsong. The sonic signatures of the avian national symbols of India and Pakistan, Palestine and Israel are at play in this installation, reminding us that nature does not respect the logic of frontiers that the human imagination enforces," writes Ranjit Hoskote in his text for the show. So, you have the Hoopoe, the national bird of Israel, calling out to the Palestinian Sunbird or the Crested Caracara from Mexico singing in unison with the American Eagle.

The exhibition brings home the sheer diversity of media that Kallat works with. Shireen Gandhy of Chemould Prescott Road, who has known Kallat for close to 22 years, says the artist has always had an affinity for sourced material, incorporating it into a language that has become uniquely hers. Kallat says her choice of material and medium is intuitive. “I research and collect material for several years, after which atsome point I start deciding on the form that it would take. I have always been very hands on with material. I believe in the transformative ability of the medium itself in conveying ideas. My work is not about putting out research, but as an artist it lies in the act of ‘making’ and creating shifts in the imagination," she concludes.

Blind Spots is on view at Chemould Prescott Road till 28 December.

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