In sight but out of mind

In her 2009-11 film Synapse, artist Reena Kallat displayed the Preamble of the Indian Constitution in an eye chart that people could only read fragmentally. Then, Verso-Recto-Verso, a 2017-19 installation depicted different countries’ constitutions on tie-and-dye scrolls in Roman alphabets that morphed into Braille. The text, illegible to the sighted and the blind, lamented the nations’ inability to comprehend common values. Now in her new ongoing show, Blind Spots, Kallat incorporates a contraption under which viewers hear voices of people from opposing sides of conflict, reciting the English alphabet on either ear. The artist recorded 14 voices from regions like Sudan, India Bangladesh, Cuba and the USA. The content is the same, she acknowledges, but its execution with varying accents generates difference, producing a collusion of sounds. The disparities are supplemented by a projection featuring texts in the form of Snellen eye charts that highlight shared ideas from preambles between the countries. The texts written in English also transform into Braille, “a universal language that doesn’t belong to any geography,” Kallat explains. The multi-sensorial discord that viewers experience reveals how common tenets between conflict-areas are masked politically but it is up to individuals to contest such opacities.

In sight but out of mind

Although some of her family members were displaced from Lahore during the Partition, Kallat was born and raised in secular Mumbai. Fundamentalism only reared its head during the 1992-3 riots and Kallat subsequently began exploring Partition to understand its consequences, triggering an engagement with global territorial conflicts. Artists such as Mona Hatoum, Amar Kanwar, Nalini Malani, and Nasreen Mohamedi, had a deep impression on her during Kallat’s early practice.

Today, Kallat is acclaimed for her work that exposes the belligerence associated with disputed territories worldwide. She has become a significant voice in contemporary art, reminding viewers to remain vigilant towards what is deliberately made obscure, to understand the arbitrariness of political divides, and to undermine apparatuses that manipulate perception.

Politics of art

Kallat’s works defy the seeming perpetuity of borders or ‘man-made incisions’ that define nation-states. In the ongoing exhibition, her 2017 diptych Cleft is displayed for the first time in Mumbai alongside her recent suite of drawings, Leaking Lines and a series of digital-prints entitled Shifting Ecotones-2 that also address cartography. Kallat’s hybrid-species Cleft, merges flora and fauna of hostile neighbour-states. The work depicts a globe that is severed by superimposed barbed-wires. “The wires simultaneously signify conduits or carriers of information that bring the world closer, as well as barriers that tear regions apart, encapsulating the contradiction of our times,” says the artist. In Leaking Lines, Kallat intentionally renders partitioned border-lines such as the Radcliffe Line, Curzon Line, and McMahon Line among others to draw attention to the ‘line’ as a formal artistic device. In these drawings, the borders appear as abstract forms presented alongside charcoal renderings of the territories they represent. Viewed in panoramic form, one notices an undulating continuation of the lines, divorced from the physical realities they signify. Kallat emphasises the magnitude of how violent the implications of these border-lines have been in relation to their immateriality. Their arbitrariness is further exposed in Kallat’s Shifting Ecotones-2 that depicts picturesque renderings of rivers that partitioned regions share. These include the Indus, Danube, and Teesta Rivers among others, featured with texts that describe the impact conflict has had on their courses.

Represented in the form of grids, Kallat deliberately leaves parts of her images empty to portray literal ‘blind spots’, and obscures the texts with wires to challenge their legibility. The practise of political map-making is destabilised by the predominance given to physical geography and the ecosystems that transcend borders. The natural elements recall deeper time to remind viewers of the often disregarded historical specificity of seemingly eternal political constructs.

Subverting bureaucracy

Kallat has worked frequently with or made references to bureaucratic tools such as stamps, coins, and official records. In her sonic installations, Chorus I and II on display, the artist replicates surveillance devices (acoustic mirrors) that were used during the Second World War to trace enemy aircraft. In this work, she replaces the sound of machines with the chirp of birds that represent conflicted nations such as the peacock (India) and the chukar (Pakistan). The work throws light on the fact that although the birds are emblematic of particular nations, the regions they inhabit are determined by terrain, not politics, and no country can claim ownership to them. Additionally by transforming and disrupting the function of a device used during war, Kallat explodes the need for territorial disputes altogether, commenting on the triviality of their premises.

At a time when seemingly banal structures enforce strong ideologies that propagate antagonism across the world, Kallat’s works draw attention to universal truths to subvert the underpinnings of conflicts. “In these polarised times where the gaps in our understanding of the truth is increasingly widening, I hope we can still find some space to reflect upon our own shortcomings in understanding other perspectives and move beyond the many borders, visible and invisible, to recognise our interdependence,” says Kallat.

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

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 3:27:09 AM |

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