“Last night was the first night I could rest in peace without needing to jump out of bed and fight with someone!” laughs Reena Saini Kallat. Her work, Untitled (Cobweb/Crossings) sprawls over the upper façade of the historic and beautiful Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, at the entrance of Rani Bagh like the life story of some giant spider with a bureaucratic gene in its DNA. It is made of a series of strings of rubber stamps trellised to form the complex structure of a classic cobweb. What made it? What left it behind? What did it catch? Questions and more questions puzzle the viewer even as a child walking past to the zoo exclaims loudly to her parent, “ Makdee ! (spider)”
The piece is not mere whimsy but has meaning, significance and a reason for its existence. Kallat is the first artist to be chosen as the ‘protagonist’of the first edition of ZegnArt Public, a project launched by the Ermenegildo Zegna Group in collaboration with the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum. The work has been produced by the Zegna Group and donated to the museum, and will be supported by educational workshops and studios developed by Kallat. The artist won the commission in a competition judged by Gildo and Anna Zegna, on behalf of the Ermenegildo Zegna Group; Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, Jyotindra Jain and Minal Bajaj on behalf of the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum and Andrea Zegna, project coordinator, ZegnArt. The umbrella that is ZegnaArt shelters a number of projects in Italy and now India, Turkey and Brazil, among others, in the visual arts and collaborations with artists, curators, institutions and cultural institutions, through an independent commitment that complements and continues the activities of Fondazione Zegna (the Zegna Foundation). ZegnArt Public considers contemporary art to be an experience that can stimulate comparisons between cultures, “fostering the exchange of knowledge and resources and supporting the growth of ethical and civic values. The public space can be experienced in different ways: it is a place of negotiation and exchange, a space of resistance and debate. The mission is to explore this range of possibilities in social and cultural contexts that are very different from one another. It is a long-term project that functions as an annual format of commissions and residencies based on the principle of dialogue and mutual exchange with developing countries and their institutions.”
This project will take form as an annual contest that will sponsor the onsite construction of a work of public art commissioned from an artist in mid-career from within the host country — in this case India — and created in collaboration with a local institution of international profile; the financing of a residency offered to a young artist (this time, Sahej Rahal) from the host country who is invited to spend a research period in Italy, a format based on the principle of dialogue and reciprocal exchange.
Kallat started using the rubber stamp as a medium “exactly a decade ago”; it was to her “part of the bureaucratic apparatus, it confirms and obscures identities. I was interested in including names — showing the resistance to people from outside the city, for instance. I have been making different bodies of work using rubber stamps; from portraits to a massive sculpture at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, D.C., with 30,000 of them, recording in a way monuments gone missing in India, with addresses and poem fragments interspersed. I have done other works incorporating names of people denied visas, etc. The stamp endorses or obliterates; takes away. Each work allows me to combine image and text, as well as names out of official records.”
There is immense potential in this direction, Kallat feels, “because one works out of archives — in this case, this project started when I was approached by the museum. Zegna’s aim was to work on one artist in India, one in Turkey and one in Brazil. They spoke of how they would like to do a large outdoor public piece. I find works in the public domain quite complex, sensitive to the environment, location, relationship with people inhabiting that space. I was glad that this one was in a space visited by people from all classes, without the work getting compromised.”
And since this piece would be in the natural environment of the zoo, Kallat “was looking for a natural organic form. In the recent past I had made a web using rubber stamps that I showed in Berlin; it was made with names of those denied visas to various countries. The form of the web was also through maps — I did an untitled map drawing at the Goteborg Biennale (Sweden) that showed a web of global entanglement.”
What fascinates Kallat is the changes that go into making a city what it is, the names that show constant change, an evolution from one culture to another. As she explains, “The web, in some sense, has an analogy with the city street map and all the small streets. I had this form but was struggling with what I could deposit on the form. I was reading up on the collection at Bhau Daji Lad. It is a museum that narrates some of the city’s developments, both the industrial and artisanal past. I was interested in the museum as a place in the state. Two things came together here — one was that street names changed from colonial names to local indigenous ones; and the other is that the web is also something that collects dust from the past, cobwebs. I wanted to work with some of those histories, when we are in a moment of so much transition.”
Kallat’s interest is to know about how “streets reflect the evolution of the city. What do names mean to people, apart from their association with certain places?” She is, in fact, working on “a series of conversations with people in different neighbourhoods and with experts who will talk about the city and the changes that have taken place and those associations. Of course, the web in its form is also quite fragile, a home (for the spider) and yet also a constricting place, a place of entrapment. So somewhere the work ties in ideas of the past and the present, the future, that moment of transition, etc. I wanted it to have a kind of physicality. It became a lot about form, weight mass, volume— features that sculpture must embody.”
And it was a mammoth task, where she needed to “work with a certain kind of engineering, structural engineers, architects, part studio enterprise, each piece has to be moulded, cast, laser cut with names that were recast into fibreglass, each piece with a metal rod inside, metal rope joining pieces together, welding, grinding, compressors, hand painting veins that look like wood”…and then, when the whole was ready, “hoisting it up was another experience — it was a mammoth task with eight pulleys, 45 men… finally we called for a crane!”
And that is how this spider spun her rubber stamp web.