Sunday 20 November 2022

Reena Kallat - Common Ground

Common Ground by Reena Kallat at Compton Verney, Warwickshire.

Kallat's work considers divisions and connections between land and people. Kallat's paternal family experienced dislocation during the partition of the Indian subcontinent, and much of her work interrogates ideas of nationhood, migration and equity.

In Common Ground, humankind's imprint on nature is one of the main themes: the pieces on display fuse collective memory with human and physical geography. Within many works electric cables, twisted to resemble barbed wire, become symbolic of our divided yet connected world. Against this backdrop, animals, birds and natural resources such as rivers are used to highlight an alternative and more harmonious way of being. Elsewhere, rubber stamps, eye charts, maps and constitutional texts are used to demonstrate the plight of the individual within the paraphernalia of the State, and the urgent need for a shared vision to create common ground.

Earth Families, 2017-2019, (gouache, charcoal ink and electric wire on Fabriano paper)

Reflecting on the making of this work Kallat says: 'I felt the need to turn to species other than the human race to tell us how to cohabit the planet, where the existence of one depends on the other or the disappearance of one species affects the other adversely'.

Although they resemble accurate zoological and botanical drawings, the species occupying this monumental globe are hybrids. The dualistic, conjoined forms of the trees and creatures, and the diptych format of the drawing itself, signal the delicate balance of our natural world, in which a quarter of mammals are currently at risk of extinction.

Leaking Lines, 2019-2020, (gouache, charcoal, electric wires, steel nails, embossed and later cut arches paper)

I have included one of six drawings of rivers around the world. The rivers represented are the Imkin, the Shatt-Al-Arab, the Nile, the Teesta, the Rhine, the Tagus and the Indus. This one is about the Teesta river where disputes over the appropriate allocation and development of the water resources of the river have remained a subject of conflict between India and Bangladesh for almost 35 years.

Rivers are a recurring motif in Kallat's work. Long manipulated by humans for irrigation, navigation and energy, rivers are also often sites of conflict: vital natural resources that cleave a way between nations. While the delicate coloration and statistics in Leaking Lines mimic geographical conventions, the imagery of barbed wire within the works suggest the political tensions that continue to exist around rivers across the world today.

Vortex, 2022, (electric wires and metal)

Following on from the previous work, Vortex brings together the tense borders formed by rivers. The wall drawing has been made using electrical cables, a material that is symbolic of human contact and the transmission of energy and ideas. Kallat began by tracing borders between countries that are in dispute over the sharing of their common river waters. Groups of these outlines were then repurposed and rearranged, with the lines coming together to form a thumbprint. The imprint serves as a reminder that human activities alter and continue to affect the landscape.

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Verso-Recto-Recto-Verso, 2017, 2019, (tied and dyed silk)

These ten dyed silk scrolls present the preambles to the constitutions (systems of law and governance) of countries that are politically partitioned or in coflict. The texts are reproduced in English as fragmented white dot patterns, set against cloth that has been dyed blue-black by artisans in the town of Bhuj in the Indian state of Gujurat. 

Throughout, Kallat has replaced words common to both preambles with braille, rendered as yellow dots, making the texts illegible to both the sighted and the blind. Using the metaphor of blindness, the inscrutability of the texts suggests a collective amnesia, resulting in a failure to understand and fight for the common values upon which these nations were first constituted.

The Constitutions are those of the USA and Cuba, Suan and South Sudan, India and Pakistan, North Korea and South Korea, Japan and China.

Water Book, 2022, (gouache and water-soluble pencil on arches paper accordion)

Unfolding across the concertina pages of the book are trace lines, borders between countries in conflict over their shared waters, that form a rippled 'portrait of a river'. These include water bodies such as the Imkin, the Shatt-Al-Arab, the Nile, the Teesta, the Rhine, the Tagus and the Indus. Working intuitively, Kallat has extended these man-made lines, forming a pattern that is both organic and artificial. The delicately wavering horizontal lines suggest the pulse and fragility of human life as measured in medical monitoring equipment.

Woven Chronicle, 2018, (circuit boards, speakers, electric wires and fittings, single channel audio, 10 mins)

Woven Chronicle expresses ideas of movement, displacement and change within our global society. In Kallat's map the world is positioned 'south up', shifting the psychological perspective and power dynamic, and echoing the conventions of early Islamic maps which looked up towards Mecca in the south. 

Lines of colourful electric cabling trace migration routes taken by different groups of people, from bound labourers to professionals. Visually referencing barbed wire, the cables are both a reminder of impenetrable fences and borders and a symbol of connectivity. The artist has described how: '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 ciilisational histories run far deeper than the political divisions'.

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Pattern recognition 2022, (29-part photocollage)

A passport is a portal to the world, but mobility is not equal for all. In this photo-based work Kallat addresses the shifting structures of influence and equality in international travel and access. 

A Snellen Eye Chart, with letters replaced by the maps of nations, provides a key. At the top of the pyramid is Japan, where in 2022 a passport grants its citizens access to 193 countries, while at the base are those countries with least global access and agency. 

Each frame appears like a page from a scrapbook, a fragmented sketch of a nation in which Kallat has layered found images culled from the internet and news channels. These reference the war in Ukraine, the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, mass demonstrations and protests, and the challenges wrought by Covid-19 and climate change Documenting cause and effect, Pattern Recognition embodies our divided yet connected world.





Colour Curtain (Between the Shores and the Seas), 2009, (acrylic paint, rubberstamps, metal)

Rubberstamps appear as ambiguous symbols of authority and officialcom in many works by Reena Kallat. In Colour Curtain each hand painted rubberstamp evokes a flag of a nation. These stamps individually suggest names of people whose visa applications have been rejected by vavious states or countries.

The acceptance or denial of visas is often based on perceptions of class, religion, gender, politics, social or economic status. Here the rubberstamps are strung together to form a sculptural barricade, resembling those found in airports. The sculpture thus becomes a monument to the current moment, which sees mass migrations of people set afloat by economic, political and environmental crises across the world, just as border controls are being tightened by governments - leaving migrants at the mercy of stringent visa regimes.

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Saline Notations, 2022, (digital print on Hahnehuhle Photorag archival paper)

Salt is an essential mineral for human existence and is often used for preservation of foodstuffs. Yet in this work the salt trail on the beach suggests impermanence, for when the tide comes in it will be washed away.

Formig the shape of a snail - a mollusc that always carries its home on its back - the text reads 'A man travels through the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it'. Expressing ideas of belonging, migration, nature and memory, Kallat created this poingnant photopiece as the closing work in the exhibition.

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