Woven Chronicles: In Conversation with Artist Reena Saini Kallat

Don’t miss this brilliant art installation on migration by Indian artist Reena Saini Kallat in Downtown Vancouver.

Reena Saini Kallat Vancouver installation

Reena Saini Kallat’s installation in Vancouver. Photograph courtesy Indian Summer Festival.

Both Mumbai and Vancouver are populated with people who can trace their migrant roots back to cities all over the world. This sense of movement exudes freedom, something that Indian artist Reena Saini Kallat both encompasses, and challenges in her free public art installation “Woven Chronicle” now on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Offsite space on West Georgia Street and Bute in Vancouver.

Kallat’s work has been exhibited in international exhibits such as the Mori Art Museum (Tokyo), Kennedy Center (Washington D.C.), Satchi Gallery (London), The National Museum of Contemporary Art (Seol), and now Vancouver.

Jugni Style chatted with Kallat about “Woven Chronicle,” her personal experience with the themes in her work, and the city of Vancouver.

Tell us about “Woven Chronicle.”

The work actually evolved in 2011, when I was invited to be part of the Goteborg International Biennial of Contemporary Art. Curated by Sarat Maharaj, it was called Pandemonium – Art in a Time of Creativity Fever. Sarat was referring to John Milton’s essay Paradise Lost, which reflects on chaos and disorder that is at the same time about the emergence of new worlds and the conditions that allow for transformation and creative emergence. I was interested in working with yarn, the trade between India and Sweden and from thinking of yarn, I eventually arrived at working with electric wires, or cables, that would be treated like yarn, to form the work. So I began tracing migrant routes, historically going from indentured labour, to the different kinds of migrants, whether they’re settlers, contract workers, professionals, asylum seekers or refugees. While wires are meant to be transmitters of energy, flows of exchange and ideas, they in this case are converted into barbed wire and cables, and fencing. These kind of inherent contradictions that the work seems to hold within it was something I was interested in working around.

Why did you showcase this piece in Vancouver?

For Offsite we had been discussing a few works, and Diana, the curator of this project, felt that somehow this piece had a resonance with Vancouver, which is most diverse in terms of ethnicity’s, and is really a point of convergence. This piece also has a very strong sound component, which comprises of high voltage electric current, drowned with deep sea drone sounds, there are factory sirens, ship horns, communication tones like engaged tones, and some migrating birds, so it’s a very layered soundscape. And I now understand what [Diana] meant, because to me, public art has always been something that I’m very weary about, because I often feel that it can be an imposition on space, unless it really is sensitive to the environment around it, to the people who inhabit the neighbourhood. And I think its a great way to do these temporary exhibitions, which are constantly changing but it also allows people to have a say in what they like, what they dislike, it allows them to question things. So for me it’s always been really important to be able to work beyond the defined perimeters of the art community, and see the interface with the larger public. I think the water body adds a completely new dimension to the piece and the way you sort of [laughs, pointing out of the window at the installation, where a few people are chasing each other through the body of water] access and experience this piece because of how and where it’s located, at the crossroads of where people converge.

There are quite a number of people involved in creating your work. In your piece, “Untitled Cobweb” you have names of people who have been denied Visas into other countries actually printed on the stamps that make up the cobweb. You also have some interactive pieces where people become part of the work. With “Woven Chronicle,” a group of migrant workers helped you physically build the map. How essential are these people to your overall work, and where did the idea for collaboration come from?

It first began in some early pieces, like in 2003 or 2004, when I started working with the rubber-stamp, which is so much a part of the bureaucratic apparatus that confirms, and obscures, that is a way of endorsing or obliterating. But when I started working with that medium, I was often working out of official records. So right from sourcing names, to forming lists, cataloging and customizing rubber stamps to then painting each piece with 3 coats of paint, and placing them together to be pasted, I realized that I needed help, because I was taking 3 months to do one piece. So now I do have a team of 3 people in the studio, one of whom has been with me for like about 8, 9 years, maybe even 10. So I think it is really grew out of the nature of the work sort of calling for assistance.

I’m usually careful about using the word “collaboration” because it’s not an equal platform for creative input as much, so I don’t always call it collaborative work unless it empowers the person whose working alongside me to be as much a part of the decision making process. But this interactive element has really grown in some pieces unintentionally. The more recent salt pieces I did in Korea or in other places, due to the language barrier, people would just assume that they must join in and I thought that was so nice. It wasn’t planned as something where I would invite people to come but they would just watch me working on the salt text, and even the performative element was not necessarily intended, you know  I just wanted to make the text and allow it to dissipate and disappear, and I wanted to disappear, but while I’m making it people tend to gather, and join in.  Its really lovely how unexpectedly in the public space things take on a new life, the conditions around which do happen that are beyond your control, and what is nice is when you actually surrender to the conditions around you, and are more fluid and organic about how things develop and take new forms, and that’s perhaps one of the things I enjoy most about working in these spaces with these people, who are not necessarily from the art community, but who really come forward and enrich the work.  I often make this analogy between art that gets shown within the confines of the white cube with a restricted audience against that which is presented to a larger public, to a potted plant living in artificial light indoors and one that grows in its natural surroundings, nourished by sunlight and all of the other conditions that shape the work.  I almost feel like I’m a catalyst, where things just emerge out of their own.

Artist Reena Saini Kallat in Vancouver

Reena Saini Kallat standing in front of “Woven Chronicle” at Vancouver Offsite.

There are some common themes throughout your work, themes of movement, transformation, and a longing for a sense of home. This is something that can certainly apply to Indians living in India, following events like The Partition, or colonialism, and the ramifications of those. It’s also something that resonates with the South Asian diaspora, this sense of longing for a home that isn’t there anymore, that maybe isn’t the same, or that is simply not accessible to them. What’s your experience with this feeling of longing, and how do you see this theme operate throughout your work?

The sense of belonging for me lies very much in India. I’m very rooted there because I’ve almost lived all my life in India, even if I travel quite a bit, that’s where my home is. I’m not sure if it’s really this longing to get back, but I guess there are several works that touch upon this lingering sense of past within the present, and our own changing relationship with that. So it’s not really a sense of nostalgia but a sense of continuity from the past to the present. I lost my mother when I was very young, and yet I felt she continued to play a very strong role in my life way after she left. I often think of how certain events, people, places, continue to have an effect, and play a role in our lives way beyond the time they’ve left us, like they’ve outlived their lives. So some of the text based pieces that I’ve been doing with salt on the beach, I think of as a kind of extension of the life of these texts. While salt is an essential ingredient for sustenance itself, I’m most interested in the fact that it’s a preservative and one that extends life. Of course, people have made their own associations with Gandhi’s salt act and the kind of resistance that was put forth to the British through the salt act, and in a sense I think of this as my own little way of resistance towards forgetting, through extending the life of these texts. Some of these more recent texts are based on poems from regional Indian languages written by women poets, translated into English. And I guess there is the element of surrender, where you are completely left to the forces of nature, working in collaboration with tidal calendars, and sunset timings to make these works. I often think of our own relationship to the seas having evolved from the pre-Cambrian seas. And yet the salt comes from the sea, its a kind of return to the sea, there is that cyclical nature of things which very much finds its way in my work.

Reena Saini Kallat vancouver art exhibit

You mentioned that the map and the wire components of “Woven Chronicle” trace migration and trade routes.
There is also another side to this, where the barbed wire can be seen as a blockade of sorts, in our idea of a cosmopolitan world, and this idyllic vision of multiculturalism that we seem to have, even though there are flaws that are ingrained in the system that prevent it from being ideal.

What was the intended purpose of the barbed wire map?

I mean it’s exactly as you said, on the one hand it symbolizes these connections, and yet on the other we know that there are inequities. It’s not necessarily this kind of all-inclusive space as we’d like to think, there are several impediments to cross, and deep rooted prejudices to overcome, so it’s as much about these obstacles. Our own experience in the city of Mumbai, where we grew up with the understanding that we live in the most religiously diverse yet secular environment, has changed in the last 2 decades. I mean the ’92 riots, 2002 riots, really put our beliefs into question. One of the key purposes I use electric wires is for these inherent contradictions that it holds, as transmitters of energy and ideas, as something that is meant to be a conduit/carrier, is also then converted into a barrier (with barbed wires).

Ironically, now even as cultures are blending with a greater movement of people and information than any other moment in human history, borders have become more and more controlled and monitored than ever before. So there are many layers of contradictions this web of entanglements holds within it, which are as much a reality as these connections.

Offsite: Reena Saini Kallat is presented by the Vancouver Art Gallery in association with Indian Summer Festival. Vancouver Art Gallery Offsite is located on West Georgia Street between Thurlow and Bute. The installation will be up until October 12, 2015, and admission is free. To see more of Reena’s work, you can visit her website at reenakallat.com.