Blind Spots: Reena Saini Kallat
Reena Saini Kallat’s work is an extended and productive engagement with two starkly opposed conditions: schism and conflict on the one hand; and, on the other, hybridity and synthesis. This long-standing preoccupation emerges from the artist’s inheritance: her family background connects her to the historic trauma of the Partition. Over the course of her two-decade-long practice, she has expanded her concerns far beyond 20th-century South Asia to embrace a variety of situations where division, polarisation and antagonism have been unleashed through the politics of empire, identity or revanchism. Saini Kallat’s practice combines a rhythm of ongoing, intensive research into the history of violence with a continuous improvisation around media, ranging from gouache and charcoal to copper wire and acoustic machinery.
In the present exhibition, the artist presents five key works or bodies of work that she has been developing over the last decade. ‘Leaking Lines’, in which we may discern an acknowledgement of Zarina Hashmi’s decades-long meditation on the wounds inflicted by such arbitrarily drawn borders as the Radcliffe Line, focuses on the imposition of territorial boundaries that define nations, states, unequal trucial arrangements, buffer zones or unstable ceasefire scenarios. Both imaginary and concrete, such boundaries assume an ideological and psychic reality, whether as guarantees of defence or foci of resentment. Eventually, they ensure the perpetuation of mistrust and warfare. The six-channel video installation, ‘Blindspots’, carries the questioning of differences to the foundational charters of nations, comparing them through the optic, quite literally, of the optometrist’s chart, playing up the essential similarity of their ideals, in tragic contrast to their strategic choices.
In the audio-sculpture, ‘Chorus’, Saini Kallat invokes the acoustic mirrors that were used, before the advent of radar technology, to pick up aircraft engine sounds and estimate the location and approach of enemy squadrons. However, 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.
In ‘Cleft’, Saini Kallat offers us an imaginary atlas of reconciliation, a Noah’s Ark populated by hybrid species. Every animal, plant and bird in this vision is a composite, crafted from denizens of the natural world that have been commandeered as national symbols of contending entities. In ‘Shifting Ecotones’, the artist takes her questions further into nature, dwelling on the pivotal role of water in conflict: the river or the sea as boundary condition, natural gift instrumentalised into resource or bargaining counter, constrained by treaties and misguided irrigation schemes, threatened by dams, barrages, blockades, even while – as we sense – a global climate disrupted by reckless human intervention has other, more apocalyptic futures in store for the currents and estuaries. Reena Saini Kallat’s art appeals, in contrast to geopolitical demarcations, for another kind of limit: a limit to endemic demonisation, internecine feud, and the pursuit of mutual annihilation.