Normally the good piece of poetry is described as a verse that cannot be translated. Because unlike prose that can easily converted into another langu

The Anatomy of a City – In Conversation with Naiza Khan
Tazeen Qayyum
Adeela Suleman

Normally the good piece of poetry is described as a verse that cannot be translated. Because unlike prose that can easily converted into another language, in a poem words are embedded with ideas in such a way that it is difficult – rather impossible to separate the two. Simon Leys discusses this: “The ‘idea’ of a poem is present only as it takes form in words; a poem doesn’t exist outside its verbal incarnation, any more than an individual exists outside his skin”.1


In a similar sense some works of art include a synthesis of idea and form, or subject and material. In these the matter used by artist is not merely a means to fabricate an image, but contributes to create and convey meaning in the work of art. Actually one can not delink the choice of material from an artist’s concerns, because like the ideal combination of body and soul, both turns into a single entity.


The art of Reena Kallat is an example of this blend, as a range of substances such as salt, sand, stamps and fabric, thread, barbed and electricity wires become potent parts of the works that deal with the power, past, heritage and the history of ideas. In her installations and mixed medias, Kallat questions the constructs of national boundaries, and critiques the historic truths. However these entities are addressed through a language that is poetic, formal and invites/introduces a range of interpretations. For instance salt is an important segment of her imagery. It is spread on the shore of Arabian Sea in Mumbai, in the form of a text that provokes a person to walk, read, stumble, erase and engage in various other ways. Not only this, but several other works too include natural materials. This preference for certain matter intrigues the viewer and raises some questions:


Question: Can you please share your inspiration for using multiple materials, such as salt arranged in the form of text on seashore? Is it connected to the political history – the salt movement of Gandhi or addressed as other metaphors?


Answer: Salt, an essential ingredient of sustenance and of life itself is intimately linked with its capacity to preserve. Here, it perhaps serves as a reminder of our fragile relationship with the natural environment. The conditions under which these works are made are constantly changing, where momentarily an idea is made manifest, shared; after which it is lost (the photograph serving as an evidence of these texts in salt before they dissipate or dissolve back in the sea). The text based works in salt have an element of surrender; their submission to the variables of nature incorporates time as a crucial element (in their making). On the beach I work with tidal calendars, sunset timings that become my collaborators as I have to time the laying of the salt when the sea recedes during low tide, only to see the salt return to the sea, as the tide gently carries back what belongs to the sea. I often think of our relationship to the sea and the salinity levels of the body, having evolved from the Precambrian seas.


However coming to your question about its connection with the subcontinental history, I do think of how through an act of resistance, a pinch of salt helped bring down an Empire, while here perhaps salt serves as resistance to forgetting, as preservative symbolically extending the life of these texts.


Question: In the body of works such as ‘Synapse’, ‘Untitled (Cobweb/Crossing)’, ‘Untitled (Knots and Crossing)’, ‘Measurement from Evaporating Notions’, and ‘Cycle of Eternal Recurrence’, one feels that the artist is investigating the institution of state; may that be through the text of (Indian) Constitution mixed up in front of person ‘looking’ hard, or in the shape of rubberstamps joined together or with their imprints. These represent and reinforce the power of state. Do you think your work talks to power and becomes a critique on the hegemony of power?


Answer: The rubberstamp is very much a part of the state apparatus, that can either endorse, legitimize or has the power to make illegal that which does not get sanctioned by the state. Through the work I think of our relationship as citizens vis a vis the state and how it plays out in our everyday life through the inclusions and exclusions in the democratic process. The Preamble of the Constitution of India, a text I’ve worked with a few times, serves as a reminder of the promise of democracy against which we might discover how these rights are often infringed upon.


“Synapse” was conceived when I was getting my sons eyes tested a few years ago and the doctor kept prodding him to read out the alphabets, emphasizing clarity through a blurred vision. Studies indicate that the eyes see an object in the manner in which the mind interprets it. As a result no two people see anything exactly alike. We create meaning through a mental bridge that the mind forms to conceptually complete the gap. The video probes the citizens relationship with the most inclusive document, the Preamble of the Constitution of India, that commences with the lines ‘We the people of India..’, through an ironic play on legibility. The traditional Snellen eye chart, meant to measure visual acuity, in this case happens to have been replaced by a variation comprising of the scrambled letters of the preamble of the Indian constitution. The hesitations, uncertainties, anxieties and misreadings, leading to a distortion of this seminal text, is central to this piece.


In “Measurement from Evaporating Oceans” the concentric rings of numerical figures, announcing the dates of independence wars fought in various corners of the world, refers to the circularity of time. This history, fragile and prone to be forgotten, is rendered through the frailty of salt. The hand and the instrument seem to render futile our attempt to try and measure or quantify history. While in ‘Cycles of Eternal Recurrence’ I was thinking of how human societies tend to get governed and structured by apparatuses and yet, are at the mercy of uncontrollable and overpowering natural forces.


Question: Taking the concept of power further you have created maps. In today’s world maps have become intriguing entities. Traditionally these define areas, which share a language, race, religion, geography, political system or economic activities. Maps also represent a world dissected and divided by colonial powers, but with the advent of Internet and other electronic means of communication, the national boundaries are becoming less visible or effective. Do you think your work invokes the brittleness of boundaries, may those are imaginary or in real, through which thoughts infiltrate? Or these can be read as mark of a temporary arrangement subject to change with the passage of time and change of market economy?


Answer: The accelerated flow of people, currency and information across the world have produced new forms of cultural exchange and see us all as entwined in a symbolic web as it were. In Woven Chronicle, electric wires form the drawing of the map that trace migration patterns globally, where multitude of actors interact without knowledge of the overall situation. While technology and commerce are blurring geographic boundaries, there are inherent contradictions that the electric/barbed wires seem to suggest both as conduit and barrier, serving on the one hand as channels of transmission and yet on the other as a form of fencing. By changing the instrument of this quasi-cartographic drawing from a pencil line to a wire, I’m interested in rendering the map as a dynamic form animated by the streaming of data, energy, currency and people. The audio component resonates with high-voltage electric current sounds drowned within deep-sea ambient sounds, slow electric pulses, the hum of engaged tones from telecommunications, mechanical-sounding drone, factory sirens, ship horns intermingle with migratory bird sounds.


My more recent body of work titled Porous Passages builds on ideas of unison and estrangement, on confluence and conflict through politically partitioned countries that often have to share their natural world and thus various natural resources. While national symbols are intended to unite people, they often become points of contestation and conflict, when countries try and monopolize these by claiming ownership; on occasion they even become the root cause of separation.


In Hyphenated lives the new hybridised species of birds and animals, trees and flowers are a coming together of what individually get foregrounded as national symbols from countries now partitioned, birds like (Chukar and Peacock in the case of Pakistan and India, or the Hoopoe for Israel and the Palestinian Sunbird), animals such as (the red deer and lion in case of Ireland and UK, or the Markhor and Tiger for Pakistan and India), trees (Sessile Oak and Royal Oak in case of Ireland and UK, Olive for both Israel and Palestine) flowers (Magnolia and Hibiscus for North and South Korea respectively or the Lotus and Jasmine for India and Pakistan). Being native to the same land they symbolically seem to unify the nations they represent, offering a peek into such a moment of unison, in what seems to be either an evidence from the past or propositions for an imaginary future.


In Siamese Trees and Half Oxygen, closely woven forms of the Banyan tree and the Deodar tree, both designated as national trees of India and Pakistan respectively are seen growing like conjoined twins, with one half being formed by each. They are perhaps evidence of the defiance of nature in accepting the artificially imposed divisions on the ground. Through the analogy between the human body and nature in Half Oxygen these trees permeate lungs, while in Anatomy of Distance the woven wires become a spinal column, taking the contorted shape of the ‘Line of Control’ drawn between the two warring nations.


Not only language, but the language of art seems to be a crucial concern for Reena Kallat as she fabricates her visuals and ideas with her interventions into a system of regularities ad conditionings. Her work, in one way, presents a distinct example of a creative person’s impact on public: mainly because for two factors: First and foremost it does not employ a vocabulary that is market oriented, gallery dependant or object specified. Due to its formal reverberations it breaks the barriers between art and its audience (something that can be viewed through the artist’s constant questioning of language as the bearer of state truths) but the work also deals with the concept of identity. As Amartya Sen states that a human being can have multiple and conflicting identities at the same instance2; Kallat examines the ‘normal’ practice of creating an identity for a racial, religious, regional – or commercial cause, and not only identity but all other ‘truths’ are continuously questioned in the art of Reena Kallat.





1. Leys, Simon. The Hall of Uselessness. New York Review Books, New York, 2013
2. Sen, Amartya. Identity and Violence. Allen Lane: UK, 2006


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