Autumn sees Compton Verney
showcase a decade of Indian artist Reena Saini Kallats work, while introducing a number of new pieces created especially for the Warwickshire art gallery and park.
From her studio in Mumbai, Kallat (b. 1973, Delhi) has become a world-renowned visual artist, with a particular interest in how political and social borders can act as divisions between countries and people such as the ongoing effects of the 1947 partition of India, which her family experienced.
Kallats thoughtful and compelling work distils the global and local through large-scale installations, drawing, photography, sculpture, and video. The largest exhibition of her work in the UK to date, this promises to be an immersive and thought-provoking show.
Common Ground opens with Chorus I (2015-19), a large interactive sculpture modelled on pre-radar devices, used in the Second World War, to pick up sounds of enemy aircraft. Acoustic mirrors, as they were evocatively known, were used by both sides of the conflict as early warning systems. In an act of radical yet playful subversion, Kallat has replaced the sounds of war with birdsong. Singing in unison, we hear the national birds of border-sharing nations that are either openly hostile to each other or share turbulent histories, such as the hoopoe of Israel and the Palestine sunbird, the robin (representing the UK) with lapwings from Ireland, and Mexicos crested caracara with the symbol of the USA, the eagle. Though appropriated as emblems by one or the other nation, Kallats work highlights how birds recognise no such identities, divisions or borders. Inhabiting both territories, they are denizens of a terrain that no individual or government can claim ownership of.
Rivers have been another recurrent motif in Kallats work since 2009-10. Over millennia, mankind has manipulated the course of rivers for irrigation, navigation and energy purposes. In several works on display at Compton Verney, Kallat highlights how bodies of water are often shared between opposing nations, including the Imjin between North and South Korea, the Danube between Serbia and Croatia, the Teesta which flows between India and Bangladesh, and the southern reach of the Shatt-Al-Arab river, which forms the natural border between Iraq and Iran. This series of tense margins come together to form one of Kallats newest works, the large-scale wall drawing Vortex. Formed from electric cables and reminiscent of a huge thumb print, Vortex alludes to the ever-increasing human imprint on the natural world.
Electric cables also form the monumental wall drawing, Woven Chronicle (2018). This seminal piece made with circuit boards, speakers, electric wires and fittings, and featuring single-channel audio - traces migration routes taken by diverse groups of people; from indentured labourers to professionals. A symbol of contact and a conduit for energy and ideas, in Woven Chronicle the electric cables are woven into the shapes of barbed wire, reminding us of borders and impenetrable fences. To draw attention to centuries of political map-making, Kallat has subverted the European Atlantic-centred map conventions and placed the world south-up, shifting the psychological perspective expressed in maps which traditionally show the north as dominant.
Other key works include Verso-Recto-Recto-Verso (2017-19), a large-scale installation comprising of ten fabric scrolls dyed by artisans in the town of Bhuj, in the Indian border state of Gujarat. Rendered with text, the scrolls present the preambles to the constitutions of countries politically partitioned, or in conflict. These include those of India and Pakistan, the USA and Cuba, Sudan and South Sudan, Bangladesh and India, North and South Korea. Displayed as a central spine along the length of gallery Y, the scrolls represent tenets promising to create nations where justice, liberty, equality and fraternity will prevail.
The text of each countrys respective constitution is reproduced in English, albeit as fragmented dot patterns, revealed in reverse against the cloth. In between the lines, words morph from the Roman alphabet to Braille, applied as yellow dots. By replacing written words with text in braille, Kallat has interrupted the constitutions and made them virtually unintelligible to either sighted or blind people. The work suggests a collective amnesia, and a failure to understand and fight for the common values upon which these nations were first constituted.
In the adjacent gallery, visitors will see a brand-new work, Seek the Distance (2022). This 28-part photocollage reflects on the global order through the notion of mobility and the essential, though unequal, necessity of a passport. The message here is, national borders do not always appear as fences or barricades erected on land but also as constraints produced through privileges and policy.
Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, migration caused by global conflicts, the effects of climate change and the lack of equal opportunities, Common Ground shines a spotlight on huge issues and invites the viewer to pause and reflect on not what divides us, but what unites us.
Reena says "The unannounced developments in the last two years amidst the pandemic have revealed not just our deep disconnect with the natural world but exposed new boundaries between nations, and new defences between the self and the world. Despite the many protests, conflicts and crises we're witnessing in the world today, perhaps we find common ground in our vulnerability against the uncontrollable forces of nature."
Abigail Viner, Director of Programme and Engagement Compton Verney says Compton Verney is very proud to host the largest UK solo show of the work of Reena Kallat. During the time we have been working with Reena to develop this extraordinary exhibition the themes and issues she explores in her work have come ever more urgent and closer to home. The exhibition makes powerful commentary on inequality, borders and divisions but also seeks commonality through our shared experience of the power of the natural world.