Wallpaper: On Reena Kallat’s ZegnArt installation at Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Photo: mine. Don't nick without giving credit, even if most of the credit goes to iPhone and Flickr's filters.
Photo: mine. Don’t nick without giving credit, even if most of the credit goes to iPhone and Flickr’s filters.

In the May issue of Wallpaper*, there’s a piece I’d written a while back about artist Reena Kallat and the installation that she’s put up at Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.

This public art piece is actually commissioned by ZegnArt, which is the fashion brand Ermenegildo Zegna’s cultural activity arm. When I met Reena to talk about the work, she was in frantic mode. The installation was going to be rigged up on the facade of the museum in a couple of days, would they need cranes, what are the measurements, should we have noodles for lunch… the questions were endless. Somehow, in the midst of all that, Reena and I spent a few hours talking about work and art and life. To put the whole transcript here would mean a seriously massive post, so here are selected excerpts. I’ll put up the article once I’ve scanned it.

On Public, an international public art programme sponsored by ZegnArt.

ZEGNA’S PUBLIC will begin with working with one artist in India, one project in Turkey and one in Brazil. In each country, what they want to do is to help realise a work. It’s like an award instituted for each place. … What Zegna plans to do is partner with a local institution everywhere and in this case, they chose to work with Bhau Daji Lad Museum because of the contemporary art program. We don’t have another institution that’s doing an interesting program like this. But it’s also a city museum, it archives the artisanal and industrial past. That was my interest.

The fact that the museum itself had undergone a change of name, from being the Victoria and Albert Museum to the BDL, and that sort has its resonance in the city in terms of street names being changed from colonial names to indigenous names. I was interested at how else one could extend this, into looking at how streets reflect the imagination of the city, in what manner street names define the identity of the city, do street names mean anything to people, and so on.

On public art

I always find [public] art can be a real imposition. It’s used by all kinds of public and doesn’t really announce itself or asks for any consensual, it just comes and sits there. …

It’s also such a rare opportunity to work in public space [in India]. I’ve done larger pieces at say, the Kennedy Centre [the piece she made was a massive fallen pillar out of some 30,000 rubber stamps]. But these are opportunities that don’t come often being here [in India] and I think part of the artist’s thing is to be able to imagine, to think of this large canvas field which is difficult because you can’t be floating in a dream world when you know you can’t realise them. That’s what this project just allowed me to do.

On the piece she created for Public, which is a massive spider web made of huge rubber stamps.

This web is attached to the facade of Bhau Daji Lad Museum. If you go up to the rubber stamps dangling at eye level in the lower parts of the building, you’ll see there are street names written in English and Hindi. They’re all streets whose names have been changed because the original names were considered too colonial.

One was also looking at the city and its relationship to the museum and making a place in the city and how that relationship has changed. … The building itself is just so beautiful that I couldn’t think of anything else that would look like another decorative element on it.

The rubber stamp allows me to combine text and image and physicality. It has all the metaphorical underpinnings of being a bureaucratic apparatus, the idea of the meaninglessness of the bureaucratic which a lot of the names are, in that they have no real relationship to the city. Either they’re geographic or commemorative.

There’s a very close relationship with the museum because it has a lot of those colonial statues in their backyard, many of whose names the street names were based on. Those are there, you have the foundation stones that were laid to mark the city which was only the Fort area before the walls came down and the city expanded. So the whole vision of the city and what it meant comes together with the installation. And of course, the motif of the rubber stamp has other connotations. You know the web contains a sense of time, of space unused.

On art school and a sense of fraternity with other artists

We survived [JJ School of Art] because of our peers. The first couple of years, there’s the academic training. You learn something about figure study, face study, object drawing and so on. Because there’s a certain discipline, it’s not just about being handed over some wonderful secrets but the rigour of doing this every day, of trying to approach it in your own way every day. Not having an example to follow meant that you had to chart your own ways of doing it. Some of it helped, to the extent you weren’t swayed totally. But we were starved for visiting faculty, for practicing artists.

We had a military colonel who was good to me because I was a first class first student every year. I was very good about submitting all my assignments in time, doing all my work, doing it with sincerity. So they didn’t stop me from doing more than what was expected. There were others went against the grain, because they didn’t think they should suffer in this environment, including Jitish [Kallat]. We had clashes because of this. That’s how we met. We came from different views. I certainly saw his frustration at being in this environment that’s completely deadening and insular. So he did provocative things. He’d put up these posters, like one that said “I’m a potato because I have eyes.”

Today, all my contemporaries form this large campus. I am talking to them, responding to them, they inspire me. They could be in Delhi, Calcutta, wherever they are. The Indian art scene has really strengthened because of the interaction of artists being so strong and robust. I feel very connected to my contemporaries. Coming from artists I hugely admire, whether it was Nalini [Malani], Vivan [Sundaram], to Nilima [Sheikh] and Ghulam [Mohammad Sheikh], all of these stalwarts. Then Bhupen [Khakhar], Gieve [Patel] and coming down to Anita [Dube]; all the younger people, Sheela [Gowda], Bharti [Kher], Subodh [Gupta], everybody who’s in it. It’s not that you think of yourself as working in isolation. There’s no way that a creative moment is in isolation from everything else. It’s a byproduct of everything else.

On being ‘a mid-career artist’, which is was one of the qualifying criteria for ZegnArt’s Public

When I was being photographed, I was thinking of all my greys. Then I thought, “It’ll look more appropriate, I’m a mid-career artist.” Of course, I’ve been around about 15 years, more actually. If I have to think about my first public viewing, that was in 1994. I was in art school but we showed at NCPA. It was from work that was made at an artists’ workshop that Nalini Malani and Bhupen Khakhar were doing. It’ll be 20 years since then.

This idea of the young artist, even Atul [Dodiya] will be called a young artist and today he’s in his mid-50s, so he’s no longer that young. Or alternatively, someone will say “Oh those masters!” It’s ridiculous. You can’t be called a master. I have such an aversion to the ‘masters’ idea.

I find that you have much less pressure because you’re in a position to choose. It’s not that you’re doing it under compulsion of earning your bread and butter. You’re past that stage. I don’t see what you’re gaining when you lose your reputation.

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The Mag This Week

In DNA Sunday’s Books page, we had reviews of

Peter Smetacek’s Butterflies On The Roof Of the World: A Memoir, by Mita Ghose

Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, by Sanjay Sipahimalani

Jayant Kripalani’s New Market Tales, by Joanna Lobo

and last, but definitely not least, Amish’s The Oath of the Vayuputras, by R Krishna. For those interested, Krishna spoke to Amish about his Shiva Trilogy.

Elsewhere in The Mag, I wrote a tiny piece about Reena Kallat’s mahussive installation that will be up on Bhau Daji Lad Museum for the next few months. Kallat was commissioned to make this work by ZegnArt Public, a project sponsored by the fashion label Zegna. The local partner is Bhau Daji Lad. Here’s what it looks like, from a distance and up close.

Despite being properly swamped before the installation was actually put up — pullies weren’t enough; they needed a crane to get the web up ultimately, just as Reena had suspected — Reena did make the time to chat with me about her work. Here’s what she told me about making this particular piece and its location.

Bhau Daji Lad is a city museum, it archives the artisanal and industrial past. That was my interest. The fact that the museum itself had undergone a change of name, from being the Victoria and Albert Museum to the Bhau Daji Lad, that has its resonance in the city in terms of street names being changed from colonial names to indigenous names.

Reena’s installation is made up of outsized rubber stamps that have names of Mumbai streets on them, written in English and Hindi. She’s picked the names that were changed for not being sufficiently local. 

I was interested at how else one could extend this into looking at how streets reflect the imagination of the city. In what manner do street names define the identity of the city? Do street names mean anything to people?

Tasneem [Zakaria-Mehta, director of BDL Museum] was really courageous to take this on because it’s a heritage building and we’ll have to keep in mind all those issues. But she was very positive. There’s a very close relationship with the museum because it has a lot of colonial statues in their backyard, many of the people are those whose names the street names were based on. You also have the foundation stones that were laid to mark the city, which was only the Fort area before the walls came down and the city expanded.

Well, actually she told me lots more, but I’ll put that up at a later date. (Insert mysterious waggle of eyebrows here.)

In case anyone was thinking of scooping out quotes and passing them off as your own, please don’t. Partly because I’ve done this interview and also because Reena Kallat’s one of the most approachable artists you’ll ever come across. So get in touch with her, and enjoy interviewing her for yourself.

The Mag This Week: Shilpa Gupta

If you’ve made it to Bandra and not gone to Carter Road, shame on you. Because Carter Road Bandstand has a lovely piece of public art by Shilpa Gupta, titled “I Live Under Your Sky Too.” There’s a little interview with Shilpa in today’s DNA and here are a few photos of the installation.