Backlog: Kallat’s web

One of the first shows that I wrote about in Mumbai was a Kiki Smith exhibition that was held at Galerie Mirchandani Steinruecke. Back then, the idea of a big player of the international art arena stepping into the Indian art market’s sandbox left many of us aflutter with excitement. It’s only been about six years I think since Kiki Smith’s exhibition and maybe it’s because art isn’t my beat anymore, but in Mumbai at least, it feels like we’ve got a bit jaded. This March, Mumbai had a solo by William Kentridge, a solo by Shirazeh Houshiary, and a kind of mini-retrospective of Anita Dube’s work. That’s a pretty spectacular set of artists. How was no one excited by this? Maybe I’m not reading the right stuff. Did anyone jump up and down gleefully? I know Kentridge and Houshiary got some love in a couple of articles, but it’s not just about the one show. How often can you walk out with the chants of Houshiary’s “Breath” echoing in your mind as you look at the unblinking eyes in Anita Dube’s installations cluster and spread across walls, and then step into the tick-tock animated world of Kentridge’s art? Sprinkled among exhibitions these outstanding artists were shows like Parsis by Sooni Taraporevala and While Everyone Is Away by Nityan Unnikrishnan, and of course that massive public art piece by Reena Kallat at Bhau Daji Lad as well as Shilpa Gupta’s “I Live Under Your Sky Too“. I spend two days artily vagabonding around south Mumbai, and it was wonderful. Wonderful enough to make even a curmudgeon like me cheerful for about 24 hours. That’s pretty darn good.

Given I’m on holiday and there is some rather serious snow outside, I’m hoping to get some art posts done over the next few days. This seems simple enough but there’s this insanely good cheese begging to be eaten, so I’m having to show some serious restraint here by not putting the cheese out of its misery and instead trying to think about the gigantic web made of outsized rubber stamps that Reena Kallat has draped over Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. The reason I’m writing about that one to begin with is that I’ll be done writing about it quickest. Cheese and sunshine beckon. Oh wait. Sunshine just left. Cheese, however, is more faithful.

Perhaps one piece of cheese first. To show I’m appreciative of it being around and being yummy.

ZegnArt Public: Untitled (Cobwebs/Crossings) at Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Reena Kallat's installation at Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai.
Reena Kallat’s installation at Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai.

In India, public art is basically a polite phrase that attempts to attach a modicum of dignity to fabulous rubbish. Sculptors you’ve never heard of and whose works are simply crap pop up in different parts of the country. Examples of public art include the metallic sperm in New Delhi and the biologically warped view of childbirth in Mumbai. With this in mind, consider the fact that the fashion brand Zegna decided that they were going to sponsor a work of public art in Mumbai as part of their ZegnArt Public project, in which three “mid-career” artists will put up works of public art in first their hometowns and then the work would travel to other places. Reena Kallat’s piece (see photo) is the first of the ZegnArt Public projects and it’s all over the Bhau Daji Lad Museum till May 19th.

The piece is a massive installation shaped like a cobweb and made of outsized rubber stamps. Each rubber stamp is a little longer than my forearm. On the stamp are places in Mumbai that had colonial names and have since been rechristened to sound more Indian. The 50-0dd names are written in English and in Hindi on these massive rubber stamps that are reminiscent of government offices and bureaucracy. It’s an interesting device because in India at least, the bureaucracy is a curious beast. A lot of the time, it seems entirely irrelevant, particularly in a city like Mumbai that is powered mostly by individual industry, ambition and desperation. Yet, the bureaucracy are powerful. The rubber stamp that they wield gives them an official authority that can impact people. The street names are a good example of this strange mix. When a lot of the new ‘indigenous’ names were introduced, many snorted derisively. I remember coming across a contemptuous dismissal of the new names in both Kolkata — where it wasn’t necessarily indigenous, unless you consider Ho Chi Minh or Picasso Bengalis. Yes, there are streets named after both in Kolkata — and Mumbai. No one thought it would pick up. But today, there’s a generation that doesn’t find ‘Kolkata’ odd. They’re used to saying and writing it. Similarly in Mumbai, there are people who don’t stumble on CST and think of that mouthful of a name before saying VT or Victoria Terminus. And if that lot isn’t a critical mass today, the numbers will add up in the next few years and it’s very possible that these names will sound unwieldy or strange in the future. Bhau Daji Lad Museum itself is a great example. How many of its many visitors remember that it was first known as the Victoria and Albert Museum? Also, considering the bureaucratic wrangles that slowed down the restoration and opening of the museum, the fact that there are rubber stamps smothering the building may be rather fitting.

It’s been ten years since Kallat first used rubber stamps in her work and she’s found a variety of uses for these objects. They’ve been used to put together faces and patterns, like awkward jigsaw puzzle pieces. The bit where the text of the stamp is placed has been used in paintings. The work that Kallat has made for ZegnArt Public is actually a magnified version of a smaller piece that she called “Untitled (Cobweb/Crossings)” that she made a few years ago. My only complaint with the work is that the viewer can’t really see the names on the rubber stamps unless they know to look for it. So striking as it is, what you see more of are the backs of the handles and the bodies of the stamps, rather than the text. That’s a bit of a shame because without the text, the installation is just a spectacular but weird piece that doesn’t really connect with the city. It just hints at connections without explaining what these connections may be.

(You can see the detail that’s been lavished on these stamps, which Kallat has had fabricated. From the grain of wood being recreated in fiber glass to the text, there’s a lot of hard work that’s gone into creating the stamps.) 

Still, the sight of the enormous web clinging onto the facade of the museum is stunning. In 2011, Kallat’s husband Jitish put up one of the most intelligent and mischievous shows at the Bhau Daji Lad with Fieldnotes: Tomorrow Was Here Yesterday. I have to say, I was very curious to see what Kallat would do in Bhau Daji Lad and whether it would be more memorable than her husband’s show. Intentionally or otherwise, Kallat stayed away from the interiors and staked her claim upon the exterior of the building. Well played.

(All photos taken on the phone and at night, so forgive the graininess. Go and see it by day, if you’re in Mumbai. It’s quite a sight.)

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