Jasleen Kaur finds what is sacred in the profane. For her exhibition of new sculptural and sound works at Glasgow’s Tramway (on view through October 8, 2023), she has created something akin to a secular temple enlivened with personal memories, historical touch points, and serendipitous cultural moments that have helped shape her identity. As the exhibition title “Alter Altar” suggests, this is a place of fluidity, of ideas and events, of religious ritual alongside the unpredictability of everyday life.
Kaur was brought up in a Sikh household, living with her first-generation migrant parents in the Pollokshields area of Glasglow (not far from Tramway), and the exhibition references Sikhism, “Scottishness,” and family life in numerous ways. A large patterned carpet centered on the floor of Tramway’s cavernous space recalls the kind of rug you might find in a home or a place of worship (fittingly, the purpose-built Guru Granth Sahib Gurdwara is the gallery’s next-door neighbor). A suspended ceiling made of see-through Perspex tiles hovers above the carpet, peppered with objects referencing important memories and moments in Kaur’s life (she was born in 1986), as well as religious and political icons such as 20th-century Sikh militants Bhagat Singh and Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. There are newspaper clippings, turmeric-stained fake nails, a bottle of the Scottish soft drink Irn Bru, a book on “traditional Indian holistic therapies,” and an orange Nike tracksuit with “Can’t Do It” printed down one leg. In the exhibition notes, we’re told that this work, Begampur, takes its name from a vision of a “casteless, classless, stateless society.” Indeed, there is something both rooted and restless about this carefully arranged collection, with its to and fro of tradition and lived experience.
The sense of the inherited and the discovered, of passed-down ways of living and new cultural understandings, continues with Sociomobile—a red Ford Mk3 Escort Cabriolet XR3i covered with an oversize white cotton doily. The vehicle, Kaur says, represents her dad’s “first car and migrant desires,” while the crocheted doily makes reference to empire, the cotton trade, and the textile mills in Britain where many people from the Indian subcontinent came to work. A car sound system playing short blasts of music ranging from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to ’90s rave seems to signal a generational shift while giving a familial nod to Kaur’s older brother and the home-built speakers he used to make.
Sound, in fact, plays a crucial role throughout the exhibition, creating an echoey, sonic pathway as viewers move through the space. (Untitled) Harmonium features an automated Indian harmonium that fills the gallery with a melodious hum; in The Chorus, a series of five kinetic, hand-like sculptures tap out rhythms on “worship bells”; and Yearnings consists of Kaur talking and singing, her voice delivered through six speakers positioned on pillars underneath the “sky.” Layered with personal and political meaning, these works foreground ideas of cultural mutability and cooperation, of common cause rather than conflict.
Working with a space as large as Tramway’s is always a challenge, but Kaur’s combination of sound installation and sculpture makes a virtue out of the vastness. She has created a genuinely contemplative environment that, with uncompromising humanity and a touch of playfulness, invites you to linger—and perhaps, in your own individual way, to worship a while.