In “Common Ground” (on view through January 22, 2023), Indian artist Reena Kallat continues her exploration of the political and social borders that act as boundaries between countries and peoples. While her family’s experience during the partition of India in 1947 serves as one point of reference in her work, she looks globally, extending her gaze across the world to interrogate systems of communication, exchange, access, migration, power, and ecology everywhere her mind comes to rest. Firmly political at every level, “Common Ground” is the largest exhibition of Kallat’s work in the U.K. to date; it spans a decade of her practice and also includes new, specially made works.
Chorus I (2015–19), with its three large megaphone-like structures mounted on legs, greets viewers as soon as they enter the building. The sculpture takes its cue from the concrete sound, or acoustic, mirrors used to detect enemy aircraft and act as early warning devices in the pre-radar days of World War II. Chorus I subverts this function, however, by replacing the sounds of war with birdsong. In one sense, Kallat is bringing the outside in, but her strategy is more complex than that. The soundtrack features the songs of national birds from border-sharing nations with stormy, sometimes openly hostile relationships. The robin of the United Kingdom sings with the lapwing of Ireland, and the crested caracara of Mexico sings with the bald eagle of the U.S. Though Chorus I offers a comparatively gentle introduction to Kallat’s examination of contested borders of one sort or another, it is the sculptural work that speaks most clearly to the question.
Upstairs, the galleries are filled with more explicit installations, drawings, photographic and video works, and sculptures. Verso-Recto-Recto-Verso (2017–19), a series of 10 tied and dyed silk scrolls made by artisans in the town of Bhuji in the Indian border state of Gujarat, presents preambles from the constitutions of countries that are politically partitioned or in conflict. The texts (in English) are formed from white tie-dye dots set against an indigo background; the fragmented nature of the lettering makes it deliberately difficult to read. Frequently appearing words are written in Braille with yellow embroidered dots. Since these words cannot be touched, they are rendered illegible to the blind as well as the sighted. With its suggestion of double blindness, a shared forgetting of a nation’s common values, this is a particularly powerful work.
In Woven Chronicle (2018), one of Kallat’s best-known works, the world is turned on its head, with the south at the top of the map—a move that shifts power and psychological dynamics in interesting ways. Runs of attached electric wires gesture to communication lines, while appended barbs indicate difficulties and breaks in that communication. The wires spill down to the floor and into the space in a way that implicates the viewer as a participant in these communications.
In Colour Curtain (between shores and the seas) (2009), perhaps the most playful and serious work in the show, colorful hand-painted rubber stamps are strung together, conjuring images of national flags. But their rope-like configuration—hung on a stanchion—also alludes to a physical barricade that may be difficult to cross. Reminiscent of airport security barriers, Colour Curtain poignantly records the names of people denied visas, and its currency in these times of mass migration and border control is thrown into sharp relief. Kallat’s highly political work is not didactic but open and suggestive in a manner that leaves visitors asking themselves more questions about what a “Common Ground” might mean for humankind today.