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NEW DELHI — Hybrid creatures in legends and myths speak to our collective imagination as a tool to perceive that which cannot be perceived or understood. These tricksters, transformers, shamans, and sorcerers construct a language of concealment and revelation, embodying dualistic forces. Reena Saini Kallat’s series Hyphenated Lives speaks to these ideas and offers a point of entry into the artist’s personal exploration of the ways that identities are perceived and constructed. The series is part of a body of work first shown at Gallery Chemould in Mumbai and currently on view at Nature Morte in New Delhi. The exhibition, Porous Passages, covers 8 years of Saini Kallat’s practice, encompassing a wide range of media including drawing, photography, sculpture, video, and text-based installations.
The Hyphenated Lives series includes mutated fauna and flora that manifest as creatures subverting their prescribed roles as icons of nationhood and state. These are not mere half-and-halfs, but include figures stitched together from endangered animals, emphasizing the inherent irony in upholding them as symbols while their populations dwindle due to man’s greed. In “Hyphenated lives (Ti-Khor)” (2015), the artist combines the Bengal tiger and the Markhor, a species of wild goat found in northeastern Afghanistan. The hyphen functions here both as constructed language and as paradoxical metaphor. In other works, Saini Kallat includes what look like anatomical drawings with notes and markings scribbled on the paper.
The drawings and their presentation alongside a natural history museum-style display of documents, postcards, and fossil-like sculptures of unfired clay, allude to the many uses of remnants as objects. The work situates the viewer simultaneously in the past and present while these morphed futures shift our understanding of place, time, and geography — factors that are crucial in our constructions of social, historical, cultural, and political values. By suturing parts together with barbed wire, Saini Kallat acknowledges the implicit violence in the act of joining. In doing so, her work poses prickly questions: Do these creatures exist in order to emerge as something separate to fantasy or reiterate that we are living in one? Does their existence and our engagement with it lift the burdens of history and the apathy with which these lines were drawn by the colonizer? Is it disrupting the contemporary fascist from perpetuating mutated forms of the sociopolitical in our present and his posited futures for a people?
The Hyphenated Lives series speaks to the way social values are constructed. Interpreting it as myth is one way of entering the work, but on closer inspection it is also rooted in a very precarious position, at once in perverse fantasy and in the present reality we passively consume daily. It is neither a fable nor an escape. Saini Kallat’s perversity is gentle, subtle, and transient, functioning in a different tenor from the erotic, polymorphous, and disorienting hybridity of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, for instance.
Saini Kallat’s perversity has its own complexities and they are visible, albeit in a restrained way, as a snide undercurrent in works like “Synapse” (2011). In this nine-minute video, 14 individuals attempt to read the letters on a Snellen chart at an ophthalmologist’s clinic. The chart, used to measure visual acuteness, is instead employed as a means to highlight our stubborn rootedness in particular notions of identity. What is being read out is a scrambled version of the Preamble of the Indian Constitution. “Synapse” speaks to perceptions, cognition, language, and the construction of freedom. It also highlights an internalized apathy toward recognizing our role in perpetuating corrupted state systems.
Saini Kallat’s practice is a set of codes that re-work or shift the equilibrium of how we perceive and understand prevailing social and political orders. What distinguishes each body of work is the degree and depth of its subtle provocations. This is stronger in pieces like “Synapse” and “Saline Notations (Echoes)” (2015), as opposed to the palpable and familiar irony of her hybrid creatures. One could argue that there is by now a tendency for a literal interpretation of visual metaphors like those in the Hyphenated Lives series, given that ideas of identity and nationhood demand a different kind of reimagining. However, the gentle gesture of the ephemeral, where the waves of the ocean wipe away a monologue marked on the sand in salt, in “Saline Notations (Echoes),” is far more lucid and holds a power that goes straight to the point — lines, borders, and identities are solvent.