Reena Saini Kallat's Switzerland debut poses questions about disaster and conflict

The Mumbai artist's museum show explores the impact of politics, colonialism and climate change

Woven Chronicle (2011-2023) is a wall drawing depicting the impact of humans on their environments. Photo: David Aebi
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"While rivers have been the lifeblood of civilisations, their use as a shared natural resource between countries often results in conflict. Yet, rivers don’t recognise political borders and other man-made demarcations and continue to nourish states on both sides," says Reena Saini Kallat.

The internationally celebrated Indian conceptual artist is speaking about Deep Rivers Run Quiet – her sprawling ongoing exhibition at Kunstmuseum Thun, Switzerland. Her first solo museum show in the country, Deep Rivers Run Quiet draws our attention to the perils of climate change and its geopolitical impact on both human communities and the planet itself.

Kunstmuseum Thun is a former opulent Art Deco hotel that was converted into a museum in 1949. Museum director Helen Hirsch tells The National the museum's location on the Aare River's banks makes it the perfect setting for an exhibition on this topic. "Climate change is a serious issue in Europe as well. The Alps, for instance, are becoming more and more fragile. Our glaciers are melting and we have frequent landslides.

"While working on Deep Rivers Run Quiet, I realised how relevant the exhibition is for European people equally," Hirsch adds.

The museum has allocated 11 galleries to the show, which opens with a series of powerful drawings. Throughout the works, Kallat compares the river's currents to the ticking urgency of the electrical activity of ECG equipment. The waterscape and the original line drawings appear to be interwoven, interrupting and enriching one another at the same time.

"In these works, I depict the artificial lines that politically divide regions and intersect with the natural form of the river that flows between them, such as Imjin between North and South Korea," says Kallat.

"What interests me in the juxtaposition with the painted form of the river is how these lines of separation are symbolically transformed, dissolving in the universal solvent as nature reclaims, regenerates and restores," explains Kallat, who first became interested in the subject of water crisis after participating in the River Biennale at the Campbelltown Art Centre, Sydney in 2009-2010. One of her earliest environmental-focused works, 2 Degrees, was shown at the event.

The water dispute between India and Pakistan, for instance, can be traced to the partition in 1947. "Pakistan gained the use of the three western tributaries – Indus, Jhelum and Chenab – and India, the three eastern ones – Ravi, Beas and Sutlej.

"Even though the Indus Waters Treaty signed in the 1960s created an understanding of how water would be shared between the two countries, climate change and transforming water usage patterns in the Indus river basin have placed increasing stress on the foundations of the treaty," Kallat explains. "The rivers may have multiple names, but the waters essentially remain the same."

Meanwhile, some of the most engaging works in Deep Rivers Run Quiet – the title is a nod to Japanese author Haruki Murakami's Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – are drawn from themes that Kallat has been honing for years. These include political borders, geographical maps, migration, national identities, the idea of homeland, colonialism's chequered legacy and the tumultuous India-Pakistan Partition of 1947, the effects of which continue to haunt much of the Indian subcontinent.

Woven Chronicle (2011-2023) is among the exhibition's most fascinating pieces. At first glance, this wall drawing seems to be simply another map of the world. But look closely and you will see that it is based on migratory paths, representing the impact of humans on their environments, using a colour code for the ecological footprint of each country.

"When a population’s ecological footprint exceeds its biocapacity, the region has a biocapacity deficit. If, however, the carbon footprint of a region is smaller than its biocapacity, that means that the people there consume less than their biosphere regenerates and absorbs, which hints at the region's ecological credit," says Kallat.

"The map distinguishes between the high standard of living in the North and the lower standard in the South, whereby the traditional roles are reversed. The South does relatively well here, while the footprint of the Global North significantly outstrips its biocapacity,” says Kallat, who lives and works from Mumbai and is married to fellow artist Jitish Kallat.

Woven Chronicle was made using electric cables, which are recurring motifs in Kallat's art, along with fences and barbed wires. Perhaps, for Kallat, whose paternal family was displaced from Lahore during the Partition of 1947, these elements are symbolic of violence, while also highlighting an intrinsic connection that all humans share.

The artist acknowledges that there's an inherent contradiction in wires. "On the one hand, they transmit information and are forms of communication for the modern world, but they also serve as barriers and are used to keep outsiders at bay."

In Siamese Trees (2018-19), she playfully combines botanical studies with electric wires once again, a twisty installation that ultimately bears the shape of a human lung, underlining our interdependence with trees as a source of oxygen, whereas in Enemy Properties (2019), a four-channel video projection, we see buildings left behind by residents on both sides of the Indian and Pakistani borders in the aftermath of the events of 1947.

Recreated using salt outlines, Kallat says she was captivated by the notion of how architectural remnants become "a projection of historical hostility, leading us to reflect upon the use of 'enemy' as an adjective to describe these inanimate buildings, thereby almost personifying them."

One of the buildings recalled here includes the storied home of Muhammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founding father, located in Mumbai that incidentally, the government of India reclassified recently as "not an enemy property" anymore. If there's one thing both Indians and Pakistanis yearn for, it is peace.

Kallat's Chorus I (2015-2019) is modelled on devices used to detect the sounds of enemy aircraft during the Second World War, but the artist, who had shown this work previously at the Sharjah Biennial 15, replaces the sounds of war with birdsong from seemingly rival countries singing gleefully. In a similar vein is another work titled Hyphenated Lives (2014-2022), which reimagines harmony between India and Pakistan and other regions.

She conjures up her own parallel universe in Hyphenated Lives, demonstrating the need for world peace. The series takes national birds, animals and flowers from nations with troubled relations and gives them a hybrid handshake. By effectively merging one half of the animal from one country with its counterpart from the neighbouring country (including a hybrid of an Israeli hoopoe with a Palestinian sunbird, which she has nicknamed "sun-poe" and an Indian peacock with a Pakistani chukar, which she calls "pea-kar"), Kallat proves that while art may not have all the answers, it has the power to envision possibilities that are often beyond the realm of reality.

“You cannot always predict the ways in which art affects people," she says. "It has the unique capacity to subtly influence, to make us reflect on things not as they are, but as they could or should be, by prompting us to ask questions."

Deep Rivers Run Quiet is on view at Kunstmuseum Thun in Switzerland until September 3

Updated: August 16, 2023, 8:37 AM