Originally published in The Indian Express on 17th January, 2016
Neither India nor Pakistan has a permanent pavilion in Venice. Do you see the joint presentation at Venice as an opportunity for artists from the subcontinent to enter into a dialogue?
In the absence of any official pavilion from the region, in the specific context of the Venice Biennale, this project presents itself as an ‘unofficial’ presence, carrying with itself, an ‘unofficial dream’ where two artists from two places, which are closer than many would like to believe, will be shown together. The project proposes to delve into time, which is not immediate, not so entangled and to look beyond tense definitions which are not as old as projected.
Your work at the Biennale, My East is Your West, raised questions on issues of nationhood, identity and borders. Did you and Rashid Rana collaborate closely while reflecting on these themes?
I live in Mumbai and Rashid is in Lahore. While starting out, we had several conversations over Skype and email. We looked at overlapping interests in our practices. We are both interested in perception, time, location and construction of knowledge. As we went ahead, we decided to not limit ourselves to a common theme and to allow ourselves to work on our own projects.
Your works were largely based on your visits to Bangladesh and walking about in No Man’s Land…
In 2010, when I was working on 1:14.9, which is based on the fence between India and Pakistan, I started looking at data released by the Home Ministry of India about the fence under construction around Bangladesh, which upon completion would be the world’s longest separation barrier. One thing led to another and I found myself in the Bangladesh borderlands. While I had been to Phulia, a border town on the India side, the first time I went to Bangladesh, at least on paper, it was to a Bangladeshi enclave surrounded by India on all sides. Be it at the enclave or areas outside, under the penumbra of the invisible border, marked by distant pillars, and a rising ominous fence, 150 yards from the zero line, everyday life continues. It subverts systems that hinder mobility and desire. While India is nearing completion of the fence, daily life in the borderland belie State intentions. The flow of people and goods persist, prompted by historical and social affinities, geographical continuity and economic imperative.
In the works, you share your interactions with the local community, bootleggers and touts. How challenging was it to get access to them?
Over the years, there have been many voices in the works - those which are collected via interviews, readings and also those which have been re-imagined. The stories in this particular exhibition are individual trajectories and negotiations. They are in the form of personal fragments, experiences and perspectives vis-a-vis the construct, imagination and expectation of the State. Interviews have been formal, informal and also sometimes, by chance.
Your work In Our Times (2007-08) was based on speeches by Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. 1:14.9, acquired by the Guggenheim museum, is a hand-wound ball of 79.55 miles of thread (if you multiply it by 14.9, it will give you the length of the fenced border between India and Pakistan). What is it that intrigues you about borders?
I am interested in perception and therefore, with how definitions get stretched or trespassed, be it gender, beliefs, or the notion of a state. There exists a chasm between the larger construct which seeks singularity, and its own fragment which may not. In the video projection, Untitled 2006, on the wives of the disappeared in Kashmir, there is a line which says, ‘The inches, the feet, the kilometres, the markings you have made on the land have increased the distance so much’. Markings and measuring, seemingly logical acts, may not necessarily provide solutions. The figure in the work stands entrapped in map lines drawn on paper. In the same vein, miles of thread is wound over and over again to arrive at a designated, somewhat illogical logic of mass fencing in 1:14.9. In the work In Our Times, the two speakers swivel and read the speeches of Nehru and Jinnah, made just three days apart in the month of August in 1947, 11th and 14th, which are rather similar, heralding the birth of two different nations through a very painful and brutal Partition.
A lot of your work is based on technology. It appears as a narrative tool. For instance, 24:00:01 had a switch board that threw chaotic words related to migration, Confiscated Objects had objects confiscated by airport security officers. Could you talk about technology’s relevance to your work.
I have always been intrigued by the urge to authenticate, duplicate at will, and control. Technology has been at the forefront of mirroring such disquieting cravings. Be it at a shopping mall or at the airport, we all have witnessed the drama, lethargy and grand safety gestures to irrational levels. The roving directionless motion scanners, the flapboard in 24:00:01, motion sensors in the Speaking Wall, or even the recurring etched brass tags and labels, embody our anxieties at entry and exit points. Any work which employs technology requires a certain amount of time to understand its functionalities to be able to work with it. The little background that I have had in computers helps.
You have constantly tried to engage with your audience. In 1278 Unmarked, 28 Hours by Foot on National Highway No 1, East of the Line of Control (2013), you let visitors take back marble slabs that represented gravestones for Kashmir’s unacknowledged dead. How important are these engagements?
I’m interested in blurring ideas of authorship and in shifts that result when the work slips into different contexts. The work you mention is very minimal, and when you encounter it in a gallery space, you might fill the form and take it home. When the object lies in your house, maybe a visitor will ask you about it and then you might become the story teller, the artist, the agency. Or you might wonder and go back to looking where it came from. The meaning of the artwork is related to how the visitor invests in the object. It is about the way context, place, memory can play on anything: it is fractured, it’s personal, it is never necessarily true, it is always fragile. Some people took the stone because it is an artwork, so there may be a sense of greed, and also some discomfort, because of what it symbolises. Can you live with that? There was somebody who came back and returned the piece because they couldn’t have it in their house. Somebody broke it by mistake and was terrified; there was one who buried it.
Tell us about the role words plays in your art.
I work with everyday material and am interested in definitions, logosandsymbols. Be it in banners, sign posts, maps, or data, text is a present part of how we see and comprehend what surrounds us. At times, part of the text is printed in very fine font, where the viewer needs to come close to the work. It implies the act of looking and registering. Sometimes, text is used to annotate an image or object in a manner that encourages one to think about the act of archiving.