Ranbir Kaleka speaks to Critical Collective about creating a visual language of memory and the interplay between painting and moving image in his practice. (2019)
Critical Collective: Your video-projection works can be said to be intermedial in the truest sense, the particular effect/affect emerging out of the uncanny juxtaposition of media. In Man Threading a Needle for example, the overlaying of painting with video creates the minutest of flickers, giving the sensation of the work pulsating. What is the attraction of such intermediality for you and what are its critical implications?
Ranbir Kaleka: The overlaying of the still painted image with the moving image constructs a cohabitation of different materialities, methods, rhythms and styles. This atypical visuality allows me to reach as yet unstirred spaces within my psyche. The meaning of the work is intrinsic to the artwork's fabrication.
CC: Affinities between different registers of image is also at the centre of your of show of works held in conversation with the films of Mani Kaul, first at the Guangzhou Triennial, and more recently at the Jawahar Kala Kendra. That exhibition squarely faced the question of relocation, as the image moved between the frames of cinema and video art. Curator Ashish Rajadhyaksha seemed to regard it as an exercise in determining a future for film exhibition in alternative locations. Your trajectory as an artist has similarly reckoned with transitioning from painting practice to multimedia works. What occasioned the transition to the latter? Was it a sense of the exhaustion of the possibilities of the painted frame?
RK: No, it wasn't a sense of exhaustion of the possibilities of the painted frame. I was not replacing painting, I can say that technology rather helped me in exploring expanded-painting. Camera and digital devices were just new tools in the painter's hand. Hundreds of years ago painters used camera obscura to projected images made of light onto various surfaces, only the moving images were not captured to be replayed or looped.
Today, inspired by cinema, I am able to capture the theatre of the moving image onto painted canvas. The digitally captured images allow for light-manipulation and the small size of today's projectors allows easy installation in alternative locations.
CC: Another point of similarity between your work and Kaul’s is the presentation of sheer duration. Time is stretched to the point that even ordinary scenes are rendered eerie. You often describe yourself as a slow artist. Is slowness in your work meant to serve a larger politics as in an international movement towards slow cinema? Or is the particular temporality of your works driven by something else?
RK: Slowness allows for meditation on objects…'duration' as a space for thinking. When we are looking at a teacup, although the teacup doesn't move, we are seeing it in time, time is always moving. The teacup carries signs. Sitting in darkness or a shaft of light on it, the marks of the lips on the edge or its absence, the surface it sits on, a poorly embroidered tablecloth or a polished table, on and on… contemplation on it open a whole world around it. Trying to reflect and comprehend the world through what we see in slow time engages the mind in a powerful and generative way.
CC: Your childhood home looms larger in your oeuvre cropping up as sundry motifs and allusions. But your work nonetheless resists location, lending itself as one observer puts it, to a universal examination of what it means to be human rather than just Indian. How do you reconcile such biographical references with a collective, universal address?
RK: I can only trust that an honest examination of the essence of my memories and experiences would touch another human as those events have touched and informed me. Representationally, my video works and my past paintings are historically, temporally and geographically nonspecific in general.
CC: In works like House of Opaque Water and Conference of Birds and Beasts, there is a frontal political address, but rendered in very distinct visual languages. While the latter cleaves to what is commonly recognized as your signature magic realist style, House of Opaque Water is ostensibly in a documentary mode, with a witness providing testimony. There is an ongoing tension between the documentary and fictional modes in your work, as you mention elsewhere that you rarely paint with colour as you believe colour is the emotional response to the world, suggesting that black-and-white is the world as it is. You have also expressed your interest in ordinary subjects. But in your work, we rarely get the world as it is; the world is stretched beyond recognition. Could we say then that yours is a form of creative documentary practice?
RK: Slowness allows for meditation on objects, 'duration' as a space for thinking. When we are looking at a teacup, even when the the teacup doesn't move we are seeing it in time, time is always moving. The teacup carries signs. Sitting in darkness or a shaft of light on it, the marks of the lips on the edge or its absence, the surface it sits on, a poorly embroidered tablecloth or a polished table, on and on, contemplation on it open a whole world around it. Trying to reflect and comprehend the world through what we see and not through what one has to say about it with words. This engages the mind in a generative and powerful way.