Visitors to Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum Mumbai this summer will be confronted by the vision of a giant cobweb made up of oversized rubber stamps on its prim Palladian facade. Though it bears the name of Reena Saini Kallat as the creator, imaginative children might look around for an escapee giant spider from the neighbouring zoo.
This public work of art, Untitled (Cobweb / Crossings), is a collaboration between ZegnArt / Public, an initiative of the Italian Fashion Major Ermenegildo Zegna, and the museum. They invited proposals for site specific public art projects from seven mid-career contemporary Indian artists. The jury, which included Gildo, Anna and Andrea Zegna, representing the group and Tasneem Zacharia Mehta, Jyotindra Jain and Minal Bajaj representing the museum, decided to award the commission to Reena Saini Kallat.
The proposals of other six artists, namely, Alwar Balasubramaniam, Atul Bhalla, Gigi Scaria, Hema Upadhyay, Sakshi Gupta and Srinivasa Prasad, are on display at the Special Project Space I in the museum backyard. Tellingly, out of the seven, only the winning entry is designed for the front facade while the rest were designed for the inconspicuous backyard. Among these six, except Gigi Scaria’s (a hide-and-seek statue of Queen Victoria) and Atul Bhalla’s (philosophising on an old Bombay milestone in the museum garden) the rest are pretty site-neutral, so it’s safe to assume that only those three made to the penultimate round.
What makes the choice interesting is the fact that Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum is a truly public space. It is frequented by the ‘great unwashed’, the school children, the out-of-towners, the well-informed foreign visitors, the upwardly mobile and the art elites of Mumbai thanks to the unlikely combination of a botanical garden, a zoo, a city museum and cutting-edge contemporary art interventions in the same premise and therefore it’s an acid test for any Public work of art.
Going back to the selection, the two parameters that make a piece of public art really public, i.e. spectacle and accessibility are present aplenty in both Gigi Scaria’s and Reena Saini Kallat’s proposals. Atul Bhalla’s philosophical milestones (‘You Have Crossed The Limits of Faith’ etc.) seem to have got filtered out on these counts. If the choice then comes between an eight feet nine inch interactive statue of Queen Victoria (it dips and rises when faced / averted by viewers, a commentary on colonialism) and a massive cobweb, the statue must have lost out because of budgetary and logistic concerns. One wonders what would have happened if L N Tallur’s Elephant from his Skoda Prize winning show in the same museum would have been in the fray.
The cobweb of stamps, each bearing the colonial name of a Bombay street which has been renamed to an Indian one in current Mumbai, evokes mixed feelings. As per the catalogue provided, there are 55 names of streets in all (From Apollo Pier Road > Chhatrapati Shivaji Marg to Woodhouse Road > N. Parjekar Marg) each, a placeholder for both presence and absence, lays bare the double-standards of a city which can’t wait to be Shanghai and yet must pay lip service to its freedom fighters and vernacular heroes, to whitewash its colonial past. The stamp which both confirms and negates identities make a web that seems to evoke both the present bureaucracy that undertakes such projects as well as its target, the city’s colonial past. But the duality seems more confusing than confronting.
The device also fails to break any new ground, because stamps and missing names have been her old stamping ground since 2003 and her success with the duo has been uneven.
Kiosk (2003) tried to stamp out various chasms of Indian republic by blurring the colour divides in the Indian flag with a jigsaw of rubber stamps in saffron, white and green. Closet Queries (2008) recreated Taj Mahal Pietra Dura decorations with rubber stamps bearing imaginary artists’ guild insignias, giving agency to the nameless master craftsmen. Synonym (2009) made two-sided screens of rubber stamps where the macro image is a portrait and micro-images (stamp engravings) are names of officially missing persons. In Your Mileage May Vary (2009) twin forms of maps and mazes on paper are overlaid by stamping names of people who have been denied visas for traveling to other countries. Again in Colour Curtain (between Shores and the Seas) (2009) the sculptural barricades formed with rubber stamps carry names of people who’ve been denied visas to various countries on the basis of class, culture, nationality, religion, politics etc. In Untitled (Column) (2011), the most accomplished of the lot, eponymous stamps come together to resemble crumbling heritage structures of India that fell through the cracks of protected monuments list. Then yet again, in Untitled Cobweb (Knots and Crossings) (2012) a form with several hand-painted rubber-stamps evoking the flags of nations, bear the names of individuals who’ve been denied visas to other countries. Finally, the oversized Untitled Rubberstamp (2012), in a decided departure from this pattern, carries the words of the French novelist, Marcel Proust, “A change in weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves” and rejuvenates the original dichotomy of inclusion / exclusion and more importantly ephemeral / permanent which was the artist’s original intention.
While writing about her very first solo Orchard of Home-grown Secrets (Gallery Chemould and Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai, 1998) Ranjit Hoskote fondly called her a “lower-case conceptual artist” and wondered “what are the formal choices exercised by an artist who still wishes to address the art-work as sensuous form, as a vehicle for mysterious and unsayable impulses rather than as an ideologically programmed device?” But the multiple variants of rubber-stamp installations paraded out over the years seem to have answered his question, stamping out the artist-intended meanings of the device, leaving behind only the rubber stamp’s original purpose, replication.
But to be fair to the artist, this public work of art is not created only for the people who are already familiar with her oeuvre, but mostly for the people who do not necessarily care much either about her, Italian fashion brands, the museum or contemporary Indian art, but do care about their city, Mumbai and whether its tense present will lead to the promised future perfect. Will this installation make them stop and think about the uncomfortable questions about the changes in Mumbai?
I guess only being a fly on the cobwebbed wall for a few months will make us know whether Reena Saini Kallat’s Untitled (Cobweb / Crossings) “promotes a new method of cultural confrontation and contamination through the platform of contemporary art.” as envisioned by the ZegnArt / Public project.
ZegnArt / Public India is on view at Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum Mumbai till May 15, 2013
on the Front Facade and at the Special Project Space I
10.00 am to 5.30 pm
Closed on Wednesdays and Public Holidays
91 A, Rani Baug, Veer Mata Jijabai Bhonsale Udyan
Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar Marg
Byculla East, Mumbai 400027