Indian artist Shambhavi Kaul’s cartographies of displacement and mutability – interview

Experimental filmmaker Shambhavi Kaul talks about her work and her first exhibition in a commercial gallery.

Jhaveri Contemporary in Mumbai is holding Shambhavi Kaul’s first exhibition in a gallery setting. Art Radar spoke to Kaul about the experience, as well as the ideas and concepts at the core of her experimental practice.

Shambhavi Kaul, "Lunar State" (2014), installation view at Jhaveri Contemporary. Image courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.

Shambhavi Kaul, “Lunar State”, 2014, installation view at Jhaveri Contemporary. Image courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.

Lunar State“, on show at Jhaveri Contemporary from 12 November until 20 December 2014, is Shambhavi Kaul’s first solo exhibition in a commercial art gallery and comprises three short films — Night Noon, Mount Song, and Scene 32 — made between 2009 and 2014, and Planet, a digital prints series.

Shambhavi Kaul is an experimental filmmaker whose works defy simple description. Her Vimeo profile reads:

Shambhavi Kaul’s cinematic constructions conjure uncanny, science-fictive non-places. Described as creating “zones of compression and dispersion,” her work utilises strategies of montage and recirculation, inviting an affective response while simultaneously measuring our capacity to know what we encounter.

In her oeuvre, places are both familiar and unrecognisable, they are the “here”, “there” and “everywhere” or “nowhere”. Time is not defined, but re-circulates, as in a dream or montage. The boundaries between reality and fiction, the quotidian and the imaginary are blurred, the two spheres constantly interchanging and intermixing.

Kaul’s works have been shown at international film festivals, including the Berlinale, the Toronto International Film Festival, The New York Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival, the International Film Festival Rotterdam, The Edinburgh International Film Festival, International Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen and Experimenta India held in Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai, among others. Her award-winning work is also featured at the 2014 Shanghai Biennale.

Shambhavi Kaul, "Lunar State", 2014, installation view at Jhaveri Contemporary. Image courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.

Shambhavi Kaul, “Lunar State”, 2014, installation view at Jhaveri Contemporary. Image courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.

Avant-garde cinema

Jhaveri Contemporary writes about Kaul’s work:

Kaul’s work attempts to show, by questioning, both, what filmmaking is capable of and what viewers can receive from the moving image, these ineffable cartographies of displacement and mutability: it is a body of work which creates its own ontology.

The video Mount Song (2013) rearranges images from 1970s Hong Kong Wu Xia films (martial art films). Kaul says in her statement that “it is an East that defies specificity.” Scene 32 (2009), shot in the middle of the Indian desert where she was born, is suspended between cartographic record and material marker, high definition video and hand-processed celluloid, and “remains as a question about the boundaries of description.” Night Noon (2014), her latest work, is “a fictive geography of our planet and a place for displaced encounters” featuring “a shadowy group of agents” wandering the Sonoran Desert, including a dog, a parrot, a UFO, the sands, the sea, unmoving yet unmoored rocks and a filmmaker.

On show at Jhaveri Contemporary is also a series of digital prints entitled Planet (2014), which remain rooted in a cinematic vision: found images, with text placed as subtitles over them, appear to be still images from films, but “are instead still images from films that never were.”

Art Radar spoke to Kaul about her art practice.

Shambhavi Kaul, "Lunar State", 2014, installation view at Jhaveri Contemporary. Image courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.

Shambhavi Kaul, “Lunar State”, 2014, installation view at Jhaveri Contemporary. Image courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.

Your exhibition “Lunar State” at Jhaveri Contemporary is your first time showing your work in a commercial gallery setting, as opposed to a strictly cinematic environment. Could you tell us a bit about your new, if sudden, choice to finally display your work in a gallery?

I have been thinking a lot about this question. I wonder if, at this moment, when the darkened spaces of the movie theatre no longer represent a discrete inside to a greater outside, the potential is to show work in multiple and opposing spaces. Spaces that are not necessarily compatible in their objectives: the theatre, the gallery or other ad-hoc spaces and, indeed, online and ending up on various devices, sometimes also in opposition to one’s own intentions. More than a choice, I would describe it as a response to current distributive possibilities.

How has the experience been for you so far and what is the significance of this shift in the presentation of your practice? How did you go about choosing how to display your work in the gallery?

The installation at Jhaveri Contemporary is very much based on the particularities of the space and the result of a collaboration between Priya, Mark and myself to create a cohesive show out of my related but disparate works. It was an incredibly detail-oriented process, and I am thrilled by the way it turned out. I am also certain that an installation in a different space would be completely different.

Shambhavi Kaul, 'Planet', 2014, set of digital prints in 5 parts. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary.

Shambhavi Kaul, ‘Planet’, 2014, set of digital prints in 5 parts. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary.

In addition to your films, the exhibition features a new series of photographic works entitled Planet. Does this mark a new turn in your practice, meaning that you will be experimenting with and embracing other forms of artistic expression other than film/video-based work?

I am unable to think of my art practice as anything other than cinematic and yet, I am increasingly interested in working through media that are not traditionally thought of as cinematic. Rather than think of it as a shift away from cinema, I prefer to think of it as some form of cinema, however mutated.

As the daughter of influential experimental film director Mani Kaul, how did your father’s practice and work inspire and influence you? Did the film and artistic education received from your father determine in some way the direction that you have taken in your own productions?

I am certain that it did, even as I struggle to answer the question. What I received from him, I absorbed directly, without examination and from a very young age. I suppose it’s hard for me to think of his sphere of influence as separate, apart from a lifetime of sharing and being alongside [him].

What are the main concepts and ideas that you explore in your works?

I’m interested in the way materials and cultures circulate. My work is often an attempt to recall markers of this circulation.

Shambhavi Kaul, 'Night Noon', 2014, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

Shambhavi Kaul, ‘Night Noon’, 2014, (video still), HD video, shot in USA/Mexico, 12m:00s. Image courtesy the artist.

In your latest film, Night Noon, you create a sense of “disorientation”, as you told The Indian Express – something that speaks of displacement and of not belonging anywhere. Could you expand on this concept and what it means to you? What are the symbols of such disorientation in this video?

It seems to me that disorientation is the mode of engagement in our current moment. And in my work, it appears as a means to recall the markers of circulation that I am looking to uncover. In the way that if something appears to be both familiar and unfamiliar we are immediately tempted to place it, to think about what it reminds us of or where we may have encountered it before.

Where did you get the idea for Night Noon? Were there any particular events, stories, memories that triggered the artistic process?

I was reading a remarkable essay by Rachel Price about Vidas Secas (Barren Lives), the classic Cinema Novo from Brazil made in 1963 by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. The essay is a consideration of the extra-diegetic lives of the two animal actors in the film, a pet dog and parrot. At that time, I was also thinking about parts of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts in California where the landscapes have been committed extensively to cinema.

These landscapes are thus familiar in their unfamiliarity, as they have been used to represent many places – from Egypt to outer space to current war zones. I also wondered what it would mean to keep shooting this desert into Mexico, where the landscapes are similar but more remote. So, I suppose, the initial idea was to think about these animal actors within these landscape actors, but also to re-appropriate them from cinema’s history into my own work.

Shambhavi Kaul, "Lunar State", 2014, installation view at Jhaveri Contemporary. Image courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.

Shambhavi Kaul, “Lunar State”, 2014, installation view at Jhaveri Contemporary. Image courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.

In an interview with Shanay Jhaveri in Frieze, you confirmed that Modernism has played an influence on your practice. Could you explain the ways in which you express modernist ideas or concepts in your work?

I would say that I have been influenced by modernist ideas through being seeped in avant-garde cinema and art. Subversive actions like disruption or defamiliarisation play a role in my work. Still, since it has become impossible to believe in revolutions or even historical progress in the avant-garde sense, perhaps the current question is about the possibility of action without consensus. At least, this is how I am thinking about it.

Your oeuvre seems to weave personal and collective memories, whether of a place, popular culture or animals, for example. What is the importance of your personal experience and memories in your work, and how does it relate to the triggering of collective memories through familiar imagery? For example, the images of the child in Place for Landing, the parrot/birds in Mount Song – and again in Night Noon – or the dog in Night Noon?

I don’t think these actors have a clear-cut symbolic meaning as much as they are present because of how difficult it is to pin them down to any one meaning or to be sure what they refer to.

What interests me in these materials is precisely how they can bring up diverse and incompatible familiarities—that they are capable of this kind of excess.

Shambhavi Kaul, '21 Chitrakoot', 2012, (video still), found footage, colour, sound, shot in India/USA, 9 min. Image courtesy the artist.

Shambhavi Kaul, ’21 Chitrakoot’, 2012, (video still), found footage, colour, sound, shot in India/USA, 09m:00s. Image courtesy the artist.

21 Chitrakoot, not in the exhibition, repurposes sets from television shows, which are a familiar site for many. In your work, you make such sets become something else. Could you expand on this video’s concept?

In 21 Chitrakoot, I was thinking about a vision of ancient India that, once it is separated from its familiar narrative frames becomes a televisual non-place – absolutely unrecognisable as ancient India, but recognisable as belonging to certain circuits of distribution.

Similarly, you re-appropriate familiar images, at least for those who know the genre, of Hong Kong Wu Xia films from the 1970s and 1980s in Mount Song. Could you explain your interest in this genre, how you came to choose its imagery for your work and what you want to evoke and communicate through it? There is a dark, nostalgic feeling to the film, with an ever-present, all engulfing smoke, fog that creeps us in almost every scene of the film – what does it stand for?

I cannot say it is better than an American critic who reviewed the film ahead of its screening in Toronto (at the Toronto International Film Festival) and described it as, “70s Bollywood, Chinese restaurant, Ray Harryhausen mythology, Shaw Brothers chopsocky, Disneyland, foam boulders, balsawood shutters and plastic fauna.”

Again, it is the circuits of distribution that are the familiar places. As for the fog, I was drawn to how, in these films, the output of a set designer’s smoke machine could bring up something romantic and nostalgic, something as natural as clouds in the sky while also signalling violent explosions and an omnipresent threat of poison.

Shambhavi Kaul, 'Mount Song', 2013, (video still), HD video, colour, sound, India/USA, 9 min. Image courtesy the artist.

Shambhavi Kaul, ‘Mount Song’, 2013, (video still), HD video, colour, sound, India/USA, 09m:00s. Image courtesy the artist.

In Scene 32 you include a diverse range of media or effects, such as rubbing salt on celluloid, and contrasts and shifts between 16mm and HD. What is the significance of extending the film medium’s potentiality through the integration of such techniques? Does it have to do with the idea you are expressing in this work?

I have previously described Scene 32 as a work suspended between material marker and cartographic record. I was interested in employing a range of media and effects as a way to talk about the boundaries of description. Scene 32 was shot in the desert of my birth so in this way I also wanted to think about the myths of origin.

Place for Landing, although not on show in the exhibition, seems to be another important work to mention. You incorporate music that has a particular familiarity for you, but did not have the same for audiences in New York when you showed it. Could you tell me more about the music you used, what it meant for you and why you used it in your work? Seeing the reception of the music from a different audience, what conclusions did you make about it?

Well, the fact that the same piece of music can appear to be something altogether different to different groups of people while seeming at the same time familiar to all seems interesting. As I have said elsewhere, the musical interlude from a late 1960s Hindi movie song appeared to American audiences as Cuban music, which of course further points to the appropriation of Cuban music into Hindi movies.

Shambhavi Kaul, 'Scene 32', 2009, (video still), 16mm/HD to digital, India/USA, 5 min. Image courtesy the artist.

Shambhavi Kaul, ‘Scene 32’, 2009, (video still), 16mm/HD to digital, India/USA, 05m:00s. Image courtesy the artist.

Could you talk a bit about your choice of sound and music for your films? Where do you take your music and sounds from for your works? 

For Scene 32, I used a mixture of diegetic sounds and sounds of swarming bees. In Mount Song, the sounds are from the films that I appropriated but heavily slowed down, which produced a strange kind of distance. For Night Noon, I mainly used nature soundtracks from relaxation CDs. I was interested in these highly synthesised soundtracks of nature that are supposed to nevertheless call up a kind of ideal of nature and, moreover, have a bodily effect on you.

Shambhavi Kaul, 'Place for Landing', 2010, (video still), 16mm transferred to HD, colour, sound, 6 min. Image courtesy the artist.

Shambhavi Kaul, ‘Place for Landing’, 2010, (video still), 16mm transferred to HD, colour, sound, 06m:00s. Image courtesy the artist.

Finally, what do you have in store for the near future? Any projects in film or other media, or perhaps any significant event or exhibition you will be participating in?

I am increasingly interested in working with found text. I am really not sure as yet what forms this engagement will take. The digital print series in the exhibition is the first iteration of this direction.

In terms of the next event on the horizon, I am showing work at the Shanghai Biennale [2014], that just opened, in an exciting programme called “Social Factory“.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Indian artists, film, video, digital art, art and memory, art in India, gallery shows, interviews with artists

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