Amar Kanwar, Khoj Book By Collins, Pg 244-249, 2010


Could you tell us about one or two points in your career that you might describe as defining moments.

I can't remember particularly defining moments. I feel it's quite a non-stop journey of constantly absorbing, learning and then attempting to bring into the works what one goes through. Though one incident does come to mind now, which is from early on, in 1999, when I had given women I knew pieces of cloth to stain with menstrual blood and an instruction manual detailing how to cut these around the edges afterwards. Then I’d asked them to return the cut pieces to me. An aunt of mine was hesitant at first but agreed to give the project a shot. She came back to me with a packet of cut, bloodstained cloths and said that she no longer found menstrual blood or menstruation as unclean as before. The action of cutting the cloth, especially, had made her forget the taboo.

This possibility of a shift in perception via an art process is something that has always made me believe that art can indeed create residue in the memory; that it can question and even slightly challenge preconceived notions. Interactivity, especially at a one-to-one level, is a great means of moving towards this.

A lot of your work has emerged from within communities or in dialogue with communities. How valuable has that been in shaping the content and form of your work?

I would say that it has been the base of the form and language, and also of location. Because I’m interested in the role and function of art, I go looking for an audience for it, on the streets, in front of shops, on the internet or in digital environments; places where interaction can be a key component of sharing the work. The way people respond, or do not respond, all of it feeds into the piece.

Kidney Supermarket, for example, was a video and interactive installation project based on the illegal organ trade, ‘market economy rules’ and the greed that is perpetuated by the emphasis on free trade under the veil of globalisation. The project was set in a street shop where people could come in and pick a sugar kidney off the shelf. The kidneys came complete with an illustrated instruction manual and there were TV advertisements describing the use of the project.

Blame, another interactive installation, revolved around bottles containing simulated blood. Each bottle had a label that read: 'Blaming you makes me feel so good! So I blame you for what you cannot control: your religion, your nationality. I want to blame you, it makes me feel good.'

The reason both projects used the popular language of TV commercials was because that's what's familiar to a wider audience. In order to make the work more accessible, Blame moved from being a poster on the wall to bottles that were distributed by hand on local trains. Similarly, I shifted from using mouse-driven computer kiosks to large-scale walk-in digital environments so that, by default, the viewer steps into the work.

Your work functions like an amazing series of triggers, continuously probing and opening many senses in audiences. How was working in Kashmir in 2005 for you, where pain seems to lie in almost everything one touches or sees?

Working there was especially challenging. I had gone for a holiday with some of my family – there was no intention of making any work! But while they stayed in the tourist area, I was in the city, only about 10 minutes auto ride away. We had completely different experiences. The tourist area was quiet at that time – as you know, tourism is a large contributor to the economy – whereas I found myself in the middle of or close to callous bombings almost every second day. The mind was constantly in a state of alert, trying to fathom the local realities, which were clearly very different from the Indian state’s nationalist propaganda. It was very strange to be walking outdoors surrounded by a stunningly beautiful, seemingly peaceful, landscape, knowing how fragile every moment was, and that a deafeningly loud sound could change everything. It took several months before I could embark on a work related to the situation, with all the associated dilemmas, but would wake up in Mumbai with the sound of a blast in my head.

Untitled, an interactive installation with touch screens (2005-06) drew from my experience in Kashmir. Punctured into the walls of a room, in places where there would have been windows to look outside, are instead objects of fractured reality transmitting unsure data. One screen shows a shifting landscape, the road route between Srinagar and Gulmarg: small towns appear and then dissolve into villages that open into fields or sometimes just a few huts. The Kashmiri landscape is extremely beautiful, with chinar trees, herds grazing, people at work or sometimes resting on charpoys by the national highway. As the scene shifts we locate armed military guards, who stud it at regular intervals, continuing to stir a sense of uncertainty.

In another recess, the visitor is able to interact with a jigsaw of broken glass pieces. Just as the last piece is being put in place and the clear blue sky is becoming visible, there's the sound of a blast and the jigsaw cracks all over again.

In a third, wherever the screen is touched, a section of what lies behind is made visible. As your finger slides over it, the visible area simultaneously opens up and contracts from where you moved away. Only partially visible, what at first appears to be young boys smiling at the camera, opens into the slow, painful understanding that they are posing alongside debris from a car-bomb blast. The boys laugh at the international media camera, no longer able to feel the horror, pain and tragedy of the violence. Unnervingly, it's become an everyday event for them, just part of growing up and knowing the world.

In a fourth window, the viewer's touch interrupts a frenzied but slow drawing being made from the other side on glass fogged by heavy condensation. When they try to continue the drawing' the writing of an alphabet ' it's impossible. The hysteria of daily terror, which is being written about, stays distant, disconnected across the half-obscured screen.

'Left, Right, make a Dash. Left Left Left Right Right Right Right Right Left Left. A for army,’ says a child's voice. ‘B for bomb. C for curfew. D for death. E for explosion. F for fear. G for garden. G for grave. H for hospital. I for identity card. J for jail. K for Kalashnikov. L for Land of Free Kashmir. M for militant. N for NTR – Nothing To Report. O for obituary. P for Papa 2. Q for questioning. R for rape. S for scar. T for television. U for utopia. V for VDC – Village Defence Committee. W for widow – half widow. X for X-ray. Y for Yes, Sir! Z for Z-Security.'

Does the trajectory you find yourself on disturb you? What are its dilemmas?

Dilemma has always been part of my kind of practice – to find a path between production opportunity and audience and location.

It is difficult to exhibit artwork in India that requires sophisticated technology, which inevitably means your work gets less exposure here. Does this trouble you?

You're right, it can seem easier to show abroad than here, but it's not because of technological restrictions. Today every kind of equipment is available here. And it can be far easier to take a 30-minute train ride to Lamington Road in Mumbai to get a piece of welding done or pick up some strange little component one needs than waiting for it for days in Europe. The difficulty in India, as in many Asian countries, lies in the wide and layered distance that exists between the state and contemporary art practice. As a result, artists are forced to function in the realm of private galleries, which are very hesitant to install shows that will not break even immediately. So, for me, it has become an almost routine cycle of first waiting for funding and production support from non-commercial institutions, a lot of which are in Europe; then, after previewing my work there, it takes an average of six to eight months to negotiate the same set-up and install the work for exhibition back home. However, with the opening up of the Indian art scene in the past few years, this is changing. I used to be asked to bring my own monitors and projectors to galleries; now they hire them. But there's a long road ahead.

What are you working on at the moment, or what are you most eager to explore in terms of subject matter?

My recent body of work explores notions of security at home and outside, and the space in-between. I am currently working towards a solo show in Berlin at BodhiBerlin and Gallerie Volker Diehl