Focus Interview: Shambhavi Kaul
Films about place and ‘denatured nature’
Four of your films – Scene 32 (2009), Place for Landing (2010), 21 Chitrakoot (2012) and Mount Song (2013) – are concerned with sites or landscapes. I want to discuss your approach to editing; there is a tightness and precision to your films that is refreshing and commanding.
The sites that I am drawn to are invariably those that resist placement, that are neither here nor there, even when they’re somewhat recognizable. Taken as ecology, these sites appear to me as a constellation of agents forming something both specific yet quite incoherent. And, for me, the process of shooting or editing unfolds as a search in this space for relations and correspondences.
SJ Would you say that a certain Modernist ethos has exerted an influence on you?
SK Certainly, inasmuch as I am interested in the idea that politics is folded into the material forms culture assumes, and my project is to disrupt fixed understandings of those forms. For instance, by repurposing sets from television shows, 21 Chitrakoot presents a denatured nature from which the people have been removed. What was once a popular mythological TV series in India in the early 1980s transforms into something wholly unrecognizable. We are rooted in a place that may, at times, resemble India but in reality it is a televisual non-place that, no matter how often it repeats, cannot add up to familiarity.
SJ This repurposing of found material in 21 Chitrakoot, which you reprise in Mount Song, is highly evocative and transports viewers to another place, an exotic land which is mired in artifice. Are you suggesting that beyond such extremes of fantasy there is more to consider?
SK I think so. Historically speaking, the source material for those two works was generated at a time that falls roughly between the registers of a colonial past and a projected, global future in places that had a distinct awareness of both, combined with a sense of being suspended between them. I feel there is a particular depiction of place in these materials that stems from a deep anxiety about the state of the world. In utilizing these materials, I tend to consider how the past is reconciled with the future, where land – that is to say, landscape as profit potential, already experienced as anxiety and loss – must now be seen as something to actively participate in. Taken this way, the imaginations of place in these works could be seen as the imagined terms of entrance into the global era.
SJ The sets you have repurposed in Mount Song come from 1970s and ’80s Hong Kong film. The mash-up of cultural references in them is complex and layered. Are you interested in how cultural artefacts become intertwined, how they travel across borders and result in the most unexpected meldings?
SK That is exactly what I am interested in. The set constructions in the films that constitute the source material for Mount Song appropriate all sorts of fantastical sources to become much more than the ‘ancient East’ while still remaining readable within cinema’s distributive networks as a generic version of it. There is a built-in contradiction here that I find very productive: it comes, I think, from the need to express something vital; the loss of an imagined ideal place, along with the need to be understood. Folded into this tight space is a response to that loss in the form of futuristic digital artefacts. In the case of Mount Song, the digital artefact appears as a mutated animal: a sci-fi object that is perpetually in collision with violence. All of this, as bizarre as it sounds, makes complete sense. These consistently artificial sets could either be seen as landscapes produced for profit, or as a kind of ideal replacement for the ones that got lost in the production of nature for profit. As such, I imagine the surfaces of these very virtual sets and their kitschy artifices as being offered up to people for the sake of an attachment, and attachments that take place within cinematic space are not defined by borders but by distribution networks. So, my interest in unearthing these genealogies is to separate out these shared sites that are influenced by their cyclical journeys, and to reproduce them in my work for the sake of a re-experience.
SJ You also explore this at a sonic level. In Place for Landing, for example, you end with a piece of music that is ambiguous in its cultural references.
SK Yes, actually the use of that piece of music was a turning point for me. In my mind, by including it, I was incorporating Bollywood music from the late 1960s. However, I discovered that New York audiences, who had not been exposed to Bollywood, heard the music as Cuban, and this really clarified for me what is at stake in acts of recirculation. Not only had I never previously considered the appropriation of Cuban music by Bollywood, I had never considered that certain Cuban music, which I am yet to encounter, could nonetheless appear familiar to me.
Scene 32, 2009
SJ The other feature common to all of your work is an exploration of technology – from the direct contrasts and shifts between 16mm and HD in Scene 32 to its omnipresence in Place for Landing. What do the possibilities offered by technology mean to you when looking to experience a place? Does it have a deterministic function?
SK Perhaps the mixing of technologies is most overt in Scene 32, where the textures of different media are collapsed with objects and materials from Kutch, a district of Gujarat in western India. In that work, I hope viewers will reach a point where they no longer know if they are looking at a microscopic grain of salt or a lunar landscape or, indeed, Kutch. And, to my mind, this same impulse, cast slightly differently, appears in Place for Landing where the lunar landscapes are resisted, this time in the form of reused satellite images that prove to be equally abstract. Here, within the confines of the home, cloth, mirror and skin reveal the close up to be as expansive and unreal as the moon. Or, at least, the moon as it was rendered by a passion to envision it as available space, space within one’s reach.
SJ Until now, your films have primarily been screened in traditional cinematic settings. Would you consider showing them within a gallery context?
SK Yes, definitely. In fact, I have already done so on a few occasions in the past and it was an enlightening experience. I particularly appreciate the durational possibilities offered by galleries, in which shorter works can be screened on a loop or longer films need not be shown in their entirety. There is also room for a more expansive notion of cinema, which allows for the inclusion of various media that could not be accommodated in the movie theatre. It is very exciting to think about all of these possibilities, and that’s definitely the direction in which I am beginning to develop my work. On the one hand, I’m extremely invested in the social exchange that takes place in the cinema, but I am also thinking about how this may mutate and expand beyond the space that has enabled it for over a century.
Shambhavi Kaul was born in Jodhpur, India, and currently lives in India and the usa. Her latest work, Mount Song, premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival and was subsequently screened at the 17th Views from the Avant Garde at the 51st New York Film Festival, USA. In December, Mount Song will be shown as part of Experimenta, Bangalore, India.
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