Reena Kallat: Common Ground At Compton Verney  

by Nirmal Puwar

21 January 2023

Reena Kallat Common Ground © Compton Verney, photography by Jamie Woodley
Reena Kallat Common Ground © Compton Verney, photography by Jamie Woodley (23)

Common ground’ can refer to shared modes of understanding and communication exchange. For environmental scholar Robin Kimmerer, the term ‘common ground’ involves a recognition and gratitude for our reciprocal relations with non-human species; learning to care for and cultivate plant worlds, shifting from a relationship of extraction to one of co-existence.

Compton Verney’s landscape is opened up differently to us through Reena Saini Kallat’s current exhibition, titled Common Ground. A visit to the gallery is also an embodied encounter with the managed ‘naturalised’ landscape of Compton Verney. Trees and plants have taken root via global routes and hybrid formations. The site is a palimpsest of ecologies and emotions: wealth, war, conflict, nature and tranquillity.

On approach to the gallery, with the sounds of gravel underfoot, our acoustic registers will have picked up a small sample of the 40 bird species heard in a two-hour bird survey on the grounds. On entering the house, we are met with a large grey metal sculptural structure: Chorus I. This work re-purposes military technologies of surveillance used in World War II. The inter-mixing flurry of sounds from birds sitting at the borders of territories in conflict and claimed by nations all over the world signal how the movement and sounds of these birds can’t be fully captured by the symbolic boundaries of nation-making. The acoustic movements of birds intercept the metal structures of war. Known as acoustic mirrors, these trumpets were used to pick up the sounds of enemy movement in conflict, but are here re-purposed to bring our ears to the bird chorus generated at pivotal points of national borders.

Reena Kallat Common Ground © Compton Verney, photography by Jamie Woodley (23)
Reena Kallat Common Ground © Compton Verney, photography by Jamie Woodley (1)

In 1940, during World War II, Compton Verney was requisitioned by the Ministry of Home Security. The grounds were used as an experimental station for testing smoke-screen camouflage, as an outstation of the Camouflage School at Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as for residential courses on mines, through the Army School of Chemical Warfare. An account from Arthur Mill, who attended a two-week residential, speaks of switches, fuses, wires and explosives:

‘So I struck the box, and walked all the way back to the group, taking my time. And as I sat down, I remarked that it's time. As I did so, it blew. Boy, Oh Boy!! There were trees and bushes flying through the air, and I was sure I saw a sheep or two.! A camoflete is always dramatic, and this one won votes all round.’

On the other side of the house, Earth Families fills a wall on the first-floor landing. A globe is filled with detailed drawings of fauna, trees, rivers and hybrid animals, designed by Kallat to highlight the ways in which the natural world is often co-opted into serving a metaphoric function of nation making. Electrical wires feature prominently in many of Kallat’s works, carrying the tension of boundaries as well as the potential of global connectivity. Here they sit as hard wires overlaid on painted and drawn lines of rivers, mountains and animals, twisted into barbed wires of exclusionary mechanisms. Beneath this, we are pulled in close to the pencil drawings and geo-political textual commentary, which re-traces taxonomic pictorial representations familiar to us from natural history collections. Earth Families, like much of Kallat’s work, complicates how changing legal and political definitions of trespassing generates long lasting damage. It alerts us to expansive notions of justice and moves us towards planetary humanism, characterised by an inter-species common ground of kinship. Pylons sit on the edges of the globe. These steel and wire structures are often considered a blot of the English countryside. Could their connectivity in the air, as well as the fibre optics below the ground, be an invitation to open up dialogue on the grounds surrounding us?  

Nirmal Puwar's collaboration with Compton Verney, on Reena Kallat's installation Common Ground, curated by Amy Orrock. Her words [above] sit in the entrance hall to the building, alongside the large interactive sound sculpture Chorus I.

An audio tour conversation between Nirmal, Reena and Amy can be downloaded for free:

Common Ground runs until Sunday 22nd January 2023

Dr Nirmal Puwar is Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London

She tweets @spatialmutation

︎ Images by Jamie Woodley © Compton Verney