Jasleen Kaur’s latest exhibition, Flesh ‘n’ Blood, shakes our understanding of memory and the body. Searching deep within her family history to interrogate notions of healing and the internal, Kaur presents her most recent sculptural works, carrying us along on a winding journey of seeing the body in a new light. “I’m thinking of—” Kaur says to us as we sit listening to an ‘In Conversation’ between her and collaborator Priya Jay. “I’m thinking of the body as storage for memory. What we digest — the cultural and personal memories.” A placid pink colon stretches and curls across the gallery floor, its colour sharply contrasted against the grey floor of the gallery. Atop it sits a collection of objects: a string of plastic aubergines linked together like sausages; a pair of flip flops sit orphaned from the feet that once filled them, replaced by peanuts cast in resin; musical instruments and a wooden palm-hands-shaped bookstand opens up to reveal a manifesto for meditation. Flesh ‘n’ Blood is a guttural reflection on family, religion, and cultural history that sends the viewer down a sentimental path, with Kaur inviting us into her inner sanctum without letting us get too close. The gallery becomes a place where closely-held memories and emotions are exposed to us, whether plastered across the wall or delicately placed along the ground. Kaur questions identity thoroughly: both her own and the culturally shared identity, often conflicting, coming from part-Indian and part-Scottish heritage. A litre bottle of Irn Bru — a cultural signifier of Scottishness — is contrasted on the plinth by a milk bottle containing healing oil and reeds. In Kaur’s universe, Irn Bru is as much a medicine as healing oils. These are objects that hold a saccharine significance for Kaur. We are left adrift of the intimate stories stored in these supermarket-shelf items.
Grief / Sanctuary / Memory / Loss / Language
For good reason too. This is a deeply personal exhibition, in which our admittance by the artist is in good-faith; look, touch, feel — but don’t get too close. Each reflection is rooted in the body, both that of the artist and the viewer. Within the Body, God, a flat, wooden carving of a deity is interrupted by the presence of worship bells, sitting as if they were physically within the body. Kaur doesn’t rely solely on metaphor, though. Instead, she transgresses the idea of sculpture as a dormant and unmoving — untouched — art medium. Objects are here to be ingested, to be touched and felt physically. Etched jugs of water, accompanied by drinking glasses, are interspersed along the gut-shaped plinth, daring the viewer to break conventional behaviour and interact with the exhibition in a way that transcends mere viewership. Two of the gallery walls are covered in photo-album pictures, pixelated blow-ups taken from Kaur’s family archives. Photos of women, headless, faceless, their presence emits a sense of temporal existence. We don’t know who they are, only that they are of immense importance to Kaur; they are women who have shaped her existence. In Freedom Massi, Kaur contemplates names and naming; the anglo-centric word aunty is fractured into multiple words in Kaur’s language, relative to the shared relation and family connection.
Colon, or Colonised Intestine, or Internalised Ritual, or Ritualised
The centrepiece of the exhibition, An Infinity of Traces, a four-metre double-ended kameez which hangs from the ceiling, draping onto the plinth below, reflects the importance of a narrative told by and for women. The kameez is stained with turmeric and imprinted with drawings of bodily internals; repeated impressions of kirpans, a ceremonial Sikh dagger, slink their way down the garment. The words “Mart-Her” sit on the upper back of the dress as if recognising a player in a football match, instead reflecting identities of the feminine and matriarchal histories Kaur is so enamoured by. To ingest is to invoke all that we encounter. To digest is to eat the cultural things we’ve grown up with, an action in which they become part of us. Kaur’s use of language, which lies buried within the works themselves, is key to unlocking this exhibition. Colon is, likely, a stand-in for colonial/colonised, a reflection on British-Indian history, a history shrouded in the cloak of colonisation. Kaur’s use of the colon is bodily, certainly; on the kameez reads the phrase “colonial ingestion”, suggesting a taking in of colonial words and beliefs, likely unwillingly. Reading her use of language as a reclaiming of history, however, leads to a more powerful conclusion; through the colon as a surface upon which personal and private stories are told, Kaur reclaims the power of being the one who tells her own story. She refuses to relinquish that control amidst dominating political and social forces, succeeding in becoming the keeper of her history. Jasleen Kaur's exhibition Flesh ‘n’ Blood ran at Humber Street Gallery, Hull, UK, between September 22 - December 24 2021.