Among contemporary artists in South Asia, Jitish Kallat is recognized for his compelling practice sustained over decades from closely regarding facets of Mumbai’s social history and the street-as-studio, to chronicling historic exchanges that shaped the country’s modern becoming and nascent independence in the mid-twentieth century. There are few cultural practitioners who would risk following the call for continuous reinvention in the manner Kallat does.
For his first permanent public sculpture, the artist conceived Here After Here After Here in Austria, commissioned by a regional consortium of ten municipalities “10 vor Wien” and Public Art Lower Austria which opened in October last year. A large-scale piece sized six meters high and seventeen meters across forms an infinity loop of roadways created in traffic blue illustrating distances to global cities from the expressway roundabout where it is located. This is yet another testament to the artist’s exceptional imagination.
He is now showing in not one but two locations in Mumbai. Upon entering Kallat’s most recent exhibition of new works Sightings at Chemould Prescott Road, one is brought in contact with an ensemble of sleeping animals, laid upon the floor as though they have been caught in a motionless state for a long while. This choreography of sculptures entitled The Infinite Episode recalls the threshold between slumber and wakefulness that enables a fantasy-imbued comprehension of the world. Kallat calls this arrangement “a cosmic dormitory.” As the folded bodies alter the scale and formidable character of the resting creatures, there is equanimity found between the giraffe and the elephant. The series is also a way to enter various troubling narratives of “endism” that pervade our present and reflect the fragility of survival between human and animal beings.
Further on, a set of drawings evocatively called Wind Studies (The Hour of the Day of the Month of the Season), stage encounters between the movement of fire and wind currents traced in the artist’s abstract strokes. Resembling a complex lattice, aerial landscapes and neutral networks, the role of chance in the production of these works takes over the valued place of authored intention. Through the use of inflammable fluid over graphite lines, the artist invites a destructive potential to erase singular authorship—thereby, turning the page into viscous matter, and a performative work that is never quite finished. In a conversation between the artist and cultural theorist Homi K. Bhabha, there was a reference made “to bring to presence through extinction. From fire to ashes, life and death, the graph and the grave.” It is worth noting that the Wind Studies were the first artworks that Kallat took up after his stint as artistic director for the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale of 2014-15.
Through Kallat we experience art as an instrument of storytelling and translation that intrinsically connects with an array of knowledge systems such that the rationality of science and the aesthetic condition are bound up in an experimental conversation animating micro and macrocosmic perceptions of reality.
For example, in Sightings D19M12Y2015 composed of seven-part lenticular prints, an alchemical relation is formed between the close-up surface of fruits, ostensibly captured as a forensic exercise on daily consumption, and an inversed appearance as celestial skins akin to planetary nebulae and the birth of stars. The ubiquitous fruit thus becomes entwined with a galactic horizon through the artist’s photographic interventions.
Another work, Flowchart (2015) is a hexagonal vitrine that contains studies in process—working sketches, watercolours, tea-washes, gouaches and plaster models that relate to various sequences of works that came prior to this exhibition and perhaps segue into potential artistic trajectories. These are thought-maps acting as a lens to observe the inner structure of trees, bone templates, star constellations and the mathematical secrets of nature. The models placed upon these sketches document ancient architecture linked to astronomy—such as the observatory, an emblematic site where a celestial perspective may be gained from the ground.
The exhibition Sightings comes five years after the artist’s celebrated solo exhibitions Stations of a Pause at Chemould Road and Fieldnotes (Tomorrow Was Here Yesterday) at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum which responded to the museum’s historic tableaus of the city and the artist’s longstanding engagement with its urban fabric and architectural landscape. Across a range of mediums he extrapolated Mumbai’s character in structuring migration, informal economies, metropolitan transit and the spectral haunting of communal discord.
Simultaneously, on view at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery at CSMVS Museum in Mumbai a solo showing of Kallat’s Covering Letter (2012) installation includes a video projection developed as a sensorial text-led experience introducing the viewer to a letter from 1939 written by Mahatma Gandhi and addressed to Adolf Hitler. Cast against a wall of fog, the message affirming peace grows unstable and fragmented within an inevitable web of violence. In retrieving this memory of an anti-war communiqué preceding the Second World War, the artist considers the partiality of remembrance—it’s misty condition that continues to cloud better judgment in times of escalating hostility in civil society.
Natasha Ginwala is a writer and curator based in Berlin and India. She is currently working on documenta 14.
Photo Credits: Chemould Prescott Gallery, Mumbai