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A question of life

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Echoing subterranean realities:Jitish Kallat with his installation at Pilane.
Echoing subterranean realities:Jitish Kallat with his installation at Pilane.

RAMYA SARMA

Jitish Kallat's sculpture ‘When Will You Be Happy' makes art an almost tactile experience. It is part of the Skulptur i Pilane show that opens in Sweden on June 12….

‘When Will You Be Happy' is not a real-life question, but a kind of existential musing hidden deep within “a simple line that you can even scribble on a piece of paper”. It is the name that Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat has given his latest work, a 100-feet (30-metre) long installation that is on its way to Pilane, Sweden, for the annual sculpture show, “Skulptur i Pilane”. As the artist himself says, the line “does make you think”. And the location of the site, an ancient burial ground, “makes it a little more urgent. Happiness is often here now and we end up postponing that moment.” And the urgency becomes almost mnemonic when “you inscribe it in a burial site — it reminds you that you cannot postpone life”.

The Pilane show, curated by Peter Lennby and opening on June 12, also includes Belgian Wim Delvoye, Icelandic artist Steinunn Thorarinsdottir, British artists Laura Ford and Tony Cragg, Nils Ramhøj from Gothenburg, Sweden, Ursula Von Ryding from the US, and Swedish artists Leo Pettersson and Jonas Holmquist. The site itself is home to about 90 judgement circles, raised stones and other such relics, some still visible, that date back to the Iron Age. The landscape, with cultural artefacts that have been dated back to the Stone Age, has been extensively restored and, with its gentle hills and verdant pastureland, is the perfect setting for large sculptures that have an almost organic form, rooted in times long past and seeming to rise out of the earth into present reality. The works are completely in concordance with the Pilane terrain and ethos. As Kallat put it, the show is “all very dramatic and wonderful. Some really interesting pieces have been shown.”

Appreciated

His work has been lauded by critics and audiences alike ever since his debut show in Mumbai in1997, when Kallat was all of 23 years old. Over the years, his creativity has managed to provoke not just comment, but wonder, with its scale and vision. And the articulate, expressive, thoughtful, introspective, occasionally philosophical artist never fails to come up with something new, combining painting with sculpture with photography with technology and, in his last works, with food. A prestigious and successful show at the Haunch of Venison gallery in London earlier this year had a quirky twist as art was created with scans of edible objects, from rotisto samosas. And now he returns to a recurrent motif: bones. This time, in the perfect setting.

Kallat's work is known for its “humungous” scale and vision. While ‘Anger at the Speed of Fright' was merely 50 feet ‘short', ‘365 Lives' stretched to 200 feet and had a life-sized car parked in the middle of an installation composed of 365 photographs. He has said that some of his works “rely on scale to generate meaning; it's only when you walk past that it all slowly changes tenor”. Some pieces, like the gigantic ‘Public Notice II', which has 4,500 bones made of resin, shaped into alphabets spelling our Mahatma Gandhi's speech just before the non-cooperation movement was launched, need time and space to be even partially appreciated. Others, like the ‘Dawn Chorus' paintings, require cerebral overtime, showing street urchins at traffic junctions selling books — their hair is made of traffic and pedestrians tangled in archetypical Mumbai style.

Fresh vision

For “Skulptur i Pilane”, Lennby's original choice of Kallat's work was ‘Eruda', the figure of a boy selling books. But “Somehow I was not convinced that it was right,” Kallat says. After all, “The place is quite loaded in meaning. I wanted to conceive something ground up, so to speak.” It took a while to think up what he considered to fit the site and its historical importance and significance. “I receded from the project for a few months without committing, until I came up with something that I felt was closely connecting to the site and to my work.” It had to fit not just the atmosphere, but the scale and terrain as well. Kallat explains, “I found that the landscape is very beautiful, but the subterranean reality is that of burial and the notion of death, somewhere hidden underneath.”

He started working with the thought of “beauty and happiness and all that in the way the landscape appeared”. And came up with “this simple line that gets embedded into the landscape: When Will You Be Happy. We will actually be digging, it will seem as if it is being excavated, part of it still in the earth.” And with the size of the installation, “When you are close to it you feel like it is fairly large scale bones, but from different vantage points could make it seem as if the words are emerging from within the grass and you can touch it, make art a tactile experience.” It was not easy; in fact, it was “somewhat challenging to deal with both experiences — great distance and closeness at the same time”.

Bones are a recurring theme in Kallat's work. ‘Public Notice II', the Gandhi speech, Aquasaurus, a seven-metre long water-tanker and Autosaurus Tripous, an autorickshaw, all made of resin bones, are just a few examples of his forensic passion. According to him, “I am interested in what is not visible, what is there but you don't see it. Bones don't reveal themselves until way after a person's death. They form the innermost element in the human body. In some ways it connects to concrete or haptic poetry, where essentially the way the alphabets are modelled adds a layer of meaning.” This is the story of Kallat's need to know more. “I am interested in using text, where the alphabet itself is sculpture. The act of inscription itself has immense meaning.” For Pilane, “Given the spread-out prehistoric landscape of the site, I wanted to work with the primeval and corporal image of the bone. It is at once evocative of one's physicality as a living being and a reminder of one's mortality.”

Kallat has said, “As long as the work is self-rejuvenating, across time and people and retinas and cerebrums, it will be able to regenerate itself.” Sort of like the earth within which his bones will be held.


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