The universe in an apple

Jitish Kallat’s work, now showing at two Mumbai galleries, pushes the boundaries of the mind and the heart.

Updated - September 23, 2016 02:38 am IST

Published - January 23, 2016 08:19 pm IST

GANDHI'S WORDS: Covering Letter 2012

GANDHI'S WORDS: Covering Letter 2012

It’s been five years since Jitish Kallat has shown in Mumbai. And with his unerring flair for the dramatic and the relevant, he presents two shows in the city. Covering Letter at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Sanghralaya, co-presented by the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, focuses on a note from Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler, while Sightings at the Chemould Prescott Road gallery merges drawings, sculptures, photo-works and video. Together, they are just a slice of the life that is Jitish Kallat, a man who pushes the boundaries of his own mind, and of the perception of what makes art art.

About 13 years ago, he showed Public Notice (2003), burning Jawaharlal Nehru’s well-known ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech into acrylic mirrors. Public Notice 2 (2007) had fibreglass bones forming the words of a speech given by Mahatma Gandhi at the Sabarmati Ashram before the Dandi March. And Public Notice 3 (2010) connected the First World Parliament of Religions (September 1893) with the 9/11 terrorist attack in the US, using Swami Vivekananda’s words calling for universal tolerance and the end of bigotry and religious fanaticism. In the same sentiment is Covering Letter, first seen in 2012 at the Kyiv Biennale in the Ukraine. In the five-year interval since then “tons of things have happened — shows at the San Jose, Melbourne, Sydney, Bhau Daji Lad, Kochi Biennale, Austria,” he says.

Covering Letter melds technology with emotion, light with darkness, water with air. Kallat explains, “This letter exists as a facsimile at Mani Bhavan. It is among a set of documents, older texts, and words that I have lived with for a while. The work emerged somewhere in my head in 2009,” but took some years to be realised. “In the middle of the room is a descending film of mist within which is a slowly ascending set of words. ‘Dear friend, friends have been urging me to write to you for the sake of humanity…’ It’s like a call for introspection on what one can do to save humanity from going to a savage state. It’s only when you go through the seven lines that you realise that the author is Gandhi and the intended recipient is Hitler. So while the letter itself is just a nebulous mass of photons and water molecules, somewhere within is the possibility to not just encounter it as an apparition in the room, but also as something one can traverse with one’s body. As a viewer walks through, “You momentarily disrupt the letter. To me, it is hard for me to tell where the work is in the work. Is it in those words, or in the traversability of what happens in the space, is it in the memory of how individuals may perceive Gandhi or Hitler, or is it somewhere in the middle of one’s own self?”

Walking through the mist is an eerie experience. “There is some sensation that if you stand in the letter, so to speak, it is descending on you, but is also physically climbing on you. You become part of it almost. To me while it is a letter written by Gandhi to Hitler, it felt like a gesture meant to go beyond its delivery date and intended recipient.

Kallat believes that in some way artworks change you even before they become artworks. “You encounter stimuli, 70,000 thoughts a day. Some recur out of habit, others for meaningful reasons — that is always a process a self-transformation. To me, a letter like this — because of its deep ambiguity and my own extent of uncertainty of what that ambiguity means — has been very relevant. That relevance only becomes meaningful if it finds a form that can become a transformative experience for somebody else.” That, he explains, is why the gestation period between his works are so long.

“In each of these instances there are no words that are mine. In all three Public Notices, the historical words are uttered in some extremely tense and rich context. All these correlates make a third dimension of heightened reading of that same text.” Covering Letter follows that same thought-process. “Here too, the letter exists exactly in the same form as we see it, typos and all, except that the paper is replaced by mist. The letter is really not there — what you walk through is an illusion of it.” But this is not just airy-fairy expostulation. For Kallat, “We always work with what exists — there is nothing that does not exist.” At a level of stimuli or idea it is nothing but the reconstitution of many strands of experience and information. At the level of objecthood, it is merely the reorganisation of molecules.” Introspection is the name of the artistic game, since “When does one thing lead to the other? You are never aware of that moment. That is why the artistic process becomes both a mystery for yourself and a perennial process of discovering through pointing to things. You come into the exhibition to go somewhere else — the show is just the viewing device.” Is this a feeling experience or a thinking one? “Both — thinking cannot be separated from feeling. To me, all other sensorial experience within and around an art object or at any moment in life is equally important.”

For Kallat, an art object is most effective when it is a door for self-reflection. It is not just a commentary on the world but something that people internalise and introspect upon.

Sightings is a much lighter collation, of fruit. “The photo-works are called Sightings D19, M12, Y2015, which seem to be codes that appear as astronomical sightings from astrophysicists. But it is actually a date, 19 December 2015, when I bought seven fruits from Pali Naka market,” he laughs. The inspiration came from the Kochi Biennale, when the chef at the hotel would serve neatly sliced apples. When Kallat looked at them, he saw stars, constellations. He created close details of the fruit — the surface of an apple, a melon… “As you move in front of the photograph, it will unveil its own negative. And in that unveiling, it seems to unfold a deep expanse of images of the universe.” For Kallat, the skin of the apple looked like the roof of a planetarium.

Within Sightings are three or four bodies of work that point in divergent directions, but in related ways. The Infinite Episode is like a dormitory of 10 sleeping species and “the only thing that happens in that moment of sleep is that the animals surrender scale, so the size of a sleeping mouse or a sleeping elephant becomes the same.” He also made graphite lines, and then went to a tree and put inflammable adhesive on each line. He set them aflame and with every line that burned, the fire left a direction mark of where the wind came from. “And so it becomes almost a transcript of the conversation between wind and fire on the paper,” he says.

In the centre of the gallery is a video called the Eternal Gradient, a personal favourite. “It is a coming together of 365 rotis , which together form a lunar year. This by default is half-bright, half-dark. The rotis begin to transform, with each beginning a journey from being a moon to a new moon. In a way, in the life cycle of the video is the eternity of time, captured through the lunar year. It takes about three minutes. It could be any year — 2012, 05BC — that has that correlation of full moons and new moons.”

And after this is done, when letters fade into time and the fruit is eaten, there is more for Kallat to look forward to. Exhibitions in Japan, the US, and beyond. This is, after all, just another stage in the cycle.

Covering Letter: The Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, CSMVS; January 15-28.

Sightings: Chemould Prescott Road; January 22-February 25.

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