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Jitish Kallat on aliens, interstellar space and breaking the otherness

Jitish Kallat in the studio with Ellipsis  

Imagine a capsule hurtling through space, 13 billion miles from Earth, with information about our species, genetic makeup, animals, architecture, language… a presentation of “our” world to an unknown other, which may come upon these ‘Golden Records’ billions of years from now. Then imagine if that discovery were made now, in our times, when there is global dissent and an absolute loss of a shared vocabulary. Will we be proud of how we appear to those who don’t know us?

Artist Jitish Kallat was three when NASA, the US space agency, sent the records on board Voyagers 1 and 2, in 1977. Over 40 years later — and after Voyager 2 beamed back its first message two months ago (shedding new light on the structure of the heliosphere, the edge of our solar system) — this attempt to reach out to a distant other has inspired the artist’s latest work, Terranum Nuncius. The solo exhibition at Famous Studio debuts Covering Letter, a photographic and sound-based installation pivoting on cosmology, and Ellipsis, a 60-foot painting, which is his largest to date.


These two works could not have come at a more appropriate time, as we find ourselves in a deeply divided world that appears hell-bent on tearing itself into opposing camps. Kallat hopes to bring about a collective meditation on ourselves as “united residents of a single planet”, where the only ‘other’ is an unknown intergalactic alien.

Contemporary artist, Jitish Kallat

Contemporary artist, Jitish Kallat   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Search for the lost

His interest in the galaxy might be a departure from his earlier allegorical work that combined self-portraiture and images of urban chaos, but not so his interest in language. “I’ve always been interested in utterances, whether it is the spoken or the written word. Speech [like in the Public Notice trilogy] helps us return to the past, to rethink what it means to be in the present,” he says, speaking about the germination of the work. “I’ve been very interested in these images dispatched into space, and now on the outskirts of the solar system. The only artefects made by our species that are in interstellar space.”

Kallat explains that the work brings viewers towards the contemplation of our mortality and extinction. “Thinking of that brings an urgency to our present moment. Also, the human desire to communicate is very powerful for me, especially in the current moment that we inhabit globally, where we see ourselves split into binaries: religious binaries, or ideological and gender separations. There is a loss of vocabulary to reach what is seemingly the other. At the heart of Terranum Nuncius is this search for a vocabulary.”

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The galaxy and beyond

Covering Letter is presented as a large round table with over 100 backlit 3D photographic transparencies on it. The images slowly illuminate and go into darkness — almost like being calibrated to the speed of human breathing. (Kallat referenced images that California-based programmer, Ron Barry, downloaded on the Golden Records’ 40th anniversary, from the sound files uploaded on Voyager.) Projected on the wall is the return address of the intergalactic ‘letter’. “It is a diagram drawn showing the location of the sun in relation to 14 pulsars. Now we know there hundreds of pulsars, so whoever finds this capsule won’t be able to find us,” he says. The projection is set to the sound of greetings in 55 languages.

“We are all as one, but we create the otherness between ourselves. That generates alienation, violence and brutality. But when the other is so far away and is unknowable, the sender of this message becomes us, a unitary planetary message... it is the summary of our existence to the universe,” he adds.

Kallat also addresses how the interstellar agent may not be able to understand our communication. “I think that somewhere, at the heart of this work, is also the absence of certitude. Everything that plays out on our television channels is about people’s sureties about themselves. So, this work reaches to the other end of the spectrum and speaks of the world we do not know,” he says.

Visitors view Covering letter by Jitish Kallat at the 58th International Venice Biennale

Visitors view Covering letter by Jitish Kallat at the 58th International Venice Biennale   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sign of the times

Meanwhile, Ellipsis — much like a “diary being laid open to read” — started as a speculation of abstractions. “I returned to painting after a gap of close to five years. While working on specific canvases in 2018, I parallelly began making marks on various other canvases. These fragments began to grow slowly, gathering momentum... and coalesced into Ellipsis,” says Kallat, commenting that the graph itself, which he drew to connect the scattered images, also began to change and atrophy as he created it. “This painting [evoking the environmental, geological, the earthly, etc] is a dive into the unknown. I believe that my works, politically or socially motivated, cannot be read only in one manner,”

He illustrates his comment with the example of the first edition of Covering Letter, where he projected a letter from Mahatma Gandhi to Hitler, pleading for peace, on to clouds of artificial fog. “It premiered at the Philadelphia Museum of Art at a time when Trump had just won the elections and that had a deep bearing on the manner in which the work was read,” he says. It has since travelled widely and was last exhibited at the 2019 Venice Biennale, as part of the India Pavilion show, Our Time for a Future Caring.

One hopes that Kallat’s latest contemplations will be read in the right spirit. After all, as the artist repeatedly states in his interviews, “My primary need is not to produce a placard pointing to one message, but a cluster of signs to create self-reflection.”

The exhibition is on till January 21, at Famous Studio, Worli, Mumbai. Details:

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 9:38:48 PM |

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