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Exhibition: Jitish Kallat maps the passage of time

The artist’s latest solo, ‘Otherwhile’, which marks 25 years since his first solo at Chemould Prescott Road, highlights themes central to his work

Jitish Kallat has consistently explored the themes of time and cosmos in his work. All images: courtesy the artist/Chemould Prescott Road
Jitish Kallat has consistently explored the themes of time and cosmos in his work. All images: courtesy the artist/Chemould Prescott Road

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At the Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, a series of 365 drawings can be seen embracing the longest single wall in the gallery. This wallpaper, of sorts, represents artist Jitish Kallat’s Integer Study (drawing from life) (2021)—it draws forms from three sets of numbers, which algorithmically estimate the human population of the planet at a particular moment, as well as the estimated births and deaths that may have occurred until that time of day. For a year, Kallat followed a ‘vocabulary of studio rituals’ that explored aesthetic questions mediated by natural elements and the passage of time. “The graph paper that forms the entire wallpaper is exactly the same grid size as the graph paper that I drew on. It’s like the same sketch book filled up the whole wall,” says Kallat.

Works such as Integer Study form a part of the exhibition, Otherwhile, which marks 25 years since the artist showed his first solo, PTO, at Chemould Prescott Road. The exhibition highlights themes such as time and the cosmos that Kallat has consistently explored in his work. “Over the years, Kallat has created a vast body of work that situates itself at the intersections of science, philosophy, history, mathematics and natural geometry,” states the gallery note. “This exhibition brings together a cross section of his vigorously diverse practice: a monumental wallpaper of drawings, large paintings, freestanding double-sided photographic works and sculpture that materialises distant cosmic phenomenon in three dimensions.”

The exhibition has been designed in a way that the various works enter into a dialogue with one another. Take, for instance, Elicitation (Cassiopeia A) (2021), a sculpture, which draws information from NASA’s open-source files about a dead star’s remains from an explosion that occurred 11,000 light-years away. That light reached our planet only in the 1600s. Interestingly, this sculpture is placed on a stack of Beinfang gridded paper, which was the drawing surface for Integer Study. Kallat’s large paintings, Echo Verse (2022), too carry forth his fascination with the cosmos and natural elements, as they derive their form from the various projections of Earth.

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Then there are double-sided, multi-scopic photo works, Epicycles (2022), which Kallat started in 2020. These layered works bring together different markers of change within his studio. “Kallat combines these familiar images with photographs drawn from the historic 1955 MoMA exhibition “The Family of Man,” which brought together hundreds of images from photographers around the world in the decade following World War II,” states the gallery note. “These meticulously produced lenticular images create an illusion of depth and impermanence as images appear or disappear while one moves around each Epicycle.”

A drawing from 'Integer Study'
A drawing from 'Integer Study'

Otherwhile, Kallat’s recent series of photo works, that the exhibition draws its name from, perfectly encapsulates the artist’s fascination with time. Kallat has rendered on glass his notational drawings from the nineties. “This is something that has recurred in my work—take, for instance, dates as an indicator of time. Whether it is 9/11, 1893, or 9/11, 2001, all of these get stacked together or layered on top of each other as Public Notice 3. Or you can see the passage of time through very transitory, fleeting atmospheric fluctuations in Wind Studies,” explains Kallat.

He also seeks to ask more fundamental questions through his work about, say, how we perceive time. “We only observe time when we observe change,” he adds. He tries to answer this through some of the larger paintings and works such as Epicycles, where small ephemeral signs of change on a studio wall or in a studio backyard get superimposed with an archive of images from the 1950s, which maps humankind through the various phases of life from marriage and childbirth to death and festivals. “Images, remote in space and time, cohabit the same surface and get animated when the viewer moves in front of them,” says Kallat.

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It’s fascinating to see how figures, statistics and hard facts transform into these fluid, nebulous forms in his work. However, Kallat feels that numbers themselves are abstract as they don’t exist in nature. Even concepts such as humanity—there is no way to see them except as internal abstraction. And it is these inner and outer worlds that manifest themselves in the artist’s works. As an artist, he is interested in what this represents symbolically—how does this alter our perception of our mortality. “It was by absolute chance that I made my first such drawing in Integer Study. This obsession with looking at a fast, ever-changing number was something I had not even reflected on. In the first part of 2021, I made a drawing and wrote down three numbers—number of us on the planet, number that had passed away at that moment and number of births on that day,” elaborates Kallat. That day, he made four other drawings, and ended up destroying those. Only the very first one remained.

'Epicycles' (2022)
'Epicycles' (2022)

The next day, he felt the impulse to draw again. He thought that this urge would fade away in the next couple of days, but little did he know that this would become the most fundamental part of his daily routine. “The drawing was producing intuitions that I as an artist or a human would seek in my everyday thinking of the world. This process of having 3 numbers became a kind of terminus from where a process could begin. Because the process was under the canopy of the numbers, it would create a micro climate in the studio, allowing me to go into directions that I would otherwise not be able to go into. These were thought forms that would emerge from a set of intuitions that were passing through my mind at the moment,” he explains.

Whether it is his large-scale paintings, text-based installations or photo works, each creation starts with the act of drawing. “When you capture a vision in your mind, it’s already the act of drawing. Drawing means to pull something, like drawing water from a well. In the same way, when out of nowhere, a nebulous idea is formed, it is an act of drawing. Whether you manifest it into a graphic mark or not is a different question,” says Kallat.

This act of drawing takes on different forms. Take, for instance, Wind Study (2015 onwards), in which the artist is not even drawing himself, but letting the wind make marks on the surface, or in another such work creating a system where rain can perform, thus capturing an image from the sky. Then there is Epicycles, for which Kallat first made a book of all the cracks, scratches on the studio floor, the abstraction on the chair formed by the weight of his body in the past seven years. “The crack in the studio wall became like a landscape. I would then end up cutting a figure, which would be smaller than that—maybe someone climbing a hill in Kyoto—and juxtapose it against that crack. So it was not just time, but also the scale and space that was changing as well,” he adds.

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The gallery note sums up the exhibition beautifully: Otherwhile, like the rest of Kallat’s artistic universe, sits between fluid speculation, precise measurement and conceptual conjectures. “The exhibition interlaces the immediate and the cosmic, the past and present, probing an invariant interiority alongside the urgencies and ambivalence of our ever-changing world,” it states.

Otherwhile can be viewed at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, from 4 December, 2022 to 4 January, 2023

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