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Jitish Kallat’s vocabulary for a divided world

In his solo in Mumbai in five years, Jitish Kallat looks at ways of cutting across ideologies and talking to the 'other'

Jitish Kallat
Jitish Kallat (Photo courtesy Nature Morte and Chemould Prescott Road)

In a darkened space at Famous Studios in Mumbai, a round table suddenly pulsates to life. Over 100 three-dimensional transparencies light up at intervals. “They emit light at the pace of a human breath—slowly emerging and then going away," says Jitish Kallat, who is showing this as part of his new work, Covering Letter (Terranum Nuncius).

Co-presented by Nature Morte, Delhi, and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, Terranum Nuncius is the artist’s first solo in his home city in five years. These backlit transparencies re-invoke sounds and images from the Golden Records, which were placed aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 probes by US space agency Nasa in 1977 in an effort to represent all of mankind as residents of Earth to the “other", alien life located millions of miles away. Next to the table, four horns emit sounds of greetings in 55 languages to highlight the shared vocabulary across cultures and ideologies.

At 60ft, ‘Ellipsis’ is Jitish Kallat’s largest painting yet
At 60ft, ‘Ellipsis’ is Jitish Kallat’s largest painting yet (Photo courtesy Nature Morte and Chemould Prescott Road)

Another part of Famous Studios hosts yet another landmark work—a 60ft painting, Kallat’s largest yet, which hangs suspended in mid-air. An enquiry into the very process of painting itself, Ellipsis has been a performance in the studio for over two years. “It has finally staged itself as images," says Kallat. In an interview with Lounge, Kallat draws connections between both Ellipsis and Covering Letter (Terranum Nuncius), which evolved parallelly over two years. Edited excerpts:

‘Covering Letter (Terranum Nuncius)’ re-invokes images from the Golden Records hoisted on to ‘Voyager 1’ and ‘2’ in 1977
‘Covering Letter (Terranum Nuncius)’ re-invokes images from the Golden Records hoisted on to ‘Voyager 1’ and ‘2’ in 1977 (Photo courtesy Nature Morte and Chemould Prescott Road)

The previous version of the ‘Covering Letter’, which was also shown at the 58th Venice Biennale, was inspired by a letter sent by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler just weeks before World War II. How does this new version take forward the idea of the need to communicate across time and space?

In my work, there is a consistent connection with the celestial—the distant becomes a way to rethink the present moment. In the previous Covering Letter, the author of the letter was Gandhi and the recipient Adolf Hitler. In a way, they became two ends of the spectrum of human consciousness. But in Terranum Nuncius, something else happens. The dispatching of the letter happens from a location which is our collective singular address on the tiny speck that we inhabit in the cosmos. And the recipient is an unknown interstellar space-faring alien—an “other", which is so apart from us.

There is no real awareness about what that entity is, its ability to understand, capacity to construe what we are saying. There is no shared language. But at the heart of it, this work addresses the questions of today—when two religions can’t talk to each other, or two ideological factions can’t talk to each other, and the loss of a shared vocabulary. When we think of this very distant “other" in the conversation, it makes us reflect on these close “others" that we share our social space with. You will see images of human figures, animals, measurements. Species from other star clusters can’t be expected to know English, but certain diagrams, lines, circles and binary codes are assumed to be at the very fundamental root of a shared language. One can think of an analogy of us talking among our warring selves. The work comes from a desire to look at a shared vocabulary in a divided world.

What led you to the Golden Records?

The Golden Records are likely to outlive us, our solar system and even perhaps the merging of the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy. As an artist, I am interested in what this represents symbolically—how does this alter our perception of our mortality? The images are not exactly the 116 images that were uploaded on to the Records. In 1977, there wasn’t enough computing capacity to put in so many images on to a disc. So, they were uploaded as small files, in which images were converted into coded sounds. These were decoded during the Golden Records’ 40th anniversary by California-based programmer Ron Barry.

The decoded images were devoid of colour, had lost detail and information and were somewhat abstract. These became the starting point for me to create this work. I have created a pulsating table, of sorts, which seems to breathe light. On the wall is a static-looking video projection of a diagrammatic map. That is the written address, which was marked on the Golden Records, to indicate our location within the solar system in relationship to the 14 pulsars. Today, we know there are possibly a billion pulsars in the Milky Way, but back then only 14 were known. Hence our mentioned address is also provisional. This raises the question about our actions in the world and the manner in which we might approach them with a degree of certitude. If we mount the things we know on top of each other, that pile would be extremely small in the face of things we don’t know.

Your other work, ‘Ellipsis’, marks your return to painting after a gap of five years. How did this work, comprising 12 panels and 17 canvases, come together organically?

I hadn’t painted for some time. It was a completely unforeseen gap between 2013 and 2018. When I returned to the studio after opening my large retrospective-like exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi, in 2017, I had an urge to start painting again. I wonder if this was triggered when I started looking at the backsides of my canvases from the 1990s after a gap of 25 years. But I also felt that I didn’t want to do it with the same reflexes and muscle memory as before. So, I started freely painting on multiple canvases, some of which progressed and some of which didn’t.

What are the connections between the various canvases within ‘Ellipsis’?

In this work, I let the pigments speak. And that language lies in a nebulous space that hovers between abstraction and fairly recognizable imagery. All the canvases in Ellipsis began while I was working on some other pieces. They were all half done, something here and something there. I never thought of them becoming one work at any particular point. But then, around eight-nine months ago, I felt like they could talk to one another. These islands of images became an archipelago.

I started to feel like there was a relationship between them, and slowly began to see them together. For instance, if there were two images, a third one appeared like a bridge to connect them. In some others, a correlation between two elements triggered a completely different element somewhere else. In this way, painting has become a little laboratory, on which one can let pigment lead the process. Both Covering Letter (Terranum Nuncius) and Ellipsis emerged in my studio parallelly, and yet I had never planned on exhibiting them together. Just for the sake of analogy, if the former is about the conversation between us and the unknown other, then maybe Ellipsis is a conversation between me and the unknown.

Terranum Nuncius is on display at Famous Studio, Mumbai, till 21 January.

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