Jitish Kallat: Anthologist of everyday life
Jitish Kallat's solo show spans an oeuvre from the early 1990s to the present day
I have always found Jitish Kallat’s choice of titles for his work fascinating. In October 2015, when he unveiled a large-scale sculpture—6m tall and 17m in diameter—in Stockerau, Austria, he called it Here After Here After Here. The title of this public work, placed at a roundabout, conveyed permanence and timelessness.
“A roundabout is an unchanging non-place that you circulate around to get to places—and yes, those places will change with time. I think the title plays with this. It is located at one point on the planet and connects to the faraway points on the planet, carrying pointers in the form of exact directions and distances rendered on its surface," he told me then. It is these same ideas of proximity, distance, of measurements and a certain suspension of the plausible, that one will find recurring in his new exhibition, Here After Here, which opens on Sunday at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi.
The exhibition, spread across two buildings of the opulent Jaipur House, will showcase Kallat’s vast oeuvre spanning painting, photography, drawing, video and sculptural installations, created over two decades. One will find a suite of large-format paintings and small drawings, titled P.T.O, from his first solo exhibition back in 1997, cohabiting with later works such as Epilogue, the Public Notice trilogy and Circa, among others.
Peter Nagy, whose gallery, Nature Morte, represents Kallat and who has also written several critical essays on his work over the years, believes the exhibition offers a significant opportunity to view the diversity of Kallat’s work, a large chunk of which has never been viewed in Delhi before because most of it was created for exhibitions outside India. “A show such as this allows a viewer to make connections between different bodies of works and between themes and threads of content, which are repeatedly revisited," he says.
It’s interesting that the artworks have not been arranged chronologically, but in a way that allows the viewer to form new meanings, when seen individually and when viewed in the context of their neighbours. “I think artworks have their own autonomy, their own birthright. In a way, they possess the ability, an inherent quality, to talk to you differently at different points of time, and also talk to different people differently at the same point of time. Works from 1992 are cohabiting the space with works made two years ago," says Kallat.
The arrangement of the works has emerged in an organic, instinctive way rather than as a premeditated decision. When Catherine David, curator of the exhibition, and Kallat began structuring the show, they put large floor plans of the two buildings in front of them, placing the tiny cutouts of the artworks on them—almost like placeholders. “When each artwork found its location, it developed its own identity. Artworks began to move across the two buildings. It was not about whether they were from 1992 or from 2010, but more about what they were saying," says Kallat.
As you move from room to room at the NGMA, you can see themes of time, death, life cycles, familial ancestry and celestial movements running like a common thread through the works. And yet the diversity in the treatment of these recurring themes is astounding. “Jitish’s work is about different scales of time, and this notion of scale is very important. His work is about cosmic time, geological time, the time it takes for galaxies to rise and fade," says poet, curator and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote, who has contributed to the specially commissioned monograph for the exhibition that is also effectively an anthology of essays.
To him, one of Kallat’s most moving works is Epilogue, which showed at the San Jose Museum of Art in the US from 2013-14. Once again drawing on themes of birth, death and survival, this was a deeply personal work—an ode to his late father through a series of photographs of progressively eaten rotis. “Each roti stood for the number of moons that his father had seen in his lifetime. The work had deep emotional resonance. That is what makes his art so compelling. It forms a deep emotional connection with our lives," says Hoskote.
I ask Kallat what it is about time and the cycle of life that holds such fascination for him. “There are questions that you live with and ask yourself," he says. “Time as a question—how do you get away from it and how do you get to it? If you take away the coordinates of time, you are left with a mere heartbeat." For instance, through his single-channel video, The Eternal Gradient, he looked at the eternal flow of time as manifested through the human-made parenthesis of a year; 365 rotis transform to show the waxing and waning of the moon. “At one point in the video, the 1st of January is shown as a full moon, which corresponds to the 1st of January that ever was and ever will be. One can see a version of The Eternal Gradient in this exhibition, called Breath," says Kallat.
This constant investigation of time is also evident in his 2005 work titled Artist Making Local Call, a 34ft-tall, 360-degree panoramic view of a street in Mumbai. “This is much before the iPhone allowed you to shoot a 360-degree view. The work is about condensed time. In a minute and a half of the call duration, we see a rickshaw and a taxi emerge from either side of the road, appearing to be on a collision course," explains Kallat. At the same time, one can see two people crossing the road. Two shadows can be seen in the image as well—making it appear as if sunset and sunrise are taking place at the same time. “In a very ordinary day, something uncanny seems to be taking place. Time simply collapses," he says.
This show offers you a sense of his personal journey too. An autobiographical narrative emerges. For instance, in many of his works, one can see his chronicle of Mumbai enmesh that of many others who cohabit the city. Nagy says this autobiographical element comes from the fact that Kallat was born and raised in Mumbai. “He is very rooted in the specifics of Mumbai, which is unlike other cities but also shares similarities with other large urban cities. So it becomes sort of a yin and yang," says Nagy.
He has elaborated on this in one of his essays from 2005, titled When Flesh Creeps, The Mind Boggles. “Mr Kallat responds to these contradictions by concocting works that graze delicately against the specifics of his city and borrow a few traits from foreign locales. His paintings share attributes common to all major metropolii (sic), exploit both the glitz and the sleaze that drives such large-scale urban economies, wrestle to make entertainment meaningful and philosophy mirthful."
Taking everyday, ordinary things and imbuing them with vulnerability and mortality forms the core of his work. “He would ruffle up the surface of the painting to form an anthology of everyday life. His works had a multilayered quality right through the 1990s," says Hoskote. For instance, the train journeys as a student from Borivali to the Sir JJ School of Art inspired Kallat, in 2007, to mount his Dawn Chorus series of paintings of street urchins on sculptures made from wall adornments found at the 128-year-old Victoria Terminus train station in Mumbai. “Mumbai moves broadly along the north-to-south needle, unlike the concentric logic of Delhi. Many people lived in the north and came down to work or study in the south. As a student, Jitish did that too. He then took those everyday actions and invested them with enormous significance," says Hoskote.
Kallat, who has called the city street his university in the past, conducts his key questioning there. His gaze continues to shift between different focal lengths to get new spaces of learning. “The view of the street is at an eye level. Then your gaze shifts to the horizon, when rotis become moons. The surface of the fruit begins to look like interstellar imagery. Both coexist—one might be transient and the other seemingly unchanging. This interplay between these two continues in a lot of my work," says Kallat.
Some of his large-scale installations are inspired by key historical moments, using questions of the past to rethink the present. For instance, in Public Notice 2, he drew on Mahatma Gandhi’s historic speech on the eve of the Dandi March, and interpreted it in 4,500 letters shaped seemingly in bone. Covering Letter, an immersive installation and video projection, presented a letter from Gandhi, one of the greatest propagators of peace, to Adolf Hitler, possibly one of the greatest perpetrators of violence, sent barely five weeks before World War II, calling for self-restraint. Through a play of dark and light, one got to inhabit a space between the two extremes. “What does one do when one doesn’t understand certain things within the lived environment? Gandhi’s call for non-violence in complete disobedience, through total abstinence, is a call we don’t get to hear any more. Call to action is always that—action. War on terror is fighting terror with terror. I am looking at a way not to live in that oxymoronic world," says Kallat.
He makes use of diverse materials—both mundane and unique—to give free rein to his imagination. For instance, in Chlorophyll Park, he uses painting, sculpture, photography and video to bring to life the proletariat figure, who actually makes the city function. While Sightings is a seven-part lenticular photo-piece, The Infinite Episode from 2015 is a series of sculptures in dental plaster. Circa, which he showcased at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum in his ongoing quest to look beyond the museum as infrastructure and as a field imbued with meaning, was a 120-part sculpture made of pigmented cast resin, steel and rope. I try to decipher his creative process, but he laughs: “When you get inside my head, tell me what you find! Each idea has its own pathway." For example, while curating the second edition of the Kochi biennale, he would have apples as part of his breakfast every day at the Old Harbour Hotel Restaurant. “When I came back, I started photographing all sorts of fruit—apples, blueberries, and more. I was not just looking at the fruit, but the inversion of colour and the colours that it absorbs. If you peel off that colour, you might peel off the illusion. So, each time a viewer moves, he can go between the image of the world as we see it or the image we want it to be," he says.
Here After Here will open at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, on Sunday, 10am-5pm (Mondays closed), and will be on display till 14 March.