As the curator of the second edition of the Kochi-Muzuris Biennale, Jitish Kallat had temporarily relocated to Kochi in Kerala in the months before it began in December 2014. During this period, when the city was quiet and relatively empty of visitors, he would be alone at breakfast every day and, each time he sat down at the table, his attention would be caught by the finely sliced apple that the chef of the Old Harbour Hotel would serve with the meal. He found himself looking at the minuscule marks on the skin of the fruit with new eyes. “Every slice of the apple looked to me like it had a star field on its surface,” recalls the Mumbai-based artist, “and when I returned to Mumbai, I went to Pali Naka market in Bandra and bought fruits in order to verify what I had seen in Kochi.” That was how Sightings Gen-Pap-D23M6Y2016 was born. It is a three-part photographic work depicting what looks like a galaxy or a supernova in progress.
Kallat reveals that the work is actually the close-up image of three different hemispheres of a papaya as well as the inverse of the same image. “We have epiphanies all the time, which go beyond the everyday. You may hold a papaya in your hand and yet you might see a cosmic image on its surface,” says Kallat. It’s as if the fruit carries, ingrained on its surface, the whole story of its life, from being cosmic dust to an organic matter that is consumed for sustenance.
This work, which was part of “Covariance”, his first solo exhibition in Brussels, is one of many in the show that challenges human perception. Using a compelling interplay of scale and proximity, the artist questions the notion of a singular way of looking at the world, whether it is by defamiliarising the familiar, like he does with the humble papaya in Sightings, or whether it is by forcing us to consider alternate points from which to view the world.
The two intricately detailed sculptures that comprise Covariance (Sacred Geometry), for instance, look like rocks or anthills from a distance. Go closer and you see that carved on the surface of each are the eyes of numerous species of birds, mammals, reptiles and fish.
Not only does Kallat force us to reconsider our original idea about what the sculpture is, but he also draws to our attention the fact that these eyes are based on real species that occupy the same world as us and which may have experiences that are completely different from ours.
“I don’t think we realise that other species are looking at the same world through different eyes. They all have different lifespans too, so their perception of time would be different as well,” says the 43-year-old artist.
That Kallat should tackle big ideas in his work is not surprising. He has always been one of the most ambitious artists in India, both in the scope of his ideas and in their final execution. “I’ve allowed frequent ruptures to happen in my work. But ‘allow’ is probably not the right word here. It’s more like water that flows, and you just allow it to go where it wants to, without fighting gravity,” he says.
At the same time, certain themes and motifs unite the works made over the course of his 20-year-old career. A plea for non-violence runs through the monumental 2003 work, Public Notice — Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech, rendered in rubber adhesive and set aflame — Public Notice 2 (2007) and Public Notice 3 (2010). It also has much in common with Kallat’s Wind Study series, which comprises drawings made with inflammable liquid that are set aflame and allowed to leave behind scorch marks as a form of record.
“Covariance” also includes a new suite of Wind Study works. If Sacred Geometry is an attempt to investigate other ways of looking at the world — to acknowledge those experiences and points of view that human beings typically tend to overlook — then the suite of works on paper titled Wind Study — Hilbert Curve is an attempt to make visible that which is perceived but never seen. In form, the drawings derive from the Hilbert Curves, a continuous fractal space-filling curve, first described by the German mathematician David Hilbert in 1891.
Kallat made these works outdoors and each time he lit up a line, the flame would bend according to the smallest shifts in the wind. The scorch marks left behind would thus become a record, a testament not only to the existence of wind but also to its changing moods.