For contemporary Indian artist Jitish Kallat, who has traversed a range of mediums in his artistic practice, it is always the idea that has driven the form and material of the artwork. Kallat, who is returning to Bombay with a solo exhibition after five years, said while he does not prefer a particular medium, his choices are defined by his “initial impulse”.
The show “Terranium Nuncius” at Mumbai’s Famous Studios that opened on Friday, features two of his major works — a new photographic and sound-based installation titled “Covering Letter” (Terranum Nuncius), and a mixed media painting on linen called “Ellipsis”. The latter is his largest painting to date.
“As an artist, my mediumistic choices are defined by the initial impulse and I do not privilege one over the other, making both the pixel and the pencil equally potent within the studio. “It is always the idea that has driven the form and material,” Kallat told PTI in an email interview.
As a result, his over two-decade-long artistic career has seen it all — from paintings, and large-scale sculptures, to photographs, installations, and videos. So, while a work like “Hue Saturation” (2012) becomes a video, “Public Notice 3” (2010) is made of 70,000 light bulbs on the stairs of a museum, and descending raindrops etch an image of the cosmos in the Rain Study (2017) drawings.
“Terrarium Nuncius”, which is the second instalment in his ‘Covering Letter’ series, showcases the artist’s persistent interest in the epistolary mode.
While the first work in the series, created in 2012, and showcased at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney and the Venice Biennale, re-cited a historic letter from Gandhi to Hitler on a curtain of mist, the latest installation “foregrounds a message that goes from us, a planet, to an unknown other, an interstellar alien”.
He draws from the two phonographic Golden Records that were hoisted onto the legendary Voyager 1 and 2 space probes launched by NASA in 1977.
“Adjusting the focal length and distance at which one views the world, in time or in space, alters the manner in which we interpret the now and immediate. As an artist and as an observer of reality this element runs through much of my work,” Kallat, who curated the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2014, said.
As part of the artwork, the gallery, which is permeated with the sound of greetings to the universe in 55 languages, houses a large round table with over a hundred backlit 3-D photographic transparencies placed on it.
To create them, Kallat has referenced the images decoded by Ron Barry, a US-based software engineer, who had converted the sound clips on the Golden Records into images, as if they were accessed by an extra-terrestrial who would have to follow a similar procedure to view the images.
These images ranged from scientific and cosmological diagrams, representations of our genetic make-up and anatomy, as well as other life forms, and architecture often annotated with measurements.
“This is a presentation of ‘our’ world to an unknown other. At a time when we find ourselves in a deeply divided world, Kallat foregrounds these sounds and images for a collective meditation on ourselves as united residents of a single planet, where the ‘other’ is an unknown ‘intergalactic alien’,” Nature Morte, one of the galleries representing Kallat, said in a statement.
The artist, however, clarified that his interest in these space probes and the contents of the Golden Record did not stem from a technological and scientific perspective, but more from a “philosophical and symbolic dimension of what they represent”.
“The probes point to a deep human need to expand and explore the distant and the inconceivable, while the contents of the Golden Record reveals the fundamental human need to communicate. The contents of the record convey evidence of our presence on this planet to an unknown, space-faring alien other.
“The two Voyagers and the Golden Record will most likely outlast us as a species and our planet, as well as our entire solar system. They remind us of our collective mortality and our collective journey on a tiny planet in an obscure corner of an ever-expanding universe,” Kallat said.
In ‘Ellipsis’, Kallat uses the “vocabulary of paint” to have a go at “forms that point to some of the mysterious aspects of our reality and let them emerge through pigment and abstraction”.
“I think at the heart of ‘Ellipsis’ is this impulse to find forms and imagery that go beyond my own perception. I paint and then I watch what I’ve painted,” he said.
The 45-year-old artist took two years to paint the 60 feet abstract work, the ideas behind which, he said, have been long-standing inquiries but directed through a “deeply probing painterly process”.
“I returned back to painting after a gap of close to five years in 2017. While working on specific canvases in 2018, parallelly I began making marks and gestures on various other canvases. These fragments began to grow slowly, gather momentum and materialise as form, converging as clusters of speculative abstractions.”
“Over the past several months these images slowly began to coalesce into a single painting titled ‘Ellipsis’. I followed the impulses as they emerged from the canvases, letting a mark or a stain direct the course of the next gesture… evocations of the bodily, the botanical, the sub-oceanic and the intergalactic all intermingle and exchange energies,” he said.
While the exhibition in Mumbai is set to continue till January 22, “Covering Letter” (Terranum Nuncius) will later travel to the Frist Art Museum, Nashville (US) for Kallat’s first solo show there.