The apples cut up and served for breakfast at the Old Harbour restaurant in Fort Kochi were arranged in a manner that pleased the eye. But to Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat, 43, who was in the city curating the 2014 Kochi Muziris Biennale, the fruit, or rather its skin, looked like a window to another world.
“I would keep looking at the apple and thinking that there’s a small little sliver of the galaxy on its skin,” says the artist, currently in Delhi for his solo exhibition, Here After Here, which opens on January 14 at the National Gallery of Modern Art.
“When I returned to Mumbai in April 2015, I went to the market and bought seven fruits and photographed them,” he says. The fruit of that inspiration is his 2015 work Sightings, a set of lenticular prints depicting images of fruit skins, which flip, as you move closer, to reveal their chromatic opposite. So, the inverse of a familiar mango skin is blue and its dark spots appear as white stars or exploding supernovas and vice versa, depending on where you’re standing. This seeing of “the celestial in the terrestrial” and vice versa and of one cosmic energy animating all life is a familiar theme in Kallat’s work.
The show which puts together artworks created over two-and-a-half decades has been curated by French art historian Catherine David. There are close to 100 of Kallat’s creations — paintings, photographs, drawings, installations, sculptures — on display at the exhibition, which highlights the major stopovers in the artist’s journey. The works have been arranged thematically rather than chronologically. “You will find newer and older works in juxtaposition, where you could even jump a decade between two works,” says Kallat, who completed his BFA from the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art in 1996.
Among the exhibits are his well-known art works such as the Epilogue (2010-2011) — a mapping of the 22,889 moons his late father saw in his lifetime depicted as waxing and waning rotis; the trilogy of installations, Public Notices; Mahatma Gandhi’s letter to Adolf Hitler recreated as the video installation Covering Letter (2012); the bone vehicles Autosaurus Tripous (2007) and Aquasaurus (2008) — which are being shown in Delhi for the first time — as well as paintings and drawings from his initial years, going back as early as 1992.
Born out of doubt
Public Notice (2003) displays words from the first Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech on five life-sized acrylic mirrors with each letter incinerated, which warps the mirrors. “I began with the feeling that some of the answers for the complexities in the world might be hidden in words which were spoken, which could be materialised into a physical experience to reflect: for me and for anyone who looks at it,” Kallat says, of the work which was a response to the carnage that took place in Gujarat in 2002.
The second in the series, Public Notice 2 (2007), reproduces Mahatma Gandhi’s speech before the 400 km Dandi March in 1930, where he set out to make salt from seawater and break the unfair British Salt Law. Each letter from his speech, recreated using 4,479 resin pieces, looks like fossilised bones set against a turmeric yellow background. The installation Public Notice 3 (2009), exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago from September 11, 2010 to 2011, connects Swami Vivekanand’s speech delivered on September 11, 1893, at the First World Parliament of Religions to the World Trade Center attacks 108 years later.
The Public Notice series, says Kallat, was born out of a doubt. “Could this act of re-reading, an act of rethinking be repurposed now? Can reciting an old word spoken at a momentous historical location in time be of some fundamental value now?”
While these artworks are ever relevant in the conflict-ridden modern age, Kallat sees them as not being political but timeless. “There is another installation, Covering Letter, which is a letter written from Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler, five weeks before World War II. But it could be something written to anyone and anywhere. It is a seven-line letter asking you whether you can change the world from going to a savage state. It is something we can ask ourselves every day,” he says.
The act of putting together these select works from his entire oeuvre would have, without doubt, been an enormous exercise in self reflection. Kallat says looking for coherence in the polyphony of his work for the exhibition helped confirm what he has known all along — the cyclical nature of his work.
“It is almost like one idea that reincarnates as its next iteration is almost sometimes half a decade later. The thematic arena of these works is often overlapping and often parallel.”
The sculptures — Aquasaurus and Autosaurus — of vehicles burnt in riots were initially conceived as drawings around the same time that Kallat was working on the first Public Notice. “Public Notice was exhibited, but the drawings were not. When I moved studios in 2006, I found them in boxes but the context had changed in my mind and they had become sculptures.”
Working on these life-size resin, paint and steel skeletal sculptures planted the idea for Public Notice 2, says the artist. “When I began working on Autosaurus, it was as if through that sculpture, the speech that Gandhi delivered calling for total noncooperation but total peace which had been sitting in my mind for those four years without a form, finally finds that form. The works may enter different trajectories of thinking, yet they emerge from the same core: the same drawings.”