Jitish Kallat: Through Time's Telescope
Otherwhile, Jitish Kallat's solo exhibition at Mumbai's Chemould Prescott Road, opened 25 years to the day since P.T.O.—Kallat's debut show with the gallery in 1997.
Exhibition view: Jitish Kallat, Otherwhile, Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai (4 December 2022–4 January 2023). Courtesy the artist and Chemould Prescott Road. Photo: Anil Rane.
Expanding from that first exhibition, Otherwhile (4 December 2022–4 January 2023) explored existential questions linked to the passing of time through a range of works including paintings, sculpture, and multi-scopic photos.
Light gridded graph lines papered across the gallery's longest wall form the basis of Kallat's mural, Integer Study (drawing from life) (2021). Punctuating the minimalist regularity were individual drawings made every day throughout 2021—a combination of graphite and watercolour pencil stained with gesso. Shapes shift and colours bleed, yet numerical annotations remain consistent.
Akin to a datascape, each image logs the world's population along with numbers of births and deaths as estimated by a live online algorithm.
'It's almost like a stopwatch in an athletic race,' says Kallat. 'You can see the numbers spill out, every moment they flicker away. There are births, births, births, and then deaths, deaths, deaths. It did something to my internal rhythm.'
Exploring the enumeration of human experience and the codification of knowledge is at the core of Kallat's practice. As Sabih Ahmed wrote, Kallat is preoccupied with 'forces that are at once larger than what human imagination can grasp and infinitesimally smaller than what technologies can measure'.
The accumulating numbers splayed out by the work are bewildering in their magnitude. Over just four days, from 24–27 October 2021, the population increased by nearly 650,000. 'It becomes an ecological question,' Kallat considers. 'Is this tenable?'
Kallat's interests traverse various scientific disciplines, ranging from cosmology and geometry, as well as social histories and philosophical thought—strands of inquiry that bend and meld in his work.
'A lot of the work is, in fact, a response to an overwhelming feeling of not being able to make sense of certain ideas that are fundamental to our existence, and which are beyond the scope of the relative... The tools of art function in the sphere of the relative but they might occasionally point to the fundamental.'
The painting series 'Echo Verse' (2022) draws on a range of historic maps that sought to represent and comprehend Earth. Kallat echoes the Waterman Butterfly Projection, devised by Steve Waterman in 1996, in one painting offering a shape of a flattened globe with the Earth splayed out into eight octants.
Rather than mark out the terrain, Kallat fills the sections with plant species, oceanic life, and geometric constellations that free-fall against a backdrop of graph paper lines, hand-drawn with subtle irregularities.
The grid formation can be considered the show's leitmotif. A stack of graph paper leaves sits underneath and bolster Kallat's sculpture, Elicitation (Cassiopeia A) (2021).
The white form, evocative of a rough hunk of coral, is a 3D print of matter ejected from a dying star 11,000 light-years away. According to NASA, the star released vast masses of sulphur, silicon, iron, and oxygen in its destruction—close to three times that of the Sun's mass.
For the artist, the paper base is therefore 'a question back to all the integer drawings. Is the ejecta of that star a form of death or was it expelling life? The enormity of all these questions about life and death is really what the work struggles with'.
It follows that a series of holographic collages, 'Epicycles' (2022), contain images that come from The Family of Man, the seminal photography exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1955.
Over 20 years later, in 1977, NASA conducted an interstellar mission. In anticipation of meeting new life forms, two space probes—Voyager 1 and 2—were launched with a greeting in the form of sound recordings and 115 images, including photographs from The Family of Man. The exhibition, as curator Edward Steichen set out, encapsulated 'the gamut of life from birth to death'.
Kallat arranges cut outs from the catalogue with fragments from the nearby mural and drawings that document micro-details in his studio, including fine cracks in the walls. 'It's like a floating petri dish. Small signs of change and ephemeral markers of transience occupy space alongside figures that come from another time and place,' he says.
Kallat's compositional strategy resembles his curatorial approach. Collapsing time and place, his two-part group show, Tangled Hierarchy, travelled from John Hansard Gallery in Southampton to Kiran Nadar Museum of Art's 2022 Kochi-Muziris Biennale Kochi venue.
Departing from an exchange between Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Louis Mountbatten in the June preceding Partition, the exhibition explored the trauma of India's amputation in 1947 and its relationship to other partitioned lands and bodies. Included were works from artists such as Kader Attia, Mona Hatoum, Zarina, and S.L. Parasher, as well as scientific artefacts and archival documentation.
Kallat deployed the exhibition mode to 'fold time, space, place, context into each other'. He explains that this is his way of offering a possibility 'for us to telescope into the distant past and make meaning of the present'.
Similar principles concerning the malleability of time and place underpin Kallat's forthcoming commission for the Somerset House courtyard, opening next month as part of the institution's marking of Earth Day 2023 on 22 April. Set in the littoral zone of the Thames, Kallat hints that environmental sensitivities, as well as the history and architecture of the vast site, will converge in the work. —[O]