IMAGES FLICKER ACROSS the expanse of a wide round table, appearing, dissolving and re-appearing as if responding to the viewer’s presence, as if activated by their gaze. They seem dated and somewhat mysterious; pages from anatomy books, images of earth’s spherical exterior, illustrations of DNA structure, excerpts of some of the world’s more famous architectural marvels. Our perception of them is accompanied by a sonic narrative on loop demonstrating a host of different languages blared from four megaphones. In proximity lurks a star-like symbol. These are the constituting elements of Jitish Kallat’s new photographic-and-sound-based installation, Covering Letter (Terranum Nuncius), which was on view at Famous Studios, Mumbai (co-hosted by Chemould Prescott Road and Nature Morte), before it travels to the Frist Museum of Art, Nashville, to be part of his forthcoming solo slated for March 2020.
For Kallat, who, through his Public Notice trilogy explored the oracular through three famous speeches, this new work, created over a five-year span, is the logical second installment within his artistic investigation of the epistolary. The first was Covering Letter (2012), in which he projected the contents of Mahatma Gandhi’s July 1939 letter to Adolf Hitler beseeching him to retreat from war over a fog mist, inviting audiences to inhabit the letter’s immateriality. This was most recently included as part of India’s official pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale. The Latin qualifier in Covering Letter (Terranum Nuncius), in parenthesis, in the new work elucidates the gist of Kallat’s mediation, translating as it does, roughly, to ‘the earthly messenger’. The wall text offers context; we learn that the images are presented to remind us that they may continue to serve as a body of evidence attesting to our inhabitation of Earth long after we are possibly annihilated as a species.
These images are and aren’t exactly among the 115-117 uploaded in 1977 onto what is famously known as the ‘Golden Record’, at the behest of scientist Carl Sagan who helped create a visual and sonic archive testifying to human existence that was sent off on the Voyager, in case it made contact with alien life form. “Because in 1977, there was not the computing capacity to put up 117 images,” Kallat tells me. “There was barely enough capacity to put up one image, so all of these images were decoded as sound files, converted from image to sound, and the sound files were uploaded on the phonographic records, imagining that any space-faring species would be smarter than us and find the codes that would have given them an indication of how to decode it.”
Kallat’s image archive includes the visuals that had been decoded by Rod Barry, who followed the trail that had been laid out for a space-faring species to access the encrypted data. “These are images that have gone through the circulation from image to sound to image and returned now as relatively more abstracted, because they’ve lost data in the transmission, they’ve lost colour… this kind of abstraction then becomes my starting point to work through them to create these images which seem to respond to movement.” They are printed on acrylic, and so, what we’re really seeing are printed lines, Kallat reminds me. “It’s seeing a world in a picture, there’s depth and dimension,” he adds.
KALLAT IS CONSCIOUS that even as we view traces of the visual archive and listen to the sonic salutations addressed to an unknown inter-stellar creature, the Voyager 1 and 2 continue to hurtle through space at the speed of 17 km per second and has the potential to outlast the human species. This fact of our impending mortality as a species should ideally be a source of comfort, possibly emboldening us to seek refuge in the collective ‘we’ that might one day posthumously address an unknown entity.
It is in this sense that the letter assumes complexity, because its recipient is a fabrication, a notional stand-in for many imaginative possibilities we are unable to even conceive because of the limits of our knowledge systems. The visual and sonic archive exhibited is meant to be received by viewers as a symbolic cluster that might constitute a shared vocabulary, especially in a world that continues to be experienced and expressed in binaries. Kallat is trying to play with our conception of otherness, how it is constructed. “Here the other becomes not the immediate other but an other whose otherness we do not know,” he says. “It’s a completely unknown other. So, for instance if we present them an image of ourselves and that of a frog, it’s likely they might imagine the image came from a frog. There’s no clarity to us that they might think it came from us, there’s no vocabulary, in fact, in these images that would actually connote certainty for us to tell anyone else we were here.”
In this way, the archive is a time capsule sent to a shared planetary entity speaking to a distant other. In his first covering letter, which is a unit of linguistic exchange from one end of human consciousness to another, from Gandhi, the purveyor of peace and non-violence, to Hitler, the progenitor of war, the viewer inhabits the center.
In this second iteration, which comes after a seven-year gap, the viewer is a sender, while the recipient is wholly unknown. “To me, that was the primary motivation,” says Kallat. “To find a symbolic set of signs, and actually, they are our story to us, when you look at them. At another level, it’s our story to an other, and clearly our mortality is another image, because we will be extinguished, our sun will be extinguished, and hence, somewhere from that idea came the luminosity and darkness as an element on the round table, that these images would emerge but not stay.”
“When I paint, it’s like walking on a rope. You cannot walk straight. You see yourself stumble into the interpretative,” says Jitish Kallat
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The gently flashing attributes of the images’ display signals, perhaps, our own impermanence. Similarly, the star-like symbol is reflective of the imprecision ingrained in our inability to fix the coordinates of our planet’s exact location in reference to deep space. In other words, where we thought we existed is not where we probably are. Kallat is playing with an elemental code of the epistolary format, the return address. “Assuming that anyone who receives this address might want to find us, in the Golden Record, a symbol was inscribed which marked our location in relation to the location of 14 pulsars,” he says. “These 14 pulsars, as we know now, we do not know fully where we are. So maybe nobody knows of our return address.” This strand, Kallat feels, is in keeping with a thematic that runs through much of his work—“this question about our certitude; anything that we think we know, how much do we actually know, and how do we observe the limits of our knowledge, in a way, this becomes the image of our return address.”
Through this body of evidence, Kallat hopes to remind us of our collective mortality in the face of galactic time. But he also invokes a sense of urgency by referencing the doomsday clock which was set in 2019 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as being at two minutes to midnight, with midnight denoting possible self-induced extinction. In 2017, the Bulletin moved the time of the Doomsday Clock a half-minute closer to midnight, in part because of our reckless approach toward nuclear weapons and a growing disregard for the expertise needed to address today’s biggest challenges, most importantly climate change.
Kallat references the shape of this apocalyptic prediction through two benches placed within the hangar-like expanse of Famous Studios which, at the Frist museum, will most likely be placed under the horn speaker. Within the current hang, the benches denote a boundary between Kallat’s Covering Letter (Terranum Nuncius) and Ellipses, a 60-feet painting. “This is something I wanted to ask. If somebody was to take repose within an installation, where would they?” says Kallat. “And the question perhaps changed in the image of the bench. The amenity becomes a carrier of signs. What is meant to be neutral ground is in fact now the point at which the exhibition begins to pivot. It’s a kind of innocent object.”
Kallat makes no effort to disguise his obsession with the cosmos, with the elements, with cartography, mathematics, and philosophical enquiry. Covering Letter (Terranum Nuncius) though, is a welcome addition to his oeuvre, because it engages in a certain level of abstracted thought where usually Kallat’s work reads like a charted territory accompanied by a legend. Even though he avowedly creates work that critiques the human desire for certitude, his work is often mired in rationality and bears traces of sound reasoning. As a viewer, encountering his work is like seeing an algebraic equation in its worked out form. You can travel through its logic using the solution as the starting point, considering he leaves such little space for doubt or agnosia. This could be read as a shortcoming of his practice, that even in its expression of awe for that which is uncertain or unknown, its methods and techniques are too resolved.
THIS SHOW FEELS like a breakthrough, not because of Covering Letter (Terranum Nuncius) but on account of Ellipses, his largest painting to date, which is a wonderfully unstable galaxy of non-figurative non-meaning. It refers to ideas, to objects, to notions and scientific concepts, to surface and texture and geological formations, and yet is a topographic ode to pure intuition. It is marvellous because it reveals the artist’s genuine embrace of uncertainty as a guiding principle in a manner which even his recent Wind and Rain Studies didn’t embody because they, despite being submissive to elemental directives, still bore immense traces of the artist’s own will. In Ellipses, Kallat allows himself to submit to formlessness as he returns to painting. Its inclusion in the show signifies a brave new potential direction for the artist, should he choose to embrace it.
“I never thought I would tear one part of a painting and stick it onto another. It’s not part of my vocabulary of things I could do,” says Jitish Kallat
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If Covering Letter (Terranum Nuncius) is a message to the unknown other, this is Kallat’s message from the unknown. “Progressively, when I paint, it’s like walking on a rope. You cannot walk straight. You see yourself stumble into the interpretative,” he says. I tell him I’ve been waiting for him to arrive at this point, and he begins to speak about experiencing, through the process of this painting, a freedom he hadn’t felt before, even referring to his old self like some other figure. “I had to make a supportive claim for my past self, that I’m not disregarding my past self… but I do feel like something has been shed.”
Kallat had kept working on many canvasses in his studio in Byculla, and the length of the probable final image was dynamic. “I never thought I would tear one part of a painting and stick it onto another. It’s not part of my vocabulary of things I could do,” he says, speaking of how he began to allow himself to create without necessarily thinking about the stage at which it might feel complete. The great lesson he learned from the experience of making what is now displayed as a 60-feet painting but was never really intended to be shown as one is something he feels he should have internalised in art school, but has come to him very late. “It sounds stupid, but what I’ve been saying these last few days is that painting, at its very fundamental level is the story of hydration and dehydration. There’s something in a tube or a can that you might hydrate to make it function, and then it will dehydrate and become image. The manner will define not the image but the condition of the image.” Kallat has become increasingly interested in the condition of the image. “It might take a river 500 years or a thousand years to change course, but in the territory of a painting, it takes four minutes,” he says.
(Terranum Nuncius will open at Bikaner House, Delhi, on January 28 and will run till mid-February)