Jitish Kallat- the Alchemist
by Franck Barthelemy
Jitish Kallat, born 1974, is an artist of different breed: omnipresent, in Delhi for the last Art Summit, in Mumbai for his new show Stations of a Pause, in Chicago for Public Notice 3, and in France for the Indian Highway IV. He is an alchemist who travels through time and marks his passage every time he stops. The viewers, who have a chance to see his works, and the listeners, who have a chance to listen him, will be impressed, like me, by the structure and the organization of his works, whether we are talking about paintings, installations, photos or videos. His works are Clean and neat, well cut and defined.
The Aquasaurus (2008) and the Autosaurus Tripous (2007) that were picked up by Thierry Raspail, the MAC Lyon director, to be exhibited at the Indian Highway IV in Lyon (France) are good examples of the style I am describing : well shaped recognizable carcasses of vehicles, a road water tanker and a rickshaw, made of resin bones. The skeletal looks of the vehicles connect the viewers with both prehistory and Indian social urban issues: water, transport and pollution. Jitish projects the viewers in the future where the war between environment and urbanization is over. The winner is left to the viewer's judgement. Is the Aquasaurus redundant because there is no more water issue in India? Has it become prehistory because the world succumbed to its thirst and a new civilization is having an anthropological look at the human beings' dead civilization? I am impatient to hear back from the French audience and listen to their interpretations. It would be interesting to understand how they connect to the works. Jitish is not a new face to France. His works have already been shown quite a few times there, as early as 1998 when he was selected for Art du Monde, an exhibition organized in Paris presenting two artists from 50 countries. He was chosen as a representative of Indian Art, a qualification Jitish would probably reject today. 'My practise should not be marked as Indian. I don't deny my natural roots but art objects are instances that connect with the world', says he. Jitish works in Mumbai for sheer convenience. But what interests him is the city as a living entity where one finds 'themes' like 'urbanscape', time, death, survival, happiness, anxiety, fatigue, violence, terrorism, AIDS and many others, for him ' Mumbai is just a stage'. He does not talk about Mumbai but of what's happening in the city. And when asked whether he could live anywhere else, Jitish answered 'maybe in a smaller city when Mumbai gets mad'. Let me take a bet: he will never leave Mumbai. It is in his art, it is in his blood. And Jitish finds something key in the city: 'fluidity'. Whether we talk about inspiration or physical move from home to his study or home to his studio, there is a fascinating flow. The juxtaposition of the many different areas he connects with and the even more different emotions they generate find their way to his works, obsessively, often dramatically.
There is a narrative dimension in Jitish's works. He said 'Art work is a venue for a story'. But there is no one way to read it. Viewers can feel free to connect with the work and invent their narratives. Their visual response to a work can collide with reality and create a story. The same way, the artist can find an impulse to create in his memory, an old article that he had read or an old image that he suddenly remembers. The Public Notices¹, if I may say, fall into this category of works. Jitish represented visually three historical speeches when they clashed with reality and obviously Jitish's way of seeing it. Nehru's Independence Day speech, Gandhi's Dandi March speech and Vivekananda's Parliament of World's Religions speech found their ways to Jitish's studio when reality brought them to his memory, whether it was the Gujarat riots or 9/11. With his alchemist's tools, mirror, fire, bones and lights, he used the words the same way a theatre director would have directed his actors on stage in order to form a piece of public art. In Public Notice (2003), the burnt letters are dancing with the viewer's reflection(s) in the mirror. In Public Notice 2 (2007), the bones are playing with the viewer's representation of death, maybe his/her memory and instinct of survival. In Public Notice 3 (2010), the hundreds of colour lights interact with the viewer's perception of words and maybe worlds. And Jitish's magic wand dramatically deep roots his art into reality connecting it with current events. He might suggest us that answers to today's questions and challenges can be found in history. Is revisiting the texts a way forward? That is the question.
This direct connection to reality that one might like could well be a trademark of Jitish's works. In the mid 90s, he developed a popular art style inspired by bill boards, television and computer. He explored these mass media languages in a similar way Andy Warhol or Jasper Johns explored consumerism in the 60s. Jitish said: "I take it [pop art] but I do something else; I talked about death and not tomato Ketchup". And indeed, Jitish carries different narratives in resonance with his generation. Though he talks about themes that could question and challenge the viewers, Jitish's works could be interpreted as statements but the artist sees himself as a contributor, and surely not an activist. If 'activism is a by-product' of his practise, he does not mind, but he leaves the possible interpretations to his audience. The freedom to read the different layers of his works is immense and should remain so.
I see in Jitish's art practise as a passion for the moment in a very epicurean way. Whether the artist talks about death or life, love or crime, he captures the intensity of an instant that might make his practise ephemeral or historical. It seems that the alchemist at work again!
¹Public Notice, 2003; Public Notice 2, 2008; Public Notice 3, 2010
Image Courtesy: The Artist