Hans Ulrich Obrist: This is not the first time we speak and do a recording, but since this is a retrospective book, let us start from the beginning. How did you come to art, or how did art come to you?
Jitish Kallat: As far back as I can remember, I was incessantly drawing. When I look back, I recollect this day when my sister, who is eight years older than me, was struggling to make a drawing in her biology book. I must have been around five years old at the time and volunteered to do the drawing for her and sat beside her making the drawing on another sheet of paper. It so appeared that I could do a better drawing, and this got my sister and the family all excited, giving a naïve boost to my juvenile self-worth.
When I look back, I think this incredible alchemy happens when you draw, especially when you’re a child; you make a mark and you create space, you add a few lines, and you derive depth. As you add more marks, a world begins to originate on a piece of paper, and you feel incredibly empowered. I think well into my mid-teens I was persistently and obsessively drawing.
Who were the inspirations for you at the time? I was wondering for you, in India, who were the kind of artists? I was once told by M.F. Husain himself that almost every household in India has a postcard of M.F. Husain. I was wondering if he was someone you came across, and did he inspire you?
I had seen Husain reproductions as a child before I entered the art school. He sort of symbolized the general public’s perception of a modern artist in post-Independence India. I wasn’t really deeply aware of modern art movements until I entered art school, purely drifting from drawing to an interest in billboards and the manner in which data gets both condensed and amplified on them.
No, advertisements. And so, I landed up in art school not knowing whether my interest lay in the applied arts or fine arts. I think the epiphany was olfactory. I remember walking through the fine arts department at Sir. J. J. School of Arts, where the smell of paint filled the high-ceilinged corridors lined with plaster casts. I think I subliminally knew that I was in the right place. This, in the year 1990.
At the time, the school was deeply oriented towards abstraction, something I too inherited in my very early days. There was a very magnetic teacher, Prabhakar Kolte, whose work and his own affinities with the Bauhaus school had a cast on the aesthetics of the school. By 1992, I began noticing seismic shifts in my relationship with abstraction, wherein, emerging from a field of abstraction would be fragments of texts, notations or imagery. It was as if the external world was emerging from a field of abstraction and seeking coherence as representational form. In the earliest canvases I painted in 1994–95, the figuration emerged by quarrying layers of paint. The forms were a result of peeling layers of paint as if time was acting upon the pigment, dislodging it and exposing the layers below. Such a process would reveal a self-image and around this autoportrait would proliferate questions about time, ancestry, death, mortality, sustenance and all the themes that still continue to surface in the work.
There is the recurrent idea of time, there is the clock, the self-image in a clock.
Yes Hans. I think of pieces such as Flower Child Operates the Funeral of a Schedule that I made within weeks of completing art school in 1995. The painting playfully commemorates the death of a six-year routine, ceremoniously depicted as the death of a wristwatch, a renewed pact with time, the self at once entrapped and liberated from time. At one end of the painting, ants rush to devour a watch in a Daliesque banquet; elsewhere, a watch moves from a flute-bearer’s wrist to a case/coffin. At the bottom of the painting, the senses are shut down, enveloping one’s head in a white drape. It’s a question I continue to ask myself today; if we obliterate every external marker of change, could time exist for us, would our breath and heartbeat be the only indicator of time? These inquires may have metaphysical undertones but were always encoded and mischievously cloaked in the guise of the mundane narrative, such as the concluding rite at the end of campus life.
So, in 1997, there was your first show, titled P.T.O. Where was this show? In these early pictures, there was the autobiographical and there as already the notion of time.
P.T.O. took place at Gallery Chemould, which is currently called Chemould Prescott Road, and at Prithvi Gallery (now non-operational), which used to be an interesting convergence point for people from theatre and the performing arts. These very early pictures were made at a time when I was about 22 years old. It was a time when I was asking myself existential questions like who am I, what am I here for, what is life and death, how do you reconcile moral and ethical ambiguities? And some of those questions really became the central pivot around which those paintings were made. A question that preoccupied me was this whole idea of ancestry, which was at once family ancestry, a larger cultural ancestry but also the specific artistic ancestry that was propelling me to make those pieces. While I was struggling to find a visual language that would help me instrumentalize the act of picture-making as a tool to engage with life’s questions, I was also simultaneously questioning my evolving pictorial language. I think it was less apparent to me at the time, but when I look back, it seems like I was asking myself: What does the manner in which I paint tell me about who I am? And how do I find clues to the co-ordinates of my existence (family, city, nation, planetary) in the piece that I am making? I often think of the pieces in P.T.O. (Please Turn Over) like a series of cryptic diagrams. The pictures were like a weather-beaten public wall, like a communal pin-up board on which private images and ideas were arranged and overlaid, like palimpsests.
In the early nineties, one could say that the living room in India was changing. Following the economic liberalization, the television set began to beam a different soundscape, with varied languages and diverse information from across the world. The information was arranged differently on this renewed TV screen, and these codes of how ‘the image’ was configured began to affect the way I painted. The paintings at once appeared like a flickering TV screen and a deteriorating public wall where layers were peeled to reveal the underpainting. It was as if a city wall with layers of information pasted on had degraded with the passage of time and the sun, rain and wind acting upon it. The paintings seemed old at the very moment I would finish painting it, as if the act of painting was an acceleration of time. If Bhupen Khakhar’s paintings were windows with images showing through, mine were walls with images plastered on.
And in 2000, something happens because there is your first installation, there is also your showing at the Havana Biennial with Random Access Memory. The year 2000 is already the digital age. Information grows exponentially but that doesn’t actually mean that we have more memory. One could say that amnesia may be somewhere rooted as the very core of the digital age. It’s so interesting that artists protest against forgetting and work with memory…
Yeah Hans, these 108 drawings, made using heat on fax paper, were an intertwining of memory and amnesia, materialization of an image and its subsequent disappearance. Random Access Memory (108 Stopovers for a Pillion Pilgrim), exhibited at the 7th Havana Biennial, were made on exposed thermal fax paper by applying heat; thus, the tools and the medium were the electric iron, the incense stick, the candle stick, hot and cold water, and minimal use of pigment that adhered with heat.
Titled Communication in Difficult Times: One Closer to the Other, that edition of the biennial was being realized with little or no budget. I was invited to participate based on my large canvases that the curators had seen. But when I heard about the complex budget scenario and read the curatorial note, I felt I must simply obliterate shipment from this “artistic communication in difficult times”. Such was the trigger to migrate from canvas to a transmission “communication” material such as fax paper, which collectively weighed less than a pack of face tissues but would unfold at the biennial as an enormous double helix of imagery. At the centre of this enormous recital was a self-image posing as a tourist-pilgrim negotiating the massive whirl whose 108 stations were the ancient pilgrimage sites of India, art historical fragments and personal trivia coded as image. The number 108 has numerous connotations in Indian and Asian traditions; it has astronomical significance and is also the number of beads on a seeker’s chanting chain, an analogy one felt while repeatedly returning to the same format of fax paper. At the end of the biennial, the drawings were distributed amongst the numerous volunteers who helped mount the exhibition. Since these pieces were made on fax paper, the thermal stains were deemed to inevitably erase themselves in the homes of the volunteers in the course of six or eight months.
And then of course, in the early 2000s; there’s more and more connection to the city. Something that doesn’t appear in the earlier work that has less to do with the urban. It’s interesting because we can’t really make a portrait of a city as it is far too complex, so it’s not a portrait of a city but captured through trajectories, through movements. But Rickshawpolis is a portrait of a city in a way. And then Artist Making Local Call is also connected to the city, so are the 365 Lives.
I think of pieces I painted in 1998, such as 1. Ordinary Recipe 2. Reading from My Old City Book, Mailing the Same to Good God’s Cook, or a painting I made in 1999 titled Canis Familiaris; A Dog’s Life, which was exhibited in Century City, 2000, at the Tate Modern. In Ordinary Recipe, the self-image is at the centre, but in the upper fringe, a peoplescape gets treated like an abstracted map. In the three or four years that followed, this people-scape would become the central image in many of the paintings. But, as you point out, in the mid-2000s, the city gets foregrounded, somewhat like a protagonist.
The Rickshawpolis paintings were these dense, distilled images of convergence, acceleration, ceaselessness; a painted collision-scape. Perhaps that is why they can be exhausting to look at. They are notations of the everyday that seem un-governed by gravity or time. In reaching for the momentary and the transient, they multiply, disorganize and get overlaid. If observing nature helps us connect with our internal rhythms, observing cities perhaps helps access the turbulent top layers of our inner selves. After all, cities get moulded just as our bodies do. If atoms converging in particular configurations leads to complexity and sentience, human convergence rearranges “space” as a “place”, injects it with meaning, temper, character.
In Artist Making Local Call, I place myself in the now extinct PCO (public call office) shop, enacting the making of a local call, while the camera makes a panoramic image. To make a panorama, the camera takes about a minute to complete its rotation and register a 360-degree picture, ensuring that the still photograph has that much “time” enshrined within it. As a result, a rickshaw and a taxi that both happened to be in the same spot, seconds apart from each other, appear in the picture as a virtual collision. The people walking on either side of this collision are the same; they’ve simply moved across in the time that passed. Elsewhere, people moving against the direction of the camera’s rotation cast shadows while their bodies remain invisible, evoking notions of death or absence. The sun, located behind the PCO, seems to cast shadows in two directions, as if morning and evening were occurring simultaneously. The piece seems to commemorate the anomaly received through a mis-registered moment and connects with themes that were prevalent in the earliest works, whether it’s the idea of time, mortality, the absent body and its shadow as death. But here, the city street is the pivot on which these ideas unfold.
Looking at this 25 years of work, it is interesting that there is an expanded field where you go from paintings into installations to lenticular photography and into three-dimensional sculptures and video projections. But, in a way, drawing and painting never go away. And whilst you work on all these video installations or these extensive research projects, of course they are all large-format paintings such as those with the image of the commuter and the idea of travelling, works like the large Baggage Claim that we also showed at the Indian Highway exhibition.
All of these processes seem to continue parallelly in my mind and in the studio. And indeed, as you observe, as such I don’t feel a hierarchy or preference of medium. In the best instances, I might say that the ideas and inquiries have a seed of the medium embedded in them, and in pursuing the idea further, it becomes clear what form it might take, whether it be a video or a drawing. But with painting, there is this incredible appeal to the possibility of being able to fashion an image, to walk away from the premeditated and tease out the unforeseen. I’ve, in the past many years, enjoyed the process of working on very large paintings. For a painting such as Baggage Claim or the Allegory of the Endless Morning, a transitory image, sometimes from an everyday photograph, can become the starting point to begin a process that would then last several weeks and months. And that commitment to an image through the time endowed to pursue it can be rewarding. I do often find that working across varied scales and media assists a natural self-renewal of the studio process as, at a material level, one is shifting between different registers.
There was a degree of artistic control in the earlier paintings, but with the most recent drawings Wind Studies (The Hour of the Day of the Month of the Season), I feel I’m letting go of some of it.
There is this conversation between you and Homi Bhabha, and he asks you “what does it mean for you to incite an action, an act of agency, which is at the same time dependent on the extinction of that originating act? It is by playing with fire – its distracting and negating effects – that you are able to make the work; and yet, you initially lay down the lines of control with deliberation.” What prompted these new drawings? And, once again, they are related to time, they mark the hour of the day of the month of the season.
The Wind Studies have allowed me a degree of letting go. Talking of the process, I lay a few graphite lines on the paper while I’m within the studio, and then, I take the drawing outdoors. It is positioned flat on a table in the studio backyard, and I then overlay an inflammable fluid on each line, one line at a time, exposing it to a small flame. The line ignites, and depending on the direction and intensity of the wind, at that instance, the smoke from the fire leaves its imprint, and I move on to the next line. It is quite mysterious how our bodies are unable to process the shift in the wind, but the drawing becomes a field where the atmospheric shifts of that moment get registered. In some ways, while working, I feel like an eavesdropper in the presence of these larger elements in interaction.
You’ve said that you see the burnt lines become a transcript of what transpired between wind and fire, and in a weird way, it’s also connected to Public Notice, because it’s a transcript.
Yes Hans, that’s true. In fact, the inflammable fluid is the same that I used to render Nehru’s speech 12 or 13 years ago. So, if one is a transcript of a historical speech, the other is of an evanescent natural process. Such repurposing of material or processes happens frequently in my work and are at times separated by many years. For instance, if in Sightings the lenticular surface departs in context every time it flips and reveals its inverse, in a piece such as Death of Distance (2006), two very divergent narratives that entered the public domain at the same time continue to flip between black and white and white and black, depending on where one stands in relation to the texts.
In the interview between Homi and you, you said that in a way it’s just the beginning, and you feel like it’s taking you towards other things, and at this stage you don’t know what they are. It almost feels like it’s ventilating your process, “as if the wind is actually flowing into [your] other works rather than these drawings alone”. So what happened after these Wind Studies? They are fairly recent. Where are we going next?
Well, I don’t know really where it’s going next, Hans, but while I was making the Wind Studies, I was also making Sightings, The Eternal Gradient and sculptural installations like The Infinite Episode, and while each of these don’t share a family resemblance in terms of medium, scale or form, they are like a bouquet of shared inquiries.
It also leads to the most recent work, which is Covariance (Sacred Geometry), and when I think of the Wind Studies, The Infinite Episode, etc., these pieces happened after you curated the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. And there is a long history of artists curating shows. You stopped all your work in the studio for the entire duration and made the Biennale your work. So, can you talk to me about this “Intermezzo”, how it worked for you to curate this large show and then to start once again?
I realized that if I was to curate the biennale and make this process meaningful for me, it would only make sense if I completely exited making my work for that duration so that I could funnel all my inquiries into this project. I felt the exhibition Whorled Explorations must produce themes rather than reproduce a single preconceived curatorial theme. My process wasn’t one of circulating a prescriptive curatorial note, but to let a diffusion of prompts and intuitions gradually self-organize as an exhibition. Two chronologically overlapping historical episodes in Kerala between the 14th and 17th centuries became my points of departure. It was the time when the shores of Kochi were closely linked to the maritime chapter of the Age of Discovery; a time when maps changed rapidly with the arrival of navigators on the Malabar coast seeking spices and riches, shifts in geography, and turns in history, heralding an age of conquest, coercive trading and colonialism, animating the early processes of globalization. It was also the time when the Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics were making some transformative propositions for locating human existence within the wider cosmos. The exhibition overlapped the maritime navigation with the mysterious navigation of our planet itself hurtling at 100,000 km/hr in directions no one knows. The seemingly unrelated directions of these suggestions were intentional; one was a gaze directed in time, the other in space. I remember sitting with you here in London, two years ago, and sharing with you my curatorial co-ordinates and the working prompts, and you in turn pointed me to so many interesting artist colleagues that I met.
Structurally, many have observed that Whorled Explorations reflected aspects of my work, such as the recurrent overlaying of the terrestrial with the celestial, the re-visiting of particular historical episodes, such as in the Public Notices, that sit alongside cosmological expeditions that occur in earlier works from 2009, such as Forensic Trail of the Grand Banquet. As for the return to the studio after a gap of 16 months, it felt somewhat seamless as the curatorial process was a transition of many of the ideas that I’ve been grappling with in the studio, delivered as a biennale through a different toolbox and in close dialogue with numerous, incredible artist colleagues.
Jitish Kallat, edited by Natasha Ginwala, published by Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, in association with PRESTEL Munich · London · New York
Reproduced with the permission of the author Hans Ulrich Obrist.