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Clocking time: From a hand-drawn journal to contemplations of outer-space, Jitish Kallat’s multi-pronged approach takes us around the universe and back

It has been said that artist Jitish Kallat’s oeuvre sits between ‘fluid speculation’. There is precise measurement and also conceptual conjectures. This produces a range of ‘dynamic forms’ that constitute the process of his image-making. He employs abstract, schematic, notational and representational languages, as he engages with different modes of address, seamlessly interlacing the immediate and the cosmic, the telescopic and the microscopic, the past and the present. His vision has long been one that involves not just our world but the cosmos around it. In his latest solo exhibition In Order of Magnitude, that opened at the Ishara Art Foundation, at Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, on 16 February 2022. The 47-years-old Mumbai-born artist shares his contemplation of overarching interconnectivity on the individual, universal, planetary, and extra-terrestrial dimensions with  Georgina Maddox. 


Over a period of how many years have these works been done? 

I began working on Covering Letter (Terranum Nuncius) in 2018 so technically that would be the earliest work done within the exhibition.

Please talk about your installation Covering Letter (Terranum Nuncius) – what all went into making this and what was the thought behind it.

In Covering Letter (terranum nuncius), I returned to an archive of images uploaded by NASA onto the iconic Golden Records.

The contents of the two phonographic Golden Records was assembled for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan and these were hoisted onto the legendary Voyager 1 and 2 space probes launched in 1977. These are in the public domain, but the images in my work are not exactly those that were uploaded. In 1977 the images were encrypted as sound files as there wasn’t that kind of computing capacity to upload as many images. I am thankful to US-based software engineer Ron Barry who kindly allowed me to work with the images that were converted from the audio clips back to images as if they were accessed by an extra-terrestrial who would have to follow a similar procedure to view the images.

These spacecrafts are drifting away from us at 17 kms per second in interstellar space and are likely to outlast our planet and us. If chanced upon by an extraterrestrial intelligence, the 116 images that constitute the work becomes a summary of our life on earth. Certainly, at the heart of this work was this question: how does one speak to the unknown and to the afar? When the other is a completely unknown and unfamiliar, what does that do to our divided sense of self?


How did you think of the Doomsday Clock? 

Over the last several years I’ve been interested in the conceptual clock, updated annually by esteemed (and many Nobel Prize winning) members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1947. It uses the analogy of the countdown to midnight – symbolizing the apocalypse – to denounce the threats hanging over humanity. This symbolic seating highlights the ‘two minutes to midnight’, the setting of the clock in 2018 when I began working on Covering Letter (terranum nuncius).

What led to the paintings in this segment?

Painting has always been a key part of my expression as an artist. Seen alongside these studies is a wall-sized painting titled Postulates from a Restless Radius, whose perimeter takes the form of the conic Albers projection of the Earth. The work began as an unstable, cross-sectional grid (in aquarelle pencil) that opens up the globe on a flat plane. There is no cartographic intent here; in place of planetary geography, it assembles signs and speculations, at once evoking botanical, suboceanic, celestial, and geological formations. Postulates from a Restless Radius is an exploratory abstraction of forms that suggest signatures of growth and entropy.


How did the pandemic impact your work? Please tell us with reference to your photo-work Epicycles

It was during my 15-day self-imposed isolation in the studio after returning from the US in mid-March 2020, that I began keeping a small journal of notations… a hand-drawn ledger of seemingly incidental and accidental changes occurring in my studio premises, such as a fallen tree stem, a dry leaf, or an emergent crack in the wall. These intimate signs of change were then documented photographically. Over the course of the next several weeks, this corpus of domestic imagery began to magnify and become expanded backdrops to accommodate other bodies like ours, from a distant time and place. The many figures from Edward Steichen\’s 1955 MoMA exhibition The Family of Man began to reincarnate and intermingle with these images becoming a composite portrait of time and transience, ephemerality and expiry. The photo works are 3-dimensional and multi-scopic. As we move in front of the work, we trigger shifts in the piece and the figures begin to appear, occasionally get animated by our movements, and depart into a translucent lens. On the verso is imagery from my Integer Study drawings.

Jitish Kallat: Order of Magnitude is on till 1 July. It will be accompanied by physical and virtual tours, educational and public programmes, a newly commissioned text by Amal Khalaf and artist conversations over the duration of the exhibition.