Jitish Kallat




Why should we be thinking of being colonised?

Frontline contemporary artist Jitish Kallat has had several solo exhibitions in India and abroad. He has also been exhibited at museums and institutions across the world. His work has been part of several biennale and triennales including the Havana Biennale, Gwangju Biennale, Asia Pacific Triennale, Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale and the Guangzhou Triennale amongst others. The Mumbai-based Jitish Kallat travelled to Calcutta recently for a workshop on Art in Public Space fielded by Ficci, Max Mueller Bhavan, Kokata Museum of Modern Art and Kolkata Municipal Corporation, when Ashoke Nag of ET met him for an exclusive chat. Excerpts: You have been invited to Calcutta by Ficci for this meet on Art in Public Space. What are your thoughts on this form of art? 'm on Ficci's Committee for Art and it is nice to see a concerted effort coming from Kolkata to look at art and its role in the public domain. The discussions have been really fruitful and if some of this dialogue crystallizes in action, it will have a huge impact. Tell me about your beginnings a bit. I was born in Mumbai in 1974 and grew up in what one might call middle-class, suburbia. The parenting that I received was quite focused on middle-class values, and education was always at the center of things. Did you contemplate becoming an artist from an early stage in your life? Not really an artist at a very early stage. I was interested in mass-media, advertising etc and joined art school with the intention of pursuing that path. Within a month of joining JJ School of Art, I found my true calling and decided to become an artist. Which was your first break as an artist and how did it happen? Oh, I feel it happened from a student exhibition during my fourth year at art school, when one of my pieces was acquired by Deutsche Bank. Usually, the bank would only acquire mid-career to older artists, but surprisngly they also had this up in their lobby. A German curator who visited the bank then, tracked me down at art school. He invited me to be part of an important show titled 'Innenseite' and also contribute to the conference. At the conference, I read an essay titled 'Are we Coca-colonised?'. Being just twenty-two at the time, it was a real learning experience. Can you expand on the various mediums of artworks you create? The medium is really just a vehicle to germinate an idea. So, the realisation of a piece as sculpture, photograph, painting or video, would be determined by what might best deliver the freight of metaphors and meanings that make up the work. How would describe yourself as an artist: a painter, sculptor, installation artist......or all? I'd would think of myself simply as a member of civil society; of course, one's preoccupation with deciphering and interpreting life can take the form of a painting, sculpture etc. So, these labels might be quite inevitable. I like a description assigned by art critic Nicholas Bourriaud of the artist as 'semionaut'....making connections in this world of proliferating signs.

Success is overrated

The Proust Questionnaire is a fortnightly feature that alternates with the Saturday interview. These questions were most famously answered by the French writer Marcel Proust, whose personality-revealing responses came to define this form of celebrity confession. Jitish Kallat is our famous export to the international art world. A master of mixed media, Kallat’s visual vocabulary has been developed from his immediate environment and is soaked in wit. Straddling different media such as photography, video, painting and sculpture, Kallat’s art refers to different social sciences. His works are in the permanent collections of Saatchi, Frank Cohen and Museum of Modern Art, L.A. Public Notice 3, a site-specific installation done in 2010 at the Grand Staircase of Art Institute of Chicago is one of the several highlights of his career. What is your idea of happiness? Happiness is a continuation of happenings, which are not resisted… someone truly wise said that, was it Deepak Chopra? So I simply try to get out of the way and once I truly back off, happiness flows. What is your greatest fear? That I’ll drop wine on the person I’m dining with. That there is such a thing called blindness. That we’re all collaborating to slowly burn our planet and that we rarely acknowledge our diligent contributions to this explosive teamwork. Which historical figure do you most identify with? Chaplin, I’m forever falling or dropping things. When I paint, I drip… Which living person do you most admire? Can’t think of one… There are just so many. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Clumsiness, and I can be extremely disorganised. My wardrobe is a wreck and there is always a stampede on my computer desktop. What is the trait you most deplore in others? Leaving aside extreme traits such as cruelty, deception, violence… I’m okay with how people are. Each one of us is entitled to our own unique weirdness; no point wasting time with different people’s internal configurations. What is your greatest extravagance? I tend to very easily destroy art pieces that I’ve made, when they don’t work — irrespective of how much time or resources I’ve spent on them. I don’t know if this is extravagance, impulsiveness or intolerance. What is your favourite journey? Going round and round Joggers Park with my seven-year-old son Ahaan. The predictability of the path is compensated by the unpredictability of his questions. Who is your favourite painter? I think it will have to be Picasso… His brush re-routed the path of art history. What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Success. On what occasion do you lie? 1st of April. What do you dislike most about your appearance? Actually my appearance doesn’t bother me too much; I have to endure it only when in front of a mirror. Which living person do you most despise? There is a small pantheon of corrupt politicians, unethical businessmen and cruel terrorists fighting for the top spot. Which words or phrases do you most overuse? May be What is your greatest regret? Just as many people are addicted to cigarettes, I ‘used to be’ addicted to regrets. Those days are gone… What or who is the greatest love of your life? Who — my family / What — my art When and where were you happiest? Right here, right now, sitting in my study and doing this Proust Questionaire with beautiful rain outside. What is your present state of mind? Inquiry. How would you like to die? While sitting with close friends listening to a really funny joke and then drop dead at the height of my laughter. What is your favourite motto? The Universe is just as it should be.

Making Art From Roti

Meet the people shaping life and culture in Asia. More from The Moment Whether it’s photos of bustling streets carpeted in grass or rotis that look like lunar landscapes, Jitish Kallat has a habit of overturning expectations. “That’s what art is all about. Sometimes it’s just a shift of vision,” he says. One of India’s most recognized artists, Mr. Kallat, 39, broke into the international art circuit just over a decade ago with paintings capturing the daily grind of life in Mumbai. Today his work spans photography, video and sculpture, using as inspiration incidents gleaned from news reports and his own observations, such as the suicide of a girl whose mother couldn’t afford to give her one rupee for a school meal. Among Mr. Kallat’s most successful shows has been “Public Notice 3,” which opened at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010. A series of illuminated words installed into the museum’s stairs that connected a Sept. 11, 1893 speech on religious tolerance with the 9-11 terrorist attacks, “Public Notice 3” was originally planned as a three-month exhibition but was extended to a full-year run. “It was received beyond my expectation,” he says. “There was straight-up feedback to the docents, letters to the front desk, messages to the blog, director and curator.” Since then, his work has appeared at institutions and art fairs around the world, including Tate Britain in London, the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne and Art Basel in Hong Kong. He spoke with the Journal about homeland security, growing wheatgrass in his studio and his giant sculpture in lower Austria. From an edited transcript: The Wall Street Journal: A lot of your work grapples with the harsh realities of life on the streets of Mumbai. Do you think it is the role of an artist to make people question their surroundings? Mr. Kallat: All of these works have been questions I ask myself. How do I manifest my experience of the world I inhabit in forms that I find? Everyone carries a world inside themselves, it’s when their world interacts with mine that the work of art actually happens. Until then I just make a dormant piece of something that’s made of atoms and molecules. “Public Notice 3” had a huge response, partly due to its references to terrorism and security. Was the work inspired by a personal experience at U.S. immigration? The experience at the immigration checkpoint is always interesting. It tells you so much about humankind or human kinds. I can’t pinpoint it to one single moment, but I was interested in the myth of 9-11. The idea of the date and the number having a premonition inscribed in it, and all these conspiracy theories that came out. More In Art Christie’s Hong Kong Spring Auction Results Lackluster From Fakes to Fine Art: Taobao Leaps Into the Auction Scene Counting the Hours in Tehching Hsieh's ‘Time Clock Piece' Eva Armisén: Paint Like a Child Carsten Nicolai’s ‘Alpha Pulse’ Kicks Off Art Basel Hong Kong There was one kind of conspiracy that was created by web-mongering, playfully creating paranoia. Then there was another kind of paranoia that the state creates where for 10 years they tell you that you are in a severe state of threat, where not for a day was it relaxed. The absurdity for me was a painfully torturous rainbow that stuck in your face every morning like a weather forecast, but this was a terror forecast. You were playing with wheatgrass at one point. I was growing about 70 feet of wheatgrass in my studio. The photographer who documents my art documented the grass. The photographs he gave me became source files to clad a street in Mumbai [using digital imaging]. It was literally reversing the creative process where the person who documents the end thing documented the beginning, and what he gave me fed into the idea of this green, nourishing, wheatgrass street called Chlorophyll Park. You also embedded wheatgrass seeds in sculptures of dogs in your recent show at Ian Potter Museum. The grass kept growing on the dogs in the course of the show—they morphed as the grass grew. It created on their body a kind of landscape. It was actually very beautiful. It was quite peculiar, they were all made at the same time, but there was one dog where the grass would barely grow but another dog where it would just flourish. They were not located one in sunlight and one in the dark—it was almost like each dog had a life of its own. More In India India's Millionaire Tribe Set to Soar Lalit Modi Elected Rajasthan Cricket Chief India Is Top of T20 Cricket Rankings Best Beef Burgers in Delhi Breaking the (Street Food) Rules in India What’s been taking up your time lately? A massive permanent sculpture in lower Austria, about 35 minutes from Vienna. It’s something like 60 feet long and 26 feet high, so that’s pretty much taking up my attention. It’s like an endless loop in the open landscape. You know the blue highway signage that tells you destinations and distances? I’ve taken this signage but created a massive ribbon in the open air. This ribbon has information that links [the Austrian city] Stockerau to places all over the world. It’s shows the distance between Stockerau and Singapore, Kabul and Goa, and the theoretical exits you might take. Your work is so varied. Are there common themes? The idea of nourishment, sustenance and food. I’m also interested in a very strange way how the astral, the cosmic, is always linked to the biological. For instance, the chlorophyll that responds to the sun that then becomes a life form that we feed on to sustain our lives then feeds back into that life form. That kind of cycle of give and take between organisms, which tells you all organisms are one, and we are integrally tied to the cosmic rhythms, whether it’s the rising sun or the setting moon, keeps coming back into my work. You have several shows coming up. Are you exploring new ideas with them? A [September] show in Galerie Daniel Templon has ideas of time, sustenance, laughter, suspicion and sleep. One video piece called “Breath” shows seven rotis. There are seven lunar cycles where each roti slowly grows from dust, starts becoming a crescent moon, then a full moon, and then returns to dust. There is another sculpture of a Lilliputian world of small figures paired. Each figure is seen frisking the other one. All of these pairs come from found photographs of security checks at airports, rock concerts and entrances to nightclubs. It’s like a small corridor of suspicion. There is also series of paintings that come from laughter clubs. There is no reason but these people come together and laugh. I’m very interested in this. Where did idea for the roti come from? My dinner plate. Do you ever switch off? I’m always trying to stop thinking. The only thing that really separates you from the moment of your existence is your thought, and that’s something you are always trying to get past. That said, every thought is also a vehicle for a barrage of possibilities.


NEWS: Indian artist Jitish Kallat in Saatchi-Christie London sale

Mahatma Gandhi's historic Dandi March speech, converted into a monumental sculpture by Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat, is among 50 artworks slated to go under the block to help fund free art education and free admission at the Saatchi Gallery here. Kallat's "Public Notice 2", a fibreglass sculpture is part of the "Thinking Big" exhibition and sale, which the gallery is holding in collaboration with auction house Christie's, at the venue of a huge former postal depot in central London. The event, coincides with Frieze Art Fair in October 2013. "We have been working with the Saatchi Gallery on this project for about a year now. This exhibition and auction will be pioneering in that all the works will be offered without estimate or reserve," Francis Outred, Christie's Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art, Europe, said in a statement. Payment terms of at least three months are available to public institutions. Major sculpture and installation from across the last 20 years including Young British Artists (YBAs), such as Tracey Emin and the Chapman brothers, as well as newer talents such as Toby Ziegler, Kader Attia and Conrad Shawcross among others have been featured in the upcoming show. "The artists come from five different continents and the exhibition and auction will be a fundamental celebration of the sculpture in the 21st century. Thinking Big refers to the huge ambition and imagination of the artists here, as much as it does to the scale of their work, and to the power of educating young people about art," Outred said. Kallat's "Public Notice 2" that was exhibited in the Hall of Nations in Washington in 2011, created in 2007 and consists of 4479 painted fibreglass parts and its dimensions are variable. Kallat has reimagined every word of Gandhi's rallying speech before the Dandi March, held to protest the salt tax instituted by British rule. The 39-year-old artist has recreated the entire speech in a bone-shaped alphabet placed on saffron yellow walls in blocks that resemble pages of a vast book. The Saatchi Gallery which turns 30 in 2015, was the first art space in the UK to show a whole host of artists before they became household names from Jeff Koons and Bruce Nauman to Andreas Gursky, Sigmar Polke and Damien Hirst. During the last five years it has shown new art from India the Middle East, China, Russia, Germany and the US. The auction "is designed to support art education and free admission, it enables young people from all backgrounds to gain access to contemporary art, high quality teaching and educational events".

Artist Jitish Kallat to popularise Kochi Biennale in US

Artist and curator Jitish Kallat will share the themes and curatorial ideas behind Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014 with artists, curators, scholars and administrators at several prestigious art institutions in the United States from this month-end. Kallat's US trip is part of a popularisation drive for the upcoming Kochi Biennale, in which 95 artists from about 30 countries will showcase their work. The 108-day event opens Dec 12. According to the organisers of the biennale, Kallat has been invited to deliver a talk at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Asian Contemporary Art Week, New York, where he will present the themes and curatorial ideas behind the exhibition "Whorled Explorations". At the Museum of Modern art in New York, he will speak to C-MAP Asia curatorial group in an internal dialogue between senior staff and curators. Incidentally at the upcoming biennale, almost 70 per cent of the exhibits are new works created as a result of extended dialogues in the course of which several artists have made visits to Kochi to see the sites where the biennale will unfold. Darielle Mason, the Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art and head of the Department of South Asian Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, said Kallat as an artist and as a curator, bears witness to the reality that contemporary art is not the sole preserve of Europe and the United States. "He is one of India's hottest artists working today and brings us a new frame of reference to rethink our world and ourselves. It's incredibly rewarding to be able to introduce to Philadelphia some of the most powerful voices in South Asia's artistic panorama. The opportunity to hear his thoughts just a month before the biennale opens is a rare treat," said Mason

Culture Vulture: No-frills look at art in Kochi heat

At a time when most blockbuster biennales and visual arts events are turning out to be a march of celebrities, champagne and clothes, India's recently concluded, no-frills, Kochi-Muziris Biennale puts the art firmly back in the spotlight. In an interview with Life!, its artistic director Jitish Kallat had spoken of the immense challenges of holding India's only contemporary arts biennale together with fellow artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu. Funding, or the lack of it, was right up there. It is one thing to hear of funding woes and quite another to experience it. To put it mildly, for someone perfectly accustomed to Singapore's air-conditioned comforts, nothing prepares you for Kochi - a coastal town in south-western Kerala - in March. When I started at the main venue, the former spice store Aspinwall, the challenges Kallat spoke about became immediately apparent. The large sea-facing heritage property in Fort Kochi was the main biennale venue. Sixty nine of the 100 works by 94 artists from 30 countries were presented here. In extremely raw and often edgy spaces, with plaster on the walls peeling in some spots, contemporary art as we know it now was being presented. The heat was oppressive and if you needed respite, a sole standing fan provided the only ventilation. Suddenly, Singapore's 2013 biennale outing at the Old Kallang Airport - which drew flak for the lack of ventilation and air-conditioning in some of its spaces - started evoking visions of luxury. It took a while for my body to adjust to the sweat trickling from head to toe. Somehow, in the oppressiveness of the heat minus the dust, this biennale made me imagine. It made me imagine many things as I stepped into each of those rooms, looked at each of those walls and did my rounds of this and other venues, such as another waterfront heritage property, Pepper House. What I saw were several fresh and cutting-edge artworks that crept under my skin. Yes, there was no escaping rockstar contemporary art names such as Belgian conceptual artists Wim Delvoye and Hans Op de Beeck; famed American design duo Charles and Ray Eames' iconic 1977 film titled Powers Of Ten exploring man's place in an infinitely complex universe; Japanese multimedia artist, musician and activist Yoko Ono's Earth Piece featuring postcards from 1963 and 1999; and Mumbai-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor's stunning water vortex titled Descension. The real surprises, though, were from names I had never heard of, in works I had never previously seen. In one small stuffy room, I gazed at a stunning sculptural installation titled Artha, or Meaning. It was only when I walked out of the room and read the curator's statement that I realised this piece by young Jaipur-based sculptor Prashant Pandey was made out of 10,000 discarded slides containing blood drawn from a large number of people, including the artist himself. I went back into the room and stood there transfixed for the next 15 minutes, thinking of visceral rejects and how they can help us make strange sort of connections. In another room, another young artist, Vadodara- based Lavanya Mani impressed with her use of textiles as well as the use of India's rich textile traditions to present Travelers Tales - Blueprints. The 2014 work made using natural dyes and pigment paint on cotton fabric was one of the most colourful and vibrant works I saw. Evoking sails of ships, it helped recreate journeys of travel and the subsequent narratives that were shaped by that very travel. What was fascinating was Mani's use of Kalamkari, a centuries-old textile painting technique from India, which uses only natural dyes. These textiles were so popular in the 17th century that the French and English governments outlawed them to protect their own local mills. That was one of the most poignant responses to the biennale's theme, Whorled Explorations - an invitation by Kallat to fellow artists to look at the city's history from its discovery in the 15th century. Kochi was a melting pot of religions and a centre of the spice trade around the Arabian Sea. "I wanted the artists to look at Kochi as a viewing device, to go back to the days of early sailors and stargazers and through it, to somehow make sense of the world we are in," said Kallat and, in many ways, they did. Mumbai-based artist Neha Choksi's 13.35-minute video work Iceboat was particularly fitting in this context. I ended up watching it thrice, drawn by the sheer mesmeric effect of the artist's flowing fabric and persistent rowing of a boat till it melted. Viewed in Kochi, with the sea by its side, it somehow made me think of the inevitability of endings and perhaps even doomed voyages to this city. Many visitors engaged with Choksi's work, though the greatest engagement on the closing weekend seemed to be with Singapore artist Ho Tzu Nyen's Pythagoras (2013). The dramatic video work presents images of veils with a voice playing in the background and is inspired by some of the ideas and thoughts of the titular Greek mathematician. While in most of the other rooms people would leave after watching a bit of the work, all the seats were full for Pythagoras and people had even made room for themselves on the floor. Within a few minutes, it was apparent why. The room felt like the only space cool enough in the complex - many of the artists had to get their own funding to participate in this biennale and the installation of Ho's work came complete with what definitely felt like air-conditioning, though it could have been a water cooler at work. I overheard someone in the room say gratefully, "In Singapore, the air-conditioning always works", and left with a smile on my face. In the end, the battle with the heat proved inconsequential. This "people's biennale", as it was called, drew a record 500,000 visitors over 108 days. Families packed the closing weekend. The first edition had 450,000 visitors, which brings it fairly close to the world's top contemporary art event, the Venice Biennale, in terms of visitor numbers. Italy's Venice Biennale, which runs for twice as long, had about 475,000 visitors in its 2013 edition. Like some key Asian art events such as the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh and ArtJog in Yogyakarta - the artistic and cultural capital of Indonesia - there was an intensity and edginess in much of the works I saw in Kochi. Sure, each of these events lacks the glitz factor or even many of the creature comforts we sometimes seek, but that is what art should be. It should sometimes knock you straight out of your comfort zone and make you think.

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