Around twenty students from Jitish Kallat’s alma mater, the Sir J.J. School of Art, arrive at Famous Studios in Mumbai at the same time as I do, for a walkthrough of Kallat’s first solo show in the city in five years. As the students take in Terranum Nuncius, a show unveiling two of Kallat’s latest works -- Covering Letter (terranum nuncius), a multimedia installation, and Ellipsis, a 60-foot long painting, the artist spends some time answering my questions, before moving on to talk to the group of students. With them, he goes deeper, asking questions like “What is an apple?” It depends on how far you want to go, he explains, but eventually you will reach the stars, because what is fruit but photosynthesised light that becomes the leaf that becomes the fruit? If you create a perspectival relationship between seemingly unrelated aspects of the world, he assures us, you trespass certain territories that are absolutely linear. In the spirit of trespassing then, here is an excerpt from our interview:

Nadia Nooreyezdan: The centrality of the epistolary mode is clear from your previous works like the Public Notice series, as well as Covering Letter (2012). However, with Covering Letter (terranum nuncius) (2019-20), you move from correspondence between individuals to a correspondence with another race. What is the relationship between these works, and what prompted you to choose this form of communication?

Jitish Kallat: Covering Letter (terranum nuncius) evolved from the same line of thinking, where I return to something that has been spoken or written in the past which can be activated to make us think about the present. It’s taken about six years since this second Covering Letter has happened for me. The previous iteration was essentially a letter from Gandhi, perhaps the most well-known proponent of peace, reaching out to Hitler, perhaps the most brutal perpetrator of violence. With this new work, however, the letter is going to an unknown other. So within a sender-recipient relationship, what happens when the other is so unknown? What does that do to the self? This is a vital question for me, and one that I think is very urgent in today’s world, where our sense of the other is actually the result of a progressively sedimented sense of self. We have built such a deeply entrenched and petrified sense of self that the other seems petrified too, leading to an absence of communicable space. We see this absence of vocabulary in our daily public life, when the left tries to speak to the right, or across religious divides or ideological fault lines. But what happens when the ‘other’ is completely unknown, and in fact unknowable?

Covering Letter (terranum nuncius) has a three-part structure based on the Golden Record, which was hoisted on to the Voyager 1 and 2 space missions which left Earth in 1977. The first part is the greetings that you hear in 55 languages, 55 hellos to an unknown; then there is the content, which is really an evidence and summary of our existence; and finally there is the return address. The contents of the letter are based on the encrypted sound files that were uploaded on to the Golden Record, which a California based programmer has decoded into images. This is the same circulation that the images would have to go through if an interstellar alien was to find the disc. Through this process, the images have lost colour and detail, they’ve become abstracted, and that became my starting point to make the photo pieces, which function as 3D photographs.

The return address is represented as a projected diagram, derived from the map on the Golden Record, which is supposed to locate our solar system in relation to 14 pulsars. But in the last 30 years, we have realised that there are actually 100 pulsars, so no alien race is going to be able to find us on the basis of the address we’ve provided. In a way, it also makes us think of our own certitudes, that everything around us, including our own location in the universe, is provisional. This absence of certitude is something I often go back to in my work.

The last element is the benches that are shaped like the hands of the Doomsday Clock.

NN: You seem to be quite interested in the Doomsday Clock, and you have also used it in your installation at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. How does it function in the form of a bench on which to contemplate the work?

JK: Yes, the sculpture in Kochi came from an image which felt like the dawn of human ingenuity, or the dawn of ingenuity in any species. When a species takes an object in the world and reshapes it, they extend their own capacities, making it a prosthesis to their body. That object begins to transform the world, to exponentially change the next thing and the next thing, until a time comes when that same species is contemplating its own extinction. That became this closed loop, as it were.

The Doomsday Clock was proposed in 1946, when the scientists who made the atom bomb realised they had let loose an object that could annihilate our entire species. In a burst of urgency, they issued the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, that featured the Doomsday Clock set at seven minutes to midnight, midnight being the apocalypse. I find this extremely interesting because as artists, we make propositions which are both true and false at the same time. When art is made, fiction is always intertwined with fact. A novelist may write something that never happened, but the novelist is searching for truth, not fact. However, as a scientist, you have to make a claim that is falsifiable -- that is the very basis of science. The Doomsday Clock does not fit this parameter of science. There’s no reason to say seven minutes to midnight, it is a symbolic urgent number. It simply means that there’s not too much time.

Taking that seven minutes as a precise number, the clock is reset every year, and as of 2018 and 2019, it has stayed at two minutes to midnight. So this clock, that is the apocalypse announcing itself, has become a bench. For me, the bench is something you repose on in a gallery. But suddenly this simple seating gets complicated, and perhaps holds the burden of questions in the work. It is put away as a kind of easily missable object, yet its form is derived from somewhere else, and I’m interested in this kind of symbolic interplay.

NN: It is also another reminder of our mortality, another theme you return to in your work.

JK: Our awareness of our mortality is a good tool to carry, in that it helps us calibrate our actions in the world. Extinction is certain but most people conduct their lives as if they are here forever, and I think that’s where the problems in the world start.

In a case like Covering Letter (terranum nuncius), where the contents of the Golden Record are dispatched to a recipientwhoseperceptual tools are unknown to us, we don’t even know if they would think the senders are the humans in the images or the reptiles. The contents of this letter will most likely outlive us, as a species, as a planet, as a solar system, and perhaps even as a galaxy. There are deadlines to all of these things, and in 4.5 billion years, the Milky Way Galaxy and Andromeda are going to swing around each other and our galaxy won’t exist anymore. Meanwhile, this message is drifting away from us at 17km/sec and will keep going further into interstellar space. It’s a message in a bottle dispersed into the cosmic ocean that will travel far beyond our own lifetimes. The motivation behind this work is to explore this at a symbolic level.

NN: So if Covering Letter (terranum nuncius) is about communicating to an alien other, what kind of communication is happening in Ellipsis (2018-20)?

JK: Ellipsis is perhaps me reaching out to the unknown. My reason for painting is to try and trespass into what the unknown is to me. It’s to go beyond the familiarity of the changing world, in its functional, representational self, and instead ask questions about evolution or entropy. I go quiet when faced with these questions, because I don’t have the vocabulary to think about these things. I don’t have the vocabulary to talk about vast distances in time, something I aim to do with works like this, where there’s really no idea of future time. Covering Letter (terranum nuncius) goes from our recent past to an unforeseeable future, beyond our own capacity to fathom it. 4.5 billion years is really not in our scale of reference but if I have to paint it, I wonder if pigment can breach some of these deficiencies that language or the interpretive faculties allow.

From 2013 until the end of 2017, I was making other work, and hadn’t really been painting on canvas. It’s now become quite important for me that I paint in a way that the act of painting takes me in directions away from my normal, interpretive self and my own capacity to articulate things in the world. I am trying to understand whether pigment can take on that journey. For the first six months I made disastrous paintings, because I was actually more concerned with how I was painting. Then a whole new body of work slowly began to emerge.

NN: Does pigment then take up where language left off? If these works are a search for a vocabulary, are you trying to find the answer through the medium of paint?

JK: So it has taken me years to come to this very basic understanding that painting is nothing but a relationship between a pigment, and hydration and dehydration. Something comes out of a tube or a can, and it gets diluted and becomes more mobile, and then it dries, and hence becomes an image. I realised that the manner in which pigment might dry or dilute or hydrate determines not just the form, but what I often think of as the condition of the form. And that’s a slightly different thing from the form or the image itself. The condition of the image is something that is a little more elemental. That if the pigment dries in a certain accelerated way, it can begin to evoke earth or iron or rust: it becomes ferrous.

We know that we carry the entire periodic table of chemicals in our bodies, but we don’t actually think of ourselves as moving chemicals. In the same way, I think these forms carry certain elemental forces which are not necessarily what the forms look like. What a pigment can do when it functions through different registers of hydration and rehydration is something that I think I’ve become far more sensitive to.

For instance, a river might take 1,000 years to change its course slightly. And on a painting when a liquid moves through impermanent pigment, it displaces it more or less the same way, but that happens in just four minutes. Time is accelerated, creating the world in a very synoptic, small form and generating certain force fields where the imagery relates to things that are geological and bodily. Suddenly the painting becomes this kind of condensed laboratory, where you can perform large forces of life that manifest themselves in nature or in the very forces that inhabit our bodies. To me, it has become increasingly important to paint in that territory, where the chances of failure are also huge. With Ellipsis, I never knew what its outer dimensions would be: one day I’d tell the galleries it’s 55 feet and the next day I’d say it’s 70 feet. I think that was because I wasn’t looking at it in terms of its dimensions, but rather that the image in this corner is talking to that image, so this has to move there. It’s a universe within itself that’s calling for its own creation, its own making. It’s announcing its own form and structure.

It’s like an accordion of images that have been shuffling and shuffling until they’re stabilised. Once they’re stabilised, other bridge images connect existing images on the canvas. It’s almost like islands of imagery, where the reason for the existence of an image is the existence of other images.

NN: Does this mark a turning point in your artistic practice? In the Wind Study (2015) and Rain Study (2017) series, you seem to be engaged in an exercise of surrendering to natural forces like fire, wind, and rain. Is there a feeling of surrendering in your painting now?

JK: Yes, I think if I hadn’t made the Wind Studies and Rain Studies, if the trajectory of my work hadn’t intersected with this kind of elemental drawing practice, I would not paint the way I paint today. I don’t grudge my older self, but I do think that there was a different posture through which I moved in the studio previously, vis-à-vis now. There is a very thin line between trying to enforce a will on an image, and seeing if the image self-organises. I’ve become very fixated with this question of where it is that intelligence resides. Is it in me, or is it something out there that I am supposed to watch? Am I supposed to be an audience of intelligence or am I supposed to be the carrier of intelligence? And I think I’ve begun to feel like I’m an audience to that intelligence. This fundamental shift has occurred in the last four years.

Earlier last year, I was installing some of my later pieces, paintings that came from the same period as the images in Ellipsis, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. They also have an older work of mine, Baggage Claim (2010) in their collection, that I had seen on display a year before and happened to see again as I was installing this new show. While a year before it looked like my work, this second viewing felt strange. The work is very dear to me, but it felt like there was no physical connection to the person who painted that piece and the self who was watching it (a year later). There is always a bit of melodrama in thepainter,right? But now, I think even in the manner in which I climb a ladder or step down to paint, something has been relinquished. I don’t know whether it’s for better or worse, but I’m in a happier place.

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