First published in Jitish Kallat: Terranum Nuncius, 2020.
The Greek and Latin etymological roots of the word ellipsis link it to the geometrical figure of the ellipse or regular oval, something we commonly think of in terms of planetary orbital paths. Defined as an oblique section of a cone where the sectioning plane makes a smaller angle with the base of the cone than the cone itself makes with its base, an ellipse mathematically refers to a condition of falling short, of being less than. The intentional omission of words or phrases signified by the three dots in the grammatical figure of the ellipsis: “...” are indicators of something missing, of something deliberately left out for the reader to fill in or reconstitute, signalling an invitation towards an active construal of meaning.
Jitish Kallat’s polyptych Ellipsis (12 panels, each 9 feet in height; collectively 60 feet in length) is not only the largest painting of his career. It is also the most playfully elliptical of all his epistolary pronouncements. Paired in this exhibition with the seemingly more straightforward message to an unknown extra-terrestrial intelligence in Covering Letter (terranum nuncius), Ellipsis can be fruitfully read as an effort to conjure and construe the contents of the gaps, actively contributing to an exercise in making-whole-again, an act of restoration, or even restitution. The epistolary form has remained a feature of Kallat’s practice since the beginning. His debut solo exhibition (Gallery Chemould and Prithvi Gallery, Mumbai, 1997) was titled P.T.O. [please turn over], a once-common abbreviation at the bottom of hard-copy letters and documents occupying more than one side of a piece of paper. Kallat’s engagement with painted, printed, projected and sculpted imagery has preserved an interest in public and private messaging for more than two decades now. His Public Notice works (2003, 2007 and 2010) mobilised texts by Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda, respectively, while Covering Letter (2012) resurrected a forgotten letter from the Mahatma urging Hitler to desist from his violent agenda on the eve of German aggression into Poland in 1939. These and other past utterances supply Kallat with modes to probe the very nature of communication and the afterlives of transmissions. At what point do utterances reach the point of utter exhaustion? At what extremities do signals reach the uttermost limits of legibility at the end of their journeys through multiple relays and attenuations?
An interest in modes of communication, graphic or textual, underpins much of Kallat’s oeuvre. Ellipsis brings together many of his ongoing concerns at architectural scale, becoming a kind of hyper-enlarged and extended graphic diary where the artist lingers on the spaces between utterances in a state of fevered reverie. The mass of images and diagrams that crawl, scrape, bleed and mutate across the surface of Ellipsis evoke at first glance a Surrealist cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse, the name André Breton gave to a game-like practice of making collective drawings on accordion-folded paper where no participant could see the image made by preceding artists). However, while the Surrealists were seeking to tap into their notion of a collective unconscious revealed through a deliberate “psychic automatism”, Kallat’s exercise seems to be geared to probing the very limits of diagrammatic communication. Hovering across the equally alchemical process of representation and abstraction, the imagery of Ellipsis is seemingly in search of achieving a state of “universal” communication intended for a “universal recipient” (incidentally, this was the title of a series of paintings by Kallat, and of his 2008 solo exhibition at the now defunct Haunch of Venison, Zurich).
Many of the forms visible in Ellipsis have interesting ancestries. Many are recurring motifs from his own paintings, visible from his earliest works where “figuration emerged by guarrying layers of paint.”
Some resemble scientific drawings of botanical or anatomical details; others seem to describe architectonic relationships whether at the scale of built structures or at the molecular level. Map-like or cartographic invitations to enter, explore and interpret are extended to viewers-on the proviso that those following these maps may well find themselves participating in orchestrated re-routings of imagery, a-la the détournement methodology of the Lettrist and Situationist Internationals, where recognisable images, for instance from mass media, are modified to convey a message antagonistic to the original. Alternately, they may find here an invitation to engage in a psycho-geographic exercise by using Kallat’s made-up cartography to enter into and navigate a micro- or macro-cosmic unfolding where familiar signposts and routine minutiae, or everyday socio-political relationships are abandoned to make room for improvisatory and potentially revolutionary realignments that can combat the malaise and oppression of what Debord called “the society of the spectacle.”
Kallat's “obsessive interweaving of the cosmos and the cosmopolis” is processually driven. Rules, models and systems underlie artistic methods, forming a kind of grammatical scaffolding for thought. On tightropes strung between different points on this intellectual armature, the artist undertakes spatial and temporal procedures and performances to probe the filters of perception and cognition. Repeated rehearsal makes abstraction yield emergence, signalling new and different ways of knowing and speaking about worldly experience. Encryption and decryption are important procedural modalities here, both of them invoking a play with ciphers as well as practices undertaken post-mortem. As though laid to rest through encryption, meaning emerges to new life following the insistent ministrations of the decoder. These ministrations are not without risk. The map bleeds at its borders, seams come undone, elements seek new molecular valences, landscapes shudder at the irruptions of the land, fault lines spring through the surface of presumedly integral constructs, the real punctures the visage of reality.
The painting lays open the encoding as though in a laboratory dissection scenario (Breton famously defined beauty as consisting in the marvellous, like the “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table”). Chance encounters abound, springing up as though through volitions peculiar to their own genetics, amid and sometimes despite the artist's not-always-gentle ministrations. Not everything is (can be) said outright; the sahrdaya (lit. one with heart, i.e., the informed, sensitive viewer) is essential to the experience of rasa. Ellipsis implies that if community is essentially (and causally)premisedoncommunication(andcommunicability), then the task of finding common cause in a disintegrating world is the most urgent of all.
Covering Letter (terranum nuncius) is the latest and least overtly “political” of Kallat’s “public notice” works. Based on messages inscribed into the gold-plated copper discs carried on board NASA’s Voyager I and II spacecraft launched September and August 1977 respectively, terranum nuncius (an earthly messenger) engages with a particularly difficult problem in humanity’s relationship with nature and time, and its representation of planetary conditions to an unknown audience. If Ellipsis signals possibilities of cosmopolitan communication among earthly beings, terranum nuncius looks back at a particular time in recent history, extracting and presenting coded messages sent out into outer space by scientists from or based in the USA, on behalf of all humankind. The Voyager missions were timed to take advantage of once-in-176-years planetary alignments allowing gravity-boosted slingshot acceleration from the giant outer planets of our solar system. Now more than 11 and 13 billion miles from earth, each carries an identical Golden Record, a 12-inch gold-plated copper disc playable on a phonograph, with one hour of recording per side. The cover of each Golden Record cover has a diagram with decoding instructions in simple diagrams and binary notation-the least culturally-specific system of communication known to humanity. The diagrams on the record covers would presumably be legible to any intellect conversant with what are for us the two fundamentals of graphic communication: mark and time (from whence proceed marking time and timed marks, building blocks of art).
The binary notation consists of horizontal and vertical dashes (presence/absence, full/null), while time is calibrated according to the transition period of the hydrogen atom-which occurs everywhere in the known universe-from one to the other of its two lowest states. The designers of the discs sought to arrive at the most basic, most rudimentary means of communication, paring information down so as to be legible regardless of genetic differences, leave alone cultural conditionings. The endeavour signals a return to the very atomic nature of “nature” itself, down to the smallest indivisible particle still recognisable as a particular substance. Implicit here is the assumption of mark-making as lowest common denominator for non-verbal, trans-linguistic communication and legibility. All information on the Records, including 115 images, 90 minutes of music, natural and machine sounds, and greetings in 55 ancient and modern languages, is encoded as analog audio signal. Sounds from the Golden Records are deployed by Kallat in the form of audio broadcast through the exhibition space, while the images decoded by software engineer Ron Barry are presented on a circular base, a “round table” carrying backlit three-dimensional photographic transparencies. From human genetics and anatomy to a survey of cultural artefacts and non-human life-forms on the planet, the images are designed to offer an encapsulation of our world (version 1977) to an as yet unknown interstellar intelligence.
The intergalactic destination of the referent in Covering Letter (terranum nuncius) might at first glance make the work seem devoid of contemporary political charge. A closer reading reveals a carefully staged position and perspective on recent history. At one level, images and sounds from the Golden Record may offer the opportunity for “a collective meditation on ourselves as united residents of a single planet where the ‘other’ is an unknown ‘intergalactic alien’”. Part of the terranum nuncius installation is a bench in the shape of the hands of the Doomsday Clock, perilously close to midnight. At a time of “planetary inflammation manifesting as climate crisis at one end, and as prejudice, discrimination and hatred at another…” the installation makes a powerful case for contemplation of the world around us, even as the NASA committee of scientists headed by Carl Sagan sought to summarise their world in 1977. Experiencing decoded representations of the contents of a time capsule from humanity’s recent past offers an invitation to consider the balance sheet at the beginning of 2020: whether in India, Hong Kong, or elsewhere in the world, popular uprisings against draconian state authority offer some hope in an otherwise dismal, entropic system facing looming environmental catastrophe, and characterised by rampant fundamentalisms in symbiosis with jingoistic nationalisms, systematic abuses of power, and ever-widening gulfs between the privileged few and the vast majority of the population. As we gaze at the images and listen to the sounds carried by the Voyager missions, we are asked to wonder what a time capsule of 2020 may look like, and indeed, what we have made of our world, might appear to an extra-terrestrial intelligence. Would they greet our summary with a wry acknowledgement of mistakes familiar in their own history or with contempt and pity at the greed, hatred and delusion that Gautama Buddha identified as the hallmark defilements of our species?
At another level, we remember that the Voyager missions were launched at the height of the Cold War. With mutually assured destruction established, the Soviet Union and the USA were striving for supremacy in space, the former with its Soyuz missions to the Salyut space station, the latter launching its Space Shuttle Program. The War in Vietnam had only recently ended, but new wars broke out between Vietnam and Cambodia, between Somalia and Ethiopia, and between Libya and Egypt. The Emergency ended and democracy was restored in India, while a military coup took place in Pakistan. Consumer models of Apple computers became available, as did the use of optical fibre in communication. George Lucas’ Star Wars inaugurated a new genre of fantasy in popular culture. Behind the Voyager mission lay an assertion of the USA as the leader of the “free” world, addressing interstellar beings on behalf of all humanity, marking the ultimate triumph of western capitalist economics and culture at the largest imaginable scale.
Presented together as they are in this exhibition, Ellipsis and Covering Letter (terranum nuncius) are a study in volitional variation: the one almost charting its own cartographies, often asserting independence at an originary, genetic level, the other responding to procedures and imagery already executed, performed, and broadcast at an inter-planetary scale. Where the making of one has been a private pursuit of uncertain destiny, the other pursues the most “public” of notices, the ultimate apotheosis of proclamations at large.
Kallat was three at the time the Voyagers were launched. Looking back nearly 43 years later, the elliptical politics of these works revealsadarkerside: asufficientnumber of ellipses inserted into any text suffices to undo every rules-based conceit of communicability. The ability of our species to unite despite its differences rests on a collective drive to undertake restitutional activities, a global willingness to make-whole-again. In the meanwhile, everyone who sends a message in a bottle, be it hello strangers! or an SOS, must countenance the possibility that by the time the message is read, if it is read at all, every present condition may have come to an end, or been transformed beyond recognition.
1. For an example of a Surrealist cadavre exquis including Breton’s text explaining its origins and process, see andrebreton.fr/en/work/566001001117840.
2. Peter Nagy, Jitish Kallat: Universal Recipient, London: Haunch of Venison, 2008.
3. Jitish Kallat in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist in Jitish Kallat edited by Natasha Ginwala. Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing in association with Prestel Verlag, 2018, p. 15.
4. Interestingly, Kallat notes advertising billboards as part of his earliest visual Interests and conditioning. See Jitish Kallat in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, op. cit., pp. 14-15.
5. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Detroit: Black and Red, 1977.
6. Ginwala, “Introduction” in Jitish Kallat, op. Cit., p. 8.
7. In his “First Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924), Breton cites this formulation from the poetry of Le Conte de Lau-tréamont (Uruguayan-born Isidore Ducasse, 1846-1870) as the definition of beauty. Andro Breton, “First Manifesto of Surrealism” in Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), p. 453.
8. A brief history of the Voyager missions and images of many (but not all) of encoded messages on the Golden Records can be found at voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/golden-record/.
9. Ron Barry’s illustrated essay “How to decode the images on the Voyager Golden Record” can be accessed at boingboing.net/2017/09/05/how-to-decode-the-images-on-th.html.
Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the Voyager launches, vinyl and CD versions of the Golden Record became available for purchase through Ozma Records in 2017.
10. Jitish Kallat, press release for solo exhibition at Famous Studio, Mumbai, email to author, 6 December 2019.
11. Jitish Kallat, email to author, 23 December 2019.