What a peculiar age this was, Des Esseintes thought to himself, which, ostensibly in the interests of humanity, strove to perfect anesthetics in order to do away with physical suffering, and at the same time concocted stimulants such as this to aggravate moral suffering!*
I was reminded of my old friend Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes when I found myself in the Bandra (a neighbourhood of Mumbai, the city formerly known as Bombay, apparently identified with its famous residents, both young and old, who earn their livelihoods acting in the Hindi-language films colloquially known as constituting one fictitious “Bollywood”) studio of the painter Jitish Kallat recently, perusing his works that were in preparation for an upcoming exhibition to be held in Singapore. The studio itself was a rather forlorn flat the painter was sharing with his artist wife and their very recently born son (an infant possessing the rather serious mien of a learned scholar) while another flat which they had purchased nearby approached some sense of completion of the rather extensive renovations that had been forced upon it. These renovations had transformed the space structurally and, upon my visit, a system of specially-designed furnishings were in the process of being fabricated for the flat, furnishings which mix vestiges of a neo-Modernist style of interior design with carefully-placed signifiers of pan-Asian aesthetics. I bring this up only because Mr. Kallat is the type of artist who sees both his own and the art of his peers as operating within a much wider continuum of visual culture, one in which fashion, décor and even the ephemeral or performing arts are believed to possess philosophical import, and hence, their choices of patronage and of acquisition reflect directly upon themselves and their own artistic creations.
It was with all this in mind that I viewed first a large series of works on paper that Mr. Kallat had prepared over the past year. These were certainly studies for figures and motifs that would find themselves into his larger paintings in the future, to be combined into elaborate logarithmic scenarios, but at the same time were surprisingly self-contained, precisely calibrated and persuasive miniatures. On occasion, one could recognise something of a familiar figure from the world of politics in these works but the very fact of this recognition seemed shocking, so grossly deformed were these caricatures. The lingering residue of knowability seemed improbable yet the evidence was there, as eye contacted with brain to register the name with such an abstraction. “Stations of a Pause” is the collective title Mr. Kallat has given to these small works and to view a number of them in rapid sequence is not unlike the experiences of channel surfing on a television overloaded with cable programming. Backgrounds of falling missiles are supplanted by penises, sex-enraged vixens run with the mentally- deranged, a vomiting Goliath, images of violence complemented by violence perpetrated on images. The works effectively mirror the extravaganza of possibilities available by way of the mass media yet resemble discarded refuse, smelted down into some sort of bastardized kernel of visual information.
Already he had begun dreaming of a refined Thebaid, a desert hermitage equipped with all modern conveniences, a simply heated ark on dry land in which he might take refuge from the incessant deluge of human stupidity. [As a matter of fact, artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius.]
It was precisely this conundrum of intellectually advanced picture-making within a non-descript walk-up, daubing my forehead under the weight of a lackadaisical ceiling fan that sliced through a humidity impregnated with air-borne fungi, which reminded me of the good old Des Esseintes. It was his characteristic combination of neurotic sensibility, a yearning for solitude, a loathing for mediocrity and a passion for novelty for the much younger Mr. Kallat seemed to embody in his artistic practice. To know that these works were destined for a swank showing space in a distant commercial metropolis and that the artist himself would soon be installed in his own climate-controlled cocoon brought another level of delectable perversity to the goings-on. Mr. Kallat is of a generation which harbours no trepidation when acknowledging the impossibility of originality today, displays no hesitation to accept the derivation at the heart of all cultural products. The question, repeatedly put succinctly by Mr. Kallat’s works, is how to negotiate this terrain, availing oneself of polymorphous variety in order to construct potent critical comments or pithy arguments, all the while displaying a stylish elan so as to entertain both luncheon partners and investment hunters. Called upon, as I had been, to pontificate for a publication reproducing Mr. Kallat’s newest works, the memory of a music video for a British band concocted from the regurgitated bull of my favourite film (an elliptical murder mystery adapted from a specimen of La Nouvelle Roman and staged, appropriately, in the style of Le Ancien Regime) dictated the only possible form of response.
Moreover, the painter seemed to have wished to assert his intention of remaining outside the bounds of time, of giving no precise indication of race or country or period, setting as he did his Salome inside this extraordinary palace with its grandiose, heterogeneous architecture, clothing her in sumptuous, fanciful robes, crowning her with a nondescript diadem like Salammbo’s, in the shape of a Phoenician tower, and finally putting in her hand the sceptre of Isis, the sacred flower of both Egypt and India, the great lotus-blossom.
Mumbai is a curious city these days (as perhaps it always has been but certainly amplified today). Gorged, at points, on the excesses of a rampant capitalism, at other points it resembles the Raft of Medusa, with hollow-eyed denizens hanging on for dear life. Sleek sedans with smoked glass, their occupants sealed inside as if refrigerated produce, crawl through boulevards hoping to avoid the tide of pedestrians that tangos precariously through both sweltering light and blinding heat. Mr Kallat responds to these contradictions by concocting works that graze delicately against the specifics of his city and borrow a few traits from foreign locales. His paintings share attributes common to all major metropolii, exploit both the glitz and the sleaze that drives such large-scale urban economies, wrestle to make entertainment meaningful and philosophy mirthful. The resulting pictures can claim no culture entirely as their own and enact a duplicitous charade as not only the nationality but also the pedigree of their marker.
Take, for example, Mr. Kallat’s work entitled “RSVP (The Closet March),” a photograph comprised of multiple panels measuring 16 feet in length.Here, the artist effects a self-portrait in a hall of mirrors, actually the fitting room of an upscale department store. He is dressed as any member of the fashionably dishevelled middle class that can be found anywhere in the world today. He holds up a sign, which reads “RSVP,” literally begging for a reaction from the viewer and is multiplied many times over in the reflections of reflections. The beholder of such a work is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, as is the artist himself, present yet lost within an institutional sublime of hyper-modernity, location and subject, or spectacle and commodity, collapsing together in a state of terminal exhaustion, resuscitated and plugged into life-support systems.
It was the largest canvases I saw that day, on which Mr.Kallat was still in mid-toil, that brought me closest to the spirit of Des Esseintes. I was reminded of the grandiose folly of he had long ago undertaken to collect plants (this only after assembling a truly remarkable selection of the best possible faux foliage available anywhere). Extensive research went into Des Esseintes’ project while umpteen middlemen scoured the jungles, deserts, laboratories and hothouses of the world in search of the most patently absurd specimens of botany.
The gardeners brought in still more varieties this time affecting the appearance of a factitious skin covered with a network of counterfeit veins. Most of them, as if ravaged by syphilis or leprosy. Displayed livid patches of flesh mottled with roseola. Damasked with Datre: others had the bright pink colour of a scar that is healing or the brown hint of a scab that is forming: others seemed to have been puffed up by cauteries, blistered by burns; others revealed hairy surfaces pitted with ulcers and embossed with chancre; and last of all there were some which appeared to be covered with dressings of various sorts, coated with black mercurial lard, plastered with green belladonna ointment, dusted over with the yellow flakes of iodoform powder.
I bring this up because Mr. Kallat has fashioned a bouquet of one dozen paintings that ricochet off the graphics of seed packages, with each canvas having one large bloom centrally illustrated and appearing under the moniker of “Herbarium (Annual-Perennial).”Mr. Kallat’s florals would make Des Esseintes covetous as each is composed of the hallucinogenic faces of human beings, their features coalescing into one another, as if the victims of a monstrous industrial accident or the results of an overzealous amusement park ride that has careened into a crowd of onlookers after snapping free from its cables. The “flowers,” so to speak, are cradled in a network of capillary tubes or perhaps lymph nodes, further accentuating the sensation of observing the physiological causes for either multiple personality disorder or the disjointed language of a fever patient. As if to add insult to injury, Mr. Kallat then mutilates the surface of his works, making them seem old before their time or genetically diseased, spoiling their hygienic demeanours with patinas of putrescence. Painting, for this artist, seems to be part diagnostic practice, part sociological interrogation, part confessional purge, and part cannibalistic impropriety. A shudder went down my spine despite the torpid climate and hot tea.
These pictures, full of abominable fancies, reeking of burnt flesh, dripping with blood, echoing with screams and curses, made Des Esseintes’s flesh creep whenever he went into the red boudoir, and he remained rooted to the spot, choking with horror.
One wonders what will become of these pictures when they have been divorced from their siblings and disseminated to the drawing rooms of the upper-classes who not only can afford such things but even enthusiastically search them out. “Panic Acid” is how Mr. Kallat has christened this entire menagerie. The works present a rather sordid and perverse view of the world today, born of sickness and delirium but also a cunning intelligence, the artist’s inveterate talents have been harnessed more for critique than the conscription of beauty. Much of the greatest art produced over centuries has been created not for pleasure but to instil terror. Today, these works, appear revelatory and prophetic while their audacity of their creators is celebrated for defying their complacency of the bourgeoisie. To recognise the gravity of such art at the time of its creation requires discernment, fortitude and gallantry.
*All quotes are from the 1959 translation by Robert Baddick of “Against Nature” (“A Rebours”) by J.K Huysmans (first published in 1884); Penguin Books, London.
Published in the book Panic Acid in Drawings Paintings Photographs, published by Bodhi Art, 2005