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Asian Art Newspaper’s interview with Jitish Kallat, London

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With the old empire reclaiming a great deal of attention from its sovereign state for its industrious energy and art scene, Indian artists have risen to the fore with numerous shows opening in London. A leading light for this dynamic is the Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat. Regarded for his vast paintings perched on gargoyles and his resin works of brittle bones reconstituted as rickshaws and petroleum trucks, Kallat is positively energised by both the poverty and the progress of his neighbourhood.

Asian Art Newspaper: Initially I wanted to ask about your art school? Were you originally drawn to painting or sculpture? Whom your originally influences were?

Jitish Kallat: I went to art school at the Sir J.J. School of Art and was drawn as much to the exemplars within the visual arts realm as I was to mass media, advertising, etc. I did my BFA in painting and even today hold the painted image as a very potent vehicle to carry ideas. My early art influences were rather wide, covering a vast number of artists, across generations and continents. But I would say it was also the stuff on TV, the billboards, and the mess and grime of one’s neighbourhood that hugely stimulated my practice.

AAN: Where was your first major solo show? Where you positively received by audiences and your critics immediately and did that matter to you?

JK: My first major solo show, entitled P.T.O., opened at Gallery Chemould (now Chemould Prescott Road) in 1997 when I was all of twenty-three years old. Showing with Gallery Chemould was a huge privilege as it is one India’s oldest galleries, has been instrumental in shaping the course of contemporary Indian art and up until then they had only worked with artists who were in their late thirties or older. The feedback from the show was fantastic.

AAN: When you start making works with a greater global audience in mind, do you make works that are of greater global significance, or are you still concerned with local issues and local geography?

JK: First of all you do not begin making work with a specific audience whether local or global. Besides terms such as ‘local’ and ‘global’ are not absolute binaries any more. They can be used in an academic discourse, but they hold little value, except perhaps as mere tools of description, while you are actually making work in the studio.

AAN: Do you feel like you are consciously creating a style and a language for your works in India, in a context in which there was not one in place already? Are you truly original in that sense?

JK: In today’s world the notion of the ‘entirely original’ is not just an impossible position, but also an uninteresting one. At a time when both knowledge and experience goes through intense interbreeding with the virtual, culture will reproduce in exciting, hybrid ways. My work would probably be unique only by virtue of the fact that it does not remain rigid in pursuit of absolute originality and instead becomes a flexible processing field to engage with and disentangle the million signals that enter my system every day.

AAN: What motivates your work? When looking at the epic scale and ambition of paintings like the Untitled (Eclipse) series and then the haunting homage to Mahatma Gandhi with Public Notice 2, one enjoys the incredible confidence of such works, whatleads you to such ideas and such works? And do you think scale amplifies your message?

JK: I often say that the city street is my university. One finds all the themes of life and art – pain, happiness, anger, violence and compassion – played out here in full volume. Scale is merely one of the many tools one can deploy in the creation of meaning, and decisions such as big, small, lifesize, etc., are as much acts of meaning creation as they may be retinal or aesthetic considerations.

AAN: With your new show opening at the Haunch of Venison,Londonin 2010, are you addressing new ideas? Are you works a departure from the scale and ambition of previous works you mention or are your works evolving all the time?

JK: My forthcoming solo show entitled The Astronomy of the Subway shares several thematic links with earlier works, but the ideas have gone through a lot of re-invention. These are carried forward in pieces which are quite varied from each other such as Annexation, where an intricately treated sculpture of an oversized black lead kerosene stove carries over 100 images on it; these are culled from the porch of the Victoria Terminus building where the decorative architectural friezes carry several images of animals devouring each other and clinging onto different things, like a pot of food or a bunch of grapes. This is notunlike the daily grind of survival that this porch witnesses everyday. Yet another room will have one large, multi-part photopiece titled The Cry of the Gland with 108 close shots of people’s pockets shot on the streets, each one bulging like a bodily protrusion, laden with personal possessions loosely attached to the body. In another room will be a double height video projection that will simulate a journey through space wherein planetary and stellar formations, galactic clusters and nebulae are replaced by hundreds of x-ray scans of food. This dark, cryptic, hypnotic space when viewed a little longer can begin to appear like floating cellular formations, suspended tumours etc. morphing the insides of the body with the dark, indeterminate cosmic space and evoking notions of sustenance, survival and mortality that have been consistent within my practice for the last 15 years.

AAN: Can you discuss some of the other works included in the The Astronomy of the Subway’ ?

JK: The show is spread across some seven rooms and these are almost structured like parallel projects. For instance, in the same space as Annexation are three photopieces entitled Chlorophyll Park (Mutatis Mutandis). Each piece will be a scene of a street wherein all traces of asphalt have been replaced by wheatgrass. The grass, grown in the studio and documented like organised studio shots, is then composited into random candid street shots. At one level these appear like a sudden invasion of nature, with nourishing wheatgrass taking on the blackTarmac street; at another level I am also interested in the threatening and apocalyptic element in these images. Elsewhere in a sevenpart, lenticular photopiece entitled Aspect Ratio, the seven colours of the rainbow and the image of a Mumbai street will continue to flicker, and also flip and alternate between being a flat colour and having an image of the street emerge from it, as one walks past the work or even if one moves in front of it. The paintings entitled Haemoglyphics (The Archipelago of Aches) appear like large Rorschach inkblots, and are held in the mouths of bronze gargoyles. These are recreations of those found atop the Victoria Terminus building; the sculptural elements in Annexation are also referenced from the same building, which is the nerve centre of the Mumbai metro.

AAN: How are you received in Indiaby the art audiences and the critics alike and is there a clear difference in how a European, even an American audience, interprets your works from an Indian one? Does your work translate well across continents?

JK: The notion of translation across continents is one of the adventures and pleasures of contemporary art today. I enjoy the way artworks gain and shed meaning across varying demography and geography; as an artist one provides the works with some vital ingredients with which it continues to engage and dialogue with the world across time and space.

AAN: More generally, is art receiving the attention it deserves inIndianow? We are all aware of the scale of cinema and television in the subcontinent, but not of where art fits along such cultural giants. Are the audiences ready to understand the very different messages of contemporary art without as much reward?

JK: Contemporary art inIndiacontinues to be viewed by a small but fast growing community of people who form the art world. It would be a fair assessment to say that the circumference of the art world is growing at a rate that was hard to imagine a decade ago. We have to note that the contemporary art movement gained its momentum only in the last few decades so people are yet to acquire the tools to understand  art. One key dampener is the visible absence of an enlightened, readable review culture in the mainstream media; as a result the public at large remains detached and somewhat art illiterate. In the last few years, the focus of this media has been on some sort of a vacuous celebrity citing so most shows are written about in the party pages of the newspapers. These are some of dangerous symptoms of a community fed on a diet of reality TV and ‘song-n-dance’ cinema, whereby even the key newspaper and news channels on TV begin to reflect a skewed, unreal version of reality. Anyway to answer your question, contemporary art remains a niche discipline when compared to the impact of mainstream cinema or television on the general public. Besides the population at large remain preoccupied with pressing challenges of survival, for whom mass cinema and television act as ventilators to momentarily escape from the harsh reality of daily life.

AAN: Returning to the work Public Notice, what do you make of Gandhi now? Do you think he failed in his ambitions for Indiaor did India fail him? And subsequently with this entire move toward a technology rich culture and a booming economy, isIndiafailing him again, or were his dreams always impossible and regressive?

JK: Gandhi is a massive figure whose speeches and writing form some of the foundational texts of the nation state. He used symbols, words, actions like an artist at precise moments to reawaken an entire subcontinent to stand up against an oppressive invader using the most imaginative tool of non-violent disobedience. In today’s terror-infected world, where wars against terror are fought at prime television time, voices such as Gandhi’s stare back at us like discarded relics. Indiais not failing Gandhi with its booming economy. Gandhi was not anti-prosperity, but the growing inequities between rich and poor does call for a radical moral and social transformation.

AAN: Where do you go from here? What matters now that might not have mattered before? Finally do you feel like you have succeeded with what you wanted to do or are you seeking more from your practice?

JK: If Warhol spoke about 15 minutes of fame, I would say the occupational hazard of being an artist is that you only enjoy 15 minutes of satisfaction. The completion of a piece or a project is mere stopover, a pause in a very long endless expedition..


Rajesh Punj, February 2010


Written by Breathe Arts

August 17, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Posted in General

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