Tuesday, November 10, 2009
International Contemporary Art is to a large extent an attempt at grasping in visual language the changes---and related social, cultural and sometimes political contradictions---that are appearing the world over, in localized settings. India, along with China as one of the world’s fastest globalizing presence, is home to a vibrant art scene, which observers like to classify as typically “Indian” – in line both with India previous “exotic” image, and with today’s postmodern criticism of “universalism”.
One of the young stars of Indian contemporary painting is Jitish Kallat (b.1974). His short career has seen him cover a wide range of mediums and themes, which focus on the inextricable complexity of modern urban India. Jitish Kallat was until a few years ago primarily known as a painter of huge, billboard-like canvases. His often garish palette used symbolic images drawn from the Indian world around him---TV channels, newspapers, popular imagery—to address haunting and often political subjects such as ethnic violence, intolerance, urban ecology , which are of universal concerns but in his works deeply rooted in the land of India. Since 2003 he makes tri-dimensional works of simile bones, monstrous antediluvian creatures of modernity (cars) that symbolize the “primitive” call of death that seems to hang about the sub-continent’s recurrent bursts of violence.
Endowed with a sharp wit and a writer in his own right, Jittish Kallat (JK) is, as shown in his answers below, the best exponent of his works. C-Arts has for the present issue asked him, through a list of questions prepared for that purpose by its chief-editor Eddy Sutriyono (ES), to “position” his art in the spectrum of the international contemporary scene. The result is extremely interesting for what the artist says of his art, but also for the meaningful “misunderstandings” that appear in his answers to Eddy Sutriyono’s questions. Those “misunderstandings” show an artist eager to escape definition, and who is definitely reluctant to be called post-modern. His message is otherwise very simple: artists cannot but talk about their local realities- in his case Mumbai; yet it is absurd to reduce art to the expression of one’s identity. It is the key themes that matter: pain, happiness, anger, violence and compassion. It is in them that true universalism, if any, lies.
ES: Why do Indian contemporary artists often include Indian elements (whether new or old) in their works? Anish Kapoor likes to use colors that remind one of Indian spices (old); Bhakti Ker uses bindi (old), Subodh Gupta shows Indian traditional kitchen utensils or means of transportation (scooters full of people, cars full of stuff on its rooftops crossing flooded streets); while you highlight the life of the city of Mumbai in your works.
JK: I think your question is loaded with a heavy dose of skepticism about local realities and their symbolic potency within the works of artists. While I accept that this globe has gone through a phase of incessant cultural miscegenation, artists find it irrelevant to withhold the percolation of their neighborhood into their art. I was born in Mumbai and have lived here all my life. In many ways, the city street is my university. All the key themes of life get enacted on a Mumbai street; pain, happiness, anger, violence and compassion are all played out in full volume.
These in turn stack up within my art like a palimpsest of colliding signs.
You can not expect that the works made by artists will not reflect their lived reality; just as it equally futile to search exclusively for national signs within works of artist from anywhere.
ES: Are the intended appearances of Indian local color necessary in this era of globalization? Do you reject universalism? Is it part of a strategy to achieve international success?
JK: I do not know what you mean by Indian local color. Is there Indonesian color or Russian color? I don’t mean to trivialize your question but color as such is certainly universal. Of course some colors may have symbolic meaning specific to a place and occasionally they may even have political undertones. Artists are best equipped to exploit their meaning and tease out the many possibilities of interpretation.
ES: You often depict life in the city of Mumbai, is it because you were born there or is there another reason for this?
JK: I was born in Mumbai and have always lived here. I’m not interested in the city per se but when 20 million people hit the street, all the classic themes of life and art are played out in sharp focus. In many ways, my works become a receptacle of that stimuli.
JC Jittish Kallat refuses to limit himself to an ideological approach that would limit his work as an affirmation of “identity” – that of Mumbai. Instead he sees himself as a simple witness of life in a city that happens to be Mumbai.
ES: Many of your past artworks were made using techniques resulting in something that resembled American Pop Art screen print works, however most of your works now are three dimensional installations. What led you to make this change? Are you following the contemporary art trend?
JK: My work between 1995-2001 greatly resembled a weather beaten city-street, the pixilated television screen or the worn out billboard or film hoarding. The paintings were sometimes symbolically scaled to the format of a billboard even as their content varied dramatically. A lot of these pieces were media inspired and a lot of what I do today continues to address the same themes through a wide range of media. Even as I engage with a variety of material, somewhere deep down my practice is very much anchored in painting.
ES: What is your point of view on contemporary art or postmodernism?
ES: In 2006, you presented two dimensional Indian modern means of transportation on canvas, which were then crushed by a bronze elephant sculpture, frightening creatures like those that appear on the walls of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Why did you decide to position the elephant alongside creatures from western culture / Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris?
JK: I think you are referring to the ‘Rickshawpolis’ series that were almost like vast collision portraits of the thumping, claustrophobic city-streets of Mumbai. However there were no elephants juxtaposed by creatures in any of those works. Within the paintings cars, buses, scooters, cycles, cats, cows and humans collide and coalesce to form mega-explosions. The painting itself is mounted on bronze sculptures, re-creations of gargoyles that are found atop the 120 year old Victoria Terminus Building in the center of Mumbai. The gargoyle, herein symbolizing the figure of the bystander, has been a daily witness to the constant calamity of the street running into itself.
The bronze supports had nothing to do with the Notre Dame. The
architecture of the Victoria Terminus has a family resemblance with cathedrals and other grand buildings in Europe since the Terminus was one of the finest buildings the British built in colonial India. The fact that its corridors are warmed by the transit of millions of people every day makes it is a building loaded with meaning.
ES: Your recent works represent water tank (Aquasaurus), Auto-rickshaw and automobile (Collidonthus) from prehistoric skeletons. Is there any particular concept, notion or philosophy behind these works?
JK: The sculptures of vehicles rendered like prehistoric vertebrates emerged out of studies I began making in 2006-07. These in turn were referenced from my photo-archive of vehicles that have been violated during riots. It is a common sight in South Asia (and perhaps all over the world) to see public fury being externalized by breaking windscreens and setting inanimate automobiles aflame. For instance, when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated recently in Pakistan most televised footage showed angry mobs burning vehicles. The two actions are unrelated and for the same reasons these images have continually caught my attention as I began seeing these vehicles as receptacles of human folly. Even as they perish from being functional objects through these inane acts of ‘cremation’, their charred bodies begin to resemble those of deceased creatures.
Following these initial studies the pieces changed completely from being burnt-umber, fossilized endoskeletons to becoming white, colossal, creepy-cute sculptures that I often describe as ‘grotesque, burlesque and arabesque’ in equal measure. This widens the possibility of engaging with these pieces immensely as the viewer approaches them with sufficient uncertainty. The display of these pieces are many times a cross between a creature in a Natural History Museum, a brand new vehicle in an auto-expo or an oversized toy in a child’s dream.
The first in the series was Autosaurus Tripous a recreation of an auto-rickshaw (referred to as tuk-tuk, auto etc. in other parts of Asia). This omnipresent catalyst of traffic jams definitely seems to have missed its use-by-date in a streetscape that changes every week with the arrival of a new car. Collidonthus was the re-creation of a badly crashed up car I would see parked on the street-side for months on my way to the studio.
Broadly speaking I see these refashioned carcasses carry, albeit in a playful manner, an inscription of death and mortality that refer to recurrent themes in my practice.
ES: In Public Notice, you depicted sentences formed by skeletons. Did you doubt the strength of visualisation, hence you still used a verbal concept? What is the meaning of the skeletons in this particular work? Is it similar to the skeletons in your other works (Aquasaurus, Auto-rickshaw & Collidonthus)? Or is it only a metaphor, just like a chameleon is able to change its colors?
JK: Within my practice, Public Notice-2 (2007) links up with two key antecedents, Public Notice (2003) and Detergent (2004), both works wherein a historical speech is summoned as the central armature of these works. Blurred and sometimes forgotten due to the passage of time, the historical speech is fore-grounded and held up as an apparatus to judge our feats and our follies as nations and as humankind.
Public Notice-2 (2007) re-invokes the momentous speech delivered by Mahatma Gandhi on the eve of the historic 400-kilometer Dandi March lasting almost 24 days during the Indian Freedom Struggle. In today’s terror-infected world, where wars against terror are fought at prime television time, voices such as Gandhi’s can play a crucial role in helping us re-set our ailing world. The entire speech is constructed out of about 4500 re-creations of bones shaped like letters. Each letter in this speech, like a misplaced relic, will hold up the image of violence in clinical clarity even as their collective chorus makes a plea for peace.
I, in no way, discount the power of the visual. Even if Public Notice-2 is a text based piece, it communicates through a very visually captivating experience.