Archaeology and Here After Here: A Review of Jitish Kallat’s Retrospective
When I joined the teams setting up Jitish Kallat's exhibition Here After Here at the NGMA in December, it was described to me as a “mid-career” retrospective. In my mind, a retrospective is not so much a “show” as an archaeological experience: what is uncovered and revealed is not only the artist's life in the studio, but the life of the studio, as it becomes the projection of a changing mind over decades of practice. Whether or not Here After Here is being called a retrospective, the question is not a polite or innocuous one; it implies that the dig may not be worth the effort.
The answer too, was unearthed slowly. The first thing that struck me was the number of components in some of the installations. Works like Epilogue, Aquasaurus, 365 Lives, and Public Notice 2 have hundreds of parts that are assembled on site. Many of these are monumental, both in size and tedium. As each one arrived, we opened their crates and boxes, rummaged past the foam sheets, peeled off the bubble-wrap, butter-paper and plastic, and then passed and placed each unit along organic assembly lines. The components of each work were themselves labelled to facilitate smooth assembly. It was as though the organisation of the works dictated a certain method of unpacking it; as though it was made only to be arranged, dismantled, and arranged again, like a jigsaw puzzle. Such easy inheritance of an organising system made me wonder if I was inadvertently gaining an insight into the studio, and how far back this genealogy went. What method was employed to pack each frame of Epilogue's 753 chronologically into so many boxes? Were the images literally made from thousands of unique rotis or do they repeat at some key point?
For much of Kallat's work has that quality: you become invested in going deeper and deeper to find an “original” method, the earliest fossil of assembly with which the work was first made, and which can be revealed as pixilated into final, clear units. After a while, I began to ponder the segmentation of Kallat's time as he recorded, replicated and accumulated these mundane bits of activity into monumental images. One is invited to imagine a day when all such works are in progress: every time it rains, the artist is obliged to record a few drops on paper with fast-drying paint; every time he has a meal, he has to first carve, then document the chapathis; every time he sees a dented car, or a curiously filled shirt-pocket, he has to take a photograph. The multitude of processes are thus slotted and scattered into the chronology of daily events, and we are asked to consider the whole mess of reality as the site of the artist's studio; because this is what prompts the artist to respond and record, forming the boundaries within which the artist – and the stratified art-making process – can have discourse.
The avant-garde artist and his “background” metropolitan reality are major preoccupations in Kallat's work. One could say that his series of ironical self-portraiture is passé among contemporary artists. But this irony becomes increasingly justified as one looks through the rest of the display. One is reminded of A Brief History of John Baldessari, where Tom Waits describes the artist's ordinary possessions and spaces with gravitas, and an irony similar to that of Kallat's self-portraits. In truth of course, there is no single, great artist figure. Many of the large, assembled works described above are the products of a concerted effort by a team under Kallat.
The romantic notion of the city and stratified time as a studio is a part of the artwork's myth-making: something you have to entertain, as an exercise, to accommodate an idea. In a retrospective – and I'm not saying Here After Here is one – this becomes a collective landscape of myth induced by all the works present. We are encouraged to string together not works of art, but each of the mundane activities, the meals, the walks in the rain and demolished slums, the flâneur-like impressions of the city, to realise a vision of the artist's career. One cannot ignore this vision in the retrospective. The vision of a day, an accumulation of activities into works of art, becomes more and more insistent as one moves through the exhibition. The microscopic examination of life and its tiny whirring parts is gathered into an illusion large enough to mimic reality, large enough to have layers to dig through and unpack. Catherine David reveals to us the presence of such an archaeology in Kallat's oeuvre, and poses yet another question of digging: when was the work curated? At what point was it a rough object, if it was always already a series of meticulous compositions and refrains embedded in daily life?
Whether Here After Here can be considered a retrospective perhaps rests on such questions of layers, sediments, and how the moment of revelation is engineered. Given this, it is perhaps fitting that the exhibition is held at the NGMA, a visual archive of modern Indian art literally tiered by historical period. The canonisation and hegemony through which history is curated therein is mimicked on the scale of one artist's corpus, in Here After Here; we are shown cityscapes full of clutter, chaos, images of streets that roar and clamour, all out of sleek frames and spaces which have not been tailored to the content of these works at all. The method of curation has been affected more by trends and habits in the global art world generally, than by any concern towards the works themselves. Symmetry and resonance, when found across the two venues of the exhibition (the Exhibition Hall and the Jaipur House) are only based on a formal, superficial aesthetic that has more in common with tasteful interior design than with a critical appraisal of his work in spatial terms. As a consequence of course, many works have been placed where they are either for the sake of filling wall space, or in order to represent the different stages of Kallat's career out of little more than a sense of obligation.
See Jitish Kallat's work on Guftugu here.
Please submit your responses, in any form, to [email protected]
Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.