“Geometry is Everywhere”: An Interview and Walking Tour of Order of Magnitude, Jitish Kallat’s Solo Exhibition at Dubai’s Ishara Art Foundation
By Lubnah Ansari and Sophie Arni
Edited by Insun Woo
Published on June 13, 2022
Ishara Art Foundation, one of Dubai’s few – if not the only – non-profit art organization has opened a major solo exhibition by Indian artist Jitish Kallat (b. 1974, Mumbai). An outstanding figure of Southeast Asian contemporary art, Kallat has represented India in the Venice Biennale in 2019 and was the curator and artistic director of Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2014, amongst other achievements. In addition to solo shows at institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago, Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he has held an impressive mid-career retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi in 2017, titled Here After Here 1992-2017. Group exhibitions are numerous and touching primarily Europe and Asia, including Mori Art Museum (Tokyo), Busan Museum of Art, as well as Pirelli Hangar Bicocca (Milan), Kunstmuseum (Bern), Serpentine Galleries (London),Tate Modern (London).
For this first exhibition in the region, Kallat graced us with two hours of his precious time. Time was one of the key the aspects we covered in this interview, which took the form of a walking tour of Order of Magnitude, an exhibition filled with investigations on the cosmic and the terrestrial. Questions of time anchor this multifaceted exhibition, which morphs drawings, photographs, and soung installations into the eternal quest to make meaning out of daily life. Whether days of the calendar, years in a spaceship, or decades between exhibitions, the concept of measuring time and taking it as a central premise of artistic production anchors Kallat’s body of work, and gives it an universal, human-centered quality. Order of Magnitude at Ishara Art Foundation is indeed an exhibition open to everyone, made for an audience as diverse as the population of Dubai itself.
The following conversation was held at Ishara Art Foundation on February 15th, 2022.
Lubnah Ansari: Thank you for this opportunity. As we discover the exhibition together, may I ask what tools you usually work with? What do you rely on to make your work?
Jitish Kallat: All the things you are seeing here are tools. They are artworks, but they are also tools – tools made with other tools. In a way, it boils down to asking are you looking at the art, or are you looking through the art? For me, sometimes it's more productive to look through the picture to the world. You may be looking at a picture, but one that allows you to picture the world, to look through the world.
For me, the drawings are not premeditated. Drawing is not a single language; it keeps changing. Every morning, I would wake up, and engage with these numbers that produce a form, which I would automatically follow. This then became a process of an image produced every day. After four or five months, I had these big questions: Where do these images come from? Where do these numbers come from? Where do these people come from, and where do they go? Maybe they all stem from the same place.
Every morning, I would wake up, and engage with these numbers that produce a form, which I would automatically follow. This then became a process of an image produced every day. After four or five months, I had these big questions: Where do these images come from? Where do these numbers come from? Where do these people come from, and where do they go?
Sophie Arni: It seems like all the works on this ground floor incorporate geometric shapes. As you were installing this exhibition, were you informed by special equations and numbers? How did you go about forming these circular and linear shapes?
J.K.: Geometry is everywhere. Any artwork is inherently based on invisible geometry. So is this exhibition. You will not see it until I say it, but when I structured the exhibition, I was thinking of geometry. There is a hexagon, a six-page conical form, and triangular formations on the ground – all of which are aligned to the inner geometry of the exhibition. But there is also the planetary, that is here is running in the form of a number. The painting is almost like a conical stretched painting. This form comes from the form of Albers projections, and it is quite a stable way to draw the map of the world. It's like the world’s inner shapes are dissolved into being a map through images that derive from the suboceanic to the intergalactic to the body. Whether it is in our bodies, the chakras, the meridians, or the dantians, you can have various ways to describe geometry – this painting is a collapse of numerous things I think about.
You will not see it until I say it, but when I structured the exhibition, I was thinking of geometry.
Only drawing and painting allow me to condense all my thoughts into one material field; they allow me to ask these deeply elusive intuitive questions. Yet again, the structure of the planet is like the invisible form of this exhibition. For instance, sunken into the gallery floor is a magnetic compass. While we don’t think that we are moving, we are – at hundreds of kilometers per hour. We are not static; our planet is a push-and-pull of all kinds of energy and force fields, and this little needle in the gallery in Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, at this moment, is aligning us to the cardinal and ordinal directions. As you move, they start multiplying, like a wormhole of directions multiplied in it.
Our planet is a push-and-pull of all kinds of energy and force fields, and this little needle in the gallery in Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, at this moment, is aligning us to the cardinal and ordinal directions.
L.A.: How has your relationship with the planetary evolved?
J.K.: I’d say that it has developed over time. When I look back at the earliest works – the ones I made out of art school, in my twenties, there is always a self-portrait in those early works. Sometimes a self-portrait is standing in an open field and casting five shadows, which move according to the movement of the sun. Things have transformed in the 25 years since but, for me, the kinds of images I’m exhibiting here go back to my earliest works. To go back to the needle on the gallery floor – it takes us to a certain dimension and extends our field of intuition. It's very important for me that you can come back to the normalcy of everyday life by taking residency in larger deeper fundamental intuitions.
S.A.: Could you speak about Epicycles, a series of four double-sided and multi-scopic photo works based on Family of Man, an exhibition organized by photographer Edward Steichen at the MoMA, New York, in 1955?
J.K.: All of this actually began in the two weeks that I returned from the US to India, just prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, and checked into a studio right next to my home. During the two weeks, I started observing these small things I had never looked at or made much of, like a small crack in the wall. I made drawings of them in a journal and, at some point, this journal became slightly more elaborate. I was in New York the week prior and I had bought the catalogue of Family of Man, an exhibition I have always been interested in. I scanned the book and started cutting images and putting them into this journal. Suddenly, these figures started standing on what looked like a terrestrial landscape. A shift in scale started happening – something so tiny, so immediate, so small, so now could begin to take shape from the 1940s and from another place. So this journal became quite an intense preoccupation. But those were the days of absolute lockdown, so it was all just building in my head. Everything in this frame, whether it's a leaf, a stem, a crack, a broken stone, or a little fungus growing on a wall, comes from that same studio premise. All of the figures come from the Family of Man. Now, what is interesting and completely incidental is that five or six months later, I realized my studio’s building was built in 1955, the same year that Family of Man happened! It closed the loop in an uncanny way.
S.A.: When you cut the photographs out from Family of Man, were you looking for certain scenes? Or was it an intuitive process?
J.K.: Small little things would capture my attention. It was not that premeditated. I also mixed scanned images with photographs I took around my studio at the time. This is literally the soap in the bathroom, with that bubble formation that would never come back. This is the mashed-up seed from a plant in the studio backyard. This is a stem from the mango tree and that's the bamboo tree leaf. The leaf is small, but now it holds the whole space.
S.A.: You associate meaning and create your own story out of Family of Man, which is beautiful and deeply humanistic. It’s something we can all relate to. Let’s turn now to these series of drawings, Integer Study (Drawing from Life), that adorn the totality of the ground floor gallery.
J.K.: I made one drawing a day in 2021, based on three number sets, that would change on a daily basis: the estimated world population, the number of new births, and daily death counts. We can all relate to this influx of information during the pandemic, but we need to understand the many bodies that are reflected in a number, right? [This series] is almost like a condensation of figuration into the collapse of abstraction. In a way, they are all manifesting in each other.
L.A.: Could you speak more about the installation on the mezzanine floor, Covering Letter? We understand it is partly based on materials from NASA’s Voyager space mission in 1977, when the U.S. agency sent spacecraft containing records of sounds and images intended to be a portrait of life on Earth in case extraterrestrial life might find them.
J.K.: The work has several elements. 116 images are displayed on the walls and sounds of greetings sent to the universe in 55 languages are playing on loop. The images are part of Golden Records, NASA’s Voyager space missions that left Earth in 1977. The images are like a summary of life on Earth; there is a child, reproduction, reptiles, the United Nations building, and so on. In the work itself, it comes through a certain play because, in 1977, there wasn't that kind of computing capacity to put 116 images on a disk. So, they converted these images into sound files. It was assumed that, if an interstellar alien is intelligent enough to disrupt a spacecraft, it would be smart enough to find images inside the sound files.
Few diagrams are present on this disk. The images in my work are not the images that were uploaded but downloaded by a California-based programmer named Ron Barry. What you see is a black-and-white abstract image, because the images have been abstracted from a sharp color photograph into sound, and back to image. The images actually travel the same journey they would have to travel in the hands of an interstellar alien. Maybe after we are gone, the planet goes, and the sun also dies, this object will go on and on in the vastness of empty space. It will become the only evidence of our existence.
We live in a world of binaries where two religions can't talk to each other, men and women can't talk to each other, Republicans and Democrats can’t talk to each other. There is constant Othering of what doesn't seem like yourself. When we collectively dispatch a letter of this kind to a recipient who is completely unknown in space, in time, in intelligence, what does it do to our sense of self? There’s a depiction of a number five in those images. What does “5” mean to an alien? Would the alien know that the human is centered and not the reptile? Would it think that the United Nations building is a creature? To me, the heart of the work lies in these bigger questions.
L.A.: Keywords that keep reappearing in your work are the earthly cosmopolis and the distant cosmos. How would you define the cosmos? How do you begin thinking about that?
J.K.: What does it mean to step out of your home on a street and see a bunch of lights coming towards you? You have a particular sense of time, because you look at the sky and look back at the cars. My view is that your sight of the cars is not the same. To me, that's central premise of the world. If certain focal lengths are shifted, what does it mean to say that these images are now placed on an object moving away from us to 17 kilometers per second? I'm just uttering those words, without having seen anything that can move at that speed. Yet the very enunciation of those words produces sensations in me about my here and now. Sometimes my work is written in connection to the scientific. Though I don't look at the sky as an astronomer, I’m interested in what it does to us in the act of looking.
I believe that this distance in space and time is central to understanding where we are. After coming to Kochi [in 2014, Kallat assumed the role of curator and artistic director of Kochi-Muziris Biennale], I articulated my thinking through that binary too. Because I realized at some level, looking at a curatorial toolbox is also a process of making meaning in a certain way. In the matter of a year, my work reached an almost civic space, producing an exhibition that would resonate with eight institutions in a five-kilometers radius, was also a process of articulating these thoughts away from my own artistic work. Something I spoke about at the time was that adjusting one's focal length, in an attempt to see something very clearly, is something that we do all the time. In my work, I just do it a little longer.
We wake up in the morning, and knowingly or unknowingly, we find coordinates to restructure the story of our day. We wake up with stories, we collapse all that into our being, and we're ready for the day. All of our day’s plan opens up, but we figured out who we are. What is that collapsing of consciousness in the story? The stories are built in timelines – past and present – which I think is something you can invoke to think about the world.
We wake up in the morning, and knowingly or unknowingly, we find coordinates to restructure the story of our day.
L.A.: While interrogating these larger questions around distance, time, and space, how do you begin to make sense of yourself?
J.K.: At the end of the day, as an artist, one can work through archives. I function in those territories that overlap, and layer data and time, and I make measurements. But while you think you are running a measuring tape out in the world, you are actually measuring with it. It's not there. It's here. Everything is just here. The exhibition is just here. So are the self and the world.
L.A.: Could you speak a bit about your childhood and upbringing?
J.K: I was born and raised in the outskirts of Bombay. No one in my family was an artist; my father had a normal nine-to-five job, and my grandfather was a farmer in Kerala. He was a quirky man. He would go to the village and break a coconut leaf and fold it to make an animal. Maybe there's something there that I have genetically inherited. Anyway, as a kid, I somehow had this urge to draw; I would draw incessantly. When I make one line, it immediately becomes a wall, a horizon, or something else. I can then put a person on it. Then, I can draw a circle, which immediately becomes a sun. A world is produced, even before I think of producing one. That space of the paper becomes a place, and the place generates time, even though all I expended was four lines. When you think about it, that is a very powerful action. As a child, you feel that you can really move through the world with drawing. I didn't know it then, but now that I look back, I know that that is what I felt. I then wandered into art school and, after three months, I knew that I wanted to be an artist.
L.A.: How were you so certain about your artistic pursuits?
J.K.: It just felt like the thing to do. I often joke that my certainty came in an olfactory manner. I was walking through the painting department, and I could smell oil, paint, and plastic cars. I thought, ‘if I could live like this for the rest of my life, that's it!’ It was a sealed deal. Then, I was quite prolific as a student, and one thing led to the other. I had my first exhibitions very early on; I was doing international projects in my 20s and did my first solo show when I was 23. I was also writing for Times of India at the time. They were kind enough to let me write with writers who were accomplished then.
L.A.: How would you describe your relationship with the art world?
J.K.: I think initially I felt that I was actually functioning with and talking to an art world. This is when I started to write in the Bombay art scene. I wrote for magazines, publications, and other press outlets, like a column in Hindustan Times and with DNA – all of which was like talking to an audience. I did that in my late 20s, and I don't actually look and think about art as much now. At least not in the way that I used to when I was writing about art.
L.A.: How does your community respond to your work?
J.K.: It's hard to say there's a particular community. It should be a local Mumbai community, but I almost feel like I’m talking to one person and every person at the same time, and that first person has to be myself. It's hard to say that I’m talking to an entire community.
I almost feel like I’m talking to one person and every person at the same time, and that first person has to be myself. It's hard to say that I’m talking to an entire community.
S.A.: Finally, for our Global Art Daily’s audience, could you let us know how it feels to have your first solo exhibition in the Arab World set in Ishara Art Foundation, Dubai? How do you feel about Dubai and the UAE’s art scene?
J.K.: I've seen the scene grow since my first trip, which is when the first Gulf Art Fair took place. I was actually part of a small group of people who were invited from around the world by the Gulf Art Fair to do the Think Tank Breakfast. At the time, there was hardly an art scene in the UAE. So the idea perhaps was to get interesting minds from around the world for discussions. Artists, museum directors, collectors, senior critics, art historians, and galleries from all around the world were seated at different tables. Each table had one question to be discussed. By the end, a person at the table would provide a summary. It was like futuregazing to develop an art scene. Now the UAE has a fast-evolving art scene, which is incredible.
Jitish Kallat: Order of Magnitude is open until July 1st, 2022.
Visit the Ishara Art Foundation
A3, Alserkal Avenue, Street 17, Al Quoz 1, Dubai, UAE
Opening hours: Saturday - Thursday 10am - 7pm
Jitish Kallat was born in 1974 in Mumbai, the city where he continues to live and work. Kallat's works over the last two decades reveal his continued engagement with the ideas of time, sustenance, recursion and historical recall, often interlacing the dense cosmopolis and the distant cosmos. His solo exhibitions at museums include institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago), Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (Mumbai), the Ian Potter Museum of Art (Melbourne), Frist Art Museum (Nashville), Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia). In 2017, the National Gallery of Modern Art (New Delhi) presented a mid-career survey of his work titled Here After Here 1992-2017, curated by Catherine David. He has exhibited widely at museums and institutions including Tate Modern (London), MartinGropius-Bau (Berlin), Gallery of Modern Art (Brisbane), Kunstmuseum (Bern), Serpentine Galleries (London), Mori Art Museum (Tokyo), BOZAR: Centre For Fine Arts (Brussels), Pirelli Hangar Bicocca (Milan), Busan Museum of Art, among others. Kallat's work has been part of the Havana Biennale, Gwangju Biennale, Asia Pacific Triennale, Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale,Asian Art Biennale, Curitiba Biennale, Guangzhou Triennale and the Kiev Biennale. Kallat was the curator and artistic director of Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014. He has curated the recently concluded exhibition I draw, therefore I think for the South South Platform.
Ishara Art Foundation was founded in 2019 as a non-profit organisation dedicated to presenting contemporary art of South Asia. Located in Dubai, the Foundation supports emerging and established practices that advance critical dialogue and explore global interconnections. Guided by a research-led approach, Ishara realises its mission through exhibitions, onsite and online programmes, education initiatives and collaborations in the UAE and internationally. The Foundation facilitates exchange between South Asian and international artistic networks that include museums, foundations, institutions, galleries and individuals. Ishara Art Foundation is presented in partnership with Alserkal.
Lubnah Ansari is an Indian multidisciplinary artist and researcher specialising in sociology, photography and film. She completed her B.A. in Social Research and Public Policy from New York University Abu Dhabi, and has presented her work in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Jaipur and Abu Dhabi. Often meditating on the question “is the personal political?,” she also researches and creates films on interfaith marriages in South Asia and the Gulf. She was part of Jameel Arts Centre’s 2021 Assembly cohort, culminating in the 2022 Jameel Arts Centre Youth Takeover.
Sophie Arni is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Global Art Daily.
Special thanks to Ishara Art Foundation.