Return to sender

Updated: Jan 05, 2020, 08:00 IST | Ela Das | Mumbai

Inspired by an old NASA experiment, Jitish Kallat returns with a solo exhibition in his home city that asks, will we be proud of how we appear to those who don't know us, in another space and time?

Jitish Kallat stands before Cover Letter. The images it includes are almost three dimensional, made using parallax barrier printing on transparent slides, illuminated very slowly and gradually going back to darkness, almost like being calibrated to the speed of human breathing. They are on a table 21 feet in diameter, with an 
ever changing configuration of light. Pic/ Suresh Karkera
Jitish Kallat stands before Cover Letter. The images it includes are almost three dimensional, made using parallax barrier printing on transparent slides, illuminated very slowly and gradually going back to darkness, almost like being calibrated to the speed of human breathing. They are on a table 21 feet in diameter, with an ever changing configuration of light. Pic/ Suresh Karkera

In 1977, the United States' space agency NASA sent out two golden records containing sounds and imagery of life on Earth into the distant universe on two Voyager spacecrafts. This message-in-a-bottle form of communication was meant for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, that might be able to decode our messages.

At the time, Indian contemporary artist Jitish Kallat, was three years old. Over four decades later, this yearning for communication with the unknown has inspired his latest solo exhibition, Terranum Nuncius. Kallat's massive installation which will be on display at Mahalaxmi's Famous Studios January 10 onwards, will comprise two new works titled Covering Letter (terranum nuncius) and Ellipsis, his largest painting till date.

"Covering Letter is the coming together of an archive of 116 images, which were meant to represent us as a species and planet, that travelled out into the interstellar space 11-13 billion miles away from Earth. These flow as a short summary of evidence of our existence, which may possibly be viewed by space-faring aliens well after our extinction. The records were sent out with the hope that the messages would outlast us," says Kallat, reflecting, "It's interesting that a few sights and sounds were sent out to collectively describe our journey and existence as a species. In today's climate, it's a symbol of a way to celebrate our differences rather than our commonality. On the whole, we seem to be lacking a shared vocabulary to speak against religious differences, economic divides and ideological separations."

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But in 1977, there was no computing power to upload these images on a disk. So, they were all converted into small sound files, with diagrammatic instructions for the alien who stumbled upon them, hoping they'd be far more intelligent than us to understand and know how to crack the code to render these images. On the Golden Records' 40th anniversary, a programmer in California, Ron Barry, downloaded the images from the uploaded sound files through the instructions provided. These decoded images turned out to be far more abstract and imperfect than expected. "They worked as the starting point for me to create a photo piece. The images in Cover Letter are almost three dimensional, made using parallax barrier printing on transparent slides, illuminated very slowly and gradually going back to darkness—almost like being calibrated to the speed of human breathing. They are on a table 21 feet in diameter, with an ever changing configuration of light. A diagram is projected on the wall, to the sound of 55 languages."

The other work , Ellipsis, stretches across 60 feet and was two years in the making. "Ellipsis did not begin as a single painting. It started as a speculation of abstractions. Slowly, over time, they started to come together like an accordion, which, when opened, became one long sheet of paper. It almost feels like the pages of a diary being laid open to be read. Through the entirety of the painting, one image opens up into another. All these canvases began in individual ways without being considered as one singular piece of art. There's a cluster of images from which another cluster seems to organically flow out. There's no image that's similar or recognisable. They evoke the environmental, the geological, the earthly, and the botanicals—as cloisters that don't point to anything directly, with a play in pigment, tone and texture to become a speculative abstraction."

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With both paintings, one can see the sciences being a pivotal influence. He ponders, "I observe various phenomena that bring me inspiration—the sky, the earth, the human body and life processes. So, in a sense, I am possibly influenced by the sciences. Both science and art look at the same thing, but through different lenses, in divergent ways."

Ellipsis, says Kallat, did not begin as a single painting. It started as a speculation of abstractions. Slowly, over time, they started to come together like an accordionEllipsis, says Kallat, did not begin as a single painting. It started as a speculation of abstractions. Slowly, over time, they started to come together like an accordion

In the past, however, several of his works have drawn heavily from political factors and situations in history. Covering Letter, in 2012, sought inspiration from a letter written by Gandhi to Hitler five weeks before the onset of the Second World War; with the correspondence being the central motif used to make art. On speaking about artists and the art world coming together during the recent political climate in India, he says, "As an artist, my primary need is not to produce a placard pointing to one message, but a cluster of signs to create self reflection. That's the core [goal] of art. That's my primary focus, and what gets me to the studio. It's not always about the single message, but the larger picture. Terranum Nuncius, too, points to something that collectively helps us think of ourselves as singular. When you think about that distant other reading about us in a time and space far away from us, when we may not exist, it makes you wonder if we will live up to what we want to be remembered as."

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