For art lovers, Dubai-based Ishara Art Foundation has staged a magnificent treat in the form of ‘Order of Magnitude’ by Jitish Kallat, among one of the most widely exhibited contemporary Indian artists.
Being the artist’s first major solo exhibition in West Asia and the Levant makes it very special -- an ideal opportunity to see his new works comprising paintings, multimedia installations, drawings, and site-specific interventions -- close at hand.
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The overall theme of ‘Order of Magnitude’ is “the interrelationship between the cosmic and the terrestrial.”
Apart from the artworks, Jitish sets up a site-specific intervention titled ‘N-E-S-W’ comprising a functional compass within the flooring of the gallery, anchoring the Ishara Foundation at Al Serkal Avenue in Al Quoz, Dubai, as a planetary surveying device as well as aligning the place with invisible force fields.
Jitish masterfully expresses his contemplation at the individual level and finds the ‘overarching connectivity’ with the universal, planetary, and extra-terrestrial dimensions.
The main work -- ‘Integer Studies’ (Drawings from Life) – is a series of paintings that comes out of a year-long exercise by the artist during the 2021 COVID-19 pandemic in what can be called a ‘self-imposed residency’ in his studio.
Jitish made one daily drawing based on three sets of numbers: the estimated world population, the number of new births, and the death count at the moment the work was created. The diverse forms based on these three numbers were realized using graphite, aquarelle pencil, and gesso stains. The abstract works that manifested as part of the daily ‘ritual’ have a poignant symmetry: they are both graphic and painterly, as well as summon existential angst as they prompt questions of extinction and evolution.
The display runs through the exhibition space, resembling both the horizon and the equator, and brings out the emotional and evocative aspects of Jitish’s work.
Alongside ‘Integer Studies,’ is the wall-sized painting ‘Postulates from a Restless Radius’ that takes the form of the conic Albers projection of the Earth. The work is presented as a cross-sectional grid (in aquarelle pencil) that opens up the globe on a flat plane. The approach is not cartographic here, but an exploration of planetary geography. Assembled are ‘signs and speculation’ evoking botanical, suboceanic, celestial, and geological formations.
‘Postulates from a Restless Radius’ is an exploratory abstraction of forms that suggest signatures of growth and entropy.
In the center of the gallery, are four double-sided and multiscopic photo works titled ‘Epicycles.’ The genesis of these works began in 2020 during the early days of the pandemic, as a hand-drawn journal minutely capturing minute changes in Jitish’s studio – even the cracks forming on the walls, the falling leaf, and a tree stem. This happened during his 15-day isolation in his studio following his return to Mumbai from the US. These everyday observations were then combined with archival images of common humanity captured by photographers from around the world for the famous Family of Man exhibition in 1955 organized at the MoMA, New York. On the verso are images from his ‘Integer Studies’ drawings. Meticulously composed on a lenticular surface, the depicted figures appear and disappear as one moves around the work, yielding a highly complex portrait of time in its transience and ephemerality.
At Ishara’s mezzanine floor, we are drawn into a new iteration of Jitish’s immersive installation ‘Covering Letter’ (terranum nuncius). Here images from the Golden Records that travelled as part of NASA’s 1977 Voyager 1 and 2 space mission rest on shelves along two opposite walls. Placed inside programmed LED frames, 116 parallax prints flicker in a breath-like cadence. They encapsulate a summary of life on Earth, including scientific, anatomical, and cosmological diagrams as well as its flora, fauna and architecture.
Permeating the exhibition space are the sounds of salutation to the universe that were on the Golden Records in 55 languages. The two Voyagers, as they journey in space, are now estimated to be over 14 billion miles away from Earth, and Jitish’s work is a reminder of an epic presentation of “our” world to an unknown other.
As we find ourselves in a deeply divided world, Jitish foregrounds these images and reverberations for a collective meditation on ourselves as residents of a single planet, where the ‘other’ is an unfamiliar ‘intergalactic alien.’
The installation takes on a wistful tone as Jitish projects a map of 14 pulsars -- the return address marked on the Records -- facing a bench in the shape of the Doomsday Clock.
The symbolic clock proposed by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is reset every year, representing our growing proximity to a hypothetical man-made global catastrophe that is expected to strike at midnight.
Jitish, of course, has a considerable body of work behind him, and this exhibition at Ishara would be the perfect occasion for a greater insight into his brilliant and thought-provoking oeuvre and familiarize oneself with the themes and techniques that echo through his works and hold them together.
His work while emanating from the present, harks back to a mythical time, and vice versa reminding us of the need to go back and forth in time and space while attempting to capture the cosmic cycles underpinning our existence. As Jitish himself has averred, his art is always trying to constantly shift the axis and angles of vision as it were.
In the essay titled ‘Drawing Breath,’ by Amal Khalaf, Director of Programmes at Cubitt & Civic Curator at Serpentine Galleries, notes: “What time is it on the clock of the world? On this planet that is depleted, extracted from, transforming faster than we can predict, where and how do we locate ourselves? In ecological or interstellar time? Where, on an algorithmic timeline, is now? How do we locate ourselves in ourselves? How can we find ways to metabolise this loss to make meaning and sow seeds in the compost of our grief? What frames of reference, what scaffolds are holding us?
“Jitish Kallat’s practice moves us through orders of magnitude, in bodies of work that transport us through time and space, from the cellular to the celestial.”
Smita Prabhakar, Founder of Ishara Art Foundation, speaking to Al Arabiya English, said: “With Jitish’s show, Ishara cements its commitment to art practices from South Asia that are challenging, pertinent to the moment and artistically sound and of world calibre. We are indeed proud and honored to have hosted this first exhibition of Jitish in the Middle East and Levant and thank everyone for their support.”
As Ishara’s seventh exhibition, this show furthers the Foundation’s commitment to showcasing museum-grade exhibitions of pioneering voices in contemporary art.
‘Order of Magnitude’ is open till July 1 , 2022.
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