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A BIOFIELD OF SIGNS

By: K.G. SREENIVAS             Dated: September 01, 2014

Four months away from the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Artistic Director and Curator JITISH KALLAT, one of India’s foremost contemporary artists, tells Creative Brands that he can see the nebulous and “embryonic form” of the show taking shape as he seeks to “participate in the mutations of meaning” when art meets art in a “conceptual and sensory” environment.

biofield-of-signs

Jitish Kallat is a seminal figure in contemporary Indian art. A multimedia artist whose work includes painting, sculpture, photography, and installation, Kallat’s oeuvre finds significant inspiration in Mumbai, the city of his birth. His work draws it visual language from Mumbai’s urbanalia and its subaltern margins. Not surprisingly, his vision has often been described as “the dirty, old, recycled and patched-together fabric of urban India”. A large number of his works looks at the nameless and dispossessed of Mumbai's underbelly and foregrounds them in provocative and visceral styles. Some of his iconic works have been displayed at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi; The Saatchi Gallery, London; Initial Access Frank Cohen, Wolverhampton, UK; Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Vanhaerents Art Collection, Brussels, Belgium; Singapore Art Museum; Sigg Collection, Switzerland; Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation, Geneva, Switzerland; Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan; Arario Gallery, Korea; and, Burger Collection, Hong Kong.

Creative Brands: In four months from now, Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014 would have got under way. As Artistic Director and Curator what are your thoughts on the eve of the second edition of India’s first artist-led art biennale. What underpins your vision for Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014?

Jitish Kallat: With eight months having passed since I took on this role I was facetiously telling a friend that I feel I’ve entered the third trimester of my curatorial pregnancy. That the embryonic form of the project is taking shape and I can tangibly feel the foetal movements... The next four months will be about watching past conversations with artist-colleagues, concretise into projects on the ground in Kochi. The biennale is nothing but a biofield of signs, of conceptual and sensory propositions that artworks make to a viewer. My role as a curator would be to participate in the mutations of meaning that occur when artworks are juxtaposed and make these relationships legible to a viewer.

I know you will, however, desist from a centralising vision as you say in recent interview: “My methodology has not been to send artists a curatorial note... but a set of images and ideas as visual, conceptual, or historical cues.” Yet, what are your expectations from a curatorial perspective?

JK: I wanted the biennale to develop from the premise of shared intuitions and not be administered by preconceived curatorial determinism. Hence my process has been one of circulating signs, in the form of textual prompts or visual pointers to arrive at a project where themes emerge from an interrogation of signs and the project develops a self-generated organising principle.

It is also a way of leaving the door wide open for contingency and provisionality… two vital ingredients to discover the unknown and have a go at the unknowable. 

The core exhibition that I’m curating is a series of non-linear and layered propositions that hopefully this wide audience can participate in, interact, and deepen some of their understanding of life through art...

The historical and the inter-galactic are to be viewed metaphorically within the exhibition. The exhibition draws together artworks that picture versions of the world, referencing history, geography, astronomy, time, myth… interlacing the terrestrial with the celestial.

In another interview, you say, “The strength of the biennale is its fragility… of doing what you can with what you have. The uncertainties of the project make it absolutely rewarding.” It combines some old-fashioned stoicism and spartan aesthetics...

JK: It’s interesting that you bring in Hellenistic stoicism here. That comment was a purely practical one, with no philosophical underpinnings. Working on a project like Kochi-Muziris Biennale which has to incubate against the backdrop of many practical difficulties one naturally befriends uncertainty... a close ally of any creative pursuit.

The first Edition was a remarkable success. With over 400,000 visitors from India and abroad viewing artworks by some 90 artists from nearly 25 countries displayed in over 60 spaces spread across 14 sites for 96 days, art had assumed a ‘visibly’ larger role in public consciousness. Besides the sheer physicality of art in this sense how would you help deepen such intersections between art and public consciousness?

JK: The statistics of Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012 that you mention are a very encouraging space from where to begin a dialogue. The core exhibition that I’m curating is a series of non-linear and layered propositions that hopefully this wide audience can participate in, interact, and deepen some of their understanding of life through art. Besides, the Biennale will have a series of outreach projects, seminars, interactive projects, film screenings as well as a student’s and children’s biennale programmed by Riyas Komu.

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In the earlier interview, you say, “So, in the very location of Cochin one can see a nodal point in the evolution of history”, in terms of art seeking to redefine power and geography. In the exceptionally fraught times that we inhabit, how could art, to your mind, help reorient power and understand the viscera of conflict?

JK: Fundamentally, art doesn’t attempt to redefine power or geography; the act of making art is an act of de-definition. The redefinition of power or conflict, if perceived by a viewer in the presence of an artwork, is the result of the artist’s attempt to go past stock definitions. The location of Cochin offers a lexicon of pointers… these could be historical, these could be sensory. Art can grapple with these to understand the viscera of the present.

In an interview in 2010, you say, and I quote, “The city street is my university…” Can art re-envision THE CITY?

JK: I live in the city of Mumbai. Stepping out of the street is to be infected by questions about our existence. These questions percolate one’s work… at times, helping one to re-envision one’s surrounding.

What to your mind, from an artist’s point of view, is the reigning aesthetic of our times — be it art, politics, society?

JK: Hmm... reigning aesthetic of our times… I’m not sure what you mean by this but I’m certainly charmed by the thought the world could be ruled by aesthetics, and not by politics, greed, corruption...

CB

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