One of the strange effects of the pandemic on our psyche is a fixation on numbers. In the early days of Covid-19, tallies and figures took over our daily lives: new cases, deaths, measurements for social distancing, quarantine periods. Later, vaccination rates and recoveries were added to the list.
In the first few months of 2021, artist Jitish Kallat kept track of a different set of data, his fascination rooted in the same way as ours — the numbers were telling us something about our own extinction and survival.
The outcome is Integer Study (Drawing from Life), a series of more than 100 drawings that revolve around the same three sets of numbers: the estimated world population, new births and death count gleaned at the precise moment of the works’ creation. Using graphite, pencil and gesso, Kallat renders graphs and charts that are more imaginative than mathematical, plotting out diverse forms and shapes on paper.
As the days and weeks pass, the artist’s contemplative drawings, made mostly with magenta, green, brown and gray, become more complex. Some shapes are reminiscent of lungs, Rorschach inkblots, maps and flowing rivers, all imbued with the artist’s own visual language.
Integer Study is currently at the Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai, where Order of Magnitude, Kallat’s first major solo exhibition in West Asia and the Levant, is on view until Friday, July 1.
The artist, who lives and works in Mumbai, has exhibited his works around the world, including Tate Modern and Serpentine Galleries in London, Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, as well as Gwangju Biennale and Asia Pacific Triennial. His work has been collected by the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Brooklyn Museum in New York and Art Institute of Chicago, among others.
His practice is wide-ranging, incorporating various materials and exploring concepts of time, history and the cosmos, considering both the eternal and temporary, the natural and man-made in his works.
In Order of Magnitude, Ishara Art Foundation presents an extraordinary show that brings together Kallat’s recent works, as well as a new version of Covering Letter (terranum nuncius), an installation that the artist first produced in 2018.
As the title suggests, the exhibition deals with varying scales and perspectives, from the individual to the universal, from past to present.
“My work frequently shifts focal lengths and time frames. Rather than being directly interested in astronomy as an exploratory scientific discipline, for instance, I’m more drawn to the manner in which looking at the sky changes our sense of self,” Kallat says.
This approach can be seen in his stunning large-scale work Postulates from a Restless Radius, a canvas that unfolds as a flattened globe, its shape drawn from the conic map projection developed by Heinrich C Albers in the early 19th century.
Instead of a geographical reproduction of a map, Kallat arranges sketches of organic materials such as shells, coral and tree trunks, placing them side-by-side with celestial forms, on a hand-drawn graph background. This exaggeration in scale highlights the ecological importance of such biological forms. At the same time, Kallat evokes our own existence through these objects, linking us and them beyond the planetary realm.
“Going close to something or further away adjusts the meaning of what we might be looking at. So the human, or [we] might in fact say that the self, is always at the centre of these investigations… and the shift in focal length is a means to make sense of the world,” he explains.
He follows the same direction in Epicycles, a mixed-media series that combines organic forms and everyday objects with images from the Family of Man exhibition, originally shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. Organised by photographer Edward Steichen, the show in New York attempted to encompass, at times problematically, a universal human experience through photography.
Kallat started working on Epicycles in March 2020. Returning to India from a visit to the US, he undertook self-imposed isolation in his studio for 15 days.
“I began keeping a small journal of notations… a hand-drawn ledger of seemingly incidental and accidental changes occurring in my studio premises, such as a fallen tree stem, a dry leaf, or an emergent crack in the wall,” he recalls.
“Over the course of the next several weeks, this corpus of domestic imagery began to magnify and become expanded backdrops to accommodate other bodies like ours, from a distant time and place,” he says.
In Kallat’s interpretation, he overlaps Steichen’s chosen images with photos of objects in his studio, from scraps of bark to soap. As in Epicycles, he plays with scale, seemingly questioning or complicating Steichen’s encyclopedic approach. In addition, the prints, housed in large wooden frames, have been assembled behind lenticular surfaces, allowing figures to disappear as the viewer encircles the works.
Also on view is an installation from 2018, Covering Letter (terranum nuncius), presented anew on the foundation’s mezzanine floor. The multi-layered work includes a sound piece, a sculptural bench, a solar map projection and a collection of 116 prints mounted behind Plexiglas.
Covering Letter is partly based on materials from Nasa’s Voyager space mission in 1977, when the US agency sent twin spacecraft containing the Golden Records, two phonograph records of sounds and images intended as a portrait of life on Earth in case extraterrestrial life might find them.
In Kallat’s piece, selections of images from the Golden Records are presented alongside audio greetings in 55 languages. The solar map projected on the wall is borrowed from the Records’ cover, functioning as a return address in case alien beings chose to respond.
By considering a view of our planet from the outside, Kallat asks us to imagine a broader view of existence, one that expands geographical borders and nationalistic narratives.
Meanwhile, the sculptural bench in Covering Letter mimics the hands of the Doomsday Clock, set in 1947 by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as a warning for man-made global catastrophe. With an ongoing pandemic and worsening climate change, it hasn’t only been numbers that have taken over our lives. Many of us have been collectively clock-watching, steering our lives amid global disruptions.
A final work in the show, a site-specific intervention titled N-E-S-W, contemplates how we might navigate the future — a compass embedded in the floor of Ishara Art Foundation and set to cardinal directions, measuring the Earth’s movement.
In Order of Magnitude, Kallat compels us towards a collective contemplation that embraces life in various scales and perspectives beyond the planetary. What emerges after our turbulent present is up to us.
Order of Magnitude is on view at Ishara Art Foundation, Dubai until July 1.