Back to Future with Jitish Kallat at the Indian Pavilion at Venice Biennale 2019

Installation View of Jitish Kallat's Uncovering Letter (2012), at the Indian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019
Installation View of Jitish Kallat’s Covering Letter (2012), at the Indian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019
Installation View of Jitish Kallat’s Covering Letter (2012), at the Indian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019
Jitish Kallat, Public Notice 3, 2010, LED bulbs, wires, rubber, Photo Credit: Art Institute of Chicago
Jitish Kallat, Public Notice 3, 2010, LED bulbs, wires, rubber, Photo Credit: Art Institute of Chicago
Installation View of GR Iranna’s Naavu (We Together), at the Indian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019
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After an eight year hiatus, India returns to participate in the 2019 Venice Biennale commemorating 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi’s existence. Curated by Roobina Karode, Director and Chief Curator of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Our time for Future Caring showcases works, all of which distinctively allude to Gandhi’s teachings, cementing their relevance in today’s world. In particular, Jitish Kallat’s Covering Letter epitomizes the timeless resonance of Gandhi’s philosophies, presented in the form of a compelling immersive installation, speaking not only to the context of the Indian Pavilion and Venice Biennale, but to a greater one concerning the global condition. On the occasion of his book launch in New York, the artist enlightens us on the necessity of recalling history to evaluate contemporaneity, the inherent experimentation biennales enable, and the evolution of his incredibly diverse, all encompassing practice.

Text: Aaina Bhargava
Images: Courtesy of Aaina Bhargava, Jitish Kallat Studio, Art Institute of Chicago. 



Installation View of Jitish Kallat’s Covering Letter (2012), at the Indian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019



A film of mist permeates a dark enclave in the center of the Indian Pavilion, providing much needed respite from the unrelenting blaze of the Venetian sun, bearing down upon the exposed Arsenale grounds. A cascade of words ascend from the ground against the descending mist, posing a request to those it encounters:

“Dear Friend,

Friends have been urging me to write you for the sake of humanity…It is quite clear you are the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to a savage state. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?…”

Originally written by Gandhi to Hitler in 1939, a mere few weeks before Germany was to invade Poland and start WWII, this letter embodies the pacifist’s appeal to a ruthless dictator warning him of the impending destruction war yields, forming the core of Kallat’s work.  Reimagining the letter as a reflective medium, Kallat intentionally employs the theatrics of immersion to create an experience that physically and conceptually strikes a personal chord with visitors, enabling them to associate Gandhi’s words with current global events.

“I think at the center of the work, is the viewer who brings with them a wide array of personal, social and historical substrates of experience.  So there is an interface between the freight of experience the person carries into this conversation, a letter drafted by the most well known envoy of peace, and the most brutal perpetrator of violence, who cohabited the planet at the same moment in time.  I think this triangular relationship between the viewer and the viewer’s capacity to self-reflect in the presence of such a letter is central to the work. It’s only when you see the entire letter pass you realize who was writing to whom. For me the central figure is the self who then makes meaning through an embodied cognition of the work, not just a thought but really through the body.”



Installation View of Jitish Kallat’s Covering Letter (2012), at the Indian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019



The physical essence of the work is defined by how we navigate it. Visitors can view the letter in its entirety and walk into the letter, which parts and reforms as they pass through the mist.

“You have all kinds of physical experiences in the presence of the letter. The viewer’s experience is weighted at different spaces in the work. It’s one thing when you stand and see it, it’s another when you’re in the letter, and it’s a third when you see somebody else come in and out of the letter.”

Lighting further enhances the atmospheric drama created by the mist. The phenomenology of the work rests in the escalating illumination of the room created by the projection of the letter, which literally and metaphorically lights up the pitch black space, plunging it back into darkness as the letter dissipates.



Jitish Kallat, Public Notice 3, 2010, LED bulbs, wires, rubber, Photo Credit: Art Institute of Chicago



Made in 2012, Covering Letter grew out of the artist’s prior series, Public Notice, for which he reappropriated speeches given by well known historical figures such as Jawarhal Nehru and Swami Vivekananda, posing them in contemporary contexts. For Public Notice 3, he takes words from a speech delivered by Vivekananda on September 11th 1893 (exactly 108 years before 9/11) at the Art Institute of Chicago, installing them on the risers of the Grand Staircase – the very same place the speech was given in 1893, for the Parliament of World Religions. Representing Hinduism, Vivekananda called for an end to fundamentalism and intolerance.  Alternating in colors of red, orange, yellow, green, and blue the words flash in a color scheme adapted from Homeland Security’s system of denoting levels of terror intensity.

Unearthing buried, unsought, parallel historical connections characterize his distinguished practice, rendering works which intrinsically compel viewers to correlate these connections with contemporary culture and circumstances, and perhaps even reassess their perspective of them. Covering Letter truly embodies this endeavour as Kallat reasserts,

“… it’s the entire context that they’re carrying into the work that rubs against this conversation, asking for a certain type of reconsideration. The work can talk to both the context of the Indian pavilion, which thinks through Gandhi, and also the larger finale of context which thinks through the current climate of the world.  I think to me in some way this work seems like an ideal fit, speaking to the fact that if you really analyze the ‘interesting’ times we live in, we might actually return to the past to make sense of the turbulence and toxicity that circulates our current world.” 



Jitish Kallat, Public Notice 3, 2010, LED bulbs, wires, rubber, Photo Credit: Art Institute of Chicago



Reflection and reconsideration of our ‘interesting’ times define the intent of this years edition of the Venice Biennale, May We Live in Interesting Times.  Works by artists who are generating buzz both critically and commercially, tackling issues of our times, are ubiquitous throughout the exhibition, accurately reflecting the ongoings of both the real world and the microcosmic art world. Arguably, the function and role of art is to bear witness to our times, whereas the overall function of a biennale is more widely debated. However, that the premise of a biennale’s existence is based upon creating a more experimental space where art can thrive and practices can evolve, is a defining objective largely agreed upon. Kallat, who also curated the 2014 edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, muses,

“What’s interesting about biennales, fundamentally speaking, is that at a curatorial and artistic level, it can function a mode of de-extinction.  Artist and curators can actually dip into their notebooks and revive an endangered idea that might not otherwise come to life.  For me, the fundamental promise of a biennale (and it’s not always the case) is in its structure there’s an informality which allows for a play, to let float an idea that might be completely sporadic and non linear.”

Where as the memory of Gandhi as a monumental historical figure is far from endangered, his teachings may be at risk of being forgotten, particularly in today’s increasingly polarized world.  In addressing this concern, the Indian Pavilion executes a cohesive and pertinent exhibition, accessible on all fronts.   In addition to Kallat’s installation, GR Iranna’s site specific Navvu (We Together) is a refreshing highlight contributing to this strong presentation, which also includes works by Atul Dodiya, Shakuntala Kulkarni, Ashim Purkayastha, Nandalal Bose, and Rummana Hussain. Comprising of a large cluster of padukas (traditional Indian wooden slippers), adorned with small personal trinkets representing people from all walks of life, Navvu, from far appears to be a single entity, but up close an intricate millieu.  The work simultaneously denotes the breadth of a complexly diverse population, Gandhi’s presence (as he wore padukas), and the legacy of his long marches.




Installation View of GR Iranna’s Naavu (We Together), at the Indian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019



Non-violence, humility, and social harmony, are among Gandhi’s most famed tenets, and those perhaps most needed to be prescribed to heal societal fractures caused by destablizing current events and an overarching apocalyptic climate.   While it’s global application has been indicated multiple times, its local one is equally significant. The reflective intent of many of these works, indeed Covering Letter, can be applied to the increasing nationalistic tendencies the current Indian government is adhering to, providing yet another critical junction for reassessment.



About the Artist
Jitish Kallat was born in Mumbai in 1974, the city where he continues to live and work. Kallat’s vast oeuvre, spanning painting, photography, drawing, video and sculptural installations, reveals his persistent probes into some of the fundamental themes of our existence. His works traverse varying focal lengths and time-scales; from close details of the skin of a fruit or the brimming shirt-pocket of a passerby, it might expand to register dense people-scapes, or voyage into inter-galactic vistas. Some works might be meditations on the transient present while others reach back into history and overlay the past onto the present through citations of momentous historical utterances.

Kallat’s works have been exhibited widely at museums and institutions including Tate Modern (London), Martin Gorpius Bau (Berlin), Gallery of Modern Art (Brisbane), Kunst Museum (Bern), Serpentine Gallery (London), Mori Art Museum (Tokyo), Palais de Beaux-Arts (Brussels), Hangar Bicocca (Milan), Busan Museum of Modern Art, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art (Oslo), ZKM Museum (Karlsruhe), Henie Onstad Kunstsenter (Oslo), Arken Museum of Moderne Kunst (Copenhagen), Institut Valencia d’Art Modern (Spain), Art Museum (Tokyo), Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), Jean Tinguley Museum (Basel) and the Gemeente Museum (The Hague) amongst many 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 amongst others.

His solo exhibitions at museums include institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago, Bhau Daji Lad Museum (Mumbai), the Ian Potter Museum of Art (Melbourne), CSMVS Museum (Mumbai), the San Jose Museum of Art and Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney).

He was the curator and artistic director of Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014.



Aaina Bhargava is an editor at COBO, as well as a staff writer. With a background in art history and emphasis on contemporary art, she has experience working for a diverse range of local and international art institutions. She has previously contributed to Design Anthology, Artomity, Asian Art News,, and the Artling’s online magazine.


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