In an interview with Bala Starr, co-curator of “Jitish Kallat: Circa”, Art Radar learns, among other things, why curating with Kallat means that you have to learn how to grow wheatgrass for dogs.
Running from 13 October 2012 and to 7 April 2013, “Circa” is Kallat’s first solo exhibition in an Australian art museum. The installations and sculptures included in the show wind through the various galleries and transitional spaces, such as the atrium and stairwells, of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art.
Kallat has used Indian antiquities from the Ian Potter’s collection and newly produced artworks to explore the ideas of time and recursion; some of the pieces will remain in the space for the entirety of the exhibition while others will appear or disappear. At the heart of the project is Circa, a 120 piece resin sculpture that replicates bamboo scaffolding, a building device that is used widely in urban and rural India.
Art Radar met with “Jitish Kallat: Circa” co-curator Bala Starr for a tour of the show, and to find out what it was like to curate an exhibition like “Circa” and work with Kallat.
How did you find the process of curating “Jitish Kallat: Circa”?
Career changing. Well, when I say career changing, obviously when I’m in my role, I’m working with many different artists, guest curators and specialists in a sort of programming way, in a way that sort of unfolds over years, and each one of those relationships is different. But working with Jitish Kallat was inspirational. He’s an exceptional artist and an exceptional human being in the sense that he is extremely skilled as a communicator, and obviously we’re communicating long-distance.
Of course. So Kallat was not in Melbourne during the development of the exhibition?
That’s right, no. He was based in [Mumbai], where he lives, but he is also travelling. He’s so active and he has such a worldwide interest in his practice, and also special projects. Projects that required an intense requirement of him were happening concurrently with the development of our exhibition.
So, this is someone that, despite all of those complexities, can maintain a very detailed communication about our gallery, about what we can do, about what he’s imagining, about the minutiae of realising this project.
Right. So was Kallat on site for any of the installation?
He, at his own proposal, came out, once prior…, for a very short time. I think it was a matter of three days. He was here in Melbourne, and for the rest of the time he was doing what he describes as inhabiting the space, ‘virtually inhabiting the space’. So, from a taxi in France or, I guess, a traffic jam in Mumbai, he was always imagining himself for a period of time in these galleries and thinking about how his project would unfold. I think for him it was an important project as it was the first time he has exhibited a major solo project in an Australian museum.
And, as you probably know, Indian artists, I mean, Jitish Kallat is a well-renowned Indian artist, and artists of that kind of calibre from India tend to be involved in quite an active circuit of surveys of Indian art around the world – there are surveys in Denmark and South America – these are group show contexts, very different from having a solo show, and for us, too, that was one of the things that we were committed to, offering opportunities for artists, international artists, to exhibit solo. This is a much rarer and more unusual experience for Australian museums. Generally, you see video works for economic purposes, cheap and easy, instantly international. But to really engage in this way, because we are so far away – for the freight for the scaffolding, which of course takes three months [to arrive] by ship – all of these logistic issues can be new for a museum as well.
How did the idea for “Jitish Kallat: Circa” come about?
I had met Jitish Kallat a couple of years ago and then went on another trip and saw Circa, which is, strictly speaking, the scaffolding element of the installation, but is also the title of the whole project. In Delhi, it was part of the ŠKODA Prize. The ŠKODA Prize is a very rich, I think the richest, Indian contemporary art prize. He had occupied the space of the gallery in Delhi with Circa, up the stairway, inserted around the architecture in a way that was obviously idiosyncratic and particular to that particular architectural site.
Coming back to Australia, I thought, we have this classics and archaeology gallery and for many years we’ve wanted to stimulate that space and shift the perception of the antiquities frequently displayed in that space for six monthly periods. Usually they are Greek and Egyptian antiquities that talk a lot about the history of civilisation and archaeological experience as well.
Over the decades we have wanted an opportunity to really bring together the interests of that core collection along with contemporary practice, because what we find with that classics and antiquities gallery, and it shouldn’t really be surprising, is that contemporary artists are always extremely interested in what is in those display cases…. Artists, of course, know best how to look, how to think about, the difference between utilitarian objects, objects that might be used for spiritual purposes or for other purposes over, in this case, centuries. There has always been a strong link in terms of the viewing audience, comprising contemporary artists, and these antiquities, but to actually bring [them] together in a contemporary practice with the antiquities is something we hadn’t yet done. We saw this as the perfect opportunity, and in order to achieve this we decided to collaborate with Utopia at Asialink. Natalie King is the director there and in the end the project was co-curated between myself, Natalie and Andrew Jamieson, who is the dedicated curator for the classics and antiquity gallery.
Andrew worked particularly closely with Jitish in terms of the selection of quite a deliberately narrow collection of objects: stone Indian antiquities. They consulted on what was available. Andrew negotiated with private collectors as well as the University of Melbourne art collections from which the items are borrowed.
So even the items on display in the antiquities gallery are part of Jitish Kallat’s intervention?
Absolutely, yes, they are part of “Circa”; no separate title.
There are different elements to the exhibition. One of the main elements is Circa, which came out by ship in crates. Made of resin, this work, and the manifestation I saw in Delhi, is the second time it has been displayed. The first time was at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum.
Was that Jitish Kallat’s “Fieldnotes” exhibition, held at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in 2011?
Yes, exactly, which was an amazing exhibition that I did not get to see. But Circa was not made for the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad project. It was actually a project that Jitish was working on in his own time for more than a year. It was an experimental project in the sense that the realisation of this scaffolding – it is resin, as I said, it’s not … wood – to achieve the authentic painterly surface to replicate scaffolding took a lot of time and experimentation for Jitish and his studio. This was, as I understand it, art for its own sake rather than for a specific exhibition. Then the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad project came up and the ŠKODA Prize and so on, and then we invited him to participate and develop this project with us at the Potter, and amazingly for such a busy artist, all this was achieved in a matter of months.
It is incredible that both you and Kallat were able to curate from a distance. How did you find that state of being so close and yet so removed from the project at the same time?
It was very interesting. My colleagues and I learnt so much from the quality of Jitish’s communication. This artist is remarkable.
So this style of working could only work with Kallat?
Well, it could work with other artists, too, but as a curator, one of the fundamental aims is to discover as much as possible about the artists’ thoughts about how best to install work. We don’t want to take anything for granted; we want to have all the information at hand that is possible to gain before we realise an exhibition project. If we don’t ask a question, we won’t receive an answer. For example, with a film work, if we don’t ask ‘Should it be a floating screen? Should this be on a plasma screen?’, all of these things affect the way the way the work will be received. We want all of this information; it’s how we work. With Jitish, though, he was pre-empting queries, so thoughtfully … and deeply engaged with the project for that time. This was a completely remarkable communication experience for its own sake.
So this communication, it is almost a part of the artwork itself?
That’s right. There were some technical challenges that we had to overcome. That’s often the hardest part of these sorts of processes, when you have to write back to an artist and say ‘that’s not possible’ or ‘that’s not within budget’, as Jitish is also an artist that is experimenting, who is interested in reaching great heights, such as the atrium area, which in the end we couldn’t reach. But, these sorts of things, not pushing boundaries for their own sake… his vision was so holistic. He has addressed the whole building, that’s where his ambition lay, and we worked as hard as we could to realise each aspect of that project. It wasn’t always possible.
Circa was, to a large extent, plannable in advance: something comes by ship and then you have an installation period, and we worked with Jitish, of course, to install that. But also, the cracks on the atrium wall, we manufactured them here, we manufactured the mirror, which is in between the Classics Gallery and Level One South [Gallery], … to Jitish’s guidelines. Our exhibitions preparator, Adam Pyett, had a lot of detailed communication with Jitish about technicalities such as the type of vertical lifter we could fit in the narrow footprint of the gallery in order to reach those areas [the upper levels of the atrium area], which in the end was the problem. The most spontaneous, but one of the most rewarding, aspects was that Jitish has worked for a long time with a master artist from Bombay [Mumbai] called Sadashiv Kuncolienker, who is a mid career, very experienced craftsperson and artist whose medium is clay. He makes models: the dogs [Prosody of a Pulse Rate, 2012], he made them in-situ, we brought him out.
Amazing. So that is a whole other aspect to the show, the idea of studio practice and collaborative work.
Yes, that’s right. So we established a makeshift studio space for Sadashiv in the Level One South Gallery where he also worked with a couple of volunteers from art schools. He made these dogs from photographs of Mumbai street dogs. All of the facial expressions and poses are different. Then we experimented with sprouting wheatgrass. We had multiple stages of sprouting in the kitchen at one stage. Then they were planted.
Writer’s note: Prosody of a Pulse Rate, 2012, is a group of life-sized sleeping clay dogs. As part of the ongoing intervention that characterises “Circa” at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Jitish Kallat instructed that the porous, unfired clay be scattered with wheatgrass seeds. Throughout the course of the exhibition the wheatgrass has sprouted, thrived, wilted and died. Kallat first started to incorporate wheatgrass into his work in 2012 with his work Chlorophyll Park. Fascinated by the resilience of such a small plant, Kallat uses wheatgrass in his work as a metaphor for the everyday struggle of survival faced by Mumbai’s working labouring class.
So, the production of the dogs was undertaken under Kallat’s specifications?
Absolutely, but he also worked very closely with Sadashiv; they’ve worked very closely for so long [and] they know each other so well that there was amazing communication between them. Also, Sadashiv worked on the installation of Circa before, so he was wonderful in terms of the installation of that.
You’ve got to keep in mind that Circa is often installed in India by scaffolding professionals. People who have not spent time in Asia may not recognise this scaffolding for what it is; if you’ve been, you know the importance of this combination of wood and concrete. In India, it is often women in saris building homes with these materials. It is incredible.
In Circa, the scaffolding is carved with little animals, what is the significance of these animals?
They relate to motifs on the Bombay [Mumbai] railway station, and they also relate to Hindu mythology. This is the thing; no one of those scaffolds is like the next.
Writer’s note: Located on the original site of a temple dedicated to the goddess Mumba Devi, the local incarnate of Devi the Mother Goddess, the Mumbai railway station, also known as the Victoria Terminus or the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, is one of the busiest railway stations in India. Incorporating both Italian Gothic architecture and traditional Indian design, the exterior of the station is ornately decorated with stone gargoyles, peacocks, monkeys, elephants and lions that have been placed among the buttresses, domes, turrets, spires and stained glass windows. This intricate use of animals motifs recurs on Circa as a series of carved animals who appear to be devouring each other. With this gesture, Kallat makes reference to the ongoing cycle of life evident in the bustle of the railway station. The carved animal figures also reference Hindu mythology in which animals are highly respected and regarded as incarnations of gods and goddesses.
So in a sense, each piece of scaffolding is an individual artwork?
Yes, that’s right.
We are interested in the visitor interaction with “Circa”. You pass a section of “Circa” on your way into the gallery, and it is easy to forget that this is the first work that you encounter. What have you noticed about the way visitors interact with the exhibition and its change over time? Have they come back to see it again?
That element is something that I feel that I have missed out on experiencing, as my office is upstairs. I think that one of the most successful elements of the project in terms of visitor experience is that the installation of the scaffolding was to scale: it’s physically robust, it’s physically very present in terms of your apprehension [to enter] the pathway through the building. What I mean by that is that it could have been twee, a little bit here, a little bit there, but instead it really is intersecting with the original Nonda Katsalidis architecture, particularly in the atrium area.
The combination of the architecture, Napier Waller‘s Art Deco stained glass window and the scaffolding…. It is almost like a historical journey through the history of architecture.
Yes, and also through culture.
This is the thing that was so amazing about working with Jitish during the installation period; because he is a very quietly spoken and supremely dignified person and via his vast experience, he knew what he needed. In other words, he knew when he needed some quiet time to absorb the atmosphere in the space before making the next decision. There was a lot happening, but at the same time he knew when he needed to have a more meditative state to think about the next stage, or the next step as to what would be installed next, where the dogs would be placed, how the cracks would be configured and where further scaffolding was needed.
In a sense, because he had those three days prior to the install, he had conceived the show visually, and the next step was the implementation of it.
That is right, but what I’m also suggesting is that the implantation stage was itself complex and involved chance and opportunity as much as pre-planning. A lot of technical pre-planning in terms of things we absolutely had to pre-plan prior, for example, how we were going to reach certain heights, how we were going to do something. But, at the same time, things like the placement of the dogs and where the scaffolding was going to be installed, they became evident only during the actual unfolding of the works.
So was Kallat present during this time?
He was. He came back for a second time.
Do you think Kallat will come back again before the show closes in April?
I don’t think he will. But you can’t have these experiences with an artist and not feel like its ongoing, so that is good fortune for us at the Ian Potter and at Asialink, to have established this relationship.
Jitish is represented by Barry Keldoulis in Sydney, so hopefully there is a greater awareness of his work when he next shows in Sydney and people will have a deeper appreciation for his project in a holistic sense.
What do you think makes Jitish Kallat stand out among other contemporary Indian artists? What do you think is so unique about his work that he has had exhibition opportunities in places like Australia and the United States?
He often makes installation art, three-dimensional, but not always; often it’s site specific. Also, he is materially very savvy: he’s working with neon, resin…. He’s a conceptual artist in the sense that he will choose his medium in order to realise his vision. There is a lot of flexibility. This also comes from being an Indian artist, where labour, the question of labour, is a different question from one that Australian or other Western artists face. We can’t simply just employ teams of people to create. It’s a different psychology as well as a difference in economics. I think that you feel that about his work…. If we think about an exhibition or an invitation to exhibit as a problem, then you think ‘How will I address this?’ It is the specificity and enormous intellectual capacity that he brings to each of those projects, and then the freedom he has in terms of materials and access to materials, that come together to produce these remarkable projects.
It is such a different approach to curating, where, for instance, you conceive an idea and then bring in artists’ work that represents that idea. It is a much more static process with a lot of extensive pre-planning. In “Jitish Kallat: Circa”, there is a lot of unknown: you do not know what the final exhibition will look like. How did you find that experience?
With every exhibition there is an element of risk. Jitish has this stunning characteristic in that he has the ability to instil deep faith [in those who he works with] and [assure those around him] that everything will be all right. Institutions, that are by their nature conservative, feel perhaps freer to make an invitation to an artist that has that capacity, and that is a wonderful thing for him that he acknowledges and explores to the fullest extent.
Do you think Kallat enjoys the process of working with a curator?
Often artists of his stature might delegate everyday communication to a studio assistant (administration, flights, etc.), but in the case of Jitish, all of the correspondence about the project was with him.
So every detail of the planning is part of the project?
Yes, and I believe that Jitish’s intellectual heights and philosophical disposition: you can feel that in the work.
So even though he is not present, his presence can still be felt?
Yes. That’s right.
“Jitish Kallat: Circa”, curated by Bala Starr, Natalie King and Andrew Jamieson, runs until 7 April 2013 at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne, Australia.
- Indian artist Nikhil Chopra’s performance work premieres in Australia – October 2012 – another Indian artist exhibits site-specific work, this time in Sydney
- Red stools central in first JavaArts Cambodian artist residency – picture feast – September 2012 – site-specific art a feature in Cambodian-born artist Anida Yoeu Ali’s Phnom Penh exhibition
- Second Sowing Seeds India artist residency embraces performance art – July 2011 – international artists asked to create site-specific work with villagers in rural India residency
- Jitish Kallat talks about Saatchi exhibition of Indian works to Economist – video – October 2010 – in “The Empire Stricks Back: Indian Art Today”, different contemporary Indian artists express political statements through their work
- Which 5 Indian artists would you dare to buy now? – May 2009 – Jitish Kallat named as one of India’s must-collect artists
Subscribe to Art Radar for more insightful interviews with art curators