Indian artist seeks dialogue on faith in age of terror

By Arun Kumar, IANS,

Washington : Connecting two key historical moments linked to 9/11, but 108 years apart, Mumbai-based contemporary Indian artist Jitish Kallat has sought to engage the American people on faith in the age of terror.

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Opening Saturday, Kallat’s “Public Notice 3” links a landmark speech delivered by Swami Vivekananda at the First World Parliament of Religions in Chicago Sep 11, 1893, and the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on that very date in 2001. It will be on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through Jan 2, 2011.

“It begins an engagement with the public by linking up 9/11 with another 9/11, but from 1893 – the moment of parliament,” Kallat told IANS on phone from Chicago, where he is for the installation of his first major presentation in an American museum.

Kallat converts Vivekananda’s text to LED displays on each of the 118 risers of the historic Woman’s Board Grand Staircase of the Art Institute of Chicago, adjacent to the site of Vivekananda’s original address.

Drawing attention to the great chasm between this speech of tolerance and the very different events of Sep 11, 2001, the text of the speech will be displayed in the five US colours of threat levels, to create a trenchant commentary on the devolution, of religious tolerance across the 20th and 21st centuries.

In some ways Vivekananda’s speech “was the first attempt to possibly seek in a kind of globalisation of faith, overlaid by letters symbolic of globalisation of terror,” Kallat said.

“So, it actually draws on these multiple reference through an evocation of date, but also site because it stands where parliament of religions took place,” he said. “Location itself in a way is seminal to the art work itself.”

He had referenced this in his earlier work “Detergent,” in China in 2006 “primarily because of my interest in the overlay of dates,” Kallat said. “But carrying the idea into the site of parliament “has a much greater potency and meaning.”

“By touching all the multiple contexts that make it – history of site, city, nation and the world – it incrementally embraces a wider context because of its location.”

Yet Kallat does not try to make his art pieces as essential carriers of predetermined messages. “The process I am seeking is some sort of co-creation of meaning with viewers engaged with the work,” he said.

“Walking up and down the grand staircase with 118 steps with 68,700 light bulbs each one in one of the five colours of five threat levels, one could interlink all the varied ideas or just depart with a completely retinal experience.”

Curator Madhuvanti Ghose said the Art Institute “seemed a logical siting of the work given that the museum was the site of Vivekananda’s original address.”

“I was very excited about the possibility as the Art Institute, though it has a rich collection of historical works of art from India, had never presented Indian contemporary art,” she said. “The effort has been collaborative and fascinating in its development.”

Kallat will be back in the US in March 2011with a show of his earlier work “Public Notice No. 2” in Washington.

Made up of 4600 fibreglass alphabets morphed with the image of a bone, the exhibit presents Mahatma Gandhi’s 1930 speech before the historic march protesting the British salt tax with a plea to his followers to maintain complete non violence.

It was, as Kallat put it, “one of those fantastic, poetic gestures, pretty much unlike the hate based propaganda that the political space is polluted by today.”

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at [email protected])