Covering Letter by Jitish Kallat

Art of the Week

As communities around the globe struggle with unprecedented isolation and adjust to a new normal in avoiding social contact, the medium of artistic installation is uniquely affected. While images of other visual art, such as paintings or sculptures, can be experienced remotely and recordings of music can be enjoyed at home, it is not possible to recreate the full effect of an installation designed for a certain type of space with specialized equipment.

But that is not to say that these installations are impossible to appreciate at a time when they can’t be seen firsthand. Just as an artistic installation can change our perception of a specific space or experience in situ, its composition, context and effects can inspire change within our own minds, and therefore, any space we find ourselves in.

That’s demonstrated clearly in “Jitish Kallat: Return To Sender,” a collection of installation pieces by the eponymous artist intended for display at Frist Art Museum. It includes a work from 2019, Covering Letter (Terranum Nuncius) as well as its 2012 predecessor Covering Letter, both of which offer plenty of impact and insight, even remotely.

Kallat, based in Mumbai and the first Indian artist to enjoy a solo exhibition at Frist, gained significant notoriety for Covering Letter, further establishing himself as an artist with unique perspective on the passing of time, permanence and correspondence. Covering Letter envelops an entire room with the image of a July 1939 message from Mahatma Ghandi to Adolf Hitler, sent shortly before the start of World War II. Covering Letter (Terranum Nuncius), meanwhile, covers a gallery space in sounds and images derived from the Golden Record, a vault of messages intended for discovery by interstellar beings and launched into space by NASA in 1977.

“Kallat’s works often engage with the ideas of time, transience, sustenance, the ecological and the cosmological,” according to a release from Frist. “In works such as Covering Letter (2012) … a historic moment is invoked, prompting a contemplation on our present by mediating it through the past.”

When Covering Letter is displayed as originally intended, the text of Ghandi’s appeal for peace is projected onto a curtain of fog in an otherwise dark room. The image of the letter is scrolled past the viewers’ eyes in about two-and-a-half minutes. In person, a viewer would dissipate the fog as they move through it, temporarily pushing aside and physically interacting with the text. Though it is believed that Ghandi’s letter never actually reached Hitler, the piece portrays the power that individual leaders possess as agents of peace or tyranny, the unforeseen gravity that the passing of time can grant to otherwise ephemeral moments and the emphases that experiential installations themselves can imbue.

“The artist employs it ‘as an open letter from the past destined to carry its message into our turbulent present, well beyond its intended recipient,'” per Frist. “To exit the exhibition, we must walk toward the light and through the mist, becoming enveloped in the political activist’s words.”

It’s undeniable that a firsthand experience would best emphasize the long-lasting impact of this letter as Kallat intended, but it’s possible to appreciate this designed experience and derive the installation’s effects from afar.

“Kallat describes the letter as a space for self-reflection — a petition from one of the greatest proponents of peace to one of the most violent individuals who ever lived,” Frist wrote.

Kallat received his bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art in Mumbai. His work has been exhibited around the world and has taken the form of animated video, photography, painting, sculpture and elemental drawing.

Frist Art Museum is located at 919 Broadway.

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