(This article was first published in The Hindu Business Line.)
“I have always been interested in extending and reducing the focal length at which we view things. Our perception changes, depending on whether we hold something close or keep it far away from us,” said artist Jitish Kallat (45), as we sat down for a conversation at Famous Studios in Mumbai, where his multimedia installation Terranum Nuncius was on display till January 22. Presented by art galleries Nature Morte and Gallery Chemould, the exhibition is currently on view at Bikaner House in Delhi until February 19, before moving to Frist Art Museum in Nashville, US, from March 13 to June 28.
Walking into a darkened room, and around a large round table with over a hundred backlit 3D photographic transparencies, felt like tracing the orbit of a planet in the solar system. The images were not static. They blinked at me — appearing and disappearing and reappearing — and I was being made acutely aware of what it means to be a resident of Earth, a vaster sense of being that is forgotten when we cling to caste, gender, race and other markers of self-definition. The feeling became more pronounced as I heard the sounds of greetings to the universe in 55 languages, which were played on loop from speakers of the kind usually used for public announcements. It was a reminder that friendship is possible even amidst diversity.
“Distances alter not only the events and processes we witness but also our own place in the cosmos. In a world where we are accustomed to seeing things in binaries, we miss noticing how alike we are. How will we reset our sense of self when the other is not a fellow human being but an extraterrestrial life form billions of miles away?” remarked Kallat. Terranum Nuncius literally means ‘messenger from the earth’ and pays homage to a treatise called Sidereus Nuncius, written by the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei.
The artist has drawn from the Golden Record, a time capsule of images and sounds assembled for the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes launched by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1977. He views this epic presentation of earthly life to an unknown interstellar intelligence via a gold-plated phonographic disc as a kind of collective letter from all of us. The images include studies of human anatomy, scientific diagrams, cultural artefacts, physical expressions of care and intimacy, historical monuments and more.
These spaceships are travelling outside our solar system even today, working to establish contact with worlds that might be completely different from the one we live in. Forty years after the images were converted into sound files and uploaded onto the Golden Record, an American software engineer named Ron Barry converted the audio clips back into images. This procedure is meant to mimic the one extraterrestrial creatures would have to follow in order to see the images.
“Our location in the world is so provisional, yet all our actions come from a place of certitude. We engage with people through a lens and vocabulary that does not want to take other dimensions into account. When one feels sure, one paints a placard; when one feels doubt, one makes art,” said Kallat, who explored the epistolary form in his earlier show Covering Letter (2012), which resurrected a letter that MK Gandhi wrote to Adolf Hitler in July 1939. The former is usually depicted as an apostle of peace, and the latter an embodiment of evil. Terranum Nuncius urges us to revisit that piece of communication in the light of present realities.
Gandhi wrote, “It is quite clear that you are today 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?” Surprisingly, he began the letter by addressing Hitler as ‘Dear Friend’ even as he tried to discourage the leader of the Nazi party from German aggression into Poland.
Terranum Nuncius may come across as escapist at a time when Indian citizens are out in the streets calling out an elected government for discriminatory laws, but it should be viewed in relation to a second letter from Gandhi to Hitler in December 1940 that Kallat does not refer to. In that one, Gandhi wrote, “That I address you as a friend is no formality. I own no foes. My business in life has been for the past 33 years to enlist the friendship of the whole of humanity by befriending mankind, irrespective of race, colour or creed.” He also warned Hitler about the power of non-violent resistance, a force that requires no killing or hurting.
There is no historical evidence of any response to these letters. It is also possible that these letters were intercepted by British spies before they reached Hitler in Berlin. Before I walked out, my gaze kept shifting between a solar location map projected on the wall to indicate our place in the stars and a wooden bench evoking the two hands of the Doomsday Clock that is maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to measure our proximity to global catastrophe.
These were the questions that lingered: Does it make sense to reach out to politicians who are architects of genocide? Is dialogue possible in all situations? Can we imagine a safe space between people when there is a fundamental asymmetry of power? When human beings can develop technologies to communicate with extraterrestrials, why can’t we learn to talk to each other? Why do we fear annihilation when it is a precondition for something new to emerge?