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The swami and the stairway


The 36-year-old Mumbai artist Jitish Kallat has built an international career on politically charged works of art, which are a sharp comment on the times we live in. Yet, even he couldn't have predicted how timely and relevant his latest work - Public Notice 3 - would be when it opened at The Art Institute of Chicago this September to mark the ninth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the US.

The installation links two important events in American history. The first is the landmark speech delivered by Swami Vivekananda calling for an end to "bigotry and fanaticism" at the opening of the first World's Parliament of Religions, on September 11, 1893, held at the site of the Chicago museum. The second is, of course, the terrorist attacks on the same day, 108 years later. Kallat has recreated the entire text of Swami Vivekananda's speech on the risers of the main staircase of the museum using LED lights in the five colours of the US department of homeland security's alert system - red, orange, yellow, blue and green.

By juxtaposing the two events and using the specific five colours, the work which had been in the making for more than a year - points to the continued relevance of Vivekananda's message: religious tolerance. However, as the curator of the show Madhuvanti Ghose pointed out, by the time the work opened, it had taken on a whole new immediacy and meaning, thanks to the fractious protests against the building of an Islamic Cultural Centre near the site of the terrorist attacks.

The installation is the third in a series of works in which Kallat has referenced historical speeches. The first, Public Notice (2003), presented the text of Nehru's famous "tryst with destiny" speech made on the eve of India's Independence using burnt acrylic on a shining mirrored surface. The second used resin bones to recreate the speech delivered by Gandhi before his 1930 Dandi March against the salt tax. And last year, Swami Vivekananda's speech was used in another work called Detergent, which Kallat created in a similar text-and-light installation on the staircase of the Guangdong Museum of Art in China.

However, what separates Public Notice 3 from its predecessors, explained Ghose, is its amazing site-specificity. The Grand Staircase of the museum - the site of the installation - stands adjacent to Fullerton Hall, the exact site where Swami Vivekananda delivered his landmark speech. Through its almost uncanny confluence of history, politics and art, the work highlights how in the problems that concern us as a human race, the more we change, the more we seem to remain the same.

Ghose said that Kallat first broached the idea of a collaborative project with the museum during a conversation in Mumbai in April 2009. The museum was considering a show to mark the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. As Kallat spoke of his installation at Guangdong and the possibility of creating something similar for Chicago, Ghose remembers getting goosebumps because, "I could visualise it in our space. "

Kallat was in for a surprise too. He didn't know that the Grand Staircase stood adjacent to the very site of the speech. Also, the staircase, which stands under a radiant skylight, starts from two different directions and splits into four. Hence, as Ghose explained, if the speech started from the lowest step and rose up, it would capture the belief shared by Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism that important words go out in four directions and finally merge with eternity.

Thus, Ghose pressed for the installation to be created on the Grand Staircase itself, despite the practical challenges it presented : the staircase is the most important thoroughfare of the museum and had to be kept open throughout the installation of the work. Ghose said that the museum hopes to make the work part of its permanent collection and even loan it to other museums.

(Public Notice 3 is on at The Art Institute of Chicago till January 2)

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