The Frist Art Museum presents Return to Sender, an exhibition of immersive installations created by the celebrated Indian artist Jitish Kallat. The dramatic works, which engage both mind and body, are inspired by historic messages that reveal the best and worst of humanity. The exhibition will be on view in the Frist’s Upper-Level Galleries from March 13 through June 28, 2020.
Jitish Kallat is a Mumbai native who produces installations, paintings, photographs, and sculptures that often recall historic acts of speech. Return to Sender brings together two works based on missives: Kallat’s widely exhibited work titled Covering Letter (2012), which was selected for India’s pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale (2019), and a new project called Covering Letter (terranum nuncius) (2019). “Kallat’s explorations of the epistolary mode are well suited to our museum as our building is the former main post office of Nashville,” says Frist Art Museum Curator Trinita Kennedy. “From here countless letters have been sent and received.”
Covering Letter is a haunting interactive digital projection of a 1939 typewritten letter from Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler, sent just a few weeks before the outbreak of World War II. The letter is seen on a curtain of traversable dry-fog in the dark. “Gandhi makes a radical appeal for peace, anticipating the brutal bloodshed that the impending war would unleash,” says Kennedy. In the spirit of his doctrine of universal friendship, Gandhi uses the salutation “Dear Friend…” and urges Hitler to resist “reducing humanity to a savage state.” Visitors walk through the screen of descending mist, simultaneously inhabiting and dissipating the moving text. 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. It can also be read as an open letter from the past destined to carry its message into our turbulent present, well beyond its delivery date and the intended recipient.” Kennedy hopes the work will have special resonance in Nashville. “This exhibition marks the first time that Covering Letter has been exhibited in the American South, a place where Gandhi’s ideas about nonviolent resistance were a vital part of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Covering Letter (terranum nuncius) commemorates and reinvokes the Golden Record, sent as time capsules aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes launched by NASA in 1977. For those expeditions, select sounds, music, and images were placed on two gold-plated phonographic records with the intent to represent life on Earth to any extraterrestrial discoverer. Currently located over 13 billion miles away from planet Earth, they are expected to continue their cosmic journey well beyond the probable extinction of our species and our planet.
Upon entering this installation, visitors will hear a chorus of humanity greeting the universe in 55 languages. There is a projection of a map indicating Earth’s position in our solar system and a large round table with over a hundred images printed on parallax lenses, which are illuminated by lights that pulsate at the rate of human breath. The images, drawn from the Golden Record, include scientific and cosmological diagrams, representations of our genetic makeup and anatomy, as well as other life forms, and architecture, often annotated with measurements. At a time when we find ourselves in a deeply divided world, Kallat foregrounds these sounds and images for a collective meditation on ourselves as united residents of a single planet.
In Covering Letter (terranum nuncius) there is also a bench shaped like the hands of the Doomsday Clock. This symbolic clock, updated annually by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, represents a hypothetical human-made global catastrophe as midnight, and the proximity of the world to the apocalypse as a number of minutes or seconds to twelve. “The Golden Record’s presentation of unity and harmony among earthlings is belied by the actual state of the world,” says Kennedy. “The reality is that our planet hangs in the balance through circumstances of our own making, and the clock bench is an ominous metaphor that differs from the euphoria and optimism associated with the midnight on occasions such as New Year’s Eve.” Woven into the hour are humankind’s worst fears and greatest hopes.
This exhibition marks the first time that Kallat’s two Covering Letter installations will be shown together. Exhibited in darkened galleries and open-ended in meaning, they are intended to provoke contemplations of our world and the universe.
Thursday, March 12
Artist’s Perspective: Jitish Kallat
Frist Art Museum Auditorium
Free; first come, first seated
In this talk, Jitish Kallat will share a cross-section of his work, exploring the many processes, themes, and ideas that recur throughout his wide-ranging artistic practice. Kallat’s works often engage with the ideas of time, transience, sustenance, the ecological, and the cosmological. These explorations take the form of investigative animation videos, photo-works, paintings, sculptures, and elemental drawings that participate in atmospheric phenomena such as wind and rain.