The Cosmopolis is the Starting Point

by Nikos Papastergiadis

“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”[1]

This forensic and spherical perspective affirms a new and radical anthropocentric view of the cosmos

1 Forensic Trail (0-00-18-01)
Jitish Kallat, Forensic Trail of a Grand Banquet, 2009, video projection, dimensions variable, Courtesy of the artist & Arndt Berlin


It is said that philosophy and art come from the city. But which city? It was Cosmopolis. We know that Socrates chose Athens. He was ferocious defender of the city in the war against Sparta. He had the opportunity to escape his death sentence through voluntary exile. Yet, although he knew of no better city he still was not a blind patriot. In his essay “Of Exile” Plutarch cites Socrates’s claim: “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”[1] He said that he was a “Cosmian” in the way that others were a “Corinthian” or a “Rhodian”.

The 17th-century scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal observed that whether we are staring out towards the cosmos or examining the realm of microscopic reality, we are “suspended between two infinities”.[2]

The further out we look, the bigger the horizon. The closer we reflect, the more complex the detail. In both directions there is the experience of the boundless. We have a word to express the experience of infinity: sublime. The concept of sublime is the stumbling block of modern philosophy. The experience of the sublime is a recurring starting point in art. These two worlds have never found a neat point of rendezvous. Theory and practice are not so much suspended at opposite ends of infinity, but seem to oscillate between these polarities at a slight remove from each other. With this limitation in mind, I would like to respond to the theme of the cosmopolis in the encounter with Jitish Kallat’s exhibition Circa.[3]

Let us begin with the tantalising sense of beginning a journey. Journeys begin in dreams. However, they also take a sharp twist when you cross a threshold and enter a carriage. The thought of a journey stimulates ambivalent arousal because it is between departure and arrival that there is the possibility of an unexpected encounter. There can be a sadness of leaving and a joy in the discovery. Hence, we would prefer to begin our journey with some kind of assurance. I loathe taking travel insurance but I do feel better when the departure point is solid. The passageways of the Ian Potter Museum of Art in which Circa is installed are all framed by what appears at first sight as the gawky bamboo poles that are used as scaffolding in Indian construction sites. Upon closer inspection, these poles are revealed to be pigmented cast resin and they are held together with steel and rope. The poles also contain elaborately sculpted images of various animals, such as monkeys, snakes and birds. In many instances, these creatures are either violently attacking each other or are in a process of devouring their own tails. They conjure mythological scenes, and we also discover that the reference point from which these images were derived is the sculpted façade of the entrance to the main terminus of the Mumbai railway. I wonder how many of the millions of daily commuters notice this allusion to the precarious nature of their journey. Of course, they already know of what we are now belatedly representing.

Journeys follow or create lines. These lines are almost never straight. Rivers zigzag between the hard and smooth contours of the land. Roads can turn abruptly and railway tracks swerve along a smooth curve. The uneven line is a motif that recurs in this installation. This skinny and sprawling line is a distinct feature of the colonial maps of India on display – the faded and crumpled paper providing an echo to the vain pretence of administrative permanence, the jagged line also appears in the drawings on the vitrines that contain ancient Indian sculptures – generating an illusion of the glass having cracked from pressure. Is the object trying to escape, or the world shattering from external tremors? Finally, the sprawling line is announced in the subtle cracks that surface in tendril-like movement along the pristine plasterwork of the museum’s entrance. These mysterious new cracks are titled Footnote (mirror 1). They are made of acrylic mirrors. They have an alluring effect. Drawing us into a sudden and dark void that disturbs the flat and neutral surface of the museum. Catching the sky and artificial light on its reflective surface they also rebound towards another horizon. The darkness has no bottom, and the light is blindingly open. A footnote is also a belated acknowledgement of what you already know. It traces back the origin of the journey of discovery that you have just completed.

The installation also contains another suite of sculptures that are interspersed across the museum’s polished wooden floorboards. The sculptures are of sleeping dogs. Climbing out of their backs are the sprouts of wheat. Again, the object and its location are in stark tension. The dogs are life-size and life-like. They are more familiar as companions to the homeless than they are as occupants of the contemplative corners of a museum. The sprouting of wheat seeds from within the unfired clay volume of the sculpture is in itself an uncanny experience. How does wheat live and grow from such dead matter?

However, what is most pertinent about these sculptures that are collectively referred to as Prosody of a pulse rate, is their conception in a spherical state of repose. These dogs are in a state of suspension, between exhaustion and rejuvenation. Sleep is a kind of rebirth. The dogs have surrendered into the surface of the earth. We would prefer to imagine that the ground is dusty and warm, rather than shiny and hard. Nevertheless, they surrender their muscular frame to a soft womb-like shape and allow the dynamic tension of the daily trot between hither and thither to realign itself into a rhythmic pattern of in- and exhalation. The image of an animal asleep in spherical union, once prefaced with a title that alerts us to the poetic techniques of harmony, also exposes us to another mystic sign: the function of breath in the cosmic soul.

Finally, I want to turn my attention to Jitish Kallat’s video piece: Forensic Trail of a Grand Banquet. The screens face each other. One contains footage of 700 food items that have been X-rayed. The other screen plays the footage in reverse. Natalie King has perceptively described the effect of viewing this work as pulling us into a “meteoric vortex”. Jitish Kallat has also informed us that:

…the microscopic organisms, nebulae, or underwater formations that you see flying around you, are actually an X-ray of food items like samosas, kachoris, corn, etc., touching upon the need for sustenance, once again. The concept of the banquet uploaded into the cosmos is quite bizarre in itself. It’s how you choose to look at it.[4]

This gesture of choice of perspective by the artist is also a profound expression of conceptual understatement. I am not suggesting that this gesture is made in the spirit of false modesty or motivated by indecision and insecurity. On the contrary, like all the claims that Jitish Kallat makes, this one is marked by a deliberative tone. To not overstate or prescribe the precise perspective is to acknowledge a space that has an autonomy that is beyond the artist’s reach. To understate the position or extent to which a viewer ‘chooses to look’ is both a necessary precaution and a concession to an experience that exceeds human cognition. It carefully avoids an absurd level of self-confidence. It also acknowledges the incontrovertible freedom of the viewer. But what sort of freedom do we have before this image of the universe that is out there and within the video of the minutest form of life? On one level, when we are in the midst of this double infinity, there is no choice. Such a process of decision-making has either already evaporated as it has been assimilated into the cosmic ether, or else the faculty for reasoning has conceded that it has been annihilated in the encounter with the sublime. The vortex sucks in all chunks and disperses the minutest levels of thought. The microscopic details of food and the most macro-ecology of the cosmos become indistinguishable. The simulation of one by the other has been a point of fascination that endures from the most ancient cosmologies to the most recent endeavours by physicists like Stephen Hawking. The images generated by the ancient philosopher and the visualisations made possible by contemporary scientists are connected not just by the illusionistic distortions that are made possible with the most sophisticated camera lens, but also by a persistent belief that the geometric laws that align the part with the whole are valid principles for understanding the origin of the cosmos and the dynamic tension that sustains life and death.

The combination of a forensic and spherical perspective is in my view an affirmation of a new and radical anthropocentric view of the cosmos. It looks into the subtlest of details regarding everyday things such as the food that generates life and not only finds an image of the cosmos, but also demonstrates a companionship between humanity and the widest spheres of our environment. It is one thing to try and make sense of the mystery of cosmic infinity by staring into the most microscopic details and finding a form that makes the incomprehensible slightly more comprehensible. However, beyond this neat and comforting illusion is another level of recognition of responsibility. The energy that is out there is also in here. Food, intelligence and the cosmos may all have a common form. The point of putting two video screens to face each other and for one screen to reverse the footage is not confined to a principle of doubling. It also invites the viewer to stand in the middle and bear witness to the circumambient flows.

It is my general contention that the principle of creativity is intricately interwoven with the affirmative ideas of cosmos. How could I ever prove this? Let us start with this primary capacity for seeing, sensing and imagining the world. When we look out at the world there is the horizon. The land bends away because it is part of a sphere and the skies open like a boundless screen. At no stage is anything like the whole ever visible. One part of the surface of the world hides another and at any point the vast bulk is always beyond our range of vision. The world as a whole is always hidden from any direct view. Our eyes always look up as much as they look out and across. Looking up we gain a vertical view as the cone of vision extends to the infinite depth of the cosmic screen. This gaze exposes us to far more than we can comprehend. This luminous darkness and sparkling murkiness inspires both dreadful awe and uplifting wonder.

In Jitish Kallat’s work we see this anthropocentric act of projection. It begins in the cosmology of small symbols. It conjures the dazzling uncertainty in the line of any journey, finding form in the life-sprouting rhythm of a dog’s sleeping breath. Diogenes the Cynic, who famously rejected Alexander the Great’s offer of wealth and power, and whose name comes from his ambition to live in a state that could match a dog’s cosmic harmony, would be proud to have made such an understatement.


[1] Plutarch, (1959) Moralia, Vol vii, Loeb Classical Editions, pp. 513–57.

[2] Quoted in Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics II, trans. R Bononno, Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2011, p.12.

[3] The exhibition ran at the Ian Potter Gallery, University of Melbourne, from October 2012 to April 2013. An earlier version of this essay was published in the catalogue that accompanied Jitish Kallat’s exhibition Circa at the Ian Potter Gallery, University of Melbourne, edited by Natalie King and Bala Starr, Melbourne, 2013, pp. 6–11.

[4] Quoted in Natalie King, “Jitish Kallat: an evolving narrative in 8 acts,” Art Monthly Australia, no. 256, 2012–13, p.22.





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