Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.
--Excerpt from a speech delivered by Swami Vivekananda on September 11, 1893 at the First World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago
Almost five months ago, Jitish Kallat and his crew installed Public Notice 3 on the risers of the Grand Staircase in the Art Institute of Chicago. The piece is a large-scale installation with the words from Swami Vivekananda’s full address spelled out in bright LED lights. It will remain on view until May, marking the Indian artist’s first major project in an American museum. Since its opening, thousands of visitors to the museum have read the words spoken over a hundred years ago by Vivekananda, a Hindu monk, for whom the street outside the Art Institute is named. Those of us that frequent the space have lived with it like a sleek modern chair in a traditional living room, celebrating its visual clash with the building’s Beaux-Arts style atrium.
Public Notice 3 has sustained my fascination because of this frisson between 19th century architecture and 21st century art, and because it communicates a socially relevant message without sacrificing aesthetics or being conceptually obscure. Kallat effectively works with the historical charge of the space, borrowing a speech given by Vivekananda delivered literally footsteps away in what is now the Art Institute’s Fullerton Hall. Looking like a softer, static version of Jennie Holzer’s 1989 installation of her Truthisms series inside of the Guggenheim Museum, Kallat uses the red, yellow, orange, green and blue LEDs that run across the risers of the stairway. These primary and secondary colors are basic foundations of art making, and, intentionally, they also correspond with the Department of Homeland Security’s alert system, which just days ago was disbanded.
The unveiling of Public Notice 3 on September 11, 2010, was a poignant anniversary—an appropriate time to reiterate the speech’s plea for worldwide religious tolerance and an end to violent fanaticism. In the Bad at Sports podcast interview with Kallat, the artist discusses his interest in coincidences and conspiracy theories that involve words and numbers, and their place in his work. He points out that 108 is a sacred number in Hinduism and other Eastern faiths, but it is also the number of years that separates Vivekananda’s speech on September 11, 1893, and the events of September 11, 2001.
Jitish Kallat's Public Notice 3 installed on the Art Institute's Grand Staircase. Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
As seen above, the Grand Staircase leads up from two sides, meeting at a landing and then continuing to the second floor in four respective flights of steps. The speech can only be read in ascending order and repeats itself on the various sections of risers, as if it’s echoing, as the artist points out. Even if a museum-goer doesn’t take the time to read the entire speech, the rotating use of text colors help to distinguish the individual words and phrases, like “persecution,” “acceptance,” “universal toleration,” “religions,” and “fanaticism,” communicating the general idea of the piece. The ability to read and understand Public Notice 3 in parts owes much to this artistic strategy.
Continuing his interest in noted speeches by Indians (Public Notice 2, 2007, featured a speech by Mahatma Ghandhi), it’s clear that Kallat wants to revive these ephemeral historical moments and recontextualize them for a contemporary audience. He employs a mix of conceptual, Pop and activist art sensibilities to communicate a hope for societal change, but shows that in a little more than a century’s time we haven’t progressed as a society at all. Public Notice 3 asks if we’ve lived up to Vivekananda’s simple challenge of tolerance, and confirms that sadly, we haven’t.
-Mia DiMeo, ArtSlant Staff Writer