“‘Public Notice 3’ explores the possibility of revisiting the historical speech as a site of contemplation, symbolically refracting it with threat codes devised by a government to deal with this terror-infected era of religious factionalism and fanaticism.”
— from The Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition website

The Grand Staircase at the Art Institute of Chicago with the art installation "Public Notice 3" by Jitish Kallat
The grand staircase at The Art Institute of Chicago features the art installation “Public Notice 3” by Jitish Kallat. (photo: swimfinfan/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

Before September 11th became synonymous with terrorist attacks and religious intolerance, it was host to that event’s antithesis — the First World Parliament of Religions held in The Art Institute of Chicago’s Fullerton Hall on September 11, 1893. The parliament was an early attempt to create a global discussion of religious faiths, and Swami Vivekananda delivered an eloquent keynote address to an audience of over 7,000.

“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.”

Indian artist Jitish KallatNow, 118 years after his speech and nearly a decade after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Jitish Kallat reintroduces the public to Vivekananda’s words in “Public Notice 3,” an exhibition on display at The Art Institute of Chicago from September 11, 2010 through May 1, 2011.

The Indian artist, known for using historical speeches as the structure for his work, seeks to hold up these “blurred and sometimes forgotten” speeches as “apparatuses with which to grade our feats and follies as nations and as humankind.” “Public Notice 3” continues this approach from his previous exhibition in 2007, which he based on a momentous speech Mahatma Gandhi delivered on the eve of the historic 400-kilometer “Dandi March.”

In the current installation, Kallat displays the inspiring, inclusive words of Swami Vivekananda’s text in LED lights on the 118 stair risers of the historic Woman’s Board Grand Staircase, adjacent to the site of Vivekananda’s original address. Phrases from Vivekananda’s address are lit with the colors of the United States Department of Homeland Security’s alert system, creating color patterns that reach up the meandering flights of stairs to a skylight above the top flight. The effect of these patterns, coupled with the resonant sound of footsteps and voices in the cavernous staircase, is profound.

Words from Swami Vivekananda's 1893 Speech on the Grand Staircase Steps at the Art Institute of Chicago
Phrases from Swami Vivekananda’s speech displayed in “Public Notice 3” on the Grand Staircase steps. (photo: swimfinfan/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

The following video of a conversation between artist Jitish Kallat and curator Madhuvanti Ghose provides additional insight into the artist’s desire to highlight the chasm between these two very different events of September 11.

Public Notice 3 — a hopeful and poignant reframing of “the events of 9/11” — is an inspiring, redemptive “must-see” for anyone in or passing through Chicago.

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