I wrote a review for The Caravan of two photography books, one by Dayanita Singh and the other by her mother, Nony Singh. You can read it here:
There’s also this profile of artist Shilpa Gupta that I wrote a while back for Art Varta. I can’t seem to find a link for the article, so for those interested, the text is below.
Since she graduated from Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art in 1997, Shilpa Gupta has taken to the streets, built websites, sang songs, strung up fairy lights, handled cloth stained with menstrual blood – all to create art that will be striking to both a connoisseur and a casual observer. If there’s one word to describe Gupta’s style then it would be “unpredictable”. There’s no telling what the artist will pull out of her magician’s hat, but her forte lies in installations. Using a variety of materials that range from commonplace to specialised, Gupta creates pieces that are both visually striking and conceptually sound. Inventive, idealistic and poetic, Gupta’s art draws the viewer in, urging them to pause and spend a little time with the curiosity she’s created. The best of her creations make the viewer feel like a confidante and as you stare, watch the work, it seems to whisper secret messages in your ear. Nothing is spelt out obviously and yet Gupta’s intent is communicated unfailingly.
Perhaps the most bewitching qualities of Gupta’s art is how it involves the viewer. It isn’t the technology or the technique that makes an impression, but the experience of having viewed the work almost as a collaborator rather than an objective viewer. Right from the beginning, drawing the viewer in has been Gupta’s primary objective – it’s telling that the URL for her first website was ‘flyinthe.net’ – because there are messages she wants to convey. It perhaps wouldn’t come as a surprise that Gupta’s political ideologies are left-leaning and liberal, but the surprising part is how she chooses to articulate them in a manner that is thought-provoking rather than confrontational.
One of Gupta’s early projects was titled Blame (2000). Gupta filled little bottles with simulated blood and labelled them “Blame”. The label had the following in small print: “Blaming you makes me feel so good! So I blame you for what you cannot control: your religion, your nationality. I want to blame you, it makes me feel good.” Gupta took a clutch of these bottles and peddled them on Mumbai’s local trains, where it’s common to see men and women selling everything from chopped vegetables to ear muffs. Even for Mumbai’s sangfroid, however, fake blood is an eyebrow-raiser. Some took the bottles from her out of politeness, a few refused; on one occasion, a woman grinned and winked at Gupta when she was about to get off the train. Gupta performed Blame all over the world. She revived the project in 2002, after the infamous Godhra riots in Gujarat, lending a sharper edge to the act of distributing Blame. Ostensibly, it’s a simple and unthreatening act: take a bottle from a slight, friendly-faced young woman; it’s for free. There’s no harm in it. But when you take that bottle from her, you become complicit in spreading Blame. When that bottle becomes yours, the words on that label can be attributed to you too. Think about what you’re doing, and the fake blood of Blame is the last thing you want on (or in) your hands.
Years later, Gupta would make Threat (2008-09). She imprinted the word “threat” upon bars of soap that were given to gallery visitors. In the gallery, each bar of soap looked vaguely brick-like. All of them were stacked to create a wall of soap. As a visitor, you could literally remove some threat by taking one of the bars. Use it and threat would soon melt away. Don’t use it, and the soap dries up and becomes useless. The futility of the increasingly popular political tactic of using fear as a control mechanism was simply but eloquently articulated using just a single word.
It’s impossible to predict how a viewer will react, particularly when the agent provocateur in question is a work of art that’s determined to be subtle. When Gupta asked her female relatives and colleagues to give her pieces of cloth that had dried stains of menstrual blood on them for an art work, it was her aunt whose reaction proved to be the most memorable. The elder woman told Gupta that menstrual blood didn’t feel as dirty after she’d participated in Gupta’s project. In contrast, even though There is No Border Here (2005-06) – a series of works made using the yellow tape that is usually used to demarcate areas that are out of bounds for citizens – was inspired by strife-torn Srinagar, it ended up having greater impact among foreign audiences. When There is No Border Here was installed in Cuba, a stranger saw the work and was reduced to tears.
Despite the sophisticated ideas that characterise Gupta’s work, there’s an unpretentiousness to it. For example, in technical terms, Shadow 3 (2007) was unlike anything Indian contemporary art had seen attempted in a gallery. Visitors entered an enclosure and saw projected images of themselves, recorded on an unobtrusive camera that saw people as silhouettes. As a student, both in school and college, Gupta had been fascinated by science and computers. She continued studying computers and web-design even as a student at Sir JJ School of Art, thus presciently equipping herself to create works that discovered a delicate balance between contemporary technology and fine art. Shadow 3 turned the three-dimensional, multi-hued person into a faceless creature made of shadows who stood in front of a simple landscape of a few silhouetted houses. Now and then strains of sounds — temple bells, an azaan calling the faithful to prayer — could be heard. The shadow was recognisably your own and it moved as you did. If you stood still, it too was immobile. You took a step, and it followed you. The temptation to make silly gestures (a deer with your fingers, perhaps?) could only be resisted by the intensely esoteric. Most of us end up treating these shadows like an imaginary friend.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a line appeared. It was straight, unwavering, like a particularly taut puppet string that in the world of shadows was connected to your silhouette. Your shadow now had a leash, and that wasn’t all. A strange, bulky shape started sliding down that line and came to rest when perched on your shadow’s back. You could dart from side to side or try any sudden movement, but that object wouldn’t be shaken off. And then, another object made its slow, inexorable way down the line, piling upon you imaginary baggage. Shadow 3 drew attention to the fact that there are certain things that stick to us because of the contexts to which we belong. Whether we wish to claim them or reject them, elements like religious identity become part of our perceived identity even if they are not actually representative. Thus, from a playful shadow self, you’ve become a Sisyphean creature who cannot escape the burdens that have no physical weight and yet manage to weigh you down. They are yours to bear and in a weird way, they become all the more oppressive because they’re imaginary.
Over the past decade, there are a few leit motifs in Gupta’s work. One is the idea of identity as something that is difficult to pinpoint. Acutely aware of the gaps between signifier and signified, the shiftiness of one’s true identity is a subject that Gupta has explored repeatedly. Shadow 3 is one example, and another is Someone Else (2010-11), which was made up of steel etched books and shelves. All the books on these shelves were books published under pseudonyms because the writers felt more secure not using their own names. The steel covers tell you why the authors didn’t use their real names (“fear of disrepute”, “fear of disapproval” and so on) but no pages or books were inside. You can’t decipher anything about the writer’s identity from these covers. All you have is the fear that made them want to create an alter ego.
Anxiety ripples under the still surfaces of most of Gupta’s works. Whether it’s There Are No Explosives In This (2007), in which she wrapped things forbidden as hand baggage on flights in white cloth, or the untitled motion flap board that tells non sequiturs (2008-09), security in Gupta’s works acts as a front for something far more sinister. Gupta’s mistrust of a system that stereotypes people is quite obviously a reaction to the paranoia caused by Islamophobia, which has become an almost global epidemic since 9/11 and America’s ‘war on terror’. For her most recent solo show in Mumbai, Gupta arranged three sculptural installations in a way that created a poignant juxtaposition. The motion flap board with its cryptic messages was at one point of a triangle. At the opposite point was a metallic book that radiated heat and was literally too hot to touch. Forming the apex was Singing Cloud (2008-09), a massive, hanging sculpture made up of countless microphones that emit a garble of sounds – bird wings, piano, chanting and more. Singing Cloud was human experience unriddled by the politics and misconception that informed the other two works.
Gupta’s art isn’t realistic in formal terms, but her concerns are rooted very deeply in reality. For instance, she’s prodded at the campaign to create a sense of nationhood in works like Looking for Kurukshetra (2008), 100 Hand-drawn Maps of India (2007-08)and In Our Times (2008). All of them subtly point out the insubstantiality of many of the ideas that underpin our patriotic identity. There is no Kurukshetra to be found; the physical shape of the country is noticeably different in each of the 100 hand-drawn maps; and the presidential speeches by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru must now be converted into song to relay hope. Among Gupta’s most poignant works are those inspired by Kashmir, like 100 Half Widows (2006), about women whose husbands are counted as missing.
Kashmir also inspired the There Is No Border Here series, which included a wall drawing with self-adhesive tape, that showed a waving flag. The drawing also had a few lines written into the flag:
“I tried very hard to cut the sky in half, one for my lover and one for me. But the sky kept moving…”
Gupta has used often used words with beautiful, poetic effect. Most recently, Gupta coined a simple but poignant line for a light installation. The installation was first placed near the sea in Mumbai and during the day, it was a bland metal frame. As the sky darkened to a luminous purple at sunset, the installation lit up to show a single line written in three languages (English, Urdu and Hindi): “We all live under the same sky.” The sentiment is simple and obvious – that there is more we have in common, despite the divides that are signified by the three languages. But there’s also a resonance to the lines Gupta wrote for There Is No Border Here. That sky that some had tried to cut in half reappears seven years later, still a sign of hope. In the crowded ugliness of modern Mumbai, where there’s always cacophony and hustling, Gupta’s light installation shone brightly, made all the more hopeful for the way passers-by stopped, stared and smiled at the work before continuing on their way.
If you ask someone for a synonym for “art”, chances are they’ll toss at you a phrase like “difficult to understand” or, if they’re more irreverent or less polite, words like “weird” and “bizarre”. Humans have been making art for more than 2000 years, but even so, today in the 21st century, were’ no closer to a neat and comprehensive definition of art than we were in the age of cave paintings. If anything, the modern era has served to complicate matters more than ever. In addition to painting and sculpture, we’ve added photography, film, installation, performance and new media as artistic genres. It’s meant that anything and everything can be art and instead of making art more accessible, this shape-shifting quality has made art a little more curious in many people’s eyes. However, there is one quality that has remained a critical feature of anything considered truly artistic: its capacity to evoke wonder. In Indian contemporary art, one artist who has consistently created work that inspires this response is Shilpa Gupta.