“To become an artist is embracing a kind of uncertainty,” says Shilpa Gupta. The Mumbai-based artist recently participated in Alserkal’s Fabric(ated) Fractures, a group exhibition held in partnership with Samdani Art Foundation in Concrete (9-23 March 2019), inaugurated Dubai’s first South Asian-focused space, Ishara Art Foundation, in March 2019, and is currently participating in the 58th Venice Biennale.
Her practice is defined by delicate, intellectual works that span interactive video projections through to word art and public installations. However, Gupta’s initiation into art making took the form of drawing and everyday objects.. Using her natural curiosity and fearlessness in the face of a conservative local art scene, Gupta comfortably explored the use of the ‘banal’, including early works from her time at Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai, where she presented progressive (and ill-received, at the time) pieces featuring bodily hair, menstrual blood, a box to purchase memories, or even a video work which was asked to be switched off due to its audio element. “I was working in isolation—excited but nervous to be making these experiments,” she recalls.
Shilpa Gupta, Blame, Interactive Installation with Blame bottles
which contains simulated blood, posters, stickers, video. Interactive
performance, 2002-04, 1min 49sec loop, Installation 300x130x340 cm.
Courtesy the artist
Gupta’s embracement of subtle radicality speaks of the vulnerability of the right to freedom of expression to higher powers —which she continues to tackle—embodied in her powerful Venice contribution, For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit (2018). The multi-channel sound installation consists of a room filled with 100 poets’ voices in eight languages who were imprisoned for their writings and beliefs. It resonates heavily through contemporary global socio-political concerns, but it also harks specifically to Gupta’s past.
Growing up in Mumbai—“a sea town—people have come here from everywhere”—its fluid, migrant identity was exacerbated by Manmohan Singh taking the office of Finance Minister in the early 1990s. “He triggered liberalisation and we could sense the city change rapidly. I grew up with black-and-white TV and VHS, and almost overnight we had multi-channel cable TV and colourful billboards jostling for space at traffic junctions,” recounts Gupta. “If I were in a distant village, this wouldn’t be the way I’d work,” she admits. “So in an unobvious way, the city has somehow never left my practice.”
Acknowledging the profound—if biased—impact that an urban environment can have, Gupta is quick to note it is a double-edged sword. “The world seemed to open and close at the same time,” she reveals. “In 1992-93, I was only a few months into art school when the city had come to a stand-still with sectarian riots—I often took the train only to find it was shut. A few years on, the name changing spree started, including the name of the city which one was familiar with. Bombay became Mumbai, deeply rupturing its cosmopolitan dream.” Gupta points out that this illuminated a dilemma which has since been gnawing at South Asia for generations: the question of who a place belongs to and who in turn belongs to it.
This notion has also lingered in her practice—within the works as well as the viewers— due to her interest in subjectivity and how individuals process thought. “There can also be limitations to being in a large city, which is a central hub of a nation state, and how it views itself and what histories are narrated and remembered here,” she says. “I spent time in areas that straddle the border and the nation state looks very different from its edge when compared to being in its centre. The proximities, associations and affinities are very different.” While her work questions identity, belonging and displacement, the understandings vary depending on who is looking at it, and from where.
Territory issues remain urgent global concerns, and are addressed in works including Blame (2002-4), No Border Flag (2005-6) and Untitled (Wives of the Disappeared) (2006)—understandable to a universal audience, but derived from Gupta’s personal history. The Venice work, previously exhibited at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Kochi, and YARAT, Baku, references both political adversity and strife as much as it does the chaotic bustle of alighting a train at Mumbai’s Churchgate Station. The 2014 untitled stone slab work in exhibited in Fabric(ated) Fractures, meanwhile, records circumstances of arbitrary national inclusion or displacement inspired by the landlocked pockets and “illegal residents” of Bangladeshi land within India and vice versa. “While now these concerns have found a particular resonance with a wave of recent movement of people, South Asia underwent one of the largest cruel migrations in a very short period. The border lines which were drawn several decades ago continue to haunt daily life,” she says.
Gupta’s engagement with mapping and geographical boundaries underlines how the viewer informs a work’s dimensions and readings. At Ishara Art Foundation, the exhibition Altered Inheritances: Home is a Foreign Place, showcases Map Tracing #6, UAE (2019). From one angle, it looks like a crumpled copper ball, but from another, reveals a map. The untitled 2017 ball of made out of shredded Dhakai Jamdani saree where its length multiplied by 2,138 refers to the expanse of fenced border between India and Bangladesh. “Upon nearing the vitrine that this ball sits in, a plaque becomes visible with text which gives the location as just 'East', intentionally dislodging ideas of location every time the work itself would move,” says Gupta. “I’m interested in context and how the reading of an object can alter depending on the distance and position of the gaze that falls upon it. Growing up in a complex dense place such as South Asia, especially as a woman, one is constantly navigating many ways of seeing and being.”
Shilpa Gupta, 100 Hand drawn maps of my country,
Carbon tracings on Paper, 2008- ongoing, 76.2x56 cm
Addressing loaded subject matter encourages Gupta to utilise materials which are not. “The place or its context is where the material emerges from,” she shares. “Materials which recur in my works often belong to transit spaces and carry narratives of lightness of flight or the weight of expectations. In No Explosive (2007-8) the suitcases move, the bathing soaps in Threat (2008-9) deal with the act of washing away, the Jamdani Saree itself has been hand-carried clandestinely across fenced borders, or marijuana used for drawings was from patrolled areas.”
Though many of her works possess political undertones, Gupta is also interested in inner space, where the state is not involved, and references a work which depicts the sky between India and Bangladesh as an example. “But it could be elsewhere, also,” she says. “It allows for a consideration of a space which belongs to no one and everyone, triggering a particular relationship between material and location.”
Altered Inheritances: Home is a Foreign Place runs at Ishara Art Foundation until 13 July 2019.
Shilpa Gupta, My East is Your West, animated light installation, 2014, 977 x 97 x 14 cm, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul. Courtesy the artist.
Installation view of Shilpa Gupta's untitled work (2014) during Fabric(ated) Fractures in Concrete, Dubai.
Shilpa Gupta, Untitled (There is No Border Here), Wall Drawing with Self Adhesive Tapes, 2005-06, 300x300 cm. Courtesy the artist.