The extraordinary art of ordinary things

Artist Shilpa Gupta’s studio on the second floor of a quaint Parsi bungalow in Bandra is extraordinarily spacious. Extraordinary is also a word one could apply to Gupta’s work, which she creates by using quotidian objects in unexpected ways.

Gupta has had a successful joint exhibition in Dubai this year. Even today, having participated in biennales and triennales across the world, from Havana to Yokohama, Seoul to Sydney, Kochi to Venice, it is with a sense of disbelief that she receives the high praise for her art.

This isn’t pretend modesty. Gupta is resolutely pessimistic when it comes to her work. Her installations have graced galleries such as Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou, MoMA, Serpentine, Guggenheim and closer home, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and Devi Art Foundation. And yet, exhibition after successful exhibition has been preceded by a foreboding that it will all end in disaster.

“A patron of contemporary arts wrote to my husband Rajiv (architect Rajiv Saini) to tell him they had loved my show in Dubai and I was like, what? Somebody likes my work?” she laughs, amused at her own idiosyncrasies.

Gupta’s creative language relies on the vocabulary of ordinary objects. Things like Sellotape, suitcases, soap bars and crocheted fabric come together in imaginative ways to tell powerful stories. Her allusive oeuvre provokes you to think and question narratives surrounding ideas such as geographical boundaries and prejudices concerning national identities, religion, and menstruation: she feels strongly about a lot of things. “And once I have been thinking about something too much, my need to create a work that addresses that idea is compulsive,” Gupta says.

The city and the artist

Growing up in a Marwari joint family, Gupta did not think that she would choose a career in the arts. As a student, she excelled in her academics as well as art, and her family expected her to study engineering or medicine. But after a lot of dithering, she decided to seek admission at Sir JJ School of Art.

Her mother supported her wholeheartedly, even as she understood that a career in the arts was unorthodox. “My mum is a brilliant woman who was married at 18. She wanted to ensure that I am not robbed of an opportunity to make something of myself, I owe my career to her.”

At JJ, where she studied sculpture, Gupta soon earned the reputation of a maverick. “‘Yeh ladki kuch alag karti hai (this girl will do something different),’ my teachers used to say every time I showed them something I had created outside the syllabus, using household objects,” she says. The two artists she felt the strongest connection to as a student were Cézanne and Poussin. “Both painted in a sculptural way – they really had a relationship with the object to space. I feel closer to them than with artists of my own generation because object and space relationship isn’t related to time. I wept when I came face to face with a Cézanne in a gallery in London for the first time,” she says.

She speaks of her time as a student with an easy sentimentality that has as much to do with Bombay that was Bombay still, as it does with reminiscing about the past.

“I grew up breathing the air of a Bombay without fear and divisiveness. Then the bombings happened in 1993, and it became Mumbai in 1995. Everything changed forever after that,” she says wistfully.

Gupta talks about 1992, her first year at art school, when after the riots the school remained shut for months. “When our classes resumed, there was an empty chair in the classroom. This person who I never knew had not returned post the carnage, but it was like he was always there.” Some scars never heal. It is apparent that for Gupta, this is one of them.

“The first drawing I did at JJ was looking at people outside a window. People were walking with a particular distance from each other. Before the blasts, it used to not be like that. We eliminated certain identities and went on with the emotion that we are different, but we still go on as Bombay. All that changed.”

Behind the blank canvas

I ask if she believes that artists are more sensitive to the world around them than the next person. “I have been thinking about it,” she says. “Perhaps we all have a similar intensity of emotions and certain people like artists, writers, poets and even cooks channelise this into extensions of themselves.”

Gupta recalls when, in her 20s, she was invited to the Havana Biennial. She showed her now famous tape with the words ‘there are no borders here’ printed on it in an endless loop. “A Cuban hugged me and wept after seeing the tape. This was the first time I witnessed somebody so moved by my work.”

There have been many such moments since. There was a time when gallery visitors stood transfixed in front of her installation involving blank canvases with the words ‘this object has been blessed by so and so’ screen printed on each canvas. In 2001, Gupta visited temples, churches, masjids, took a pilgrimage, approached a Reiki master, and other gurus with a blank canvas.

“At each of these 40 places, I asked for the canvas to be blessed ‘such that it will bring peace and happiness wherever it stands’. I wanted people to ask themselves if they believed one canvas was more blessed than the other, or if they were blessed at all.”

Today, Gupta’s works depict themes that are relevant to our world, often through a symphony of film, light, photography, and sound.

“I am interested in what happens when an art object enters your domestic space unexpectedly. But it doesn’t come on a pedestal; there is an alertness to it,” she says.

In 2007, when Londoners were still reeling from the train blasts, she was invited by artist Shezad Dawood to participate in a private event in Knightsbridge.

Gupta’s installation was an experiment in fear. One hundred suitcases with ‘there is no explosive in this’ printed in bold lettering sat inside a stark room and guests were encouraged to exit the gallery with one suitcase each.

She carried one such suitcase up and down a neighbourhood of central London herself to study reactions. “I went from being uncomfortable and tense to feeling confident and taking the risk…I realised that we are really projecting the world from inwards,” she says.

Words and music

A devoted mother, Gupta plans her day around her eight-year-old son Stavya’s routine. She isn’t great at managing her time, she says. “My mind,” she laments, “is most active at night. I am just not a morning person, I wish I could do something about it.”

She enjoys listening to TED talks and reading books on psychology because the human mind fascinates her.

“I used to love reading when I was younger. And I have this thing about following a writer. Once I have read one book I must finish reading everything written by the author. (P.G.)Wodehouse, (Salman) Rushdie, (Gabriel García) Márquez, (Munshi) Premchand and (Haruki) Murakami, Arundhati (Roy)… I’ve read almost everything written by them.”

One can only imagine her excitement then, when Gupta met Noam Chomsky for a project. “I had gone to interview him,” she says, her face brightening at the memory “His wife was ailing so we had a very clocked meeting. But we lost a lot of time because he wanted to talk about me whereas I had so many things that I wanted to speak to him about.”

Chomsky was interested in Blame, another interactive work by Gupta for which she passed around vials of simulated blood in a Mumbai train before bringing them back to the gallery. The bottles were all labelled with the inscription ‘blaming you makes me feel so good, so I blame you for what you cannot control – your religion, your nationality.’

“Some of the things he said that day I am processing even today. Chomsky spoke to me about a survey that revealed that most people actually want peace,” Gupta says. The chorus of those people is the material that comes through the artist.

Gupta’s prodigious work at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale this year, For, in your tongue I cannot hide, is a sound installation that addresses that very chorus. Voices of 100 poets from the eigth century to the present day, each imprisoned for their ideas and beliefs, meld in an immersive sound experience. Fragments of poetry recited in individual voices echo in a chorus through the 99 microphones suspended above metal rods, each rod piercing a page inscribed with a poem. The work highlights the muzzling of voices through time and this is relevant now, more than ever before.

“Artists, writers and poets are the unconscious voice of the society. We are all just processing material from the collective unconscious. I feel I am merely a bystander to my work most of the time. Ultimately, an artist is a fragment of the mind of the society,” says Gupta.

Shilpa Gupta is currently showing at the Venice Biennale in May 2019.

The writer is an avid traveller and has authored of the bestselling book Battle Hymn of a Bewildered Mother. (It is, however, her strong opinion on Twitter that often gets her the most attention.) Follow her on social media at @shunalishroff

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From HT Brunch, June 2, 2019

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First Published:
May 25, 2019 21:45 IST

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