Taking note of absurdities

Taking note of absurdities

Shilpa Gupta’s artworks represent her exploration of nationhood, identity, religion and the human condition, making her an artist who’s more interested in the role and purpose of art. gayatri Rangachari shah meets the contemporary artist.

“Will we ever be able to mark enough?” contemporary artist Shilpa Gupta asks in the title of her current exhibition in Innsbruck, Austria. The artist, who is showing several pieces at Art Basel in Switzerland now, certainly appears to be making her own imprint.At 36, the pixie-faced Shilpa is one of the country’s best-known and most prolific contemporary artists, and three different galleries are displaying her work at the Art Basel fair.

The Paris gallery Yvon Lambert is showing ‘Untitled’, a multimedia work made this year that juxtaposes a photograph of a Kolkata traffic light with an old-fashioned microphone and a song called Call of the Young, consisting of sounds of the street and traffic. The work explores how something as quotidian as a traffic light can be appropriated by the state for political mileage.

“It’s strange how the state needs to assert itself,” Shilpa said in an interview at her studio in a suburb of Mumbai, adding that it was even the case “in a noisy public place where people are distracted and may not pay attention.”

The Mumbai-based Chemould Prescott Road Gallery is showing in ‘Basel Stars on Flags of the World’, a 2012 work that includes hundreds of stainless steel stars representing those found on national flags. The stars, traced, carved and piled atop one another, represent the fluidity of borders and the appropriation of communities that have been around longer than the nations in which they reside.

And Dvir Gallery in Tel Aviv is displaying ‘2652-1’, an installation that represents the number of steps the artist took between Al Aksa Mosque, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. For that work, Shilpa pulled together small photographs that she took while walking between the three holy sites, resulting in a thin 42-metre canvas that evokes both the proximity and the vast schism between Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Deep within

These works all showcase what Shilpa is perhaps best known for: her exploration of nationhood, identity, religion and the human condition. “I am interested in the role and purpose of art,” she said.

“Shilpa’s practice addresses intriguing and difficult subjects through lighthearted yet critical observations,” June Yap, a curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, said in an e-mail. June worked on the exhibition ‘No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia’, which ended May 22 and included Shilpa’s work ‘1:14.9’, a handbound ball of thread symbolising the 1,907 km of the border between India and Pakistan that have been fenced. The title is the ratio of the length of the thread to the length of fenced border.

“There’s an elegance and sophistication of thought, and she’s deeply interested in the aesthetic,” Shireen Gandhy of the Chemould Prescott Road gallery said of Shilpa. “Shilpa navigates and gets down to the core of an idea.”

Among the works on display through July 28 in the ‘Will we ever be able to mark enough?’ exhibition in Innsbruck — which previously travelled to Canada, the Netherlands and Belgium — is ‘Threat’, a work made of a wall of soap designed to look like individual bricks, with the word ‘threat’ written across each one. By employing an impermanent material like soap to evoke objects as long-lasting as bricks, Shilpa seeks to push viewers to question their own assumptions about the world.

It has already been a banner year for Shilpa. In the first half of 2013 alone, she has been featured in various group shows at places including the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery in England, the Singapore Art Museum, the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast, the Guggenheim in New York and the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates. A group show at the Faurschou Foundation in Copenhagen runs through Friday.

Since her time as a student at the Sir J J Institute of Applied Arts in Mumbai, Shilpa’s concerns have leaned toward the differences between human perception and reality and the ways current events shape people’s lives. “Her practice engages in the very real and present politics of our existence,” said June of the Guggenheim. “This engagement infuses her works, but the works are not necessarily ‘political’ representations.”

Shilpa also shies away from calling her art political, preferring to refer to her works as ‘everyday art’ because they are a direct response to her daily observations, including on current events. “I don’t like the term political because it’s just another category,” she said. “I am interested in the absurdity of large-scale group-making practices and what human beings do with that.”

Shilpa acknowledges that she constantly explores what happens when a viewer observes her work. “I have to try to understand what the emotion is that is being created,” she said. “Because of my background in technology and having been in the world of graphics, I think there’s something there that makes you more conscious, more aware of how people will react.”
 Accessible art

By distilling her ideas in this way and constantly thinking about how viewers will respond to her pieces, Shilpa gives her works an accessibility that eludes many artworks dealing with complex ideas.

In many of Shilpa’s works, “the viewer is part of a dialogue with the artist and with the subject,” June said, “rather than the works being an aesthetic demonstration of the artist’s ideas and intent.”

Shilpa, who was born and raised in Mumbai, grew up in a large, close-knit family. She says her upbringing bears a significant influence on her art. “If I hadn’t grown up in this dense environment, I wouldn’t be conscious of the other,” she said.

Shilpa did not set out to be an artist at first. She studied computers in high school and initially enrolled in a science college, but with her mother’s encouragement she soon signed up for the Sir J J School, where she studied sculpture, working extensively with everyday objects.

Her arts studies in the early 1990s coincided with a fraught time in Indian history. Even as the country was opening up its economy, political tensions were high after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, setting off communal riots.

 Shilpa was heavily influenced by these political events, she said, made particularly poignant by the empty classroom chair of a fellow student who never returned. “Reading the newspapers at the time or sitting in a car with people who said that they deserved it, I realised it was possible to shift popular perception.”

After spending a few years as a graphic designer, she embraced art full time in 2004. Her early works explored gender issues, religiosity and the impact of technology.

Today, her artworks, which take anywhere from three to eight months to complete, invariably begin with a great deal of research and development, including finding and testing audio, video footage and metals. She often uses friends and family members as sounding boards, and even asked this reporter which photograph she preferred for ‘Untitled’

“I work till the last minute,” she said. “I keep sampling, testing, tinkering. It’s very traumatic actually — you are really struggling with yourself to get to the right emotion, for yourself and the viewer.”

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