Shilpa Gupta. Photograph: Shrutti Garg, courtesy of the artist.
by SKYE ARUNDHATI THOMAS
The Indian artist Shilpa Gupta (b1976, Bombay, now Mumbai) is perhaps most famous for a series of work that attempts to extend and complicate the flat, two-dimensional borders that we understand to delineate our nation states. She sculpts them, using fine copper wires beaten and bent by hand to mimic their topographies. I find it strange when encountering her works in white-cube spaces: it is the meeting of opposing registers – something as static as the setting for works that are so porous, in which, frequently, the maps have to be bent to fit to the shape of the space. Gupta says: “There are works of mine that sit in the white cube, or which float in the white cube, or those that slip out of the white cube entirely.” And it is a useful descriptor of her practice – there is always room for the political to falter.
Shilpa Gupta. Blame, 2002–04. Interactive installation with Blame bottles that contain simulated blood, posters, stickers, video, interactive performance, 1 min 49 sec loop. Installation 300 x 130 x 340 cm (118 x 51 x 134 in).
She wanders the streets or subway stations of Mumbai, where she lives and works, collecting found objects to bring back in – such as the evidence of her interactions with people, which take place as conversations, or the dispersal of material in a public space: for instance, in the work Blame (2002-4), Gupta distributes small bottles filled with a liquid the colour of blood, and brings them back into the gallery after they have passed through the hands of an entire train compartment. Gupta very often insists visitors also take work away from the gallery space itself: small crocheted boxes, or even, large soap bricks on which are embossed the word: THREAT (Threat, 2008-9).
Shilpa Gupta. Threat, 2008-09 (detail).
Her work is resolutely political, and perhaps has always been since she first began 20 years ago. As is the nature of the “political art object”, it is sometimes difficult to determine the context of the work or its political position. Gupta is aware of this, and is keen to question which voices are heard louder than others, and who determines the validity of certain political arguments.
Skye Arundhati Thomas: When you began your practice 20 years ago, you were already asking questions about where politics and art meet. How do you feel this dialogue has evolved since, given the recent trend towards showing and making “political work”, which often results in a superficial engagement with any real politics.
Shilpa Gupta: In the 90s, the nature of the work I was doing was different from that of my peers, and, while there was a curiosity about it, there was also a tension – the work is like this. What is this? What is it with the art object, and can it align itself to ideas that are larger and more distant than those on which it has a direct influence? The word political makes me feel uncomfortable – it seems to distance what one does from the everyday, which is where my work stems from. I prefer “everyday” art.
I think when we are looking at an art object, we look for meaning, experience or some kind of resolve. Then there are those who would like the art object to have a direct consequence – and one often hears the same story, why art, why not direct action? But does everything have to have a utility? There is so much we experience as human beings, and not all of it can be expressed through verbal language. There is still space for other languages, and art is one of them.
Maybe what you’re asking is what happens when a privileging takes place. When it is the privileging of form, the privileging of content, and the privileging of the trend. It is, of course, more interesting when you are able to listen to many voices and forms. But then India has been no different from our neighbour China, and we, too, have seen the rise of a political pop. It is interesting to look at the period between 1997 and 2006 and see how art practices shifted when the world’s gaze came in.
SAT: I’m glad that you brought that up. What happens when we need to be legitimised by international institutions? It begs the question of whether authenticity is even relevant when it is performed for a global gaze, particularly with what happens to identity politics or conversations around labour and migration.
SG: I mean if you could just divert this entire conversation, and look at the craft object, there it really changes. There was a work I made for the show New Indian Art: Home Street Shrine Bazaar Museum at Manchester City Gallery in 2002, and I brought in more than 1,500 objects that had been crocheted. I was offered an amount for travel, but, instead, I used the money for making the work, and had 1,500 boxes crocheted by different women. But also working on the idea: is this craft, this crocheting, also art? Is it visibly Indian? So you enter the space with these boxes and each box had a tag on it: “This object has been blessed by so-and-so such that it will bring peace and happiness where it stands crocheted by …” and their location. Visitors to the exhibition were invited to take a box away – and I was interested in their dispersal. Do you think it’s blessed when you bring it into your home? Does it look like it is art? Does it look like it is from India?
We’re thinking of two points of balance: we have South Asia here, and there we have the western, European view. And now we sort of balance it out by trying to bring the conversation here and hopefully tilt it in another direction … But what are we trying? Are we trying to look for the real thing? Maybe we are trying to look for authenticity but we already know that it is a memory that is punctured.
SAT: Maybe it is a question of narrative, and works from the same location have a better potential for a narrative to tie them together? Maybe not better, just … easier.
SG: In 2010, I was in a show at Yvon Lambert Gallery in Paris, Wish List of a Young Collector, and at the same time there were a lot of these big “India” shows going around. But for this show, Carl Ganem [a young collector] curated the exhibition by picking from the gallery’s collection. And I was just amazed at how my work sat so seamlessly in the space. There were artists across age groups, and artists across geography – you had a Carl Andre next to a Jenny Holzer or a Douglas Gordon, and about 10 or 15 artists from the gallery – and they were all speaking to each other, and speaking in the same language. There was something about, not just the language, but the act, the method of talking, the dialect of speaking – there was just an overlap somewhere.
But when I walk in and see these “India” shows – there are often a lot of voices speaking in many different ways … Why don’t we ever have large-scale exhibitions with just 30 works? Instead, there are 300. The fact is that it is very hard to group people together and, often enough, grouping work together just because of location doesn’t work. But I see how curators are interested in the idea of the language of a place.
SAT: It’s funny, because places almost always have multiple languages. But I wonder how this works in reverse – say, with your work around the border maps of the nation state. Do you want viewers to identify with those political lines?
SG: These works first began with the 100 Hand-drawn Maps series (2007-), which is still ongoing, where I invite participants to draw maps from memory. It looks at the idea of the nation state as being, well, what we would like to imagine the nation state to be. And it is primarily a question of identity, and with India, this has developed only in the past 60 or 70 years … Ideas of the nation state only emerged in the 19th century, so this is a new identity. Yet it has become an identity that people want to stand by, and to really look through that lens. What I’m interested in are those ways of seeing, and the ways in which they inform how we imagine ourselves.
Shilpa Gupta. 100 hand-drawn maps of my country, 2008–ongoing. Carbon tracings on paper, 76 x 56 cm (30 x 22 in).
These map lines have become so hard – and they have not always been that way: since they were first drawn, they have been porous and things have spilled outwards or inwards. So I am always playing with the idea of the location in the work. I am interested in how it is that people place themselves – because that is very relative; how do they zoom in and zoom out of their locations?
SAT: It is interesting that you mention the aspirational nature of the nation state boundary, as there does seem to be an “I” implicit in the work – and in a lot of your other work, too. How do you navigate this insertion of the self?
SG: I’m interested in the fact that the viewer can step, very momentarily, into this complicated space and then move on from there. And maybe the “I” opens up that possibility. Take, for instance, the work I showed at [the Mumbai gallery] Chemould Prescott Road – That Photo We Never Got (2014) – there are so many stories in there and they are all in the first person. So you’re constantly being someone else as you are reading. And it’s about inhabiting a space that is actually a shared space, and sort of collapsing the space between you and me – so that we are able to think together.
I was showing a work in the Lyon Biennale in 2009, Untitled, which is a gate that moves from left to right and breaks into a wall with its movement. There was an outline shape embedded into the structure of the gate that was thicker than the rest of it, so each time the gate hit the wall, it made a scar, and over the time, the scar deepened. Many people asked whether the shape of the scar represented a map of Kashmir, but it was not intended to be the map of Kashmir. Maybe it’s just another scar, I kept saying. I have a scar on my back that I have made work about before. Now this gate, or the object, it could be the map of a place, but it could be even be a hole in the brain of a housewife in my neighbourhood, or those who aspire to move outwards and away from a boundary, or that enable a way of seeing.
SAT: This is certainly a work that resisted the white cube, I think. There are, of course, ways in which your work does pull into the white cube from the outside world – but how do you feel it moves outwards as well? Perhaps you could speak about what you meant by “dispersal” when you were talking earlier about visitors taking away the crocheted boxes.
SG: I think there is always another life to the work, and it can exist outside the white cube as much as it does inside it. In South Asia, whether it is raising funding or gathering the infrastructure to make work, and to put on shows, you have to put in a lot of your own time and effort. With the project Aar Paar (2002), a public art project between India and Pakistan, we just exchanged images and put them out on the streets. Of course, here, the question of the public is so complicated. Abroad, you see a diverse group of viewers, of all ages, visit public art institutions, but here in South Asia you really see how it is a small audience. It is expanding now, but we have such a long way to go, and we all need to work for it.