I found myself moved the instant I saw it—three women together, supposed to be sharing secrets and life events—their palms on each other’s (or their own) eye or mouth or ear. This piece of sculpture named “Untitled”—a fitting and beautiful little monument to female friendship and the delicate side of womanhood—is how I first encountered Shilpa Gupta. The Mumbai-based artist operates in a variety of mediums—in addition to sculpture, manipulated found objects, video, interactive computer-based installation and performance.
Gupta, who born in 1976 and studied at Sir J. J. School of Fine Arts, examines both the personal and the political with equal imagination and finesse. Sometimes, the two come together seamlessly in a narrative. As in “There is No Border Here”, which contains the following text written on a flag made with yellow self-adhesive tape (the title of the work is actually inscribed repeatedly in tiny print upon the tape):
I tried very hard to cut the sky in half, one for my lover and one for me, but the sky kept moving and the clouds from his territory came into mine. I tried pushing it away, with both my hands, harder and harder but the sky kept moving and clouds from my territory went into his. I brought a sofa and placed it in the middle, but the clouds kept floating over it. I built a wall in the middle, but the sky started to flow through it. I dug a trench, and then it rained and the sky made clouds over the trench. I tried very hard to cut…
The irony exists in the fact that yellow tape, with which Gupta dissolves boundaries, is often used in public spaces to mark boundaries, divide territory into safe or hazardous zones, accessible or forbidden areas.
Overall, Gupta is interested in information—visible or invisible—how it is generated and transmitted, and human perception, how that information is received and internalised in everyday life. She is constantly drawn to how objects get defined—places, people, experiences. Her work engages with domains where definitions are executed (borderlines, labels, banners, signposts, maps, data, logos, symbols, texts on censorship and security) and how definitions get stretched or trespassed (be they related to gender, beliefs, nation states).
A big project in which she explores the naming of things is “Someone Else – A library of 100 books written anonymously or under pseudonyms”. It contains stainless steel sculptures of real, famous works of literature whose authors didn’t or couldn’t reveal their true identity to us right away—from Jane Austen to George Orwell to J. K. Rowling. What makes even talented people uncomfortable or unsure when it comes to exposure of self? What situations could compel one to construct another self? – one is driven to ask such questions when face to face with “Someone Else”.
Another work in which Gupta engages with the possibility of “subversion” of definitions (similar to “There is No Border Here”) is her project “My East is Your West” from 2014-15. Created with Pakistani artist Rashid Rana and exhibited at the 56th Venice Biennale, this undertaking is rooted in research that began much earlier, on the border between India and Bangladesh.
Gupta writes: “In 2010, when I was working on 1:14.9, which is based on the fence between India and Pakistan, I started looking at data released by the Home Ministry of India about the fence under construction around Bangladesh, which upon completion would be the world’s longest separation barrier. One thing led to another and I found myself in the Bangladesh borderlands. While I had been to Phulia, a border town on the India side, the first time I went to Bangladesh, at least on paper, it was to a Bangladeshi enclave surrounded by India on all sides.
“Be it at the enclave or areas outside, under the penumbra of the invisible border, marked by distant pillars, and a rising ominous fence, 150 yards from the zero line, everyday life continues. It subverts systems that hinder mobility and desire. While India is nearing completion of the fence, daily life in the borderland belie State intentions. The flow of people and goods persist, prompted by historical and social affinities, geographical continuity and economic imperative.”
A particular good the flow of which across borders is highlighted in “My East is Your West” is the saree. A smuggled specimen of the five-metre female garment is rolled up and put up for display with a note on its origin and transportation.
Other notable works that deserve to be reflected upon are Gupta’s light installations, “For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit” (her featuring of silenced poets from around the world) and “There is No Explosive in This” (exhibition which encouraged the viewer to exit the art gallery carrying a bag imprinted with the statement to challenge stereotypical anxieties about public safety).
The light initiatives ‘WheredoIendandyoubegin’ (2012)—namesake of the 2017 Gothenburg Biennial—and ‘We Change Each Other’ (2017)—written in English, Hindi and Urdu and set up in Gupta’s neighbourhood on Carter Road, Mumbai—could be read at both the levels of individual and ideology, micro perspective and macro culture. The two of them bring into focus the inevitable and undeniable transfer of thought and behaviour that takes place whenever two entities interact.
Gupta’s oeuvre, in the end, innovative and intellectually demanding of the audience, touches a range of social and psychological issues and cannot all that easily be condensed into a statement. One quality that remains a constant throughout, perhaps, is the careful emphasis she lays on the yearning of ordinary humans for free movement, expression, exchange and connection. And whenever that yearning is found boldly rebelling against oppressive apparatuses that might try to curtail it, the artist discovers her moments of motivation.
Shilpa Gupta is represented by Vadehra Art Gallery (New Delhi, India) and Galleria Continua (San Gimignano, Italy). Her work is in the collection of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Centre Georges Pompidou, Mori Museum, M+ Museum, Louisiana Museum, Deutsche Bank, Daimler Chrysler, Bristol Art Museum, Caixa Foundation, Louis Vitton Foundation, Asia Society, Astrup Fearnley Museum, Fonds National d’Art Contemporain – France, KOC Collection, National Gallery of Victoria, Queensland Art Gallery, FRAC (France Regional Art Collection), Art Now, Cincinnati Art Museum, Kiran Nadar Museum and Devi Art Foundation, among others.
She has participated in Kochi Muziris Biennale (2018), NGV Triennale (2017), Berlin Biennale (2014), New Museum Triennale (2009), Sharjah Biennial curated by Yuko Hasegawa (2013), Lyon Biennale curated by Hou Hanru (2009), Gwangju Biennale directed by Okwui Enwezor and curated by Ranjit Hoskote (2008), Yokohama Triennale curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist (2008) and Liverpool Biennial curated by Gerardo Mosquera (2006). She has also shown in biennales at Auckland, Brisbane, Seoul, Havana, Sydney, Yogyakarta, Echigo-Tsumari, Shanghai and Houston.