Prestel Verlag, Munich, Berlin, London and New York, 2009
Size: 9 x 11.25 inches
Price: Not Mentioned
Shilpa Gupta’s art is provocative and theatrical. Employing video, performance, hand-crafting, photography, installation and more, she raises bold questions and invites the viewer to participate in making, and interact with her exhibited art-works. Representing the artist as investigator, using the anthropologist’s tools of research, her art confronts conventional practices and social taboos. She addresses a gamut of issues from terror, menstruation, religious beliefs, and social and intellectual repression. She has exhibited widely and engaged with luminaries across the world including academicians and psychologists. In her mid thirties, she is young and her art practice which is barely a decade old has been documented in the recently launched publication ‘Shilpa Gupta.’
This is available as a paper back edition, in a well designed format with ample colour visuals. It also includes scribbles and jottings by the artist as well as some feedback-forms from viewers of select exhibitions. I was especially drawn to Gupta’s own writings “….Take gun/Press the trigger/Eat eat eat/ Pull pull pull…” [Hands in the Air, 2008-09] And more such intense, repetitive sentences that were transcripts of her installations. Since most of her work has been exhibited abroad, I have not interacted much with Shilpa Gupta’s art. What I have seen has been engaging but not always convincing.
The book includes essays by Quddus Mirza, an artist, teacher and critic from Lahore, Nancy Adajania, a cultural theorist and curator based in Mumbai and Shanay Jhaveri a young writer who is currently a research candidate at the Royal College of Art in London. In addition, there is an email interview of Shilpa Gupta by Peter Weibel, an Austrian artist, curator and theoretician. However, I was disappointed to find that all the writers were so pre-disposed towards Gupta’s practice that the relevance of this and whether it fulfils the criteria of the issues she raises and confronts were not adequately debated.
Adajania is very eloquent and has followed Gupta’s practice from her college days at JJ School of Art in Mumbai. She tells us that Gupta’s “real medium” is “audience perception”, and that her work functions “more as props for her disclosures.” More often that not, I would be seduced by what Adajania wrote, then feel let down because the work discussed did not convey the depth of commitment and profundity that the writing implied. It is challenging to write about art that employs sound, movement and people participation as important dimensions of its expression so I wondered why the very technology that Gupta employs was not used to give us a better sense of the way her art works. A DVD or VCD documenting the ‘transient’ and interactive nature of her art could have been a valuable resource for the reader
Gupta combines a unique element of the theatrical with the empathetic in presenting her ideas but their relevance and efficacy in being more than mere commentary comes into question. The issues are pertinent and pressing for the most part, but is art equipped to handle them? And if not, then the very procedure is disturbing for it engages with people across various strata of society, often disturbing their way of life in an attempt to uplift. Is this merely an exercise for artistic expression? By exposing people to new ideas are they then left to return to their obviously inadequate devices/practices which she sought to change/question in the first place? A host of such questions arise which have not been addressed in the book. For instance, she casts her own breast in cement, [Khoj Modinagar, 1999] placing it with its “inconveniently sprouting hair” on the wall of a disused toilet, which the artist had re-constructed for local women grass cutters, risking the wrath of the estate managers. What happened thereafter? Has it changed their perception of hygiene and do they use the toilet or prefer the open fields? How was the ‘breast-cast’ viewed or relevant to the problem of either hygiene or dignity to defecate? Or later, in the work ‘Untitled’,  where Gupta uses cloth stained with menstrual blood, inviting women to participate with an instruction manual of how to send her the stained fabric. What was the profile of the women who participated, and what exactly, is the taboo? None of this is mentioned.
In 2002 for an exhibition of contemporary South Asian Art in Manchester, Gupta commissioned a group of women to make 1,500 crochet boxes that were then blessed and used as part of an installation that questioned the notions dividing art and craft as also religious beliefs and their new-age consumerist manifestations. All of these are not just innovative ideas, they touch upon pertinent issues. I want to know what happens to the people she has engaged with and the impact on their lives thereafter but I am not informed. We have a couple of sentences to say that few women looked at menstruation afresh and some boys ran out of the gallery in disgust, but what happened to the crochet makers? Her art is not confined to the gallery and even when it is, it challenges the norm by provoking the audience to think or to turn away in disgust [Altered Altar, 1998 and Untitled 2001]. When Adajania says that Gupta “financially empowered this group of women” by paying for their crotched effort, I am curious about the extent of this ‘empowerment’? Can these issues remain just at the level of discussion confined to an art gallery or within the context of an art historical discourse? Surely the whole point of Shilpa Gupta’s art practice is to take it beyond?
She has challenged the premise that art has functioned within and upon. She has introduced innovative ideas and speaks a language that is upfront, candid and demands your attention. This practice, to my mind, brings into play much larger questions than the social taboos she confronts, for it redefines the jurisdiction of art, but none of the writers really tackle this. It is simplistic to say that by paying for their labour Gupta empowers the women financially. If it were that simple to bring about financial emancipation to the crafts sector then weavers would not be committing suicide nor government agencies subsidizing a languishing tradition that does not enjoy the same value, voice or dignity that fine art practitioners like Shilpa Gupta do. These issues need to be addressed with greater responsibility. While the artist’s practice goes beyond the confines of the traditional gallery, if the discussions around it remain within the same discursive space, they belie the relevance of what she endeavours to say and do.
The essays however are informative and almost all of her work is discussed by Adjania in “Darkness Is What Light Will Never Be: Shilpa Gupta’s Experiments with Truth. She brings in elaborate references drawing on the works of various scholars and artists from Wittgenstein to Joseph Kosuth, Jung and the Yogacharya school of Buddhist thought. While all of this is useful, none of the writers tells us anything about the artist. What is her specific background which lends impetus to this kind of thought and work? She appears to be a singularly independent thinker within the context of her peers and also artists before her, so I would have liked information about the person and experiences that have defined her thinking and therefore choice of issues and material.
The interview format though well suited to draw forth informal, personal revelations did not attempt this. Pieter Weibel didn’t appear familiar with Shilpa Gupta, either on the personal level nor in an in-depth manner with the gamut of her art explorations, to be able to provide such insights. This email interview at the very beginning of the book, specifically addressed questions that arose more out of Weibel’s preoccupations rather than Gupta’s own, taking the dialogue onto an altogether different level of engagement regarding the Synaesthetic experience. The idea was introduced as possibly belonging to Gupta’s practice, also mentioned later by Adajania, but neither were able to explain how this rare perceptual capacity, which cannot be cultivated, except perhaps by extensive meditation, was relevant to or prevalent in Gupta’s experiments.
The most comprehensible essay was ‘To See Again and Again’, by Jhaveri. He makes her art and its ideas infinitely accessible, allowing an easy grasp of what are otherwise rather abstract ideas, presented obliquely through material objects. But he makes sense of them in a logical way. He looks at the work for what it says, objectively, without imposing ideas he wanted to explore. Quddus Mirza speaks candidly about how violence has become something to relieve the tedium of everyday living. He is insightful in his observations. He says that the artist per se is not relevant in the mind of the ordinary citizen where television news takes precedence and that Gupta seeks to address this by making her work interactive. He writes of his personal experience with ‘Aar Par’ [facilitated by Gupta in 2002] and how Gupta’s father had to deal with the Mumbai police because of an artwork sent from Pakistan, showing two guns and roses which made the artist’s [Mirza’s] intent suspect. When he speaks of terror and violence and what it has done to the human psyche he is very passionate and un-put-down-able, but when he puts Gupta on a pedestal for not succumbing to the requirement of foreign curators, as other artist’s allegedly do, he is not convincing.
Shilpa Gupta has been prolific and many of her ideas have been discussed in the book. Though her art has evolved from immature investigations to more finessed presentations, her work is neither pleasing nor reassuring. It disturbs. And the book creates its own sense of discomfort. The very nature of Gupta’s practice and immediacy of this publication to her art-making necessitate various in-depth references and discussions including the Indian art historical context, or why this was not deemed relevant. Contrarian views as well as those of the anthropologist were also missing. They assume relevance in order to contextualize and debate an artist’s work that uses methodology which extends the discourse of art making, and a practice that has not yet been tested by time. Their omission left the context incomplete and unconvincing. Consequently the writing ‘looking’ at her art appeared not to be investigative enough or entirely objective.