Subodh Gupta’s artistic journey in last two decades – Bihar’s roots to post-colonial, global

India-Art/Culture 

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Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi, Jan 2014  

Salt of the soil is the whiff of contemporary stalwart Subodh Gupta’s multi-media art — that has become a global signature of the new Indian contemporary aesthetics representing the essence of the country’s ethnic hinterland in larger than life expressions, merging the local and the global in a syncretic way.  

Gupta’s mediums range from the traditional to the modern and his iconography looks at the core of the Oriental traditional  philosophy —the kitchen and its gastronomic nuances. Gupta carries the country’s rich indigenous culture that spreads across the kitchens and in the acts of cooking on to his canvas and his mixed media solid art as the translation of his personal experiences of realities that began in the Khagaul district of Bihar where he was born in 1964. He later moved to Patna to
study at the college of art.

In a solo exhibition, “Everything is Inside” at the National Gallery of Modern Art (MGMA) which opened January 16, 2014 — Gupta connects to all his oeuvres and icons — photo realtistic oil paintings of objects and people, cow dung installations, stainless steel kitchenware, digital and mixed media art and used objects,  
including an installation of a cow— to comment on his childhood in Bihar and the 21st century changing India  — caught in the crossroads of globalisation. It is also Gupta’s favourite medium — the stainless steel kitchenware — is exploited in all its avatars from used utensils and new ones that the artist claims are “manufactured especially for him at a workshop in his native state”. One of the installations at the exposition,
“Thosa Pani” (from the collection of Hauser & Firth) draws the viewer with its formidable proportions. Shaped like a solid flowing stream, the stainless steel river is made of 
hundreds of kitchen utensils — pots, pans, buckets, tiffin boxes, saucers, plates, spoons and bowls —that  are soldered
on to each other like a meandering thread finding its way from a height into the  world like the silvery Ganga that waters his hometurf.

“The idea of nature as something formidable and terrifying in its overwhelming beauty is captured in the tumultuous cascade of stainless steel flowing down a flight of steps — it is nothing short of an urban catastrophe,” says curator of the show Germano Celant, an authority on Gupta’s work  about its singnificace. The ostentatious nature of the Thosa Pani and its karmic opulence — is contrasted by “Everything is Inside” — the theme installation of the show. The installation made partly of bronze and a chasis of a taxi, reflects the artist’s 
life and times in India — where existence is still internalised. 

“It is an identity that the country stakes claim to in terms of its socio-economic life and individual identities tinged with the space of time,” the curator says. Indians ply their lugagge in isolation — families move, cities change demography and people travel across borders.The black and yellow taxis carry 
their burdens with a stoic resignation. In mosoon, the taxis sink into waterlogged pools— the roof and the seats managing to stay above water on the potholed pathways — a condition that define life in smaller cities. The work freezes the essence of the transforming India — where changes occur away from the media spotlights and surfaces one day to the amazement of those, who had joined great exodus from roots. An installation, “Transit” with rows of bronze trolleys and metal luggage, drives home the idea of this move — India in motion — a emotional  kinetics that internalises travel, experience and the process of adapting to new cultures into individual expressions.    

Monumental in scale, Gupta tries to thread different time periods and objects from India’s cultural diversity in his giant installation,
“All in a Boat”. The installation, originally installed at the Kochi Biennale in 2012-2013, is metaphorical in its narrative of a journey. It uses a gaint wooden Kerala-style catamaran — racing boat that hangs at an angle from the ceiling. The boat does not carry people – but old used utensils and upturned ceiling fans rotating at intervals with the help of local power points. The utensils- old, soot-stained and dented  stand for the humanity that the boat has carried across time and the fans— cooling apparatus—  breathe an air of harmony and space in the epic journey of life, often crowded with cultures and conflicts. The boat cruises 
down to earth from an elevated place. 

“A shred of earth as miniscule as a tiny peice of hay is all a man can cling onto when the ravages of nature leaves him no other choice. Inspecting the liminal space between belonging and unbelonging – displacement and homelessness in the face of a natural disaster — what the artist has tried to achieve is a sense of containment — developing the microcosm of the boat as an entity that contains the entire existence of a person. The boat suggests notions of migration and survival,”   curator Germano Celant says about the work. 

Gupta varies between cultures — if the boat becomes a tool of time tavel across layers of the artist’s years of exprience, a series of works, “There is Cinema” (made of used objects and cast bronze), in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp investigates the distinction between “used everyday realities” and their larger than life interpretations, which is cinematic in scope. A washbasin and commode with a ancient manually operated cistern become “gold plated images of fake existence — like the life the stars lead on screen”. Cinema is new virtual reality that “used humanity” tries to escape to. The serial nature of his work continues into a small set of framed oil paintings, “Notes to Self” and larger oil on canvas renderings of gastronomic complexities— and platters of food. 

Food is what we see, crave, cook eat and connect with as a device across cultures. Gupta is never away from the kitchen.
In “Faith Matters” (sushi belt conveyors, motors and stainless steel),  an installation of big carriers — small and big— on the
move in files tries to recreate the aura of the silk route  and how it helped cross-cultural exchanges of cusisines. Food has moved into all direction and varied spaces-  a ceaseless motion of repititive cultural convection, the curator says about the work. 
“I wanted to collect kitchens. Its so beautiful, no! When you see it every middle class family, the real mess of a kitchen, sometime I just want to take it away as it is,” Gupta says about his love for kitchens and its stainless steel wares— which he chose as his medium long ago at home in Bihar when His sibling struck potluck with a stainless ‘thali’ (platter) sale contest. As a result, he paints his family album with three separate kitchen racks full of kitchenware in “My Family Portrait”. Each kitchen rack has three shelves —
and carry different items to reveal the personality of the user— father, mother and daughter. 

Notions of the family brings back the nostalgia of childhood — in cow dung cwhich he uses as purification and reconnection
rites in a video footage Pure” (in which he has a dung message and a cleansing bath)  and “My Mother and Me” ( dung cake hut). It makes way to his boyhood in an installtion of rows of cast brass seats and platters of food in “School” and the culture of gun of his young days in Bihar. The food platters later come with guns — a comment on the criminilsation of Bihar’s socio political milieus and the small revolutions that the state has always been caught in. 

Recalls veteran art prompter O.P.Jain (founder of the New Delhi-based Sanskriti Centre for Culture),  “Subodh Gupta had a two-decade journey . I met Subodh in 1992 at a common friend (Kamna Prasad)’s home in New Delhi where he was showing
some of his works. In 1996, we had an ooportunity to invite three Austrain artists and three Indian artists for a residency.
Subodh was one of them. He exprimented with a cowdung installation and took it to Austria…. He has a terrain that will take him up.” It was Gupta’s first international residency in New Delhi. Gupta, who lives and works in New Delhi, has since travelled a long road — moving to stainless steel, cast metal and used objects as his material. His sculptures have grown monumental
(like the giant stainless steel Mushroom Cloud at the Kiran Nader Museum in Delhi and the skeletal faces of steel in When MInd Shuts Down) over the years.  

His practise, however, has not changed much over the years  — the motifs from his Bihar days recur in milk cans, the dairy farmers’ motorcycle and bicycles, the “milch cows”— in a strange melange of traditional, western canons, symbols and             Indian post-colonial imagery. The western art practises find an Indian voice in Gupta’s works — like an adapted “performance”.   

“The common thread that binds is his association with the realities of life he has exprienced which emanates from his Bihar exprience. He has redirected those expriences in a  contemporary contexts. He has a consistency of thought — that raw rustic energy on one side and planned journey on the other side, The characters, thoughts and his material gel so well,” Rajeev Lochan, director of the National Gallery of Modern Art (New Delhi) said. 

Gupta, who is represented by leading international galleries abroad, is one of the country’s “most expensive” artists in the buyers’ market. He is currently working for a solo exhibition in Frankfurt. 

(The exhibition will close in March)     

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