Shilpa Gupta: to view or not to view is the question –
Jan White, Moving Image Website, May 2001

Shilpa Gupta is an artist who works in a variety of mediums loosely grouped under the heading of Conceptual Art. The Moving Image Centre brought out Gupta to New Zealand this year on her return to Bombay, India having taken part in a show at the Tate Modern in London. M.I.C. presented two of Gupta's video installation works in their new gallery in Arch Hill, Auckland.

Gupta uses her own body in many of her works. In one of these works she has filmed herself being shaved. The video of this ritualistic act of shaving is shown on a conventional television screen standing in the centre of a large circle of long swatches of human hair laid out with the cut ends at the centre point of the circle. The ends of each three-foot fall of hair radiating out from the television. The effect of this work on the viewer is mixed. At once the viewer is drawn towards the objects and the moving images on the television screen. On approaching the viewer soon finds that they are intruding on a very personal activity - the shaving of body hair. Glancing down from the screen the long shanks of hair carefully displayed on the floor is a startling sight triggering a response on several levels. The viewer is unsure if they should be looking at these images and objects at all. A slight discomfort, a voyeuristic feeling gnaws somewhere in the psyche. To look or not to look, that is the question. The moving images beckon again, drawing the viewer in towards the screen once more, all the while responding to the skins, the blade, the shaving of the vulnerable, naked body parts.

Along the wall behind the television screen is a metal frame on which are placed rows of what, on first glance, look like long rectangular petrie dishes containing some strange, unimaginable scientific experiment. The viewer edges closer, seduced somehow by their own curiosity. Again their response fluctuates between a curious interest and what verges on revulsion. Before them are wax strips on which remain the captured body hairs of the labelled subject. 'Man', 'Girl', 'The Artist', 'Old Woman', 'Old Man'. The sample labelled 'Beautiful Woman' is not at all hairy - perhaps hinting at a pre requisites for 'beauty' - that of hairlessness, in the female subject at least. Clearly these emotional shifts are on Gupta's agenda for the viewer.

The work defines no clear boundaries for the viewer. We are unsure as to whether we are a part of a scientific display or simply duped into the role of the 'peeping Tom'. Which the viewer's role is the conflicting emotion this work manages to evoke are uncomfortable in the extreme. This discomfort is in part due to the fact that we experience these conflicts in the company of strangers who are, no doubt, also alternating between being seduced on the one hand and being repelled by feelings of voyeurism on the other.

Gupta's other work in this small but emotionally disruptive show comprise two television sets that are having a conversation with each other, up close and personal, face to face. This work, too, has an odd psychological effect on the viewer. The viewer is in fact cut out of the loop - in that we are not able to view the screen or take part in the 'conversation'. The machines appear to be autonomous, busily responding to each other. They neither acknowledge nor address the viewer in any way. In this manner the machines assume a life of their own that negates the function of the viewer. Again the tables are turned and the viewer is left somehow in the position of the voyeur. a 'peeping Tom' whose very presence seems to be an interference with an exchange that is ostensibly none of their damn business.

Perhaps Gupta is reminding the viewer through these works that the act of viewing 'art' is in itself a negation of life and engagement in real relationships. Rather than take art out into worldly life Gupta comes at this problem of the gap between art and life from another angle entirely - she dupes us into an actual experience of our own dependency on the vicarious action of 'viewing art'. As if this is not enough - to be unzipped from our 'viewership' - Gupta similarly implodes our attitudes towards private social and cultural ritual. A hank of hair for example calls to mind an immense rage of images, from hairpiece or beauty object to the sexual implications of body rituals such as shaving, to the tie between the razor, death and violation, ritual scalping and cannibalism, to the shaving of hair for some sexual indiscretion - to name but a few. The removal of the role of the viewer from an artwork comments on certain cultural rituals we all currently take for granted. Well some of us take for granted - there is a huge section of any population that would have little or no idea of how to respond to two television monitors talking to each other. Perhaps this section of the population is already excluded from the loop that connects life - art - life. Gupta however has certainly has not cut her role as an artist out of the loop.