Lisa Varghese, Catalogue Essay, Estrecho Dudoso, published by Teoretica, San Jose, 2006
Artist Shilpa Gupta creates work using interactive websites, video, gallery environments and public performances to probe and examine subversively such themes as consumer culture, exploitation of labor, militarism and human rights abuse. Her Untitled, 2004-2005 (interactive video) is a new media installation in which the viewer is invited to manipulate a large wall projection. The projection features several figures in fashionable camouflage clothing engaged in various exercises alongside a soundtrack of orders such as “Shut up and eat,” “Shut up and be” and “Shop shop order order.” Their costumes and the synchronization of their perfunctory gestures recall both the mimicry games of childhood and the unforgiving rigor and conformity of military drills. In enabling the viewer as a participant, the work comments upon the dwindling power of individual reason in the face of mindless violence borne out of fundamentalism and imperialism. Similarly, Gupta’s series of figurative photographs present female figures in camouflage taking aim at unseen targets, often with their eyes and ears covered. This literal disregard of the senses alludes to the “see no evil, hear no evil” philosophy adopted by those who sanction political violence as justifiable means towards dubious ends. Like the artist Thomas Hirschhorn, Gupta employs the motif of camouflage in all its sartorial variations to comment on the casual entry of militaristic signs into consumer culture and to question the peculiar existence of such a phenomenon in the context of current political tensions.
The artist has recently created a body of work using mass-produced barrier tape as a means of exploring another topic, that of borders and boundaries. Set in Havana, a series of photographs presents various configurations of tape printed with the English or Spanish text for “Here there is no border.” Pasted onto walls to render rough outlines of homes or simply strung across a beautiful sky, the starkly black and yellow plastic appears alien against the natural beauty and weathered architecture of the Cuban landscape. The inherent paradox of a divisive measure announcing an absence of borders is bittersweet. In the Republic of Cuba, a country based on the classless and stateless ideals of Communism, borders are very much in existence. Yet the proclamation of no borders reminds us that the presence of borders is merely a political construction – and as history has revealed, an often tenuous one at that. In the expanse of a cloud-filled sky or in the childlike renderings of homes, there truly are no restrictions. Taken one step further, there are no borders in the realm of art.
As part of her tape series, Gupta includes Untitled, a flag installation. Using tape to construct words arranged into the shape of a flag, the artist tells the tale of a love affair doomed by a fixation with equal division of territories. Despite the narrator’s efforts to allocate separate space to her and her lover, her constructed borders are surmounted again and again. In affirming the impossibility of absolute boundaries with a disarmingly plaintive poem, the artist reveals an earnest, almost youthful idealism, echoes of which are found in other elements of her oeuvre. Much of her recent work appears to contain an allusion to childhood, whether in her references to games such as “Simon Says” or “Follow the Leader,” pictorial images rendered in naïve outlines or her use of the English alphabet and basic texts. In formal terms, her pieces are straightforward, with frontal views and limited palettes of bold colors; her new media works enable viewer participation through elementary games and familiar, interactive technology. Yet she confronts such complex and provocative subjects as propaganda, consumption, contested terrain and injustice. The combination of interactive media, simplicity of design and an appeal to lost innocence render her work highly engaging and accessible to mass audiences, while permitting a strategic examination of highly charged and often taboo topics. An eternal activist, Gupta will continue to question the world around us as a means to banish apathy and promote critical thinking.