Art, Space and Public Art
Sreejata Roy, Matters of Art, Exhibition Reviews, 2007

In his book, Matter and Memory (1896), the French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote “what I call ‘my present’ has one foot in my past and another in the future”. Developing this thought, Bergson reflected on artists who are fascinated by ideas of the body existing in time and space. He theorised an interaction between intuition and perception. (Bergson, 1999, p12)

Bergson focussed on contemporary artists who embraced the mechanic aesthetics of photography and applied it to their painting, such as the Futurists. Bergson wrote at a time relatively close to the advent of a new technology of reproduction. Thanks to this arrival of a new machine, works of art were able to suggest something new. Beyond Bergson, this technology advanced through developments in film and video art in the style that is now known as media art.

The connotations of Bergson’s phrase offer a way to look at contemporary work of art. We belong to the age when computer-generated multimedia art is predominant and developed new mechanic aesthetics. The advent of the computer in our present lifetime has initiated a new kind of interaction between humans and machines. With computer-based art, audiences are no longer passive viewers; participation happens with the audience on a real-time basis through the selection of commands from software menus, choosing to click buttons or activating links, entering search words in databases and so forth.

Shilpa Gupta, one of the leading media artists of the country weighed up the same politics in her time-based ‘interactive’ work in Apeejay Media Gallery, New Delhi. Gupta’s initial engagement with the conventional process of making 3D model is followed by print-based objects, text and video. Eventually she personalises the electronic media as her mode of expression. She is interested in the role and function of new media, which she states as ‘non-consumable, mass-produced and distributive-overlaps with other print, object-based work’ is also termed by her as ‘time based’ and ‘default politics’. 

Gupta’s works competently reassure the erasure of boundaries between time and space. The incorporation of human and machine capabilities have created new beings, human avatars that generate a visual communication between real and virtual participants. 

We practitioners know that the term ‘interactive’ is reserved for reactive exchanges between human–machine. It bears at least some traces of a quasi-linguistic engagement, i.e. where the system responds to questions, or makes creative suggestions, or behaves as an expert or agent for the user, or causes the user to get involved in some sort of a dialogue with the system, etc. In case of Gupta’s works, it seems playful though ‘interactive’ part of it needs to be rethought.

In her screen-based interactive work ‘All Bend Left, All Bend Right’, there is a hint of voyeurism, which interweaves the whole architecture of the installation. She has tried to create multiple identities through a single identity; nonetheless her exploration and experimentation with technology connected to identity issues are ambiguous. Further in this particular work the dolls are controlled by clicking buttons of the participants, and the dolls respond to the commands accordingly. Her statement to this term ‘control’ is “the loss of individual opinion in times where most public media is dominated primarily by singular holdings in corporate often in nexus with state partnership for whom group behaviour is also simply easier to manage”.  But she has overlooked the informal information networks, which often play very important roles in building opinions and thought processes.

During a conversation while setting her installations in the Apeejay Media Gallery Shilpa Gupta shares her insight about her art and creative journey.


Sreejata Roy: You are trained in traditional mode of art that is sculpture. Then why did you choose to work on new media moving from the conventional way of making art?

Shilpa Gupta: I chose sculpture as an elective in J.J. School of Art, as was interested in a 3D view of looking at what we do – art – its role and function. Yes, I did drawing from life and life-size clay pieces, which was also interesting as it was a way of registering what was placed in front of us. But I was not working with just these mediums only, during the art school, but also with objects, text, edible material and video.

Then and even now I have worked in the print medium and objects depending on the context; for example, ‘Blame’ has been a hand-distributed object off shelves and in local trains. ‘Aar Paar’ was a public art project where artists were invited to make prints, which were stuck as posters on the streets; make stickers; and just this month distributed print images in the Timeout magazine in Mumbai.

So I use technology too, as it is something which is a dominant part of our everyday lives today and has changed the way we look and understand the world, not only by being technological extensions of ourselves but by creating an area of moderation – by simply being ‘the media’ via which we experience and what we need and want, and what we think we need and want – a gap and hyper real state which I am interested in; how technology can extend and amputate.

Besides, this media is embodied with certain ‘default properties’ – it is interactive, participatory and time based and ‘default politics’ – being non-consumable, mass-produced. It is distributive – overlaps with other print – object-based work, so it is not just the medium but its context, role and function that I am interested in.

SR: Many of your pasts work deploying new media technology is web-based and apparently they are interactive works. However, the installations, showed in the current show in Apeejay Media Center are not web-based and they seem more reactive than interactive? How do you define interactivity?

SG: The works on the web and the walk-in projections have overlapping media devices for concerns as explained above and I feel close to working with both. One thing the shadow pieces do for me is that they eliminate the need for a mouse, and the viewer by default becomes part of the work. I mean for me even ‘Blame’ is interactive like the video installations…

SR: The work ‘Untitled’ (2004-2005) is a game-like interface where you have your seven replicas dressed in camouflaged army uniform. They seem to me as creating multiple virtual identities through your real life, single identity. They are not going to bend to anybody, as they are set under certain algorithm. The encoding is in your hand, as they would move when you want them to move by a posed clicking of a visitor. What is the message behind creating multiple identities?

SG: I am interested in the common shared hyper-real duplicative state, which we chose to slip in as it can be quite convenient – like the work, say, ‘All Bend Left, All Bend Right’, and the loss of individual opinion in times where most public media is dominated primarily by singular holdings in corporate often in nexus with state partnership for which group behaviour is also simply easier to manage.

SR: The screen-based interactive installation ‘Untitled’ (2006), can be divided into two parts. First the single figure turning into multiple big figures through a parade fades out leaving the spectator with a cacophony of temple bells, azan. The second part portrays a small hanging figure, which suddenly sits on the spectator’s head the moment the spectator moves and while waving the hand it flies away; however, it comes back. What is the link between the first part and second part of the installation?

SG: The first part is about need and desires and the second part is about how these needs and desires can be so dominant and allow us to blind reason… say, desire sits on our head.

SR: What is your idea of public art? Do you think showing work in public space can be termed as public art?

SG: The fact that we have a term called ‘public art’ itself says that art is probably not public enough now. An ideal situation would be if galleries or museums, where art has been functioning from, could be transformed into thoroughfares. A process that would take a long time as the walk indoors has taken centuries and the walk outdoors not only in terms of location but also language might take even more. As for the second part of the question… no, I don’t think simply by placing a work outdoor makes it public, rather what it does makes it so.

Shilpa Gupa Recent Works
March 3 –14, 2007
Apeejay Media Gallery, New Delhi
In association with Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai