A Shadow In Search Of A Body
Nancy Adajania, Shilpa Gupta 02|07, Catalogue Essay, APJ and Sakshi Gallery, Pg 13-33, 2007

 

No place is safe from art, as far as Shilpa Gupta is concerned. Nor does she want art to be secured in an antiseptic environment, protected from war, rumour, scandal and public reaction. A guerrilla tactician, she emplaces her works at the blurred edge where new-media art bleeds into the culture of everyday life. Gupta rarely asks you to exit the comforts of normality and enter the hallowed space of Art; instead, her works are designed to be activated like wi-fi hotspots, invisible zones that allow your internet connections to snap into life in a coffee bar or an airport lounge. While taking a brief walk down a corridor to the washroom, you trip on a sensor, are assailed by a disembodied voice making racial slurs. Browsing casually through a religion website, you may trigger off an array of gun-toting monks, incongruous among icons and ritual instructions, clones of the artist flashing like runtime errors. Turning a corner in a bookstore, you might find yourself in a shop selling takeaway kidneys.

Or else you might find the artist in not-so-cool places like Bombay’s crowded railway compartments, selling bottles of blood: guilt-cleansers offered to baffled women commuters. But don’t be surprised to find those very bottles stacked neatly, as though in a medicine closet, thousands of miles away, in Wales. Secret weapon or first aid for the besieged viewer? Gupta would smile; you cannot fix her down in a singular definition. She switches persona often in her art-works, appearing as cute, sexy, tough or brattish by turns. And while she may play out a disconcerting masquerade – appearing variously as a lovelorn mermaid a plucky boy-girl in army fatigues, a ninja or an organ salesperson, a little dictator or an acrobatic shadow – her carnival is staged in seemingly hospitable venues. Her devices are also familiar to the denizen of the present: websites, touch-screen interfaces, interactive data projections. Typically, the viewer who engages with one of her works is invited to follow a protocol, a sequence of steps by which, presumably, the meaning of the artwork would stand revealed. After all, we know from our real-world experience that protocols are ordering devices meant to route us towards definite results.

And so the viewer enters into a contract with the artist, following the logic she lays down in her net- and video-based installations – only to find that her protocols do not lead to predictable results. On the contrary, the viewer who does everything right, ticking off the steps on the protocol, faces a surprising turn of events at the end, is confronted by an aporia, or is left pondering over an ambiguity or stuck in a dilemma. Are you in a sit-com involving religious figures, or are you participating in a beatific ritual? Are you learning about an unstable world or assisting in the process of global militarization? Are you being sensitised to economic asymmetry or are you a link in the chain of illicit traffic around the planet? The audience finds that its responses do not proceed smoothly through the ‘or’ gate. That logic has broken down, to be replaced by a bewildering ‘and’ logic. Instead of choosing easily and rapidly between x and y, the audience is forced to speculate on what it means to be stuck with both x and y.

Gupta’s art-works function like surreptitious viruses that infiltrate the minds and bodies of her viewers as they galvanise every censor (I mean sensor, a minor keystroke malfunction there) switched on by the arbiters of social and political propriety. Grappling with her questions, trying to answer her riddles, the audience is caught up in an act of questioning or transformation. Situations that they did not know of are forced upon them as percussive knowledge: body-organ piracy, sweatshop labour, racial violence. It was an ambush all along: Gupta’s pretence of the seamlessness between art and the culture of everyday life. You are at risk wherever you are, the artist seems to say: insight can seize you anywhere.

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In her interactive installations made during the last two years, the content of Gupta’s work manifests itself in spectral form – spectral but strangely substantial – as a play of and certainties. With libidinal, even hysterical force, she tries to possess her viewers, on one occasion symbolically entering their bodies to implant the seed-code of her story. In this scintillating play of phantoms, the viewers become participants by default, as their shadows – captured by a live camera – interact with the shadow figures emerging from the video projection. Is this insistent act of interactivity a cover-up for unabashed surveillance on the artist’s part, a hijacking of the viewer for some serious play? Stripped to their shadows, the participants follow the artist in the fulfilment of their basic, their baser instincts.

Entering Gupta’s wayang is like drifting on the rhythms of a delirious dream. In the warm milk-white glare of the projection, comforting dark figures – part-presence, part-mirage – glide by; and you could be tricked into believing that the gap between the artist/ puppet-master and the participant-viewer has been transgressed. Look, somebody is walking out of the artist’s body: her clone? It seems to be hungry. Satiated, it readies itself for a jump. A perfect dive into the body of one of the participants (some deft Wizard-of-Oz computation of coordinates), followed by a casual exit. Is this participant the chosen one, impregnated with the artist’s secret code? Many more figures are walking out of the participant; they are growing in size, filling up the screen like an army on a rampage. Children of a deaf god, they march to the cacophony of gongs, chimes, azans and temple bells.

A bad attack of devilish black, an expressionistic proliferation marking the triumph of chaos? A graphic artist’s delight: can white be sustained without black? In the aftermath of the black thunderbolt, there is silence, just about. One of the artist clones comes flying in: that crouching witch, she won’t let the viewers be. Each time they move, she pounces on them. And there, she has landed on a viewer’s head; she won’t leave, not until she has changed his mind by sowing the permanent chip of doubt.

Gupta confesses to being a fan of the ‘Vikram and Vetaal’ stories – a classical Sanskrit cycle of stories televised in serial form, featuring the interaction of a king and a cacodemon in a cremation ground. Like the Vetaal, that loquacious cacodemon, the artist perches on the viewer’s shoulders, to narrate conundramatic tales. But here’s the catch: If the king doesn’t answer the Vetaal’s questions correctly at the end of the tale, his head will shatter into a thousand pieces; and if he does, why then, the Vetaal returns to his home in the tree. Are the Vetaal’s stories a foil for something else that is afoot? I choose to read Gupta’s transformation of herself and that of her viewers into mesmerising shadows, as an appeal to confront the darker aspects of our personal and collective unconscious.

Consider the use of the term ‘shadow’ in popular parlance. In Indian society, it has the connotation of something dirty and polluting. A casteist taboo is reflected in the usage: ‘Uska saya bhi nahi padna chahiye’; an upper-caste person should not be defiled by having the shadow of a lower-caste person falling across him. Or think of the European proscription: “Never darken my doors again.”

Evidently there is a broad consensus across cultures that a shadow is what Mr Hyde is to Dr Jekyll: an ominous indefinable entity, an evil projection of the bodied self. Gupta’s conception seems instinctively closer to the Jungian understanding of the shadow as the personal unconscious without which the consciousness is incomplete, as night is to day or darkness is to light. “…the shadow [is] that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors, and so comprise the whole historical aspect of unconscious…If it has been believed hitherto that the human shadow was the source of all evil, it can now be ascertained on closer investigation that the unconscious man, that is, his shadow, does not consist only of morally reprehensible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities, such as normal insights, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc.” (1)

Gupta’s narrative takes us through the gamut of animal instincts, from appetite to agonism, to make us aware of our repressed desires. She gently lifts the veil that we draw over our untamed desires, lifting the mask of civilisation from the true face of Eros. She makes us aware of our limitations by turning us into involuntary participants in this shadow play. In her artist’s statement, Gupta mulls over what the viewer might feel in such a situation: “[I] am part of the shadow! But they didn’t ask my permission, was I born into it? Am I born into my country, into my society, into a religion? … but I can step out of [it]… .” Gupta treats the notion of belonging to a religion or country as a fate that can be transcended; it is not something that one should necessarily be subsumed by. This echoes her 2002 work, ‘Blame’, a bottle of simulated blood that she peddled on the local railway with the prescription, “I like to blame you for all that you cannot control…” made in the same year as the Gujarat genocide, which left many thousands of Muslims dead and homeless. Gupta exhorts the user of this work to separate the blood into four equal (or not so equal) parts and spot the difference. Armed with this absurd puzzle, she travelled across the stations of her quest (quite literally) like a doomsday salesperson.

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In another shadow installation, Gupta repeats the refrain of competing religiosities by setting the narrative around the metaphors of windows and houses. Windows offer the possibility of escape, of not belonging to any one place and time. Houses, on the other hand, propose refuge, a sense of belonging and rest. The windows open magically to the participant’s command like the Windows of the internet, through we can simultaneously access and inhabit many worlds. As Sherry Turkle observes, the ‘decentred self’ is distributed over these worlds, so that “real life itself may be just one more window”. (2)

Each window opens to a joyous celebration, a metaphysical tingling. It releases a flock of birds that fly through the participant’s body, like white flames cutting through the dead of night. You have been blessed with flight, you will never be the same again. And who else is pushing their nose to the window, other avatars of the artist: an unborn child and an adult who refuses to grow up. It is time to dance, a slow meltdown of emotions. But what is it with this untimely rain falling like fat splotchy ink drops on unmarked paper? It is raining houses, to the discordance of antagonistic calls to prayer. These houses have suffered genocide and pogrom; they fall from the sky of our collective shame, seeking retribution and justice. The screen is plagued by a pounding darkness; there are no shadows anymore. Or rather, the whole earth is in eclipse, under the spell of a shadow.

The Jungian scholar Frieda Fordham explains that “the danger of repressing the shadow is that in the unconscious it seems to acquire strength and grow in vigour, so that when the moment comes…when it must appear, it is more dangerous and more likely to overwhelm the rest of the personality, which otherwise could have acted as a wholesome check. This is particularly true, of those collective aspects of the shadow which are displayed when a mob riots and apparently harmless people behave in the most appallingly savage and destructive manner.” (3)

The shadows of a society grow longest when it is turned against itself by repression, paranoia and divisiveness. In contemporary India, large numbers of people are treated as resident aliens or potential subversives; their citizenship is always on test. Gupta has produced a number of works in response to the Kashmir crisis, reflecting the tragedy and horror of a situation in which a freedom struggle, a low-intensity proxy war, State repression and intimate betrayal are all inextricably intertwined. In these works, Gupta pushes the notion of spectrality to the extreme. Kashmir seems to have become an aberration beyond healing. The artist’s journey to Kashmir left her with an immense heartache; there, soldiers are so nervous that they could shoot at anything that moves. This is a region of men who disappear, midnight searches, children laughing the laughter of death at a bomb site, and women forever waiting for their lost beloveds, their fevered brains on edge.

The late Agha Shahid Ali conjured similar shadowy figures in his poems. Perhaps no conversation on Kashmir can be conducted without talking to the missing, the dead; without befriending ghosts and tracking down shadows by the glare of an army truck’s headlights.

‘The city from where no news can come
is now so visible in its curfewed night
that the worst is precise:

From Zero Bridge
a shadow chased by searchlights is running
away to find its body. On the edge
of the cantonment, where Gupkar Road ends
it shrinks almost into nothing, is

nothing by Interrogation gates
so it can slip, unseen, into the cells:
Drippings from a suspended burning tyre
are falling on the back of a prisoner,
the naked boy screaming, ‘I know nothing.’(4)

*
In the touch-screen installation, we walk through a narrow corridor that is horseshoe-shaped: it winds around a room that we should have been able to look into, but never can.
Gupta’s memories of Kashmir have been transformed into framed landscapes, each a window in reverse. Instead of seeing inside-out, we see outside-in. and even the outside-in is not presented as a straightforward eye-witness account. Rather, we grope our way through her visions of darkness, using the medium of touch screens. Blinded by too much television, much of it vampirical, we learn to see with our fingers, feel with our eyes.

On the wall, we see a drawing showing the sprawl of shikaras floating on the Dal Lake, once the symbol of romance and leisure, now a high-security zone guarded by paramilitary forces. Each of the windows is like an unfulfilled spirit, sending us messages from the dead. Who leaves its cold breath on the glass? Is that a dead child’s alphabet written on frosted glass? An unsuspecting sky shatters like a widow’s bangles. In Eliot’s evocative phrase, “Who is the third who walks amongst us?”

A window-grill miraculously holds up broken pieces of glass. The visitor runs his fingers over the screen, healing the jigsaw into a whole. Having stopped the glass sky from falling apart, we find a fit for the last shard. And just then, the sound of a bomb blast smashes it to pieces. The sky is a metaphor for the never-ending peace process that is always only a hairsbreadth away from fruition.

A child writes its ghost alphabets on a misty pane: ‘A’ for ‘Army’, ‘B’ for Bomb and ‘C’ for ‘curfew’. Many Kashmiri children have witnessed the rape or murder of family members; naturalised in the technology of terror, their drill begins early. Or touch the screen which rolls out a sylvan landscape of chinar trees and miniature soldiers who appear at regular intervals: the footage fast-forwards to one of the soldiers, who spins convulsively, like a man possessed. Has he been caught in the vortex of his own violence? And it is fun to play hide-and-seek with those children of no definite nationality falling over each other in a grainy photograph, until our bit-by-bit tracking reveals the normality of violence. They pose with the trophy of terror: the wreckage left behind by a bomb blast.

These windows in reverse are structured like controlled emotions punctured by occasional seizures. In the site-specific video installation ‘Half widows’, a deluge of pain seizes the artist-protagonist, driving her to the brink of madness. One of the most heart-wrenching sights is to find Kashmiri women, sitting in Sufi shrines, murmuring to themselves, grieving for their lost ones. Married to men who have disappeared without a trace or are languishing in prison, these half-widows can never be certain of life, never be sure of death.

We enter a realm of phantasms. Look up: you find a video projection on the ceiling, showing the artist, dressed in shrouds, performing her own hysterical version of a Republic Day parade. She shoves the flagpole in her kurta and marches with many arms, which turn out to be the dangling sleeves of missing men. Look around: she has left the shrouds to dry on the clothesline and casts a projection of stitches on them: stitches that form a cracked glass map of a country without a permanent address. Look down: in a video projection on the floor, we find her playing a hectic version of a childhood game: eight stones, a training in balance and precariousness. She floats through the floor like a frantic delusion.

How do we confront this figure of lunacy in Gupta’s work? Do we enact a curfew against ghosts, madwomen and phantoms? Or is this the natural evolution of the trope of the monk-soldier of previous works (‘Blessed Bandwidth’, 2003, and the untitled work with figures dressed in camouflage, 2004-05), who has deliberately thrown off her/his hood to reveal the persona of an artist whose empathy and sense of horror at injustice are abundant to the point of hysterical identification? Does the mask of madness offer greater freedom of expression than the tight-lipped discipline of a ninja spy-assassin? Only someone playing the role of a madwoman could subversively perform the funeral of a dead nation; and, that too, an artist with an identifiably Hindu name. If Shilpa Gupta were called Shaheen Sheikh and her passport showed Kashmir as her place of birth, she would have been charged with conspiring against the State. All citizens of India are equal, issued with the standard disclaimer, but some have always been more equal than others.

India is formally a secular state; and yet, as Paul Brass explains, the Indian predicament does not admit of description through the classical European secularist separation of Church and State. Rather, the problem of Indian secularism is to reconcile the two major communities of belief that comprise its citizenship; as Brass observes, the absence of such a reconciliation leads to a conflict between sectarian identity and national citizenship. (5) While the Left has only recently discovered the pervasive role of caste and religion, Gupta belongs to a generation that came into its own in the mid-1990s, when the great wave of 1960s Leftist campus radicalisation had run its course, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Hindu right wing had already destroyed the Babri Masjid and triggered off sectarian violence throughout India, and particularly in the artist’s home city of Bombay (Gupta was in her first year at art school then). The artist had begun to find the courage to ask questions related to citizenship: at first in a naïve and tentative manner, and later through more refined explorations of citizenship, and the role of religion and the sacred in contemporary India.

Even in her early sculpture-installations, Shilpa wished to understand the effects of naming. As early as 1998, she laid body hair on used wax strips and packed these into neat acrylic cases, each carrying a brass plate signifying some distinctive (but in fact arbitrarily assigned) gender and professional category such as ‘beautiful woman’, ‘old man’, ‘artist’ and so forth. The video installation, ‘Untitled’, may have played with the age-old taboo against body dirt and residues, but its real twist lay in demonstrating the conceptualist play of names and forms. When labels become important in themselves, they cause strife and discrimination. J Krishnamurti cautions us against this phenomenon, which he terms the ‘tribalism of the mind’. Defined in comparison to the Other, we lose our identity and become invested in being ‘not-them’.

Gupta subverts the urge towards neo-tribalism in a installation and video made in 2001-02 (the soul sister of ‘Blessed Bandwidth’). Here, the viewer comes face-to-face with a golden altar that holds a TV monitor. It displays the sacred geography traversed by the artist on her yatra or pilgrimage to various religious centres across India. The fruits of her yatra are panelled on a wall above the monitor: small, clinically white canvases which declare that this object has been blessed by one holy personage or another. These objects challenge us to define a stable ontological status for them: are they art or votive offerings? But this is no simple attack on politicised religiosity, phrased as a facile performative irony.

I would read this project, also, as expressing a utopian desire for blessedness, barkat or beatitude. And this is important – because, for Gupta, the sacred is not just a weapon that can be deployed at the altar of religious sectarianism. Rather, she reclaims the sacred from its abuse by the right wing, and brings it back into the currency of the popular symbolic imagination. Her blessed objects – whether canvases, crochet boxes or internet network cable – have all been routed through a yatra. Whether ironically or otherwise, Gupta has in fact made this round of pilgrimage; we can never know, for certain, whether the exercise was in jest or in earnest. Indeed, this is the aporia into which Gupta wishes to lead us. At the pragmatic level of cutting through sectarian prejudice, she offers us a bouquet of blessings from various sources: standing before these missives from divergent traditions, we gather the image of a shared faith in the Divine, a trust in common humanity, that passes over differences of name and form.

‘Blessed Bandwidth’, too, is not so much about the religious yatra undertaken to garner blessings for the Internet Network Cable that will host the eponymous site, but rather, has more to do with the critique of a new-age religiosity, which offers faith as one more commodity purchasable at the global supermarket. The viewer/user gets a verification certificate to authenticate the blessing given by the website; but with this warranty of faith, there flashes up the strange figure of a gun-toting monk-soldier. For the Indian viewer, used to a darshana or epiphany of the Divine on CCTV circuits and video CDs and DVDs, Gupta’s set of protocols do not come as a surprise. What does send viewer/users into panic mode is the monk-soldier, a personage of ambiguous intent, perhaps a terrorist or a spy issuing orders in the name of the State. It is instructive that a light transposition of characters turns ‘sacred’ into ‘scared’: faith, even for believers in present-day India, is fraught with doubt and dilemma, shadowed by anxiety and militancy. But Gupta’s solution to militarised religion is not a defiant atheism or an aggressive secularisation: she has always allowed for the play of the more poetic, archaic, spiritual contents of the psyche, defying the conventional secularist wisdom that religion can only be a source of discontent and delusion.

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Shilpa Gupta is among the very few Indian artists whose works travel easily across cultural borders; at the age of 31, she has already shown at some of the most important biennales and triennials in the world. As I have noted earlier, she invites the viewer to follow a step-by-step protocol, only to leave them with the certainty of uncertainty, the knowledge of ambiguity and aporia. Her work ranges across the spectrum of legibility, from the transparent to the enigmatic; it displays a philosophical lightness that comes across like a slap of awareness from a Zen sage or a Sufi master.

At various points in her career, Gupta has apprenticed herself to models offered by other artistic practices. Her shadow works quote the pitch and intensity of Nalini Malani’s layered shadow plays and resonate with William Kentridge’s luminous ability to image crisis through drawings and animations. Her data projections aspire to the poetic and inexpressible beauty of Masaki Fujihata’s ‘Beyond Pages’. Gupta’s early work began as a homage to Kosuth’s conceptualist play of name and object and Barwe’s exploration of the still life as a reserve of emotional silence. And we must not forget to add the partnership that she has shared, over the years, with the programmers Prakash and Vineet, Tejas and Thomas, who have provided the technical support that brings Gupta’s storyboard to life.

Shilpa Gupta’s recent works form courageous testimony. It takes courage to bear the more dangerous and inflammable contents of the mind, to expose the fears and panic that smoulders in the darkness of our private selves and in the depths of our collective soul.

Notes:

1. C G Jung, Aion (Collected Works g, ii, p. 266; cited in Jung, Memories, Dreams Reflections, New York: Vintage, 1989, p. 399).

2. Sherry Turkle, ‘Who Am We?’ (orig. Wired 4.01, January 1996; rpt. in David Trend ed, Reading Digital Culture, Oxford: Blackwell, 2001, pp. 236-250). Turkle writes: “Windows have become a powerful metaphor for thinking about the self as a multiple, distributed system…the self is no longer simply playing different roles in different settings at different times. The life practice of windows is that of a decentred self that exists in many worlds, that plays many roles at the same time.” Now, real life itself may be, as one of Turkle’s subjects says, “just one more window.”

3. Frieda Fordham, An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1953), pp. 50-51.

4. Agha Shahid Ali, ‘I see Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight’, from his The Country Without A Post Office: Poems 1991-1995 (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal, 2000), p. 10.

5. Paul R. Brass, Forms of Collective Violence: Riots, Pogroms, and Genocide in Modern India (New Delhi: Three Essays Collective, 2006).

Nancy Adajania

 

 

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