to Draw The Line?
Shilpa Gupta deploys the metaphor of the line to dramatise the perennial tension between drill and chaos, order and impulse, fear and freedom. In her use of a line-following robot, her meditation on the wavering boundary of the Indian map, and her evocation of serpentine queues of people in metropolitan India, Gupta parses the line as though it were a grammatical object inhabiting different contexts of nuance.
From its inception, Gupta’s practice has insisted on blurring the border between artwork and viewing consciousness. It has scrutinised the ontology of the artwork, critically engaged with the cultural ecology around it, and breached the conventions of viewership by exposing and confronting the implicit wiring of social and political prejudice. More than any other artist of her generation, Gupta has negotiated the porous and fraught boundary between the sacred and the secular, mapping the coordinates of the artist-self over those of the citizen-self. Especially in the years since the 9/11 attacks she has dealt courageously with such themes as the war against terror and its consequences: heightened surveillance, rampant militarisation, and the securitisation of civil space. She has also critiqued the insidious spread of the market, as the pervasive new global domain and the leitmotif of reinvented lives.
In previous works, Gupta has escaped man-made borders
by gliding through the sky as a soldier-monk and appearing suddenly above
the head of a religious guru on a new-age spiritual website. In her most
recent work, we find her standing at security checkpoints, mock-innocently
making the border guards complicit in her artwork. She has rummaged through
the innocuous personal effects of countless travellers, residues of passage:
bits of wire, tubes of toothpaste, scissors and penknives, all routinely
confiscated at airports. Gupta exposes these vulnerable objects to scrutiny,
photographing them under the provocative title, “There is No Explosive
in This – I”. In another version of the tale, she stitches
a shroud around each of these potentially suspicious objects and lays
them out on a table, reassembling them as a morgue of securitisation,
an afterlife of fear.
Aware of the inscrutability of impulses such as fear and panic, Gupta performed a deliberately provocative thought-experiment at the Artists’ Studio in London. Gupta turned this comfortable space, located in a Victorian house, into a storage area. She stacked it with bags, each covered in a neutral white cover with the inscription, “There is No Explosive in This”. She then invited viewers to pick them up and take them for a walk.
All transnational flows today are invisible and
inferred only by their effects. For instance, capital and terror, which
are everyday currents of global life, become dramatically visible only
at moments of upsurge, inquiry or crisis. Gupta has previously approached
capital through the flow indices of outsourced labour and body piracy,
using the Web as a platform. Now, in the manner of a radiologist using
a barium trace to follow the convections of the body’s internal
organs, Gupta produces chilling theatre from the everydayness of terror.
And who sits under the sign for “Planet 10, Turner Road”, but a denizen guarding the threshold of the planet that he will never inhabit? But this is where the documentary facticity of this sequence of photographs ends. We are never allowed to see the faces of the subjects fully, since they have been photoshopped into blurs. Hesitant to invade the peculiarly public privacy of the security guards, Gupta renders them faceless. A sound chip inserted into the photograph plays the music of the street: a continuous drone of traffic and wind. Instead of acting as watchdogs, the guards become a captive audience to the white noise around them. This series continues Gupta’s preoccupation with ‘re-looking’ at those who are trained to detect the suspicious and the dangerous. Here, we must recall her touchscreen installation devoted to the conflict-ridden Valley of Kashmir, where the landscape is dotted with soldiers carrying out the State’s mandate of “normalisation”. The soldiers seem to blend into the landscape, alluding to the vast and oppressive military presence that has become integral to ‘normality’ in Kashmir. Instructively, the soldiers only come to life when we spot them and touch the screen, at which point the image shudders like a gun drilling the air.
While Gupta does not condone the atrocities committed by the Indian armed forces in Kashmir, she cannot help but empathise with the soldiers who stand in an endless line, rooted to their posts, fearing death by a sniper’s bullet and waiting to strike at the slightest provocation. The robotic routine of the soldier is reflected in the recently produced, “Don’t See Don’t Hear Don’t Talk”. The robot is programmed to follow the line on the floor, satirically mouthing a version of Mahatma Gandhi’s drill with the three monkeys who embody the phrase “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil”. Gandhi’s ethical prescription conveys the possibility of refining the self through inner direction. But when Gupta adapts it as a political command, it degenerates into a curbing of agency and becomes an outer- or rather other-directed proscription. And the Gandhian emphasis on “evil” does not figure in Gupta’s robotic command. As more and more of the world becomes other-directed, the line between right and wrong becomes unclear, with wrong often masquerading as right.
Gupta’s update on the Gandhian ethic recurs
persistently in her earlier videos and photographs, as when seven of her
clones perform before us in fashionable camouflage, or when she appears
in army fatigues and hands appear from nowhere to cover her mouth, ears
and eyes. Who are the invisible forces that are directing this artist-soldier
to shoot? Is this a simple conflict between an inner ethic competing with
outward oppression? Is Gupta directing us to a deeper human malaise? In
her current series, involving children dramatising the Gandhian drill,
the hands covering their faces belong identifiably to their own peers.
In this exchange of mutually curbing hands, the artist stages the image
of a community of repression. The curtailment of agency seems to stem
from within the group, rather than from outside, and points to a hard-wired
urge to conform and control that can destroy a community from within.
It is not an unusual situation for nation-states to suffer boundary disputes, insurgency and regional strife. But the situation is exacerbated in India by the fact that it does not have ratified border treaties with its neighbours. For instance, the Radcliffe line, a de facto border drawn at the time of Independence and Partition, has never been ratified because Kashmir is in dispute. The MacMahon line, India’s border with China, was drawn up by colonial administrators and the two countries have even gone to war over its correct interpretation. Even the names of some of India’s borders are under dispute: Indians call the disputed border with Kashmir the “Line of Control” (LOC), which strategic analysts have long called the “Line of Actual Control” (LOAC), while Kashmiris call it the “Ceasefire Line” (CFL).
In Gupta’s hands, the line is a marker of
political geometry. She recasts, in a political sense, Paul Klee’s
idea of the image as an outcome of taking the line for a walk. Klee’s
art and writings, especially the Skizzenbuch, formed the focus of near-cultic
veneration at the prestigious Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art, Bombay,
where Gupta took her BFA. Introduced into the School’s mythology
in the 1960s by artist-pedagogue Shanker Palshikar, and studied by artists
from several generations including Akbar Padamsee, Prabhakar Kolte and
Atul Dodiya, Klee retains a spectral presence in the work of many Bombay
artists. In this context, Gupta’s repurposing of Klee is symptomatic
of a shift from the modernist concerns of an earlier generation, fixated
on surrealism and abstraction, to a contemporary conceptualist practice
that is concerned with linguistic complexity and the unfolding repertoire
of the performative. Gupta’s line is a marker of territory and exit
routes; it is a major trope in her interrogation of the prevailing discourses
of order and control.