Where to Draw The Line?
Nancy Adajania, Shilpa Gupta. BlindStars StarBlind, 2008

 

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.

How do we dissect the anatomy of terror in the intricately networked and interdependent world that globalisation has produced? A world in which armies of holy warriors are mobilised over the Net and can disappear without a trace once their goal is achieved? Here, terror is a database that can expand and reproduce itself at will, yet delete itself at any moment and vanish below the radar. And fear is a runtime error that keeps flashing on our mind-screens, reminding us that something is amiss: that the system has been assaulted by glitches that are not immediately readable.

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.
The labelled bag is the probe that she sends out into the world: it travels into cafes and roams the streets with its carrier. A record of the bag’s journey is offered in a sequence of photographs: forensic evidence of the performance. Gupta crops the heads of the carriers from the images, emphasising the anonymous character of global threat: rather than a bearded preacher raging a thousand miles away, the terrorist could be the polite, clean-shaven boy next door. We have a Magritte-meets-the-surveillance-camera moment here, because the denial of an explosive only makes the object of the denial that much more vivid. For Magritte, the pipe; for us, the bomb.

Contemporary surveillance poses a dilemma: the tools of surveillance purport to secure us from threat; at the same time, these are invasive tools that pry into our privacy, capturing us in images against our will. We are familiar with the everydayness of surveillance: watchmen and videophones, which turn all of us into potential trespassers entering invisible zones of protection. In a series of photographs of security guards hired by apartment blocks in a Bombay suburb, Gupta spies on these unwilling perpetrators of surveillance, reversing the rules of the game. Shot from a distance, these photographs focus on the habitual gestures of these men, as they massage their legs and seemingly pick their nose. We notice their shining epaulettes, symbolic markers of authority and rank, even if they lack proper footwear. As cheaply available migrant labour they are paid a pittance; they sit in the crosshairs of our gaze, caged by the gates they guard.

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.
The disciplining line also appears on the wall as an endless queue of people sighted in different areas, waiting for amenities. Is this the longest sentence in history or Brancusi’s infinite column in reclining mode? But the disciplining line falters dangerously in “100 Hand drawn Maps of India”. We would have assumed that the territorial borders of India are solid and sacrosanct, but Gupta shows us that the lines of the Indian map are most susceptible to bending, breaking and changing course. The maps flutter in a bound book driven by the breeze of a table fan.

Each version of the map in this book is idiosyncratic. We could read these versions as we would the forms emerging from a Rorschach test. The map appears variously as a whirling dervish, a cross, a dolphin, a man on crutches. Could it be that what we read as artistic license is the involuntary cartographer’s lack of drawing skills? Or may we detect deeper, tacit visions of India’s rightful place in the region and the world? Some of Gupta’s mapmakers have gone beyond India’s actual borders to include Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Some have drawn the north properly, only to reduce the territorial share of the south. Others have drawn the north, but blunted India’s north-eastern arm. Is this a case of weak geography or a reflection of the warped geo-politics of the subcontinent, in which India has often played Big Brother to Sri Lanka, and suppressed aspirations in Kashmir and the north-eastern states?

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.
We leave the exhibition space to the visual tune of “Blind Stars_Stars Blind”, a line of words that forms a circle of yellow light, words fading in and out, dancing with changing partners to form a segue of shuffled meanings. The slow drug of poetry illuminates a simple but profound paradox: What are you looking at – it asks us – the corona or the eclipse?

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