Shilpa Gupta: 2,652 Steps in Jerusalem
Smadar Sheffi, Haaretz Newspaper Hebrew Newspaper, English Translation, 21 May 2010


A refined exhibition by Indian artist Shilpa Gupta highlights the absurdity of the bloody inter-religious conflict.

An exhibition by Shilpa Gupta, currently on show at Dvir Gallery in Nitzana st., Jaffa, is among those small exhibitions that are a veritable jewel. Precision, restraint, elegance and insight set it apart from so many other exhibitions where a modesty of means fails to cover-up the lack of justification for showing what little that is shown. With five works consisting of drawing, photo-objects and projected slides Gupta tells a story, muses on the fleeting and ephemeral and ties together different times. Conceptually, this refined exhibition is a kind of meta-drawing, an extraction of motion, sound and feeling into concrete form.

Its title, 2,652, echoes a famous piece by John Cage, 4.33 (which runs 4 minutes and 33 seconds). The piece, written for any instrument, instructs the performer not to play his instrument throughout its entire duration. And although the instruments remain silent, the piece is actually about the time elapsed and the sounds of the environment, often a concert hall.

The connection between Cage and the work of Gupta, who was born in 1976 and lives and works in Mumbai, is not so far-fetched is it first may seem, considering the deep influence that far-eastern cultures, and Indian philosophers in particular, had on the composer. The number 2,652 designates the number of footsteps the artist had walked between the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem – three holy sites described in the short text accompanying the exhibition as having “a history of dialogue and conflict”.

But although there have been times of dialogue, it is conflict that has dominated their shared history. In linking them by way of her footsteps – a very humane and understated measure – the artist has highlighted the near-absurdity of the bloody conflict between the three faiths (as those between their various inner subdivisions). This linkage is refracted against the actual short distance between their incarnations as measured by the footsteps of one woman. Walking is related to pilgrimage, which is practiced in all three religions – as in many others. In essence, pilgrimage is a physical journey in pursuit of spiritual revelation, and in this respect it may resemble art, inasmuch as art is the attempt to carve in matter the realization of a longing, a message, and possibly a spiritual presence. This walking or triangular pilgrimage performed by Gupta is also a reference to tourism, the modern reincarnation of pilgrimage, and later of the exploration of foreign territories – the two chief causes for migration up until modernity.

The work 2,652-1 is assembled of small photographs of people walking, no doubt randomly and inadvertently captured by the camera. The photographs are printed on a thin strap of canvas, only 4 centimeters wide and 42 meters long, in what resembles a linear contact sheet of an old, overly elongated photographic film. With film, the photographic output is arrived at by exposing light-sensitive chemicals; Gupta in turn sensitizes her viewers, compelling them to come nearer to the photographs, examine them, recall their own way of walking and perhaps consider the nature of walking as a cultural practice.

I The theme of walking, strolling and wandering occupied many thinkers – from Baudelaire, whose flâneur roams the city, to Walter Benjamin, who 80 years later portrayed the urban wanderer as a phenomenon of the modern age (Benjamin’s own unfinished projects stemmed from his strolls through the streets of Paris). These two inquisitive standpoints, of the tourist-explorer and of modernity, are ingrained in Gupta’s work.
From her contact sheet-canvas Gupta formed a kind of triptych – the outlines of three towers rising up while excess film lies scattered on the floor, its imagery of seekers, wanderers and ramblers curled-up and tangled. Those towers, like ghost-towers of the other city of Jerusalem, which houses no holy sites, also echo the Christian holy trinity, a spiritual concept that bore an influence – surely from the aesthetic point of view – on the two other monotheistic faiths, namely medieval Judaism and Islam.

100 Hand drawn Maps is a video projected on a canvas that has been stretched on a light conic object the general shape of an altar. Here Gupta embarks her viewers on a journey between the playful and the melancholic, between what is intensely familiar to local viewers – Israel’s map – and abstract shapes. Images closely resembling the map change repeatedly, with the lines encircling the occupied territories – those enclaves that are due to various war situations – constantly changing, their lines dissolving and stretching, jumping like an abstract dancer in an arabesque position.

The stream of consciousness conveyed in the drawings acquires a kind of near-religious halo, like a light emanating from above and under the altar, which is a kind of light box. Gupta offers here countless options for reading both the geographic and spiritual locus. Where might we travel in the imagination, on the spiritual stairway, so asks the viewer as he observes these transformations, this chain of visual syncopations that Gupta draws with only few lines that become a map, and later frame everything that might have been, but isn’t.