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