Shilpa Gupta
Nancy Adajania, India Perspectives, NGMA, 2010

 

Shilpa Gupta's art is transcultural in its address, even when inflected with a regional specificity. Her work has been presented in numerous biennales and triennales over the last decade, as well as through several international solo exhibitions and collaborations. Gupta's projects and productions occupy multiple contexts: those of post-feminist art, new media art, artistic anthropology, the biennale condition, and trans-disciplinary collaboration across the arts, sciences, psychology and activism. She employs interactive video, found objects, photography, sound and public performance to probe and dramatise the themes of desire, belief, terror, and the tenuousness of the human condition in the epoch of surveillance and militarisation.

A child of the complex process of globalisation, Gupta (b. 1976) came of age in an India that had already renounced its dirigiste State-dominated mechanisms of economic and cultural development, and committed itself to a liberalisation of its economy and culture. Her trajectory exemplifies how postcolonial societies, consigned to the margins in the colonial centre/periphery model, have emerged as centres in their own right: sites where cultural production is manifested in vibrant artistic and rigorous intellectual activity. If one of the historical markers for Gupta's art was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, another was the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, 1991. Yet another such marker was the availability, from the mid-1990s onward, of advanced imaging and communication technology in India, and the stimulus this provided to new media art. Powered by all these starting-points, Gupta's art expresses what the philosopher J Krishnamurti described as a fluid and creative "freedom towards", as against the reactive, reflex-bound "freedom from" that characterised earlier generations of Indian artists battling the spectres of colonialism, modernity and Western condescension towards non-Western political and cultural aspirations.

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 ('Your Kidney Supermarket', 2002-2003, on the geo-politics of bio-piracy and 'Untitled', 2001, on taboos related to menstruation). 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 ('Blame', 2002-2004, concerning religious prejudice and 'Blessed Bandwidth', 2003, on new-age religiosity).

Gupta deploys the strategy of masquerade to develop a series of performative avatars which reveal the psychic discontents of a society. We may spot her in camouflage, a ninja of the mind-field, circling the colonial buildings of Bombay on a reconnaissance mission; or see her in the compartment of a Bombay local train, peddling bottles of simulated blood labelled ‘Blame’ to women commuters. In this context, we must also reflect on Gupta’s interactive video projections, ‘Untitled (War on Terror)’ (2004/05) and ‘Half Widows’ (2005/06). In ‘Untitled (War on Terror), the artist appears in seven avatars, from a boy-girl to a woman at forty, exercising in cool camouflage costumes to the instructions of a New-Age fitness video. The signals that this work sends out are deliberately mixed: it doubles as a call for militarisation and an appeal for accelerated consumption, inviting us to arm till we die or shop till we drop. Under the multiple camouflage of new-age religiosity, militarisation and the market, terror becomes a second skin.

In ‘Half Widows’, Gupta renounces the tight-lipped discipline of a ninja spy-assassin and lets various psychic discontents spill over into a convulsive madness. Her empathy and sense of horror at injustice escalates to the point of near-hysterical identification with Kashmiri women whose husbands have disappeared without a trace or are languishing in prison, during the continuing low-intensity conflict between Indian forces, Kashmiri militants and Pakistan-supported mercenaries. Gupta’s art ranges across the domains of psyche, society, polity and nation to articulate their repressed contents. The repressed contents of Gupta’s work manifested themselves in spectral form – spectral yet strangely substantial – as a play of shadows and certainties in the interactive video projection ‘Untitled (Shadows I, II & III), 2006-2007. .

I would contend that Shilpa Gupta’s real medium is audience perception itself, and that her works function more as props for her disclosures. [1] This observation holds especially true of her series on singing microphones ('Singing Cloud', 2008-2009): her artistic quest has been directed towards the manifestation of the audible but immaterial surplus of experience, a surplus of affect and reason that eludes easy consumption.

Notes:

For a comprehensive analysis of Shilpa Gupta's practice, see Nancy Adajania's essay, 'Darkness is What Light Will Never Be: Shilpa Gupta’s Experiments with Truth' in Adajania ed., Shilpa Gupta (Munich/New York: Prestel, 2010).

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