Troubling Borders
Renee Baert, Shilpa Gupta: Will We Ever Be Able to Mark Enough, 2011-2012


The work of Shilpa Gupta has a singular ability to touch its viewers. It conveys complex issues in terms that can be readily understood and entered into, and does so with emotional force. This ability to make human connections across life experiences, across distance and across cultures in order to engage a dialogue about the landscapes of our lives is more than feature of the artist’s work; it is profoundly at its heart.
While many of Gupta’s works are interactive, and even those that are not explicitly so offer a kind of invitation. They do not pronounce; rather, they engage the viewer through their openness. Though she addresses large social questions, her tone is not didactic or tendentious; indeed, she often combines contradictory or ambiguous elements. Through such modes of address, she enables reciprocal questioning, insight and consideration. While not autobiographical, the works seem personal, even intimate: they have an almost conversational character, encouraging individual associations and reflections on the issues she raises.

Gupta’s artistic practice proceeds from an alertness to the social forces that shape everyday aspects and experiences of life. Whether addressing issues arising from aspects of Indian society or drawing upon other subjects, her work communicates the ways in which the social environment across diverse local and national contexts is inter-implicated with larger pivotal forces. Produced in her studio in Mumbai or in situ in other locales, her works test borders of every kind, identifying points of division while asserting potentials within the common ground of human experience. The transcultural relevance of Gupta’s work reflects the reach of her exploration of issues that are points of anxiety or contest in so many parts of the world: the commodification of culture, of persons, of bodies; the politics of gender, religion, ethnicity; conformism; power and terms of relationship.
In recent years, Gupta has particularly probed the polarities of anxiety and security as expressed in a kind of formalized cultural mundanity of threat and defence. This theme forms the core of this exhibition. Its subtitle, will we ever be able to mark enough? invokes at once the reality and the futility of incessant measures to demarcate and entrench difference and division. Several works in the exhibition highlight aspects of the climate of anxiety that pervades everyday life today: fear-driven landscapes and partitions with their practices of separation; the incoherence and banality of fortifications against an amorphous sense of threat; the conformism and passivity these administered defenses engender.

This sense of undefined threat is forcefully addressed in an untitled work consisting of several large-scale photographs depicting children, women and men, alone or in small groups. All are caught in a similar attitude: faces raised skyward, showing stupefaction, alarm, arms raised high, bodies skewed in awkward movement, sometimes ducked one behind another. It is as if they are warding off something beyond our view, something terrible approaching from out of the air, out of the blue. With only their body language and facial expressions as clues, we have no idea of the nature of the imminent peril. The threat, for the viewer, is thus generalized, just as the notion of threat is now generalized in the global consciousness. It is an idea we are familiar with: inchoate dangers, threats from multiple sources, terrors from without that threaten to derail our aims, injure our bodies, blight our lives.

Gupta’s work raises questions: What are these dangers that beset us? What are we (being made) afraid of? In the global rhetoric about, and management of, “terror”, we are made anxious about threats that are unlikely to reach us, or against which we can do little to prepare or which may be (as her works often suggest) illusory, manufactured. We fear and internalize external danger. We are made afraid of difference. We are made afraid of a generalized potential of terror or danger whose reach is unknown and perhaps without limit – or perhaps imagined, a figment of our fearful projections.
We are brought to doubt, hesitating to question authority, even as we raise defense – both real and psychological – against any or all such fears.

Threat conjures such a wall. It is made of hundreds of soap bricks, stacked two deep, each imprinted with the word THREAT. Inscribed across the surface of each cast brick, the cadence of “threat” is reiterated throughout the length and depth of the wall.
The bricks can remind us of many kinds of walls raised along defensive borders, from the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall to the fortifications of ancient cities to more contemporary partitions: the former Berlin Wall; the Israeli Partition Wall along and within Palestinian land; the high metal walls and cemented trench marking the inhospitable terrain of the southwestern U.S.-Mexico border; the thousands of kilometers of barricades along the volatile India-Pakistan border; and the “Line of Control” creating a de facto border between Indian- and Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

Walled landscapes are not restricted to borders between nation-states; they are found as well in urban geography, in gated communities and other barriers (both symbolic and material) within the built environment that define zones of separation, often along axes of economic difference. Walls concretize and enforce division, and mark into the landscape that which is included and that which is excluded. The exposed bricks of Threat, easily grasped, can also evoke the action of street protest or riots, when bricks are loosened and used as weapons. The wall is “built” of threat, but torn down by other actions. In this installation, however, the wall is low – a barrier, yet traversable. Is the low wall, with its exposed upper edge, in the process of being built, or torn down?

While its built character foregrounds the wall’s function as a spatial partition, other elements open the work to alternative readings. The light brown colour of the bricks suggests the shade of human skin, the vulnerable antithesis to unyielding fired clay. Indeed, the imprint on the bricks can suggest a scar. We are reminded that threat, like soap, touches our most intimate being. Further, the wall releases a strong scent, creating a sensory and mnemonic transposition away from actual bricks. This smell unmistakably identifies the bricks as cakes of soap, impelling, if not a redirection, then at least a layering of interpretation, and linking (as the bricks do) contradictory concepts: the rigidity of bricks with the softness of soap foam, the divisions that walls create with the intimate dimensions of life. Just as the soap bricks are an illusory threat, one that can, in the performative action suggested by the soap, literally be dissolved, so too can the perception of rigid divisions be deceptive and illusory, the embedded patterns of threat and defence be amenable to transformative action, and the walls that entrench our divisions be brought down.

Gupta resists programs of fear. Her work puts them at issue, destabilizing their grasp. This is not a naïve denial of politics, of its harsh or contested realities. Rather, through her work, she interrogates ready assumptions, be they of power, of a single point of view, or the unquestioning implementation of rote repressive routines. Her approach is not confrontational; rather, it articulates of another point of view that shifts the axes of perception.

Consider air travel today, with its securitizing processes that, in effect, place all passengers under suspicion, and compel (discipline!) their passive submission to scrutiny extending from their personal effects to their bodies. In There is No Explosive in This—Objects Confiscated at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, Montreal 2011, Gupta approaches this matter obliquely.
The large table installation employs as its original source a profusion of banal everyday items: manicure scissors, plastic knives, corkscrews, cigar cutters, tweezers, cigarette lighters, playthings, small tools and so forth. These objects, confiscated from travelers at the airport’s security checkpoint, have through that seizure undergone an interpretive transformation: from commonplace articles of no particular account to devices of possible threat or harm, innocent no more. The seizure further implicates the objects’ passenger-owners (at this airport as at airports around the world) in the global nexus of threat and defence that governs travel today. In this work, as in her work at large, Gupta draws links between local conditions and global forces. She underlines the impact of these forces on the routine actions of our everyday life while challenging the pervasive ethos of managed and manipulated terror.

The objects have been re-mediated by the artist to introduce a third level of interpretation that again dramatically alters their connotations. Each object has been wrapped in a loose-woven, unbleached cloth that adheres to and reveals the object’s form, and sewn shut with small hand stitches. The wrapped objects are placed on a white table covered with an unfinished unbleached cotton cloth. The shape of the muslin packages reveals the outline of many of the wrapped items, and the light weave of the fabric discloses some details of the objects within. Yet overall, their identity is erased and replaced by their formal and aesthetic values: made innocent again, but in a new and different way. We may know what they were, but we no longer know what they are. In particular, the visible stitching, disclosing the meticulous labours of a hand, a body, a human presence, lends the objects a sense of vulnerability and tenderness, and may even recall shrouds. Indeed, the anonymous white objects, spot lit on the white table in a dimly lit room, have the kind of ethereal presence commonly associated with religious or ceremonial altars. Their original function set aside, mute and still, they have become ambiguous, mysterious, unsettling objects of interpretation.

Another mute object in the exhibition is less ambiguous, its brute presence at a considerable remove from the poetic transformations of the confiscated objects. Untitled (Cage) consists of three nested metal cages of graduated sizes. The cages are rusty, suggesting a timeworn, even archaic, device; suspended from the ceiling, they cast shadows on the floor that reiterate the patterns of enclosure and threaten to ensnare the beholder. The cages suggest an infinite regress of entrapments and barriers, each portal leading to an ever narrower entrapment, or in the other direction, to a more spacious yet still claustrophobic confinement. The menacing work manifestly and powerfully addresses issues of injustice, and indeed another edition of the piece was shown in an exhibition on precisely that theme.1 The cages also raise issues of power and surveillance. Gupta’s approach to these issues is a layered one, and the captivity and entrapment she alludes to may be mental, emotional, metaphorical. Each cage has a door with a simple latch that can be opened or closed: thus, though not obvious since it is also made of metal bars that blend into the overall pattern of the structure, each cage has an exit, or at least the possibility of one. On entering the installation in Montreal, I found that an unobserved member of the public had illustrated this possibility by opening all the doors. Many of Gupta’s works are interactive; although this one is not evidently so, in this instance the potential she proposed proved irresistible.

The sense of obstruction, of action thwarted, suggested in the successive metal pens in Untitled (Cage) is reiterated in another untitled work, whose structure of impassable doors likewise speaks to conditions of futility and entrapment. Here, seven vintage wooden doors from domestic interiors typical of older Montreal homes are hinged together, fanning out around a central core. Thus anchored, each door is both bound to and barred by the next; each transits to nowhere. The aged and weathered condition of the doors further suggests an implacable state. The door—metaphor for passage, portal to another scene—here conveys a state of fixity that evokes the all-too-familiar (though variously political) scenario of cascading inflexibility that sends the would-be petitioner pointlessly from door to door, bureau to bureau, authority to authority, in an endless loop of frustrated aims.

All of these work address structures of power and authority, while challenging conformity and passivity. This critical position is given a spoken voice in another work, in the refrain of the narrator of Half Widows deriding obedience and blind allegiance:

Walk Straight Don’t See
Bent forward Don’t see
Walk in the line Don’t See

Of the causes of conflict and division between people and nations, borders and territorial politics are among the most trenchant. Several of Gupta’s works have examined the shifting nexus of nation-state, borders and identity—perhaps none more poignantly than Half Widows, which addresses the emotional and social ruptures of war and its impasses.
“Half widows” is the term used to describe the more than 1500 women in war-torn Kashmir whose husbands have disappeared, yet have not been declared deceased, since the insurgency against Indian rule began in 19892. Neither wives nor widows, the women are in a state of limbo, not knowing whether their husbands are dead or alive, and without legal protection or remedy for the severe financial and emotional costs of their plight.

In this installation, a video projection onto the floor of the gallery shows a solitary female figure, seen from above, moving across a white floor. Her actions replicate a game played by children in India, of stones tossed, then followed in ordered steps; but here the grown woman seems caught in a game of chance, hop-scotching back and forth across cracks that mark and divide the ground, tossing stones in the air and following where they land. In this random game that is not a game, where volition is subjected to chance, what path can she take?

A woman’s voice is heard on the tape: the voice of the woman left behind, expressing bereavement, bewilderment, dissent.

He runs away
Does not look back
To fight a war which I no longer know is mine
Are you coming closer
Are you going further away
Where is it that you walk now

The militant and the woman share a land (I know you are seeing the sun I see) but no longer share a life. The relationship shapes her existence, yet he is no longer a part of it (Why does your smell not leave with you?). She changes tense as she speaks, shifting from past (he said he loved me) to present (he loves me) to future (he will come). She imagines him alive, and speaks to him; she imagines him dead, and wonders, Do dead people love? The incursion of conflict and war into their lives and the diverging paths it imposes wrenches their intimate bonds. I didn’t marry the land, she says, I am jealous of the land he loved more than me. The divisions between nations have correlates of divided families, divided lovers. The inches, the feet, the kilometres: such are the measures of land gained, claimed and lost, she protests, the measures of distance and division, measures that are ultimately inexhaustible.

The markings that we have made on this land
Has increased the distance so much
Am no longer able to see you
We’ll never be able to mark enough
No man will be able to mark all the land.

The work tells the story of hearts ravaged by war.
The divisions and markings, possessions and dispossessions of territories evoked by Half Widows are brought to an entirely different kind of interrogation in A Map of My Country—100 Hand Drawn Maps from Montreal. This work queries the very possibility of defining the contours of the nation-state by exploring the various ways its territory is imaginatively conceived and apprehended by its citizens.
For this map projection, people were randomly approached on the street in different parts of the city and, having confirmed they were residents of Montreal, were asked (in French or English according to their preference) to “please draw a map of your country”. Most of the resulting maps are of Canada, but many are of the province of Quebec, of which Montreal is the major city, and some are of other geographies. One hundred of these maps are presented in a single channel video projected at 30 second intervals onto a small table around which viewers tend to gather.

This work follows from two previous versions that likewise assembled 100 hand-drawn maps of country, the first consisting of freeform drawings of the contours of India, the second in the more unsure territory of Israeli/ Palestinian contestation. Thus all three mapping projects have taken place in countries where national borders are at issue. In the earlier map works, these definitions are matters of abiding armed conflict along contentious borders (Pakistan/Kashmir and Israel/ Palestine respectively), while in Canada, the peaceable means of political debate and referendum have been the instruments of Quebec’s nationalist aspirations. Yet in each rendition, the bounded idea nation is conceptu-ally displaced by the diverse and personalized delineations through which individual citizens construe it.

In the Canadian scenario, it is not the delineation of the Quebec/Canada border that is in question, but rather the division of one country into two.3 The drawn maps of Quebec as “my country” bespeak the abiding nationalist aspirations and identifications that have kept the separatist issue active in the province for some 40 years. At the same time, the maps of the homelands of immigrants of other countries, now resident in Montreal, reflect the expansion of the country’s multicultural character. The varied response to the request displays another angle of the discordant identifications of nation within Canada: division from within.
The hand-drawn maps, so simple and immediate, reveal an instability within the identification of nationhood as such, which may not coincide with the country of citizenship, as well as an uncertain definition of national boundaries. Though these diverse and fluid interpretations, the work points to the nation-state as a construct whose stability may be chimeric – as indeed, shifting national boundaries throughout the world, drawn and redrawn over centuries to the present day, attest.

Each map gives a cartographic impression that is quickly displaced by the next, a mutating flow. The freehand depictions of geographical features are wildly at odds with one another, and with the cartographic coordinates of the countries they represent. In the maps of Canada, for example, coastlines vary wildly, the vast waterway of northern Hudson’s Bay changes contours, entire provinces appear and disappear, the Arctic and its islands assume various configurations, and the outlying island of Newfoundland periodically slips into the sea. The work reveals that the lived experience of a nation and its geography is not necessarily accurate or objective – the seemingly shared reality – but unique to each person. Our sense of place is shaped by memory, personal history, imagination, projection. The work calls into question any fixed and unitary idea of Canada, or of any nation.

Just as the ideas and questions raised in Gupta’s work do not follow settled themes, the works do not adhere to any fixed material or medium. Her works take form according to the conceptual foundation and concerns of each piece, and the meanings they evoke arise from the effects of these formal and material means. The aesthetic power of her work is undeniable, and detail revelatory: the tenderness of the hand-stitched wrappings of the confiscated objects; the malignity of the rusted metal cages; the heavy scent of Threat; the cracked and broken ground of Half Widows; and the emergence of a blank page from inside a closed book.
In this untitled work, a hardcover book is placed within easy reach at the edge of a small table. The book is bound with a sturdy black cover, the volume is of average thickness, and the content of the pages within is hidden. Nonetheless, the book as a cultural object is associated with knowledge, whether fact or fiction. A single blank sheet spills out from the book, unfurling down the length of the table and cascading onto the floor.

This elegant work might be seen as a coda to an exhibition in which many other works foreground aspects of strife. The long white sheet seems to offer an open, expansive space, alive with potential, the inscription yet unset, the narrative yet unwritten.