The Mumbai-based artist Shilpa Gupta doesn’t like her work to be labelled as political because she finds such categorizations restrictive. Yet, the deeply divisive political threads of society that pit people against each other forcefully and violently, often provide the starting point for her enquiries.
Through projects born out of concern for the muzzling of one opinion vis-a-vis another, Gupta has used art to negotiate difficult socio-political situations of the world. Whether it is something as outrightly volatile as Kashmir, processed through an untitled work in which Gupta gives voice to wives of those who have disappeared in the troubled northernmost state of India, or the more abstract phenomenon of heightened security measures all over the world, raised to the levels of “absurdity” as she calls it, because of increased terror incidents, through another work titled “There Is No Explosive Here,” the 42-year-old artist has always ventured into territories that lie beyond conventional art, but can be spoken of with any sense of ease only by an artist.
As it becomes obvious, given the sweep of her subjects, medium is only a means to express herself — be it through art created in computer graphics, neon installations, sound installations, video, performance. She will use anything and everything that helps her convey her ideas effectively. Gupta, who holds a BFA in sculpture from the Sir J.J. School of Fine Arts, Mumbai, also actively involves viewers in her work.
For instance, in her 2007 work “There is No Explosive Here,” which focuses on the concept of fear intensified by assertive security measures, a visitor to the show leaves it with a bag imprinted with the work’s title — a means to diminish the exaggerated fear by dispersing it widely in society. Gupta’s art has a global appeal and it’s not a surprise that her works are regularly exhibited in important venues of the world. She has been part of group exhibitions or shown solo at Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem, the Netherlands; OK Centre of Contemporary Art, Linz (Austria); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; New Museum Triennial, New York; National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai; Tate Modern and Centre Pompidou, to name a few.
Her latest work, “For, in your tongue, I cannot hide: 100 Jailed Poets,” is being exhibited at two important venues this season — the Edinburgh Art Festival, through August 26, and YARAT Contemporary Art Space, Baku, Azerbaijan, through September 30. In the midst of preparing for the installation of this ambitious project, Gupta speaks to MODERN PAINTERS about her latest work, its political edge, the influence of the megapolis of Mumbai on her art, and more.
Your sound installation, “For, in your tongue, I cannot hide: 100 Jailed Poets,” being exhibited at the YARAT Contemporary Art Space and the Edinburgh Art Festival, gives voice to 100 poets jailed for their writings or political leanings. Could you share how the project was born and which countries you chose to focus on? Was there a particular incident that triggered the idea, or something else?
This work emerges from a body of work made in 2011, called “Someone Else — a library of one hundred books written anonymously or under pseudonyms,” where writers wrote under a fictitious name and sought freedom in being someone else — whether to conceal one’s gender, avoid personal or political persecution, write in another language, express multiple selves, or publish a rejected work. During the, well, rather long research, I came across writers who had to deal with impositions by the regime, say Premchand, one of my favourite writers, whose book was burnt, or Aziz Nesin, who challenged the right wing and their violence against him or Voltaire who spent time in prison. This along with the changing atmosphere in India, which has been turning restrictive with liberal thinkers, writers and filmmakers being targeted, led the journey of research looking at poets who have been imprisoned over time.
I became interested in the power of words and the nervousness around it felt by those in power. The works in the show deal with the fragility and vulnerability of our right to freedom of expression today.
In the installation, one hundred microphones are suspended from the ceiling over metal stands, on each of which, is pierced, a piece of paper on which a verse from a poem is printed with the poets name and the year the poet was detained. A single microphone recites this verse which the other 99 repeat. Then another, and then another — over an hour-and-a-half, one hundred poems are read one after another, repeated in chorus by others.
Gagging of a voice that goes against an established order has been a feature of all types of government since ancient times — whether a monarchy, an oligarchy or even a modern democracy. Yet, during your research, did you come across cases that surprised you, shocked you?
Poets have been incarcerated in different geographies and across time — say Giordano Bruno who was burned at stake in 16th century Italy for telling us that the universe did not circle around us, while Nesimi, a Sufi poet, is said to have been skinned alive in Allepo in the 14th-15th century — both accused of heresy. Several poets, whether it is Kim Chi-ha from South Korea, Lui Xiao from China or Anna Barkova from the Soviet Union — their poetry echoed state violence for which they have had to pay a price. While there have been charges of obscenity against Irwin Allen Ginsberg and Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk, others such as Wole Soyinka [a recipient of Nobel Prize in Literature] were imprisoned without trial. Amanuel Asrat, an Eritrean arrested at his home in 2001 amid a crackdown on state and private media is still missing — believed to be held without charge or trial. Dareen Datour, a Palestinian poet, arrested for an online post, was placed for several months under house arrest, where she was allowed to leave home for a limited time, only if accompanied, has been recently convicted for what can be argued as a misinterpretation of her poem. There are many unnerving instances that stay on…
Considering the breadth of the project, do you think you would want to revisit it, or may want to continue exploring it even after the current installation? Do you think an artist ever reaches a closure with topics that have such a broad sweep? Could you answer in the context of your previous works such as “1:14.9,” or “There Is No Explosive Here,” because the central concepts of both these are topics are likely to remain current for a long, long time?
You are right, there is rarely a closure as such. In fact, one work leads to another, and to another. From the earliest text based and numerical works from the mid and late 1990s, I have been interested in fault lines of perception and the use of power to mediate what is being transmitted and rendered. The obsession with measuring the unmeasurable which is behind the work “1:14.9,” 2011, goes back to the voice of the woman in the “Untitled,” 2006, based on the wives of those who disappeared in Kashmir — in which the protagonist raises her hands while jumping on a hand drawn grid line on the floor, uttering, “the inches, the feet, the kilometers, the markings we have made on the land, have increased the distance so much.” It deals with the voice of the individual vis-a-vis a structure that surrounds her, just as the figure in camouflage costume, in “Untitled (War on Terror),” 2004, raises her hand upwards and then sideways, in the air in a search drill by an absent security guard, or the ongoing “There Is No Explosive Here” series that echoes our current environment where we are forced to navigate through hyper security measures taken to surprising levels of absurdity.
It is easy to pigeon-hole your work as “political” even though I’m aware that you have, in various interviews, tried to fight off that label. Even if you don’t call it political, do you think it is reflective of how global and local politics have come to have a very powerful presence in our daily lives?
My work emerges from how an individual traverses visible and invisible structures that surround us. I prefer to avoid labels and categories, as they tend to isolate the otherwise interconnected space we inhabit, where human desire, greed, aspiration and fallacy are at play with tools we create to define our lives — be it the idea of the nation state, laws, social norms, technology, and so on.
How much has the city of Mumbai — the place of your birth and residence — contributed to the shaping of your thought process? At many levels, it is a microcosm of India, and even of the world, given the immense influx of people it handles, the immense diversity it absorbs.
I grew up with the idea and dream of cosmopolitanism which only this megapolis can give — a city of migrants where walking on the street, almost everyone who you come face to face with, is from a place different from where you come from. And the loss of this dream — hopefully a momentary nightmare, until reason might return one day, continues to shape my practice.
At a fairly young age, you have already had exhibitions in some of the most important venues of the world, and your work is also part of important international museum collections. What is the contribution of receptivity to your kind of art in this international presence of your work? Does India offer same receptivity to your work?
As there are hardly any functional institutional spaces in India, my practice which is experimental and seeks wider audiences, continues to be challenging to show. While I have shown with galleries here, or at the Devi Foundation or the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (both in New Delhi) when it comes to outdoor projects, they have all been self-initiated — be it “Aar Paar,” the cross border public art project between India and Pakistan from 2001-2006, or even the recent outdoor animated light installation in my neighborhood (in Mumbai), “We Change Each Other”! Though several tiring months were spent chasing permissions for the latter, the heart-warming reception by the general audience on Carter Road promenade made all the efforts worth the while. Last month, I showed the interactive shadow installation at Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, which was shown a few years ago on the streets in Mumbai, and the feedback from visitors in both contexts has been great. So, the challenge is related to the case of terribly limited public venues rather than the understanding by the audience which in fact is quite enthusiastic and perceptive.
Could you talk about your next projects and exhibitions?
The central work, which is the sound installation, “For, in Your Tongue, I Cannot Hide: 100 Jailed Poets,” is being shown at the Edinburgh Art Festival in July-August and Asia Pacific Triennale in Brisbane in November. I’m showing photographs from “Altered Inheritances” a project based on people who changed their last names at the MOMA in New York and will show at the Gwangju and Kochi Biennale later this year.
This interview appears in the August edition of Modern Painters.
Founder: Louise Blouin