Like nursery rhymes about the black plague or fairy tales about dictatorial empires, here is a site-specific installation that employs a colorful playfulness in form to access dark and grave content. Galerie Espace Typographie in Paris, where Hema Upadhyay first recreated this dioramic view of miniature slum dwellings in Bombay, is a former textile godown, with natural lighting from a roof made of glass, with echoes from walls made of stone and appearing as a construction or storage site with concrete floors. The Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati, in contrast, was designed as recently as 2003 by Zaha Hadid, and uses sharp angles and anatomical waves in turn to represent both an ‘urban carpet’ as well as spread an illusion of ‘skin’, ideas that Upadhyay proceeds to manifest in her installation.
You walk through a sea of two dimensional slums, as a voyeur on a meandering route carved out by Upadhyay, so that so that you are at once above, bending forward, peering onto the flat tin roofs, and amidst them. Atop these roofs, lie objects that the artist has found in slums, like fragments of rusted car parts, hairpins, images of gods and goddesses, and children's broken toys. They become, then, failed symbols of movement, beauty, faith and imagination. This is not, however, a romanticization of poverty: the meticulous care with which each roof is glued with these found things that lend them life implies an honest intellectual and aesthetic attachment to the subject.
The yellow and blue color palette is reminiscent of children's classrooms, young drawings of 'the sun and the sky' or even a lego set; however the color, in reality, is the color of the tarpaulin popularly used as slum roofs. The installation is miniaturized, the ideas that it reveals are magnified. This playful gravity between a child's imagination and an adult's reality lends a tension to the installation that is at once taut with commentary and loose with humor.
Hema Upadhyay, Moderniznation, 2011-13, Installation view at Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati; courtesy of the artist, photo by Hema Upadhyay.
The only buildings that are in three-dimensions are the temples (in orange), the churches (in white) and the mosques (in green). They rise out of the flat landscape of the slums, where prayers are made in hope for mobility. The colors comprise the Indian flag, as if to imply that it will only fly high in secular honesty.
There is no sign of a human being and no sign of the natural environment. The light from above glints upon this sprawl of poverty, and pleads you to question what moving forward really means. When you have completed your journey, the yellow and blue city stays behind, replete with all that you have left behind in it, growing as a tumor might.
But her impassioned views on Moderniz(n)ation arise not in any obvious political or religious statement: whilst the metaphors and symbols she employs are apparent, the artist herself concentrates on form and composition by utilizing the gallery space with intelligent architectural perspective, reflecting, perhaps, how a city must operate its urban planning.
If Upadhyay's installation was in three-dimensions, you would have been unable to breathe—or find your way out. She gives you space—where there is none. She asks in return for time—to return to our childlike selves, to our first ideas of nationhood and secularism, and ultimately, to the garden, where we might walk, not above the other, but right next to them, barefooted, light.
—Himali Singh Soin
[Image on top: Hema Upadhyay, Moderniznation (final detail), 2011, Aluminum sheets, car scrap, enamel paint, plastic sheets, found objects, m-seal, resin and hardware material wire, enamel paint and photographs; Courtesy of the artist & Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati.]