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Book Review: Shilpa Gupta
by Sophia Powers

Shilpa Gupta, one of India’s most internationally renowned contemporary artists was long overdue for a monograph.  As of last year there is one, thanks to Vadehra Art Gallery’s new publishing efforts in association with Prestel.  This 248-page volume is beautifully designed with four substantial written pieces to compliment lavishly reproductions of Gupta’s work.  The book will delight Gupta fans.  However, it may present more problems to those who are not yet too familiar with the artist’s work.

Peter Weibel’s contribution, “In Conversation with Shilpa Gupta: The Media of Absence,” did not feel much at all like a conversation.  Instead, it felt like an essay in question format with short responses inserted here and there.  There is undoubtedly an art to interviewing, yet this piece lacked all the joys of a spontaneous conversation or evolving dialogue.  By the end of the piece I was left feeling that Weibel was a flamboyant lead dancer with little care for his partner’s steps.  My critique is perhaps best exemplified by the final exchange, where Weibel almost discards the pretense of conversational style in favor of a longwinded four paragraph mini-essay that engages Hegel, Plato, Baudrillard, Shiva and Blake.  It begins with the question: “Is this a Platonic worldview or a Hegelian view, which praises the negative dialectic, the tarrying in the negative?”  Gupta at last answers with a simple “Yes.”  She then expands on her answer with a return to the more grounded set of socio-political issues that her work engages, explaining: “These days I am beginning to get more and more involved with the questions of democracy and its validity for all…We create borders, knowing well like birds who fly from one hemisphere to another that when resources become fewer, we too will finally take flight, across age, sex and religion, across all limitations.”  She hence shifts the register of the conversation from philosophically erudite to lucidly poetic.  Because this piece stands alone among the four essays in the book to feature Gupta’s own (very articulate) voice, I wish we had had a chance to hear a bit more of it.

The second contribution in the volume, “To See Again and Again” by Shanay Jhaveri, returns the focus appropriately to Gupta’s varied and impressive oeuvre.  This is a good, if perhaps slightly belated, point for the reader to find their feet.  The essay begins to provide a meaningful mix of description and interpretation such that the reader is free to discover their own resonances with particular works.  The Weibel “Conversation” piece was interspersed with excellent photographs of Gupta’s powerful installation “Untitled” (MS Mobile Gate).  However, there was no reference to the piece in Weibel’s contribution, and hence the visuals hung without explanation between the fragments of text.  To readers who are not familiar with the work I imagine this could be somewhat bewildering.  Worse, without description the actual mechanics of the piece cannot be imagined, and hence the real power of MS Mobile Gate is conceptually inaccessible despite its glossy representation.  Jhaveri duly attends to this set of images orphaned by context.  Furthermore, she unobtrusively suggests interpretive frameworks meant to further the reader’s immediate response.  After describing the installation of the gate she muses: “Gupta has always inquired against the ideation of the passive viewer through perceptual play and other subtle mechanisms, such as the already detailed recursive falling back of the object and language onto itself disclose a shared communal ‘blindness.’”

The monograph’s third essay, “The Unusual Suspect” by Quddus Mirza, begins with the simple yet rich thesis that contemporary artists have taken over the traditional role of societies’ profit/poets.  Mirza theorizes the relationship between terrorism, globalization, and violence, a triumvirate of fraught motifs that animate Gupta’s work.  Indeed, many contemporary artists are attracted by the sensationalism of these themes; however, the essay takes pains to point out how Gupta’s approach is dissimilar to the throngs of international artists who adopt such subjects with an eye to international curators and the biennial circuit.  While the essay is fraught with conceptual generalizations, Mirza does engage specifically with certain works.  In particular, she focuses on the “Aar Paar” project that Gupta initiated in 2002 between Indian and Pakistani artists via virtual exchange.  Herein lies the real gem of the essay.  Mirza recounts: “One was not astonished when, on midnight in 2002, an Indian artist’s father had to pay a visit to a nearby police station on account of an artwork showing two guns and roses received from Pakistan and to explain the peaceful nature of that otherwise ‘loaded’ visual.  The poster was sent as part of the “Aar Paar” project.  The artist whose father appeared before the police was Shilpa Gupta, and the culprit who sent the poster from the other side of the border was the writer of this text.”

Nancy Adajania, the book’s editor, provides a final essay “Darkness is what Light will Never Be” that is undoubtedly the highlight of the monograph.  It comprehensively contextualizes Gupta’s practice.  The reader is offered both clear and compelling explanations of individual pieces, as well as a broader insight into the political and art historical context of Gupta’s artistic evolution.  This is the only piece that that attempts to speak to the artist’s beginnings as well as trace her shifting concerns.  Such concrete attention to biography and straight description is complimented by significant analytical ambition.  Adajania takes on the conceptual frameworks of Freud, Chomsky, Jung, and the Yogachara school of Buddhist philosophy to name just a few.  While such a varied set of interlocutors might rightly be considered too broad for the scope of a shorter essay, in this case Adajania uses the diverse smattering of philosophical insights to animate Gupta’s work to great effect.  Combined with Adajania’s careful consideration of each individual work’s materiality, the essay coalesces into a strong and complex reading of Gupta’s oeuvre that would be meaningful to a novice and specialized reader alike.

“Shilpa Gupta,” is a book to be deciphered slowly and savored.  It is not user friendly.  However, that is the volume’s strength as well as its weakness.  Just as the viewer/participants of Gupta’s projects are often challenged by the unusual and decontextualized nature of her actions, the reader is similarly destabilized by uncaptioned images and fragmented text.  Among the best portions of the book are the artifacts of viewer response strewn throughout, such as e-mails from folks who had carried home Gupta’s “THERE IS NO EXPLOSIVE IN THIS” suitcases, or the handwritten completed “Give us your feedback” sheets passed out to viewers of the “Shadow 3” project.  At its best, the materiality of the book playfully mirrors the technological strategies deployed by Gupta’s installations.  The outer edge of each page features a series of odd phrases or captions such as “20:30 TIME FOR NEWS,” “I SWITCHED ON THE TV,” “I SEE A BOMB FALL,”  and “AND CAN FEEL NO PAIN” in succession.  Only by the time I nearly finished writing this review did I realize that these captions are reproduced from Gupta’s 2008/09 piece “Untitled” (Motion Flap-Board).  Clever.

-- Sophia Powers

(Images courtesy of Shilpa Gupta)

Posted by Sophia Powers on 2/7/11

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