India, Sept. 2010: Shilpa Gupta is an internationally renowned conceptual and installation artist hailing from Mumbai. She graduated with a degree in sculpture at the J. J. School of Fine arts in 1997, and has since showed her work in solo shows across the U.S., Europe, and India. Her multi-media performances and installations are unique in their ability to engage a diverse public with challenging personal and political issues such as identity, security, and desire.
ArtSlant's India Editor, Sophia Powers, had the opportunity to catch up with Shilpa in her Mumbai studio. This interview is composed of excerpts of their conversation over tea.
Shilpa Gupta, Singing Cloud, 2008-09, Microphones with multi-channel audio, 180x24x60 inches; Courtesy of the artist
Sophia Powers: I often like to begin by asking whether you always wanted to be an artist. Did you always see yourself doing this above other things?
Shilpa Gupta: During school I always used to stand first in art, but I was also interested in science. If I had not become an artist I would probably be sitting in a research lab! And now, what really interests me is actually perception. So, I’m lucky to have been born in this time, when art can address something like perception so well. I was also interested in computers, and did a lot of computer coursework in collage. It was very new at that time to be so interested in technology as an artist, and I remember showing my first video work in ’95 and someone said to me: “oh, I think there’s something wrong, it’s making noise!” Haha.
I graduated in 1997, and did odd commercial jobs like wedding videos and covers for pop albums to support myself until I was able to work full-time as an artist in 2004.
SP: But so much of your art takes place outside the sphere of the commercial art world, like your project “Blame,” for instance…
(For the interactive installation “Blame,” the artist assembled small bottles of simulated blood with labels that read “Blaming you makes me feel so good! So I blame you for what you cannot control: your religion, your nationality. I want to blame you, it makes me feel good.”)
SG: That’s true. For the “Blame” project, I went onto the commuter trains and just sat in a corner with my bottles of “Blame.” People assumed that I was there to sell them. So, I would pass them around, and people would take a look and then pass them along. Most of the bottles would come back to me, but some of the women would come up and ask me what to do with them. I would say “whatever you like-- put them on your t.v. or give them as a gift.” Lots of the women ignored me, but there were other responses too—like one woman gave me a “thumbs up” as she was leaving the train.
I also offered “Blame” bottles on the street for an exhibition in Perth. I was very conscious about all the different people on the street and paying attention to who took the bottles from me and who didn’t. I noticed that it was much more common for women around my age to take them then, say, older men.
Shilpa Gupta, Blame (installation view), 2002-04, Bottles with simulated blood, dimensions variable; Courtesy of the artist
SP: Did anyone get angry about the bottles?
SG: Well, a bunch of young punk kids came up to me and took lots of bottles and then poured them out all over the street, which caused the city to complain. But for the most part I think people really interpreted them or engaged with them at a variety of levels depending on what they were willing to think. My work doesn’t ask for any conclusions. I did hand out feedback forms, though, for another work that I recently showed on the street called “Shadow III.” Basically they just asked “what is this?” I wanted to understand how the mind goes through the experience that I had set up.
SP: And, what response did you get?
SG: The responses were very mixed. Sometimes people who aren’t from the artworld are a lot more articulate than people who are! In the gallery setting things are easier in some respects—people know the kind of thing I’m doing. But still, out of ten newcomers only one may actually understand. What’s much more interesting is to take art out of the art world—like to think of the “THREAT” soap that I gave away after it left the gallery and went into people’s homes…
(Another interactive installation, “THREAT,” invited gallery visitors to take home large bars of soap imprinted with the word “THREAT.” )
SP: One of the things that’s most interesting about your work is how collaborative it is—whether with the public or with another artist. I first learned about you through the “Aar—Parr” project you did at Khoj with Huma Mulji. How did that project come about?
SG: I was 23 at the time. We met, and we just shared the same humor—we saw Kargil news everyday together and laughed about the same things. So then we started thinking “how do we document difference?” Of course, difference is not always about geography. You and I, for instance, may have more in common than me and the man who runs the lift—although you are American and the lift man and I are both India. Or, there may even be things that you understand better than my own brother! I was very surprised, for instance, when I showed my work “Here there is no Border” in Cuba. Someone came up to me crying and kissed me! The situation in Srinagar had inspired me to make the work, but in India the reaction wasn’t as strong as it had been in Cuba.
Shilpa Gupta, Untitled (There is no border here), 2005-06, Wall drawing with self adhesive tape, 118x118 inches; Courtesy of the artist
SP: It seems like most of your work, though, is about anxiety—whatever the context. Would you say you are a particularly anxious person, or is it just something that you have developed in your art?
SG: Yes, I think you’re right to read a lot of anxiety in my work-- haha. When I’m happy, I don’t feel so much of a need to make work. But when I’m anxious I am very motivated because making art puts you in the position of both an actor and viewer at the same time. I think it helps me deal with my anxieties because often there are really no words to express them through.
SP: Finally, I always like to ask what people do when they’re not making work.
SG: I love to read. I love literature from all over the world, but especially Russian literature—"Master and Margarita" is one of my favorite books.
SP: What are you reading now?
SG: Right now I’m loving “The Imam and the Indian” by Amitav Ghosh. You should read it! But…sometimes I just feel like watching a Bollywood film, so I go across the street and hang out with my brother and his kids.
ArtSlant would like to thank Shilpa Gupta for her assistance in making this interview possible.
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