by Vidur SethiJan 13, 2022
There are a few art practices, especially in the context of Indian artists, where art works that appear simple have left me wondering for days after my encounter with it. Neon-light text on a beach-side in Mumbai that read “We change each other”, with the text in three of the most popular Indian languages, for instance, intrigued people from all walks of life. Artist Shilpa Gupta’s installation at Mumbai’s Bandra Promenade in 2018 is one such example. Her practice is focussed on examining human relations, subjectivity and perception through themes such as desire and censorship, conflict, security and borders. Gupta’s work is multi-faceted and often interactive.
I speak to Shilpa Gupta on the sidelines of her mid-career survey exhibition, titled Today will end, at the M HKA, Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp, Belgium. The show offers an overview of the practice Gupta has been developing for more than 20 years. We discuss her approach and views on her expansive interactive art practice, art in public spaces, and the making of her recent show.
Note to self: Where was I when Shilpa was freely distributing drawings for her ‘Aar Paar’ project or giving away her works, in the form of soap cakes, titled ‘Threat’?!
Rahul Kumar (RK): Creators/artists are generally possessive about their authorship. How do you feel when participatory and interactive work is completed by others, or a work that constantly changes with the action of others?
Shilpa Gupta (SG): When the work makes a journey from one space into another, along with another person, both have some impact on the work. So, when a work changes or becomes something else, it is about the nature of ‘making meaning’, which is a transformative process. When people walk the streets with the balloons which say ‘I want to live with no fear’, they have come back to me saying that they feel like active participants in spreading what the work means. Then there are other works like the interactive video projections in Shadow 3, of which no image created on the wall matches a pervious one! But then that is the intention and interesting aspect of the world of possibilities!
RK: Your early works that engaged public interaction was one where you mailed 300 drawings to people anonymously with an instruction to dispose it, and Aar Paar where works created by artists from India and Pakistan were exchanged in soft form and prints of those were pasted around the city. What is your intended takeaway with such ‘process oriented’ work? How do you measure its efficacy…or is that even important?
SG: When I did the 300 drawings mail-art project, I did not save the names of the persons I sent them out to. In retrospect, it would have been interesting to have done that and to reach out to them and gather some impressions. However, with There Is No Explosive In This, several responses were gathered via emails. This was not much to measure efficacy, but to understand the different ways a work unfolds in different contexts. Then when Blame bottles were being distributed on the streets, the response was rather immediate and at times very overwhelming but also there were times when passers-by just walked by. Then there were times when a person did not take a bottle from the hands of a younger person, however felt more comfortable taking the same when a middle-aged person offered the Blame bottle. One learnt so much about instincts and even biases.
With Aar Paar, there were multiple aspects to the project. It was about the possibility of doing a cross border project in the face of the challenges. Then was the proposition made to the participating artists which was an experiment in itself as most had never made any work for public spaces. In terms of the project, the reactions which reached me were rather extreme ones. For example, lawyers walked out of a restaurant when they saw a work placed as a mat, or a warning I received from a police man and at another instance had a whole group of policemen over at my home due to a poster by Quddus Mirza.
RK: Language has played a significant role in your public works. As a result, you have invested in working with translators to present works like Someone Else in libraries across the globe. But shouldn’t ‘visual’ art be available for those who can see but not read?
SG: I have always hoped for a more open-ended way of looking at art. Text is a large part of how we understand and interpret the world and therefore it enters my work. Within all forms of expression there are symbols and codifications. For example, in dance, a mudra might denote one thing or for an artist a particular form or colour might carry a specific meaning.
RK: Your practice is critically vocal about deep and popular socio-political belief system. Have you even faced antagonistic reactions?
SG: Not so much by the general audience. There is an incident from in 2004 when there were a set of text-based works which were to go up on the facade of the maritime museum in Amsterdam and on the glass windows of the museum restaurant. However, just before the opening, the museum board said they could no longer have the text on the facade and the restaurant said I must compensate them for the loss in business. One thing led to another and it reached the local TV news. And next day, someone came and made a graffiti saying “400 years of colonisation” just outside the museum.
RK: Today Will End is your first mid-career survey exhibit presented at M HKA museum at Antwerp. How does the presentation reference the title of the show? How has it been to put it together during a pandemic.
SG: It began with the curator Nav Haq starting the conversation by asking me to draw a list of my own favourite works from the beginning of my practice. Besides the timeline (starting from mid-90s) and the volume of works, it become very tricky as there are so many different ways to answer this! Then started a back and forth between the curator’s perspective and mine of drawing up a wish list, which then was filtered by which works survived time, which works could be recreated or not and which works could be loaned.
One had hoped the situation would have improved and I could have travelled for the install. A month before, it became clear that was not possible and it was extremely challenging few weeks to put up the show as several of the works, example the media-based works, especially the sound installations, which are very sensitive to the environment like the lighting are usually installed by me. There was a lot of back and forth discussing details via email and over video calls. One was tempted to delay the opening. However, having postponed the show a few times already due to the pandemic, we simply had no choice but to go ahead. Shipping was delayed as we were in the middle of the second wave. So, the show opened without a few works and thankfully the visitors were understanding. Also, it was an emotionally trying time for some of those involved to keep going on as we were at different stages at a personal level with the pandemic. It was a precarious and uncertain period and its was a relief to have finally installed the show. The overwhelming warm response to the show makes up for all of this.