by Rahul KumarFeb 14, 2023
Come to the Belly
to huddle together and read.
Come to the Belly
when you are looking for
something familiar within the unfamiliar,
to close your eyes and sit quietly,
to read something aloud,
to project your voice into the scape of the Summit,
to read languages you do not know how to read.
Come to the Belly of the Strange
when you want to ask ‘What May I be?’
These lines set the tone for the experience of Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty’s Belly of the Strange. The installation which was on display at the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) in February 2023, periodically activated itself as a reading corner, with this chant ringing across the summit. The bulbous form, colour and materiality of the immersive installation may tempt one to discuss the idea of form-making. However, it would be more accurate to look at it as an exercise in 'place-making.'
Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty have been researching and working with the idea of transactional space, for a few years. They even presented an early version of this research at the 56th Venice Art Biennale. The first avatar of the 'Belly' was a bulbous form presented at MACBA, Spain, in 2018, as part of an exhibition titled In the Open or in Stealth, The Unruly Presence of an Intimate Future, curated by Raqs Media Collective. At DAS, the 'Belly' is part of the exhibition Very Small Feelings, curated by Akansha Rastogi, Diana Campbell Betancourt and Ruxmini Chowdhury. Here it becomes a performative functional ground for multiple activities, together daily exchanges, and facilitates kinships with strangeness, strange forms, and ideas.
In a conversation with STIR, Gupte explains the concept behind this work, saying, "Transactional capacities, that is a term we generate by looking at cities closely. We looked at what kinds of spaces, and what kinds of objects in cities allow you to transact. The idea of transactional capacities is looking at multiplying relationships; that allow you to transact money but also kinship, relationships and forms of security, forms of diversity, and imagination. That is what cities allow, and these are affordances based on objects in cities. At least that is what we are theorising.”
One such investigation of these transactional spaces is what the duo call "the one-foot shop." They share the example of a street-side paan (betel-nut) shop in a dense Mumbai chawl(tenement housing). The one-foot shop is both a design intervention and accidental functional innovation of a local shopkeeper. It is also a space and an object, a duality that can be applied to their installation Belly of the Strange, as well. One can look at it as a space housing books, an experience or as a bulging object asking 'What May I be?’
Located within the larger exhibition Bonna curated by Campbell Betancourt, the belly with its multiple legs responds to the title as it lifts the space of inhabitation gently above the ground. Meant to house books with fantastical worlds of stories and illustrations for children and the child in us, the overall form draws on a feminine form in an otherwise hard-edged architectural world. The construction of this installation is also a very interesting transformation. The earlier installation presented at MACBA was fabricated by a team that also worked on projects and construction by Zaha Hadid Architects. At DAS, the installation was made by local craftspeople. It is not just the materiality, but also the construction methodology, that speaks to the Mumbai-based duo's analysis of urban objects as artefacts, of what they call 'transactional capacities.'
The voluminous 'Belly' with its stage-like stepped access, is made using bamboo and paper mache. The larger structure was built by the head carpenter, the paper mache was created by fine art students studying in Bangladesh. Gupte noted that it is a Bangladeshi tradition to create paper mache sculptures, ingraining the structure into the traditional practices of its location. When asked about this version of the 'Belly,' Shetty explained the innate femininity of the form saying, "In the previous iterations we were inside a Richard Meier building which was a white cube with very clear edges and boundaries, whereas we have been experimenting with soft form, in our writing and in our work. About blurring boundaries between inside and outside, public and private and so on." He continued, "We think of it as a question about the form, which is why we call it a feminised form. A soft form which is able to produce that blur and hold that complex diversity. These forms dont have a clear edge or a clear boundary."
Gupte and Shetty trained as architects and urbanists, jointly run Bard Studio, a multidisciplinary practice that traverses between architecture, art and urban studies, and are founder members of the School of Environment and Architecture in Mumbai. Their research and practice sit at the intersections of experimental pedagogy, exploring different aspects of urban form and experience, and building environments and objects inspired by everyday functional urban forms that enable 'transactional capacities' of inhabitation and engagement. The next iteration of this installation will be displayed later this year, at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.