Art Radar profiles the internationally renowned Indian artist Subodh Gupta.
Delhi-based artist Subodh Gupta’s “Seven Billion Light Years” opened in New York last month. Art Radar explores Gupta’s rise to international fame as well as the local and cross-cultural references behind his works.
Subodh Gupta’s artistic career spans over three decades with a diverse oeuvre in sculpture, installation, painting, film and photography. “Seven Billion Light Years’” at Hauser & Wirth in New York features the artist’s signature works that utilise ordinary steel objects commonly seen in India. Included in the exhibition are his installations, sculptures and paintings that appropriate readymade kitchen utensils familiar to all Indians. The exhibition will be on view until 25 April 2015.
Since the mid-2000s, the artist has created uncanny associations between local Indian culture and Western art history, as well as playful homages to his art contemporaries. Some examples include Very Hungry God (2006), Jeff the Koons (2009), Et tu, Duchamp? (2009/2010) and This is Not a Fountain (2011 – 2013), where his visual and conceptual ideas reference both worlds through the use of familiar Indian objects and materials. Gupta’s works possess a cross-cultural visual language that appeals to the international art audience, leading him to being described as “the Damien Hirst of Delhi” by The Guardian.
The early years
Gupta (b. 1964) was born in a small town in Bihar, India, where his father worked in the railways. According to an article on Livemint – the economic edition of The Hindustan Times – prior to attending the College of Arts & Crafts in Patna, the artist’s only other exposure to the arts was when he travelled with a theatre group during his adolescent years as an actor and set designer.
Early in his career, Gupta was introduced to M.F. Husain, a renowned modern Indian painter who saw his work and offered him a position, which he declined. This was an early indication of his commitment to developing his own vision as an artist.
Rise to fame
In 1990, Gupta moved to Delhi with hopes of attending the Master’s programme at Delhi’s College of Art, but was not admitted. The turning point in his career was in 1997, when he moved to London as a recipient of the Gasworks International Residency.
Soon after, he was selected for the emerging artist award by Bose Pacia Modern, followed by a series of exhibitions and residencies in New York, USA, Japan, France, Australia and South Korea. It was during these years that Gupta travelled and gained knowledge of Western art history and saw artworks by fellow contemporary artists.
According to Livemint,
Gupta is quick to confess that he didn’t learn anything in art school – “In five years (in college), they taught us what they teach in art preparatory schools in Europe […] When people spoke of art history, I had no idea what was going on”.
The artist came to prominence in the international art world and market during the boom of emerging markets in the mid-2000s. He rose rapidly in the international art market and in 2008 became the youngest Indian artist to break the one million dollar mark at the Christie’s auction house.
Pots, pans and cow dung
In Gupta’s artworks, the seemingly simple everyday objects and materials he incorporates into his works such as pots, kitchen utensils, tiffins, milkpails, strainers and cow dung are laden with layers of meaning, from functional everyday use to spirituality and religion. Yet, Gupta takes these materials out of their local contexts and uses them as a tool to express his ideas in a visual language that speaks to a global art audience.
Cow dung, a material Gupta used early in his career, is thought to be sacred as well as functional, and is used daily in various forms for cooking, building walls and for sanitisation in India. During his seminal performance work Pure (I) (1999), he covers himself in cow dung and slowly washes it off his body until he is naked. Gupta said in a previous interview with Artnews.com, “where I grew up, cow dung was used for spiritual cleansing, something no longer believed in the city.”
According to the press release by Hauser & Wirth:
As a child, Gupta had been sent out to gather cowpats for ceremonies, and his ‘Pure’ works using cow dung specifically evoke a childhood in Bihar and the everyday rituals of Indian life. The Hindu faith recognises cow dung as a symbol of purity; believed to possess cleansing powers.
In his latest work Pure (I) (1999/2014), based on his previous work of the same title in 1999, he creates more meaning behind his choice of materials in the installation through burying used objects from local villagers. The objects are displayed like artefacts with individual provenance, stories and history. Included in the installation are black and white portraits documenting each villager and the object they donated to the artist. Former director of the Venice Biennale, Germano Celant, who led the tour with Gupta, compared this work to René Magritte‘s The Reckless Sleeper painting from 1928.
Furthermore, in both Pure (2014) and This is Not a Fountain (2011-2013), the artist moves away from the shiny new utensils he’s become known for and employs the weathered, discoloured and dented objects providing a greater sense of history and personality to his installations.
Fusing local and Western references
Over the years, Gupta has referenced his cultural heritage and the Western world in his works by fusing recognisable commonplace Indian materials with Western art concepts and imagery. For his piece entitled Very Hungry God (2006), Gupta built an enormous skull sculpture made of mass-produced shiny tiffin pots from India.
Very Hungry God (2006) was exhibited outside Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Italy in 2006 – a surprise pairing to viewers given the significance of the skull as a common symbol of vanitas, familiar to all Venetians. Gupta disregards the importance of the skull in European history and playfully titles the piece Very Hungry God (2006) drawing on the importance of Hindu kitchens. Gupta has said in an interview with Art Review:
I am the idol thief. I steal from the drama of Hindu life. And from the kitchen – these pots, they are like stolen gods, smuggled out of the country. Hindu kitchens are as important as prayer rooms.
According to Art News, this sculpture gained an iconic status due to its cross-cultural references.
The work speaks to the cultural context through the skull imagery, which is an omnipresent motif in Venetian art and architecture. […] The overlap between the very precise cultural meaning relating to Gupta’s home country and the particular iconography of the city of Venice has made this work not only a huge popular success, but also has given rise to a rich cross-cultural and art-historical dialogue.
In Gupta’s own words,
My work is about where I come from. But at the same time, the expansion of the art world means that to a certain extent, everything is shrinking together, and you have to be aware of international discourses in your work.
In his most recent work at Hauser & Wirth, This Is Not a Fountain (2011-2013), he pays homage to a legendary surrealist artist. The monumental installation is comprised of what appear to be hundreds of used pots and kitchen utensils with spouts of running water interspersed throughout the pile. The title directly references Magritte’s caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” for his work titled The Treachery of Images (1928-1929).
Yet simultaneously, all of Gupta’s works are strongly rooted in middle class India, and capture the changing landscape of contemporary India. For the “Common Man” exhibition in London (2009), Hauser & Wirth stated in their press release:
…he (Gupta) presents subject matters whose symbolism varies from the universal to the enigmatic, and whose emotional impact ranges from menace to nostalgia. […] Gupta’s work treats unlike things with equal respect, embodying the clash between impersonal and individual experience in contemporary society. He tests the ways in which meaning and value are constructed, exploring art’s capacity to withstand and channel the effects of expansion, displacement and translation.
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- Indian artist Sahej Rahal on the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and finding inspiration in Mumbai – interview – January 2015 – installation, performance and video artist talks about the city that inspires him, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and the importance of infusing his works with absurdity and wonder
- A walk through the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014 – January 2015 – the Kochi-Muziris Biennale returns for a dynamic second edition rich in breadth and potential, entitled “Whorled Explorations”
- India and Pakistan to collaborate at the 56th Venice Biennale – December 2014 – Pakistan and India collaborate for the 56th Venice Biennale in “My East is your West”, an exhibition featuring renowned contemporary artists Shilpa Gupta and Rashid Rana
- “Damien Hirst of Delhi” named knight: French government honours Indian artist Subodh Gupta – March 2013 – French government honoured Subodh Gupta with the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, consolidating the Indian artist’s international appeal
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