Art Radar takes a closer look at pre-eminent Indian artist Subodh Gupta on show at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Works from the private collection of Larry Warsh celebrate the motifs of everyday life for many Indians.
From 13 May to October 2016 the National Gallery of Victoria presents “Subodh Gupta: Everyday Divine”, a solo exhibition by well-known contemporary Indian artist Subodh Gupta. The works are on loan from the private collection of New York-based art collector Larry Warsh.
Gupta was born in a rural town in the Indian province of Bihar in 1964. The province is one of the poorest and least developed areas of India since independence. Gupta started his working life in a theatre group and in the 1980s he worked as a part-time newspaper designer and illustrator while studying at the College of Art, Patna.
In 1990 he moved to Delhi, where he developed his unique artistic aesthetic. In 1997 he moved to London as a recipient of the Gasworks International Residency, after which he travelled widely with exhibitions and residencies in New York, USA, Japan, France, Australia and South Korea. His career really took off in the 2000s and in 2008 he became the youngest Indian artist to break the one million dollar mark at Christie’s auction house.
Up-scaling the everyday object
Walking into “Subodh Gupta: Everyday Divine”, visitors are confronted with a cascade of stainless steel pots, pans and utensils. The pile looks precarious, like it is a wave about to crash. This sense of being overwhelmed by the scale of the work is something Gupta uses to great effect in his creative practice. This work, entitled Hungry God (2005-2006), alludes to religious offerings, but as curator Simon Maidment writes, by using everyday utensils Gupta “likens the modern-day kitchen to that of a secular temple and its implements to idols”.
There are not so many works in the gallery space, and their sizes are varied. The biggest work, Curry (2006), takes over a whole wall and is made up of a vast number of kitchen tools. Taken individually these kitchen goods might seem insignificant, something we might overlook as everyday clutter that fits in our cupboards at home. But seen in this scale it changes the perspective and context of the individual items.
Altering everyday objects and placing then in a gallery context stems from a tradition of the ready-made, first pioneered by Marcel Duchamp in the early 20th century. The ready-made is the idea that everyday objects can be made into art pieces by the simple act of signing them and declaring them art, or by putting them in the environment of an art gallery.
An early example of Duchamp’s ready-mades was a piece called Fountain, which was a urinal turned upside down and signed with the name ‘R. Mutt 1917’. The piece was a challenge to the very idea of what art was. By positioning two contrary elements together – a common and rather crass bathroom object and a work of art – Duchamp’s aim was to shock his contemporaries out of preconceived ideas. By putting a urinal in an art gallery, the meaning of the urinal changed. Instead of it being just a tool, it turned into something else, even though Duchamp hadn’t actually altered its shape. By changing the context of an object, Duchamp highlighted that what we see depends also on what we look for.
Many artists have since adapted the ready-made. In Gupta’s case, he uses everyday objects to explore the underlying spiritual potential of things. He often uses utensils, as this exhibition shows, but instead of being merely things to eat or cook with, Gupta puts them at the centre of his work and thereby explores their multiple references – mystical, historical, economic and sacred. Some of these are objects, such as the paatram (vessel) or the kalasham (pot-bellied pitcher) have remained unchanged for thousands of years and have been referenced in Hindu mythology. As curator Simon Maidment points out
elevating objects found in the everyday domestic and street life of many Indians to a position of spiritual worship has been at the heart of Gupta’s practice.
Working with metals
All the works in the exhibition are made of stainless steel, aluminium or bronze. The prevalence of metals in Gupta’s installations is no coincidence and in itself is a reference to everyday life in modern India. By using stainless steel in particular, Gupta is referring to a commodity that has risen in use in India since independence, when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru brought steel under state control in the late 1950s. Since then the useful commodity has become a common sight in Indian homes.
These objects also have personal resonance for anyone growing up in India in that era. In an interview with Artnews Gupta explains his relationship with these objects: “Like 80 percent of the population in India, I grew up carrying my lunch in these tiffin pots.” He goes on to explain his process:
In modern India sushi restaurants are opening up all over, but the history of the Silk Route, a route of trade across India and Asia, goes back centuries. The objects I pick already have their own significance. I put them together to create new meanings.
By casting everyday objects in metals that are also used in places of worship across India, Gupta is highlighting their importance in everyday life. For example, in Cow (2003, sculptures of a life-sized bicycle and motor scooter) and Gober Ganesha (2004, a vessel of bronze-cast cow patties) Gupta is exploring the multiple functions and symbolic meanings found in village life. They are items that reference the sacred cow, but are also essential to people’s wellbeing (delivering milk by bicycle or heating homes with cow patties). He takes these items out of everyday use by casting them in metals, making us stop and consider their place in our lives.
A committed collection
The works are on loan from collector Larry Warsh, who chooses artists whom he commits to wholeheartedly. In an interview with Financial Time, Warsh explains his collecting rationale:
Today there are many more collectors who like to buy one work each from many artists, making their own ‘cake’, so that it reflects on themselves. I have nothing against that, but I found myself, once I was committed to an artist, wanting to collect anything that they did — paintings, posters, finished and unfinished.
Warsh is also a collector of Ai Weiwei and other contemporary Asian artists. He has been involved in the art world for more than 30 years and founded the AW Asia, an organisation that promotes the field of Chinese contemporary art through institutional loans and acquisitions, curatorial projects, publications and educational programmes.
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