Shilpa Gupta’s latest exhibiton “Drawing in the Dark” examines the porous nature of borders and the material signifiers they produce.
The exhibition runs at Bielefelder Kunstverein in Germany until 16 July 2017 and will travel to Le Centre d’art Contemporain, La Synagoge de Delm in France where it will be on show from October 2017 to February 2018.
On 17 August 1947, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, as chairman of the Boundary Commissions formed following India’s independence from British rule, made official the demarcation lines that would separate India from Pakistan. The Radcliffe Line, as it was known, developed out of a need to equitably distribute tracts of land according to religious difference and political representation following Indian independence. However, its origins lie in an earlier partition in 1905, when George Curzon divided Hindu Bengal from its Muslim counterpart.
By 1911, that line was eradicated for fear of separatism, but its influence lingered. In 1971, East Pakistan fought for its own independence from its western arm on the basis of linguistic, cultural and political autonomy. The shifting geography of the South Asian terrain over the past seventy years speaks to the complexity of its culture, wherein the fluidity of exchange – both legal and illicit – defines contemporary life in the region.
Shilpa Gupta‘s exhibition “Drawing in the Dark” examines the porous nature of borders and the material signifiers they produce, taking into consideration the human activities – including smuggling, illicit trade and border patrolling – that reify imaginary borders such that they have material impacts on those in their domain. The exhibition, which was previously held at Ghent’s KIOSK Gallery and contains new works developed for KIOSK and the Centre d’Art Contemporain La Synagogue de Delm in France, is in some ways an extension of Gupta’s 2015 collaboration with the Pakistani artist Rashid Rana, “My East is Your West”, created for the 56th Venice Biennale.
“Drawing in the Dark” takes its title from one of the works in the Biennale exhibition, in which simple pencil drawings are accompanied by an instructive text on how to traverse borders, drawn from narratives of those who had made the journey. In this exhibition, Gupta focuses on the border between India and Bangladesh, the fifth longest in the world, that stretches for over 4,000 kilometres and has been under continuous construction since it was begun in 1989 – the same year that the Berlin wall fell in Germany. Gupta’s works, therefore, speak to both the historical erection of walls and borders used to police movement, as well as the divisive rhetoric surrounding immigration that has embroiled Germany as well as the rest of Europe today.
Entering the gallery space of Bielefelder Kunstverein, visitors must negotiate and duck under a dark steel beam that diagonally splits the threshold. Entitled 1:444557 (2017), it bears a brass placard that reads “2710 KMs of Fenced-Border East”. Despite the length of the India-Bangladesh border fence, or perhaps as a result of it, illegal crossings, particularly from Bangladesh into India, are common. Gupta’s evocation of these borders through the physical act of visitors’ passage under the steel beam is an exercise of cognitive dissonance: the ease with which one enters and exits the space contradicts and simultaneously recalls the difficult passage of those whose livelihood is contingent on traversing such borders through stealth.
As Gupta states in an interview in OnRust magazine:
The state has this imagination of creating a very finite border. People, however, keep making their way across, whether it is for a job, a better bargain at the market, trade, or because they have family on the other side. There exists a contradiction between technology and large scale infrastructure required to maintain the border on the one hand and the human desire and necessity to travel on the other hand.
Gupta evokes this human desire and necessity – borne out of economic disenfranchisement and poverty – clearly in works that retain touches of the human hand. 1:2138 (2017) is a ball of shredded fabric from jamdani saris, a craft native to Bangladesh. These saris are handmade on looms and, because of their demand in the Indian market, transported across borders by foot and eventually taken on trains to larger Indian cities such as Kolkata and Mumbai. Gupta’s practice of shredding and winding these saris, in previous untitled works from 2015 and 2016, indexes the physical labour and handicraft in the saris creation as well as their transport. By dematerialising the recognisable object from its traditional form, Gupta blurs the boundaries between nationalist products: what claim does the shredded ball of fabric have to Bangladesh, to India, or to anywhere in between?
Elsewhere, Gupta’s consideration of the human elements of migration employs unconventional materials in more traditional forms. The eponymous Drawings in the Dark depict the collars, binoculars, guns and other accoutrements of border control guards, rendered in marijuana leaves. The marijuana plants grow freely on their side of the border fence between Bangladesh and India, and though their commercial use and consumption is strictly illegal, their presence along the border indicates the distance between law and its implementation.
In another gallery, Gupta presents several photographs of a clear blue sky with fluffy white clouds. Overlain on these photographs are spare auto parts, punctuating the bright blue with their dark, rough iron surfaces. They appear haphazardly scattered, as if they were dropped, or had fallen from their respective vehicles, bringing to mind the injunction for those illicitly traveling across borders to only take what they can carry. Gupta suggests, through these works, that although the same skies might be shared by many, material evidence proves that life is lived in multivariate ways – ways that are at least in part determined by the geographic borders that define mobility.
In the central work of her exhibition at Bielefelder Kunstverein, Gupta makes the difference between mobility and migration explicit. 24:00:01 (2012) is a motion flapboard piece that hangs from the ceilings of the gallery in the style of analogue flapboards that were used in the past to announce arrival and departure times at railstations. Rather than displaying times, however, Gupta’s work presents a series of statements alluding to universal themes of identity and place.
Although they might seem platitudinous at first (“I hear a song”, for example, seems slightly out of place within the context of the rest of the works), the messages bring to bear a unifying theme of perseverance amidst the realities that migration inflicts upon those residing in the borderlands of South Asia. Gupta’s practice emphasises the recognition of these realities as products of geopolitics, but also as impacted on the lives of real people.
- “Figures in a Landscape”: British-Japanese artist Simon Fujiwara at Künsthalle Dusseldorf – February 2017 – Simon Fujiwara turn his anthropological gaze to the languages of social media, marketing and advertising
- “The Creative Act: Performance, Process, Presence” from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum collection: a transcultural perspective on art since the 1960s – May 2017 – the second exhibition from the collection brings together more than 25 artworks
- “A Tale of Two Cities”: Indian and Sri Lankan artists at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts – March 2017 – “A Tale of Two Cities” – the show brings together 11 artists of Indian and Sri Lankan descent to respond to the cities of Anuradhapura and Varanasi
- “In my own words…”: Indian artist V. Ramesh at Gallery Threshold, New Delhi – February 2017 – V. Ramesh brings the details of everyday life into his paintings
- “Charming Journey”: India’s N.S. Harsha at Mori Art Museum – artist profile – May 2017 – the retrospective explores the tensions between traditional and contemporary, individual and collective, earthy and cosmic in the artist’s work
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