CONVERSATION SUBODH GUPTA INDIAN CONTEMPORARY ART
New Delhi-based contemporary artist Subodh Gupta is not backward in coming forward with his views. Smiling firmly, he chose not to respond to introductory remarks made by moderator William Pym, Managing Editor of Art Asia Pacific magazine at a talk hosted as a side-event of the Christie’s Hong Kong autumn 2009 auctions .
Instead he turned to face the audience: “Let me tell you all clearly why I am here today. Originally this was supposed to be a one-on-one talk with Art Asia Pacific. I was happy about that. But then it turned into a group talk hosted by Christies. I prefer to work with curators, writers and critics rather than auction houses”. Christie’s Hugo Weihe, International Director of Asian Art who was sitting in the front row looked slightly startled.
So Subodh Gupta is a man who is not afraid to say what he thinks….this talk was shaping up to be interesting.
Moving attention swiftly to the art, Pym invited Gupta to discuss a series of slides of his works many of which were featured in his Hauser and Wirth solo show “Common Man” which ended October 2009.
Subodh Gupta, A Penny for Belief II
One set of works comprised three over-sized thalis (thali is a Hindi word meaning plate on which a series of small bowls of food are placed) each featuring its own grouping of like items: used sandals, kitchen utensils and coins in oil.
Gupta explained that a primary source of inspiration is what he sees and has seen in his everyday environment, the objects which surround him. His trademark references to Indian kitchen utensils reference his earliest experiences:
He was born (one of six children) in the northeastern state of Bihar, which he describes as the Wild West of India. His father, a railway guard, was a drinker and died in his early forties, when Gupta was 12. His mother, who came from a farming family, sent him off to live with her brother for a few years in a remote village — “Not a single school kid wore shoes, and there is no road to go to school. Sometimes we stop in the field and we sit down and eat green chickpea before we go to school. (Times)
Today however Gupta sporting international urban grunge-style clothing complete with goatee, only haltingly accepted the proposal suggested by Pym that he might be a cultural ambassador for India, someone who plays a role in teaching the world about his native country. “My inspiration comes from everyday life. Yes I suppose you can say I am an ambassador but only by chance because I am from India. Every artist reflects their own cultural environment. Nowadays I live in the world, I see more of the world. My art expresses that.”
The assemblage of local and global influences is evident in Penny for Belief II in which a large thali is filled with oil and coins. He explained that his globe-trotting lifestyle led him to notice that many cultures share behaviourse for expample the belief in the value of throwing coins for blessings. Local rites have underlying universal themes. “In the United Kingdom, China and India, they throw coins into different things: oil, water and empty pots. But they all believe in throwing coins”.
Observant pattern-seeking Gupta is an artist who believes that art is a conceptual endeavour. Ever direct, he looked straight at the audience as he said: “If you still believe that artists today make art themselves, you are romanticising. My job as an artist is to think, conceive the ideas. My art is made up for me by expert artisans all over the world, the thali works were made in America. The Jeff Koons boxes were cast in Zurich.”
After leaving school, Gupta joined a small theatre group in Khagaul and worked as an actor for five years. This has informed his view of his role as an artist. “As an artist I have to adapt myself to the subject of my art. An artist is like an actor, he also has to adapt himself”.
Gupta clearly relishes art-making as a participatory and flexible endeavour and he is comfortable allowing viewers of his work to join in too. He explained that he let visitors throw their own coins into his thali artwork. “Didn’t the guards at the Hauser and Wirth gallery stop people from doing that, they are usually very protective of the art” asked Pym looking surprised. “No we told the guards to let visitors throw their own coins. It is part of the art and, you know what, we had coins from all over the world”.
Subodh Gupta, I Believe You
Despite his willingness to farm out the manual process of art-making, Gupta’s has a deep respect for labour and hard toil. He described how the sandals in “I Believe You” were sourced: “I noticed that the labourers in India wear sandals and each bears the mark, the footprint of its owner. Unique marks, like fingerprints. I bought some new sandals and swapped them for the workers’ used slippers. They symbolise these people in India – and of course all over the world – who work day to day for their bread and butter. These hard-working honest labourers. In this piece I am saying: I honour you, worship you, believe you. It is almost like a prayer. Thalis have associations not only with food but also with prayer.”
Labourers and travel remained the focus of the conversation as it turned to slides of his renowned luggage trolley series which included one of Subodh Gupta’s sculpture of a gilded bronze luggage trolley and three pieces of aluminium luggage called Vehicle for the Seven Seas (2004). According to Artcurial, this work posted an auction record price for the Indian artist when it fetched €502,330 ($785,243), more than triple its €140,000-180,000 estimate, under the gavel on April 3 2008.
Though he must have recounted the story behind this series many times before, Gupta’s explanation was engaging and articulate. “I had not travelled outside India until 1993. After that I often flew between Europe and India and because I bought cheap tickets, there was usually a stopover in Dubai or Kuwait. I noticed that on the return journey to India the plane was often empty for the first leg of the journey and then in the Middle East stopover the plane was filled with Indians, my people, migrant workers from India.”
He noticed that they had a particular and unique way of wrapping up their belongings for the journey. He became more and more intrigued by these packages and pieces of luggage which were so tightly and securely wrapped. ” I began to get talking to the passengers who were tailors and taxi drivers and construction labourers … I asked them what was inside. It turned out that the contents were quite ordinary, their everyday belongings plus a few clothes for their children, perhaps a little jewellery for their wives. But these parcels seemed to me to be themselves like jewellery and so I started working on them”.
Wrappings as a source of inspiration and of value in their own right is a motif which recurs in his work. In his ‘Jeff the Koons’ installation, Gupta has cast in aluminum copies of the cardboard boxes that Koons’ mailorder ‘Puppy’ sculptures come in.
Subodh Gupta, Jeff The Koons, installation Hauser and Wirth
In this work, Gupta shows us his playful side. Packaging materials rather than the contents become the focus of attention, the new and greater source of interest. And Gupta is not afraid to have a little fun, be a little cheeky: he distracts us and leads our attention away from the art (even though this art is made by world-famous artist Jeff Koons) and towards the packaging of it as if it were just as or more important. But Gupta’s irony is only employed with permission. “I first saw the boxes in Saint Tropez. When I was told that they were the boxes in which Koons’ sculptures had travelled there I was inspired. I wanted to cast them. I was told that maybe Jeff Koons would sue me unless I asked permission. So I waited 3 years until mutual friends finally introduced us and Koons gave me permission.”
“Jeff the Koons” is a work reminiscent of Warhol’s pivotal 1964 work Brillo Boxes too. These days Gupta likes to riff on iconic Western artworks. This has earned him well-worn monikers such as the “Damien Hirst of Delhi” and “Marcel Duchamp of the Subcontinent”. What does he think of these tags wondered Pym. “These titles seem to follow you from one press article to another. How do you feel about that?” “Well I find that it is usually the journalists who know the least about art who like to use them. I like Damien Hirst as an artist but I don’t see myself as him. Anyway what is written about me is not in my control. I just make art”
The son of a railway guard who arrived penniless in Delhi in 1988, Gupta who produced conventional canvases for many years before making sculpture, has clearly come a long way. Now Gupta’s everyday, his immediate sphere, his source of inspiration is no longer a rural world of steel buckets and tiffin boxes. Instead his environment is one of international travel, world-class art and well-deserved prominence.
Yet despite all this, Subodh Gupta is a man who remembers and honours the “common man”. Pym recounted how Gupta’s bronze sculpture of hand-painted mangos Aam Aadmi was his mother’s favourite work in the show. Gupta laughed. “I am glad about that because it is my favourite work too. I named the show after this work. Aam is a reference to mango fruit and to the common man. It is the King of Fruit in India. It is grown everywhere unlike other fruit so everyone can eat mango.”
Subodh Gupta, Aam Aadmi, 2009
Although he can be disconcertingly direct, sometimes to the point of being dismissive, it is hard not to like Subodh Gupta for his integrity, his humility and his fearlessness. Gupta may not be happy with Christie’s but the audience was thrilled by their up-close encounter with this complex engaging artist which Christie’s helped to host and promote.
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