Shilpa Gupta, Possessing Skies

Poorna Swami

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Shilpa Gupta doesn’t like to speak about her art. Of course, she gives the occasional interview, but not without struggle. “Art making,” she tells me over email, “is so driven by the unconscious and, even though I use text, I find it hard to explain it all.” And it’s true: Gupta’s installations, on the one hand precise in what they want to say, are also vast in the possibilities of meaning they hold. Her work is never one thing or attached to a single medium, and it grasps at different moments for both overbearing impact and quiet intimacies. Over the years, Gupta has delved into photography, sculpture, performance, text, and even anthropological experiment. In an untitled 2001 work, she took a blank canvas on a pilgrimage across India, to forty holy places of different faiths. She asked priests, ascetics, gurus, and silent idols of all types to bless a canvas “such that it will bring peace and happiness wherever it stands.” Each canvas was then printed with the name of the person or place that had blessed it. In a gallery space, the canvases, with their bold black lettering, hang in a rectangular arrangement against a gold wall. At their center, a small television plays footage of Gupta’s blessing-seeking escapades, edited with the jarring finish of an Indian wedding video editor. The entire vision must be approached by a red carpet.

At once humorous and incisive about Indian communal politics, this work is telling of the intelligence and rigor that characterize Gupta’s work. That every canvas, despite being blessed by another—possibly “opposing”—faith, looks identical immediately dismantles notions of difference that breed religious strife. At the same time, the artist, through whose eyes we see this work, appears in video played against the decidedly ostentatious gold and red of wall and carpet. Edited and displayed, that too with the selective memory of wedding videos, the artist is no longer the arbiter of truth in this work; as viewers, we cannot rely on the words and images she has created for us. Between the reality of our own faith and blasphemy, and their permutation before us, we must make meaning for ourselves.

Gupta’s acute sense of the political body, both as individual and collective, underlies much of her work. As with the untitled blessed canvas piece, she positions her spectator in an irresolvable conversation between the abstracted artwork and a tangible sense of the so-called real world, with all its ideologies, idiosyncrasies, and fragilities. There is a sense that the individual can never be extricated from context, that universals will forever remain unrequited. In My East is Your West (2014), an animated light installation, different letters in nonlinear arrangement light up at different times to form the words MY EAST IS YOUR WEST. The letters are large, resolute atop a building, framed by the changing hues of sky. Language literally shifts above us as the letters illuminate, then diminish, before resurging once again. Through this transience, we remain, unmoved—our east is still east, and our west, west. But the text looming above continues to remind us that our conceptions are relative, constructed, and that our maps of the world do not align. Giving language bodied presence, Gupta connects word to place, to our sense of place, of nationhood, belonging, and diaspora, and to maybe even the falseness of it all.

In a similar 2012 installation, I live under your sky too, Gupta sets up a large LED light structure that reads in cursive: “I live under your sky too.” On the other side, in Hindi, the lights project an exact translation of the English counterpart. Installed along a beach in Bombay, this work imposes itself in a public space far removed from the elitism of a contemporary art gallery. Bombay’s beaches, curiosities in their own right, teem with makeshift cricket matches, jogging businessmen, food vendors, canoodling lovers, and family picnics—people from across the city’s social strata. Under a flushed sky pocked with the occasional balloon and incandescent boomerang, the installation claims inclusion in this diversity, its words demanding residence. Although the work physically divides the beach, it actively refutes its own division. Approaching the lights from opposite directions offers opposing visions, in two separate languages. And yet, the meanings are exactly the same.

But a call to unanimity would be too easy. The words say the sky, an untamable presence, belongs to someone—it is “your sky.” So we might question ownership, assimilation, and exclusion, just standing where we often do, invisible amid the crowds of beachgoers. Unwittingly, we must engage with the city’s legacy of cultural diversity that is also stippled with cultural tension. Bombay houses migrants from all around India and yet is claimed and policed by a xenophobic regional party. But if this is our sky, too, we must calculate our share. Staking claim to space for all Bombay people, the work prods its political surroundings and what it means to be a person of a place. In this place bounded by ocean and sky, the work asserts that the divisions of citizenship, like the work of art itself, are elaborate scaffoldings; it is futile, even dangerous, to believe that one possesses the sky.

Divisions are a connective thread in Gupta’s body of work. In Tree Drawings, she pastes white string on white paper in the shapes of various trees. Each work is titled with the common name for the tree it depicts—Acacia, Mango, Olive—along with a number, a ratio of length of thread to fenced border. On her website, Gupta writes of this work:

Every summer, people over dinner tables across India and Pakistan spend hours talking and arguing over the taste of Mango.
Walking not far, towards the East, stand the alluring Mangroves which have captured the imagination and stories of the islands of the Sunderbans swamps, stretching like a band through the two countries of India and Bangladesh, as they dip into the Bay of Bengal.
The Acacias of Western Sahara sprawl across the dry sands of the several lengths of barrier gradually built by Morocco through a land left in flux after those who came and left.
Olive is the national tree of Palestine and Israel.
Pecan is relished in Mexico and the USA.
The length of thread is in ratio to the length of fences constructed on different borders.

To render different regions mired in border conflict in a generic white-paper-and-string collage of their native trees, of course, is a stark comment on the construction of nation states. But it is also a meditation on experience, on the violent everyday of being caught between reassigned and imploding borders. The work’s greatest power rests in its scanty white-on-white landscape. Devoid of people, this landscape becomes precisely about its people. The accompanying text forces us to conjure those absent people, whose lives are tangled in lengths of running barbed wire. In a faraway urban gallery, the familiar tastes of mango and olive turn rancid with the schisms of reclaiming homelands and destroying homes; empathy is inevitable.

To feel with someone else, for someone else, to know “the other,” seems an agenda in many of Gupta’s works. In her most “literary” work, Someone Else—A library of 100 books written anonymously or under pseudonyms (2012-13), she displays one hundred books with elusive authors. (She has done the same series for books from three countries). The books are arranged, quite ordinarily, by call number on their respective shelves in libraries. Picture frames, placed intermittently at each anonymous book, should contain author biographies but do not. Instead, each author’s headshot is dissolved into a featureless gray, and the biographical note is replaced by a list: the mode of anonymity (anonymous publication or the use of a pseudonym), reason for anonymity, and year of publication. The reasons for shying away from authorship are an amusing assortment: “for fear of being the woman,” “marketing strategy,” “to sound Japanese-American.”

By presenting us with these books, ones we love and ones we may have never heard of, along with the absence of their true authors, Gupta urges us to ponder the conditions that deter an individual’s identity. In an occlusive economy of production, distribution, and censorship, this work investigates the sovereignty of personhood within the sovereign nation. When an individual’s surroundings consume the individual, how do we remember them? What remains?

Like in the empty, verdant fields photographed in Looking for Kurukshetra (2008), perhaps remnants are not the point. Here, Gupta went in search of Kurukshetra, the battlefield from the Hindu myth Mahabharata, which supposedly took place in modern-day Haryana, a Northern Indian state. What she found was not a bloody, rocky terrain but a profusion of greenery. Between the tall crops, she placed a sign printed on yellow caution tape: “Looking for Kurukshetra.” With words embossed on a symbol of state authority, Gupta invokes a brutal story we already know. We impress the characters upon the landscape, change the landscape even. Krishna urges Arjuna into war, then connives with him to kill Karna in a field hot with bloody swords and chariot wheels. Mythology conflates with the contemporary moment, and our imaginations remake both the photograph’s place and its people—this is our archive. Maybe that is the project: the realization that the individual, the political agent, does not necessarily operate in a static place or linear time, but rather in the imaginations of them both; what remains of a past, of a person, is always remade in another hour.