Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Subodh Gupta & Indian Utensils equals ART

The Art of Subodh Gupta
By Meenakshi Thirukode - South Asian Contemporary Art | April 30, 2009
Photo of Subodh Gupta by Michael Benisty.

Subodh Gupta is often the subject of conversation these days. I’ve wanted to write about his works from the time I was introduced to the splendor of tightly-packed, stainless steel utensils in the Jack Shainman Gallery booth at the Armory Show in 2007. It was barely four months since I had moved to New York and I was far away from home for the first time. To be honest, I felt a hint of home sickness looking at the ‘Jeff Koonianization’ of Pathirams that my mother had many a time vehemently bargained for, with the fast talking, multitasking sellers whose stores lined T Nagar (or was it Mylapore, I can’t remember). But it didn’t matter. The instant reaction to the beauty of the object in front of me was emotional.

A little more than two years have passed since then and Subodh Gupta is bigger than any other practicing, contemporary artist from India. I often wonder if Gupta achieved this success because he associated with the right network of institutional and individual power players in the industry. Often I find that Gupta’s works have gained publicity less through critical analysis, and more because of record prices they have earned at auction, or because he has Western galleries that represent him, rather than niche galleries focusing on Indian art. I wonder about this because high auction records alone don’t make a work of art or an artist brilliant. And Western gallery representation is possibly a smart career move.

But moving beyond the politics of managing one’s artistic career, I want to look at the works themselves, in part to bring the discussion of Gupta back to the art, rather than the money. I do think that there are layers to the work that grow from the often quoted, and now trite association, to the Urban-Rural dichotomy and the relationship of it to Gupta’s own meager beginnings. Those layers speak of Beauty – Beauty that can be looked upon as an antithesis to the idea of disparities between the different sections of Indian society, or as a mere objectification of the ordinary.

To begin with, we need to address the almost-immediate association that people make between Gupta’s use of utensils and the Duchampian idea of the found object. What most people seem to forget when they bring up this comparison is that Duchamp was not interested in the idea of the found object as a work of art. He didn’t intend for it to be ‘art’ but was instead presenting an irony of what is perceived and accepted (or not accepted) as being worthy of the tag ‘art object’. When Duchamp submitted the urinal titled The Fountain for a show organized by the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, he was actually critiquing the whole notion of the venture. This was because the organization, of which Duchamp himself was a board member, claimed that it was a venue through which anyone could show works because there were no juries and no rejections. When Duchamp under anonymity submitted The Fountain, it was rejected. Duchamp made his point and art history took a drastic turn towards uncharted paths of debate on what constituted the idea of ‘art’. The context in which The Fountain is now perceived goes completely against what the artist intended. The everyday object that was by no means considered to be an object of Beauty, even in today’s context, and was put in as a work of art because of the inherent irony of it all, would now be worth millions both literally and art historically. And it is the art historical significance I am concerned with.

When Gupta uses the everyday object (utensils) it is with the full intention and knowledge of the fact that these objects are undergoing a transition from the everyday to that of objectified Beauty. Therefore, it is not a representation of the Duchampian idea of the found object, but rather a negation of it. It is not meant to challenge the idea of what constitutes art, and it is not a critique of art or the art world. It is an intentional act in which Gupta transforms the objects original function/meaning/intent so that he can call attention to the notions of idealized Beauty especially within the cultural norms of Indian society. The viewer is presented with an idea of Beauty, evident in what has now become an object of art, and will now be contemplated as such.

It is Beauty that becomes pertinent to the understanding of Gupta’s works. Louise Bourgeois said about Beauty, ”Beauty is a series of experiences and a mystified expression of our own emotion.” Beauty has been the center of debate for artists and critics alike since the turn of the 20th century. Beauty was seen as being frivolous post- 1960’s, partially in reaction to the idealism of the early 20th century. When I look at Beauty in today’s context, I think it is far more capricious at this point in Mankind’s history than ever before. To understand how that idea functions in Gupta’s works, one must first understand it within the context of where he comes from and then how it relates to his practice globally.

Today Beauty is directly associated with the good things in life – that’s how it is marketed. The idea of Beauty within the context of contemporary India is very important. There are inherent biases in the idea of Beauty and might I add ‘coolness’ as perceived and projected in India. They range from the now infamous Fair and Lovely Ad’s that spring from the notion that you have to be fair to be considered a beautiful woman worthy of a man’s attention, to the notion that you are ‘cool’ (another facet of Beauty) if you flaunt the latest branded accessories to college or are in a ‘live in’ relationship at twenty. Gupta’s work is an expression of such definitions of perfection and Beauty, first at a visceral level, before he digs a little deeper. His steel wall sculptures and stand alone pieces are an expression of clean, defined, ‘stain-less’ precision. Even his recent canvases have dabs and streaks of paint slapped across the surface as if to make the viewer notice how he (the artist), has violated the perfect, carefully painted surfaces that mimic the shine of unused vessels. Yes, it is the new unused object that Gupta glorifies in all its grandeur through large paintings or installations, before the dirt and grime of usage can take that glimmer away. Before the Beauty of it fades in the eye of the beholder.

Gupta pushes this deliberate idea of beauty and perfection in society projected again and again by his repetitive placement of multiple objects. In doing so he transforms the ordinary into something more fantastic – an art object. The repetition of objects emphasizes the constant bombardment of the media as it seeks to market products day in and day out. It is a massive, symmetrical, gigantism of perfection with the shiny untainted coolness of steel utensils. Its almost teetering on the lines of an overkill of flawlessness, that might leave you feeling disgusted if you see too much of it.

The work also takes a jab at the debate of whether Indian art needs to be more local (have conspicuous cultural references) or global (universal resonance) in its language. It feeds into the need for the Indian-ness that is argued against, but is unreservedly a part of Gupta’s art because of where he comes from. And this points to the fact that be it Western or Indian societal conditioning, the works give rise to very similar, one-layered interpretations at first (Remember my own reaction being very literal.). And in doing so, it mocks the viewer for being so superficial just as he/she might be functioning within the scheme of society making judgments of others and the self. That surface-level interaction most people have with art, wherein they look at the work and instinctively decide if it’s beautiful or not and to what degree, before making any other association is immediate in Gupta’s case. Perhaps the artist wants to stop at just that. Or perhaps he wants us to challenge our own ideas rather than his.

source:Whitewall Magazine

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