What kind of world do we inhabit right now? In the past few years, instances of refugee crisis, border issues and forced relocations have ravaged the lives of countless people making one confront the immensely iniquitous and divided countenance of our societies. Yet, amidst all this, how might solidarities be unearthed, imagined, and built? What role can art play in exposing these concerns and mending them? The work of the contemporary artist Shilpa Gupta is addressing precisely these concerns.
Born in 1976, Gupta studied sculpture at the Sir J. J. School of Fine Arts from 1992 to 1997. She continues to live and work in Mumbai. Gupta is an acclaimed artist. In 2011, Gupta was the recipient of the Bienal Award, Bienal De Cuenca, Ecuador; in 2004 she was the recipient of the Transmediale Award, Berlin, and the Sanskriti Prathisthan Award, New Delhi. She was also named International Artist of the Year by the South Asian Visual Artists Collective, Canada.
Gupta’s work involves communicating the impact of dominant forces acting on local and national communities as well as understanding how objects, places, people, and experiences are defined, and asking how these definitions are played out through the process of classification, restriction, censorship, and security. Her artistic practice involves an eclectic range of mediums right from found objects and everyday materials to video, interactive computer-based installation, and performance. For Gupta, this diversity in medium apart from its necessity to address variegated concerns is simultaneously also an attempt at avoiding the weight of a style which might become restrictive.
The creative use of technology has been central to her practice over her career. In 2001, she created an internet artwork titled Blessed Bandwidth commissioned by Tate Modern whereby she put up a website in place which invited the viewers to be blessed online via online pages linked via a cable which she carried to various sites of worship. The website comprised of several thousand links which the visitor could use to be offer prayer, download images of Holy waters from different religions. At once an exploration of the changing contours of religion in the increasingly technologized world, Blessed Bandwidth is also a commentary on the persistent prejudices and dogmas of religion despite civilizational progress.
She tries to push the boundaries of art practice by allowing the audience to shape and often convey the meaning of her works. In her 2009 installation Threat, which was a wall made of bars of soap that mimic the appearance of bricks and imprinted with the single word of the title, every viewer was invited to take a bar home so that the wall slowly disappears and, as each bar is used, the embossed “threat” is neutralized and eventually erased.
The issues of displaced communities and borders have consistently figured in Shilpa’s work. For instance, she has created a number of projects mapping the effects of the 1947 partition and she was one of the artists leading the Aar Paar project (2002-2004), which sent works by various artists across the India-Pakistan border, to be displayed in everyday public spaces. Her work, In Our Times (2008) consists of two microphones at the ends of a pole that swings back and forth, emitting the inaugural independence speeches from 1947 by Mohammed Ali Jinnah of Pakistan and Jawaharlal Nehru of India. These speeches suffused with hope lead one to reflect on the similarities and difference in the two visions, and to question the political decisions in which both the leaders were implicated ultimately allowing the citizens of the two countries to rethink their shared histories and legacies.
One of Gupta’s most interesting and incisive work from the latter half of the last decade involved addressing the issue of censorship perhaps given the volatile environment of the nation around that time which saw the blatant and unjust incarceration of journalists, artists, writers, and activists. The work titled For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit is a sound installation comprising 100 microphones suspended over 100 metal rods, each piercing a verse of poetry. These verses belong to 100 poets, coming from different nationalities and languages, imprisoned for their writings or political positions from the 7th century to the present day. The poem of 14th century Azerbaijani poet Nesimi inspired the title of Gupta’s sound installation, which has been part of the major exhibitions around the world asserting the idea of freedom of expressions and speech.
Each microphone over the course of an hour recites a fragment of the poets’ words, spoken first by a single voice then echoed by a chorus which shifts across the space. Gupta’s intriguing microphones, which one noticed also in In Our Times, are fitted with speakers that augment the idea of the microphone from something that is simply spoken into to something that is also a means of broadcasting at a larger scale.
Shilpa Gupta’s eclectic artistic practice cannot be done justice to in a single article. Her multimedial practice excavates cultural history, reclaims the vitality of lost literature as well as presents the futility of borders while constructing new avenues for solidarity. As an artist who constantly rejuvenates her oeuvre with newer questions and mediums – to use another art critic’s words for her work – “It is worth to wait and watch what silences Gupta illuminates with her forthcoming works to turn a new leaf in history.”
Currently her work is being exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The group exhibition titled Enter the Mirror is being curated by Jamillah James, with Jack Schneider.