The utensil maestro

georgina maddox | Updated on April 17, 2014 Published on January 31, 2014

Bullets and bartans Subodh Gupta’s affiliation for utensils is personal rather than political. - Kamal Narang

Bullets and bartans Subodh Gupta’s affiliation for utensils is personal rather than political. - Kamal Narang

Subodh Gupta has created the monumental through everyday objects. As he mounts his biggest solo show in Delhi, he explains why he makes the familiar unfamiliar

When we meet Subodh Gupta, his big mid-career show that runs till mid-March at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Delhi, is yet to open. Winding up a late lunch with his curator Germano Celant, he walks across the green lawn of the NGMA with a confident and relaxed stride, not betraying his crazy hours and relentless work schedule. Gupta has installed the biggest exhibition of his lifetime, at the age of 50 in the heart of Delhi.

“I am very proud that I am having an exhibition of this proportion in my own country; it is a great honour,” says Gupta who was invited by NGMA a year ago to host this solo. Titled ‘Everything is Inside’, the exhibition showcases 24 years of his work, comprising installations, sculptures and paintings. Even viewers who have been following his work would not have seen half the work on display at NGMA. Everything is Inside (Penguin Books), a monograph, supplements the exhibition, by contextualising his work through 200 odd photographs.

Gupta’s cow dung hut, an installation which he created in the ’90s takes pride of place at the entrance. In one corner, his famed bronze cycles loaded with milk cans lean against the wall and are juxtaposed against Royal Enfield Bullets that are loaded with similar cans; these when viewed together speak of the transition that India’s “cow belt” has witnessed over the decades. In the centre of the room are his trolleys loaded with luggage, which tell of immigration and international travel and hint at a world in flux. His famed black and yellow taxi roof, loaded with holdalls also indicates imminent departure. Everything from his trademark shiny ever-silver utensils to the latest sculpture of a large, ever-silver banyan tree sprouting vessels are laden with the politics of identity, nostalgia and location.

“The utensils are shiny yet empty,” says Gupta. The emptiness tells of the underside of showy, ‘progress.’ The empty utensils are also a pithy reminder of the politics of food, its production and distribution in a country where over 32.7 per cent of its population of a billion people lives below the poverty line.

Gupta’s own affiliation for utensils is personal and has nothing to do with lofty ideals. “Everything comes back to my mother. She was a wonderful cook and I would love to spend time in the kitchen with her. I was fascinated by the ritual and the ceremony of the kitchen space, how certain vessels were used for certain occasions…” says Gupta, who lost his father, a railway worker, when he was 12 and was raised by his mother single-handedly.

The artist from Bihar

Gupta is one of India’s most coveted contemporary artists. He left his home in Khagul, Bihar, with a few scant belongings in the ’80s. “I wanted to be an actor in the beginning,” he says and joined a theatre group in Delhi. Initially he did illustrations to make a living. One day the utensil sculptures came into being, they moved from being kitchen utensils and became building blocks of his art. “Something happened that day, Bharti (Kher, fellow artist and wife) and I knew it…she used to criticise my paintings, but the bartan sculptures shocked us both with its immediacy and its power,” he says.

Within a decade he became the owner of a vast home in the heart of Delhi and a studio in Gurgaon. Gupta had studied art at the Patna School of Art, which left him ill-equipped to face the metropolitan ways of the Capital, but he rose above those shortcomings and came into his own through the power of his artwork. Bathing in cow dung at a performance at Khoj (a Delhi-based artist collective) for a piece titled ‘Pure’ in 2000, he underlined his rural roots and celebrated his Bihari identity. He gained international recognition with his solo in 2006, when his monumental sculpture, ‘Very Hungry God’ was installed at the Venice Grand Canal outside the Palazzo Grassi. The work was acquired by French billionaire businessman and art collector Francois Pinault for an undisclosed sum.

What does he feel about this journey, from relative anonymity to ‘stardom’? “Well so far so good, I say. I am lucky to have gotten here and I hope that I can carry on creating large and impossible works of art. When one grows as a person and matures, this reflects in one’s work also. I do feel that I used to produce so many works in my youth without thinking them over. Now I plan and research my works before I put them into action,” says the artist.

For this exhibition, Gupta is not only showing his earlier work but has created site-specific installations. We walk to one of the gardens at the NGMA and his giant stainless-steel tree, measuring over 24 feet looms above. With its shiny vessels and its lyrical form it is, perhaps, one of Gupta’s most poetic works. “The tree is a familiar symbol and it stands for many things in our culture. I have invested it with the symbolism of a family tree. Here the utensils get transformed from their everydayness and become objects of beauty. I keep Dadaist Marcel Duchamp in mind while creating this work, and have named it Dada,” he says. He wanted Delhi to have this as a public sculpture. “I do wish that it could be a permanent installation and become part of the Delhi skyline, but the government will have to pay me. Importing and transporting the utensils from Korea, installing them with a technical team, it all costs money,” he says with a chuckle, and in good humour. The Indian government is yet to honour him with a permanent sculpture in the Capital, while internationally his work is already part of public consciousness.

As we walk around the gallery and view his art works — such as a giant boat loaded with discarded utensils and a tidal wave of utensils — it becomes obvious that he has not held back in this show. “I have tried to do whatever I can. Now it depends on how the people take it,” he says.

georgina maddox is a Delhi-based art writer

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Published on January 31, 2014
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